From Opportunity to Crisis: NATO's Eastern Perception Problem
With its rapid eastward expansion following the Soviet collapse, NATO lost an unprecedented opportunity for east-west cooperation. Since then, its rhetoric and further expansion have only entrenched its negative perception in Russia, which the Ukraine crisis revealed to be problem a serious danger to European stability. In future, NATO must make accession process more selective and weigh geostrategic concerns more carefully.
After the Cold War, NATO experienced an overhaul designed to address new Atlantic security needs. The relaxed geopolitics of the post-Cold War era allowed the Alliance to embark on wide-reaching operations, which correctly identified a need for broader based Atlantic security in the globalized era. But one of the largest structural changes to NATO involved the addition of twelve new member states, largely central and eastern European states who had formerly fallen under the Soviet sphere of influence. This influx of new membership did not serve as a legitimate adaptation of NATO, but rather as a new manifestation of NATO's original purpose: Russian containment. As such, it set the tone for continued NATO-Russia opposition and undermined NATO's attempts at reconciliation.
Eastward expansion after the fall of the Soviet Union offered relatively little strategic benefit to NATO's member states. Indeed, the choice is hard to justify in retrospect. If NATO and the West no longer viewed Russia as an adversary, a geostrategic buffer should not have been necessary. If NATO did consider Russia an adversary, it should have predicted the outraged Russian reaction to its expansion – and avoided this unnecessary antagonization. In either case, the abrupt fall in Russian military spending after the Soviet collapse (from $400 billion in 1988 to only $51 billion in 1994, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) should have clearly signaled that Russia, friend or foe, was not an urgent threat. With little strategic justification for eastward expansion, NATO appeared simply overzealous. To the external observer, its rapid growth could be perceived as a desire to tangibly realize the "end of history" – the triumph of liberal Western values – in the Eurasian political order.
NATO's own rhetoric, however well-intended, has only furthered its problem of perception. As an attempt to reassure observers of its peaceful intentions, the Alliance released a statement reading in part that "the Alliance does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia. But we cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which our Alliance and security in Europe and North America rest." Hardly an assurance of friendship, this release reads like a coercive threat: yes, of course we want peace, but only if our demands are met without any compromise! It is understandable, then, that Russia would be alarmed by the combination of rapid expansion at a time of Russian weakness – and view NATO's expansion as a zero-sum game.
Indeed, NATO seems to be aware of its negative perception. A section on the Alliance's website answers several "claims" with its own "facts," explaining how NATO is not trying to encircle Russia, does not have a Cold War mentality, is not trying to contain or weaken Russia, is not trying to isolate or marginalize Russia, and so on. The very fact that NATO needs to rebut such claims indicates its awareness of the problem. Unfortunately, its attempts to solve the perception problem thus far have been lacking. The answers given to the claims of NATO aggression are mostly reiterations of NATO's simultaneous desire for peace and Western-style liberalization, along with unconvincingly literal explanations: no, NATO could not be trying to encircle Russia, because Russia is a large country and NATO countries make up only a small fraction of its geographical border. Never mind the fact that much of Russia's land border is tundra, and NATO countries border Russia around its strategic Western region. It is easy to understand why Russia is not reassured.
NATO's problem of perception began with its influx of members after the fall of the USSR, but it has continued right up to and through the Ukraine crisis, with a unilateral 2008 statement that Georgia and Ukraine (two states of huge strategic importance for Russia) would eventually join the Alliance. Apparently, NATO's strategic planners have written off the perception problem. But ignoring NATO's perception in Russia and other observer states is a very real risk. In Russia, the expansion of liberal values through vehicles like NATO is viewed variously as capitalist decadence, and an attack on Russian morals. This reaction indicates a failure, of NATO and other Western actors, to seize the unprecedented opportunity of the early 1990s to reconcile with Russia, creating a more peaceful North Atlantic – even if that did not mean perfect Russian liberalization. The resulting build-up of Western-Russia tensions culminated in the Crimean annexation, a direct response on Putin's part to what he perceived as a Western-backed ousting of Yanukovych, which was the perceived final straw in decades of gradual NATO encroachment. This annexation led to not only one of the largest military crises in the NATO era in its history, but also the abandonment of the NATO-Russia Council, one of the few initiatives helping to bridge the NATO-Russia divide. NATO's largest mistake, then, has been its consistently antagonistic approach to Russia, marked by overzealous eastward expansion.
It will not be easy for NATO to fix its negative perception in Russia and elsewhere. But the Alliance can certainly do better. It should prioritize the maintenance of strong foreign relations over the accession of new nations – applied here, it should take Russia's concerns about expansion into account. These considerations might contradict NATO's Open Door Policy, but they will do much more than the Policy to further NATO's founding commitment to peace and security. Most immediately, NATO should withdraw its unilateral 2008 claim that Georgia and Ukraine would inevitably become member states. And in the future, any NATO expansion should be done with the strategic considerations in mind – in the same way that a country looking to expand its borders would at least weigh the geopolitical implications. Eroding Russia's strategic buffer for the sake of symbolic accessions is almost certainly a losing proposition. By recognizing its limits, NATO can more successfully enhance the security of its own members and their surrounding region.
Natasha Kadlec studies Russian history and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She also works as a researcher at Penn on a project about the diffusion of military technology.
This article has been submitted for category B "NATO's Biggest Mistake and Lesson Learned" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories C and D.
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