How NATO Underestimated Russia
NATO redefined itself by expanding its membership in three waves, but underestimated Russia's future capabilities. These waves of enlargment provoked Russia, which responded through a first step of testing the Alliance, in 2008, through the Georgian war. Putin continued with the decision to test at a fully-length pace, NATO's response, through the annexation of Crimea and the start of the Ukrainian war in 2014.
NATO's "raison d'être" had been challenged right from the start to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, especially since the Warsaw Pact disintegrated and propelled its members to engage in the democratic change that NATO aspired to establish since its inception. It is important to highlight the fact that many scholars and experts called for a redefinition of NATO's role, and the main reason constituted the idea that the Soviet threat eliminated the common concern for both NATO and the European countries. Therefore, following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc questions were asked concerning the continuation of the organization's activity in Europe, and to what extent its presence would guarantee the security of the respective countries in the case of a possible threat, which meant, even the possibility of this threat, to manifest itself as previously observed in history, from the Russian part. The actions of the collective defense organization since the end of the Cold War inaugurated three expansion waves, which succeeded in better incorporating the respective members' capabilities and to provide NATO with strategic important elements in countering any possible emerging danger.
The organization's biggest mistake revolves around the idea that, since the beginning of the 90s NATO did not involve Russia in its future strategic plans: it expanded willingly into Europe through former Warsaw Pact countries, reaching close to borders commonly considered as buffer zones for Russia. Additionally, it underestimated the strength and power of the Russian state to recover, restore its capabilities (military, politically, economically and socially) and recalibrate itself on the international arena. One important aspect of the Russian state and its people must be emphasized: going back to the historical invasion of the Mongols and the Golden Hoard, Russia, until the success of communism, had always exhibited clear signs of fear, insecurity of its borders and a well-known desire of achieving the status of a great power. The first wave of inclusion was in some way coupled with the creation of the NATO-Russia council, which did not affect or influence the decision of Russia to continue cooperating and developing communication. Only with the second wave of 2004, which incorporated seven countries, did Russia begin to question the organization's future plans in Europe and felt offended by the respective advancement, responding in 2008 by securing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the Georgian war. This particular moment would garnish the perception of the Russian state that intervention, through its military capabilities, could be orchestrated effectively: the response of European counterparts and NATO concerning Russia's behavior did not impede in any way its main objective of destabilizing Georgia.
The annexation of Crimea from 2014 represented the supreme test for both Russians and the NATO Alliance. Putin took advantage of the events from the 2008 Georgian War and focused his attention on achieving a great number of followers and political support domestically, and by continuously holding NATO on a certain place at the table, consolidating his position and finally deciding to take action and check the Alliance's response by engaging in the violation of international laws through the annexation of Crimea. This was the lesson learned for Putin with regards to the 2008 events, that if he would fortify his capabilities, cement his power over time and wait for the right moment to pressure NATO, he could succeed by engaging in other territories (Crimea and Ukraine) and force the world to rethink in terms of NATO's security capacity and response.
The lesson for NATO is that the Alliance should stand in the perception that Russia will not redraw or stop intervening in every action that the organization is currently undergoing, especially given its current security challenges (terrorism, refugee crisis, weak states, separatism, Ukraine war). For Russia, the council created since 2002 did not amount to the expectations that were raised concerning its status on the international stage. The council and the partnerships that NATO built upon with the Russian state was not enough in terms of reaching a conclusive partnership and cooperative relations, and over time, the membership expansion of the organization only fuelled the insecurity that the Russians were feeling since the Soviet dissolution. The focus of NATO for the future prospects concerning Russia should be in creating a better channel of communication, trying to decrease the growing tension, putting the war in Ukraine to an end and setting the two sides at the table. As previously mentioned, the council created in 2002 lacked a decisive impact that could be observed in the NATO-Russia relations. Therefore, a solution could stand in the creation of an intermediate body that could vote and decide on similar concerns, military interventions, possible common dangers that could be neutralized and many other issues at stake, acting as an extension of the council, where the decision-making powers would reach important resolutions.
The focus of NATO, since the end of the Cold War, has been re-establishing its role in terms of security threats and integrating itself into European security: this was illustrated through the three waves of membership expansion, but the cost had been obviously connected with the Russian state, in terms of relations, cooperation and further partnerships. Underestimating Russia's possible threat in terms of later response, NATO faced itself with the establishment of two separate regions following the Georgian War in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea, prompting the Ukrainian War. The last events mobilized NATO to respond to its allies in terms of security, but Russia's attained position does not foresee a drawback, therefore, an intermediate body should be created, alongside the initial council set in 2002, to counteract any future escalations that could even lead to war.
Feneriu Radu Alexandru studies political science in the masters programme of comparative politics, at the University of Bucharest. Now he works as a Contract Administrator, at HP, an IT company.
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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