NATO, Russia, and the Post-Cold War Settlement

Image by Utenriksdept

Image by Utenriksdept

Eastern and Central European states lined up at the NATO application window after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  And can anyone blame them after the events of the 20th century?  They were, after all, victimized by the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty, the German Invasion, and then the subsequent Soviet “liberation” and forty- five year occupation.

Yet for NATO critics such as well-known Political Scientist John Mearsheimer and Katrina Vanden Heuvel (editor of The Nation magazine), NATO expansion up to Russia’s borders has poisoned the well of U.S. – Russian relations since the 1990’s.

Vanden Heuvel sums up the indictment:

“The United States is reaping the bitter fruit of a deeply flawed post-Cold War settlement that looks more like Versailles than it does Bretton Woods, and that settlement was made even worse by the United States’ violation of the settlement by deciding to enlarge NATO and pursue other triumphalist policies aimed at isolating Russia and ignoring Russian interests.”

The “Versailles” analogy is also invoked by Sergey Karaganov, a Russian political scientist who has advised both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin:

“The West has been trying to act as a victor, while denying this position to Russia.  It pursued a Versailles policy de facto, albeit in “velvet gloves,” that is, avoiding direct annexations and contributions, but continuously limiting Russia’s freedom, spheres of influence and markets, while at the same time expanding the sphere of its own political and military interests through NATO expansion, and its political and economic pursuits through EU enlargement.”

NATO enlargement rounds after the Soviet Union imploded has indeed increased NATO membership to twenty eight states.  Yet the critics fail to note two parallel developments that transpired at the same time and which should have reduced Russian threat perceptions.  The first was the NATO concession, incorporated in the NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997), to refrain from any “additional stationing of substantial combat forces” in the new NATO states. Instead NATO pledged to carry out its defense missions through the redeployment and integration of forces. In short, no new military bases would be established or combat personnel deployed.

The second development was the reduction of both European defense spending and the U.S. troop presence in Europe after the U.S.S.R. broke up.

The Poles, among others, felt that the provision in the Founding Act which precluded new bases both undermined their security and treated them as 2nd class members of NATO.  They questioned why NATO would maintain bases in countries like Italy, where there was little threat, instead of in Poland and the Baltic States, where proximity to Russian power posed a never ending threat.  Currently, the sole NATO outpost in Poland, which is used to coordinate planning, has been described as a “campus like facility that has more computers than weapons.

More significantly, if the refusal of NATO to deploy bases and hardware eastward did not assuage Russian fears in the past decade, one would have expected that the decline in NATO defense spending would.  Between 2004-2013 Central and Western European countries reduced defense spending by 6.5% while Russian defense spending doubled.  Britain is currently undergoing defense cuts and reducing the size of its regular army.  Germany allocated only 1.3% of its economic output to defense in 2013 (considerably below the agreed NATO target of 2%, which only 4 of 28 member states have reached) and has an armed forces described as “ramshackle” in a recent Der Spiegel article.

Ukraine, in turn, scrapped most of its military equipment after the Soviet Union collapsed and reduced the size of its military by two-thirds.  No one in Kiev anticipated that Russia would pose a threat to Ukrainian independence and as a result Ukraine virtually disarmed.  After all, didn’t the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by Russia and Ukraine guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine?

As for the United States, it has cut troop strength in Europe from several hundred thousand at the end of the Cold War to approximately 64,000 currently.  The troop decline was precipitous in the early 1990’s after the U.S.S.R. folded.  Many American military installations in Europe also closed shop and in 2013 (pre-Ukraine crisis) the U.S. Army planned to close two more bases in Germany.  Meanwhile, the Obama Administration continues to pivot away from Europe and to Asia, sending troops and platforms to shore up allies in that increasingly volatile region.  Given these developments, NATO has posed little threat to Russia in the past decade.

The demise of the Soviet Union eliminated the need for territorial defense, or so it was believed in Western Europe capitals and in Washington.  In President Obama’s memorable words in his 2012 Presidential debate with Mitt Romney, “the cold war’s been over for 20 years.”  Given this sentiment, NATO force projection capabilities were hollowed out accordingly while at the same time NATO directed its energies and arsenal towards expeditionary, out of area conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  So for all the talk of Mearsheimer and others that NATO is marching eastward, the reality is that the paper pledge to defend the new NATO members (Article 5) went eastward but not much else.

Moreover, as for the criticism of Western insensitivity towards Russia’s larger interests, it should be noted that Russia was invited to join both the Council of Europe and the elite Group of Seven nations in the 1990’s.  Subsequently the U.S. Government established Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Russia and the latter also accomplished their long sought after goal of acceding to the World Trade Organization in 2012.

Russia was also invited in 2007 to go through the process of accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, membership in which would accelerate the modernization of the Russian economy and facilitate its integration into the global economy.  As the Secretary General of the OECD stated in 2013, “the OECD has a long-standing relationship and a long history of cooperation with Russia, spanning two decades.”

Meanwhile, Western multinational corporations were flocking to Russia to take advantage of the emerging investment and trade opportunities.  This economic and political engagement with Russia by the West is hard to reconcile with the claim of some critics (and Putin’s claim as well) of a long standing Western/NATO conspiracy to weaken and isolate Russia.  “Versailles” is hardly an appropriate term to apply to the post-Cold War policies of the U.S. and the Western Europeans.  Russia was provided entry into the global economy and its multilateral institutions but Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine derailed these efforts.

Image courtesy of Utenriksdept


About Erik Lindell

Erik Lindell has a Ph.D. in Political Science (International Relations) from the State University of New York at Albany and has taught at several colleges and universities in New York State. He has published articles, reviews, and OPED’s in a number of journals and newspapers, most recently in E-International and International Affairs Forum (online). His areas of expertise include American foreign/defense policy and International Political Economy.

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