NATO was founded in 1949 to create a common defence against the Soviet Union. One of the founding fathers of NATO commented that its three main purposes were to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” The last purpose changed when West Germany joined NATO in 1955.[i]
In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, many thought that NATO might dissolve. Instead, under the leadership of its Secretary-
General Jens Stoltenberg, NATO is today searching for its “strategic compass”. Now, it has identified its “new threat” in the form of China. In an article published on this site in November 2017, I suggested that NATO had passed its use by date and that whatever its original purpose, in the post WWII period, with its “one in-all in” commitments, it seemed to represent a threat to world peace rather than being the keeper of peace.
This paper presents an alternative perspective from that espoused by the West and the Western media, but it is a perspective recognised by many highly credentialled experts including John Mearsheimer[ii], Professor of Political Science at Chicago University, and Stephen M. Walt[iii], Prof of International Affairs at Harvard University.
At the time of German unification, the West gave multiple assurances to the Russians that NATO would not enlarge if the USSR agreed to the reunified Germany remaining in NATO. In 1990, the West German Foreign Minister declared that a united Germany would be a member of NATO but that there would be no expansion of NATO territory eastwards. US Secretary of State James Baker assured Gorbachev that there would be no extension of NATO’s forces to the east. Former US ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock has testified that Gorbachev received a clear commitment that if Germany United and stayed in NATO, the borders of NATO would not move eastward. The violations of this promise are seen as the major cause of the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West.
NATO Expands Eastwards
Boris Yeltsin believed that promises made about not enlarging NATO were broken when the Clinton Administration decided to offer membership to Central Europe. The first group was Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Subsequently NATO proposed seven new members including Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Then, in 2008, the Bush administration called for membership for both Georgia and Ukraine. Both had been integral parts of the Russian Empire. Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice were against this. France and Germany were also opposed.
NATO’s enlargement exacerbated Russian fears, provoking a military response from Moscow. Six months after the 2008 NATO summit, Russia invaded Georgia and six years later it invaded Ukraine. Russia moved into Crimea because it feared that its security would be threatened if Ukraine joined NATO. And yet, in 2018 NATO reiterated the promise of membership for both Georgia and Ukraine!
Russia Challenges NATO
NATO guarantees the collective defence of each member. If one is attacked all other states must come to its defence. However, according to a 2016 RAND study, NATO would not be able to defend the territory of its most exposed members and would face a painful dilemma of either abandoning its allies to Russian occupation or face a war with a nuclear superpower. NATO had gone from welcoming seven new members, to having Russia actively challenge its credibility as a defence organisation. The Kremlin demands that the world accepts that Russia is entitled to a sphere of interests in the post-Soviet space which Russia views as part of its defence perimeter
Consequences of NATO Expansion and the Ukraine Crisis
In his 2016 book[iv], Gorbachev deals with the consequences of NATO expansion, describing the decision to expand NATO as the worst blunder, causing Russia’s relations with the West to be irreparably damaged. For Gorbachev, the decision to expand NATO, after the breakup of the Soviet Union was contrary to the spirit of the undertakings given to Russia. He criticised NATO for behaving like a policeman charged with maintaining order in Europe, beginning in the early 1990s with its intervention in the Yugoslavia conflict. A dangerous precedent was created of military action undertaken against a sovereign country without authorisation by the UN Security Council.
The West blames the Ukraine problem on Russian aggression. However, John Mearsheimer argues that this account is false, and the US and its European allies were mainly responsible for the crisis. The trouble was NATO expansion which was part of a strategy to move all of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and to integrate it into the West. The strategy for making Ukraine part of the West had three components: NATO enlargement, EU expansion (including Ukraine), and the Orange Revolutions which aimed to foster democracy.[v] This antagonised Russia turning it into an enemy and leading directly to the Ukraine crisis.
The West was moving into Russia’s backyard, threatening its core strategic interests. Ukraine is a huge expanse of land which Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany and Nazi Germany had all crossed to strike Russia. No Russian leader would tolerate a former enemy’s military alliance moving into Ukraine. Under the Monroe doctrine, the US does not tolerate distant powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. When the US Senate approved NATO expansion in 1998, George Kennan wrote: “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever”.
US Interventions and Russia’s Response
Relations with Russia deteriorated largely because the US and its allies ignored Russian warnings against expanding NATO eastward. Kennan warned that this violated assurances given by Western officials to Soviet leaders prior to German reunification, in particular, the pledge that NATO’s jurisdiction and military forces would not move “one inch to the east”.
Nevertheless, the US backed the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, and in 2013, US officials openly sided with pro-Western demonstrators seeking to oust, Ukrainian President, Yanukovych, its democratically elected, pro-Russian leader. Moscow responded by seizing Crimea. The seizure of Crimea (as well as Moscow’s successful military intervention to support the Assad regime in Syria) underscored Russia’s return to great power status and the waning of America’s unipolar moment.[vi] Following Russia’s seizure of Crimea, many politicians in the West breathed a sigh of relief and muttered, “Thank goodness Ukraine is not in NATO or we would have had to act.”[vii]
The Kremlin continues to insist that Ukraine must not join NATO and NATO must not expand eastwards. In November 2021, Putin warned that the West had not taken Russia’s “red lines” seriously enough complaining that the US and its allies were supplying Kiev with lethal weapons and conducting provocative military exercises in the Black Sea, as well as flying strategic bombers only 12 miles from Russia’s borders. Following the video conference held by Presidents Biden and Putin in early December 2021, and despite Biden voicing “deep concerns” about Russia’s alleged escalation of forces around Ukraine, he ruled out going to war with Russia over Ukraine. Instead, Biden threatened “severe consequences”, and stressed economic sanctions like “none that had been seen” before. He also stated: “We have a moral obligation and a legal obligation to our NATO allies if they [Russia] were to attack under Article 5, that’s a sacred obligation. Then Bided added: That obligation does not extend to Ukraine.”[viii]He ruled out sending US troops to Ukraine.
Has the US bitten off more than it can swallow? The sun has barely set on America’s ignominious retreat from Afghanistan, yet it continues to intervene in both Taiwan and Ukraine, pitting itself against the world’s other two Superpowers. The US messaging is confusing and uncertain. Despite interferences in Taiwan, Biden has reaffirmed the US government’s “One-China” policy and he has stated that the US did not support Taiwan independence. Even in the face of constant US warnings regarding Russia’s “threatened” invasion of Ukraine, Biden has made it clear that there is no NATO obligation to defend Ukraine. All that, without even canvassing the US ongoing efforts to contain China including trade wars, sanctions and most recently a token boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in China.
[i] Putin’s World by Angela Stent (Prof of Government and Foreign Service, Georgetown University (2019) [ii] The Great Delusion, by J Mearsheimer, Chicago university (2018) [iii] The Hell of Good Intentions, by Stephen Walt, Harvard University (2018) [iv] Mikhail Gorbachev, The New Russia (P306-309) [v] The Great Delusion, Ch6 by J Mearsheimer [vi] The Hell of Good Intentions, Ch1 by Stephen Walt [vii] Prisoners of Geography, Ch1, by Tim Marshall 2016 [viii] The Australian newspaper 9 December 2021