After submitting to five rounds of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion between 1997 and 2020, Russia has finally thrown down the gauntlet to the United States (US). Declaring Russia’s endgame, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in early January 2022 bluntly remarked, “We don’t trust the other side … we need iron clad legally binding guarantees” that Ukraine and Georgia will “never ever” become members of the NATO.
It has been asked why has Russia decided to make a big deal about the NATO now? The simplest answer is that any further enlargement of the US-led alliance would bring it to within literally marching distance of the Russian heartland. The NATO troops are today deployed within 100 miles of Saint Petersburg. Throughout the Russian history, except for the brief conflicts with Japan and China in the Far East, the main threat to Russia’s security—and on at least two occasions, its very survival as a state and civilisation—has emanated from the heart of Europe. Although on each occasion Russia repulsed those threats and ultimately emerged victorious, the costs in blood and treasure were astoundingly high. Haunted by this history, creating a periphery zone of states friendly to Russia, or at the very least not aligned against it, has therefore always attracted its leaders as a safeguard against external meddling and aggression.
During the Cold War, this buffer zone was the natural culmination of the Soviet war effort against the Third Reich. As the Nazi war machine was pushed 1,000 miles back from its massive ingress into Russia, the Red Army soon found itself as the only liberating force across a large swathe of territory in Eastern and Central Europe. When the guns fell silent in May 1945, Soviet armies held sway over at least seven European states, including much of Germany. The Kremlin vowed to never allow the repeat of the horrific 28 million Soviet casualties suffered during World War II.
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Belied Assurances on the NATO Expansion
The end of the Cold War and the unification of Germany—previously divided between the US and Soviet spheres of influence—was based on a pledge that the NATO would not exploit the political–military vacuum in Eastern Europe after the retrenchment of the Red Army. The broader theme during those critical negotiations with the Soviet leadership in 1990 was that the West would strive to create an inclusive pan-European architecture with a transformation of the NATO into a far less militarised organisation with a more political orientation. It was this unambiguous assurance from the Western policymakers that persuaded the Soviet leadership to enable and support the peaceful political transitions in Europe.
We now know from declassified records that the Western policymakers went out of their way to assuage deep apprehensions and fears among Soviet leaders on the NATO’s role in the post-Cold War era. It is worth recalling some of these instances because they continue to shape Russian attitudes on how Moscow was misled about the NATO’s role in the post-Cold War era.
As early as January 1990, West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, in a major speech, remarked that
the changes in Eastern Europe and the German unification process must not lead to an “impairment of Soviet security interests.” Therefore, the NATO should rule out an “expansion of its territory towards the east, that is, moving it closer to the Soviet borders.”
In his conversation, a few days later, with British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, Genscher said, “The Russians must have some assurance that if, for example, the Polish Government left the Warsaw Pact one day, they would not join the NATO the next.”
The US policymakers then proceeded to directly reassure the Soviets. In a now famous meeting between the US secretary of state James Baker and Soviet supremo Mikhail Gorbachev, Baker notes:
“The President (Bush) and I have made clear that we seek no unilateral advantage” in the process of German unification. “We understand the need for assurances to the countries in the East. If we maintain a presence in a Germany that is a part of the NATO, there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.” Gorbachev: “It goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable. Baker: We agree with that.”
The extent of Soviet apprehension on the NATO is also apparent from Gorbachev’s remarks to Douglas Hurd in April 1990. Gorbachev spoke “about a common dialogue about a new Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals,” as “one way of dealing with the German issue.” A unilateral process, on the other hand, that is, a united Germany in the NATO would find few takers in the Soviet leadership.
If a united Germany was going to be incorporated into the NATO, why accelerate the process of reducing Soviet armed forces? That could upset the balance of security, which would be unacceptable to the Soviet Union.
A few experts warned Gorbachev not to be blissfully naпve about the US intentions. A memorandum from the Soviet Central Committee’s senior-most expert on Germany foretells the story that would unfold later:
The West is outplaying us, promising to respect the interests of the USSR, but in practice, step by step, separating us from “traditional Europe” … Instead of a stable Europe with a guaranteed peaceful future and mutually beneficial cooperation in a variety of spheres, the apologists of the “Cold War” are imposing … a regrouping of forces in order to prolong the era of confrontational politics.6
One of the clearest insights into the Soviet thinking on pan-European collective security, including Gorbachev’s idea of having a multi-aligned Germany, is reflected in his conversation with the US President George H W Bush in May 1990.
Bush: the NATO is the anchor of stability.
Gorbachev: But two anchors are better. As a seaman, you should be able to understand it.
Bush: And where will we find the second anchor?
Gorbachev: In the East … It is possible that the NATO and the Warsaw Pact (WTO) will continue to exist in some form during a longer period of time than we can imagine it now. (They) could conclude some kind of agreement, accounting for the creation of united Germany and the metamorphoses of their own organisations as well. At the same time, there would be an option of an associated [simultaneous] membership in the WTO and the NATO. Because if we want to put an end to the split of the continent once and forever, then the military–political structures too should be synchronised in accordance with the unifying tendencies of the all-European process …
I hope nobody here believes in the nonsense that one of the sides won the victory in the Cold War. Thoughts like these just glide on the surface grasping only the tip of the iceberg. The conclusion must be completely different: 50 years of confrontation have proven its absurdity and that it only leads to self-destruction … Now about trust. You assert that we do not trust the Germans. But then why would we give the green light to their aspiration to unification. We could have given them the red light, we had appropriate mechanisms. However, we gave them the opportunity to make their choice by democratic means. You, on the other hand, are saying that you trust the FRG, but you are pulling her into the NATO, not allowing her to determine her future on her own after the final settlement. Let her decide on her own what alliance she wants to belong to.7
In the event, with the US driving the agenda and events unfolding too rapidly for Moscow to control, Gorbachev finally agreed to the unification of Germany in July 1990, armed only with assurances but no concrete guarantees or a security treaty on the NATO’s future. In the following year, the Soviet Union itself had disappeared from the scene.
What followed—from the Russian perspective at least—was a brazen disregard of those assurances as the US helped itself to the newly independent states of the erstwhile Soviet bloc. In five waves of expansion since 1997, the NATO absorbed 14 states in Central and Eastern Europe into the US-led alliance.
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Resisting the NATO
Moscow’s pushback began in words and then in deeds in the 2000s, as Russia’s economy and military gradually rebuilt itself. The 2008 Georgian conflict was the first major intervention by Russia to counteract perceived NATO’s meddling in a key state in the South Caucasus. Although Tbilisi’s effective chances of entering the alliance plummeted after 2008—today a large number of Russian peacekeepers are permanently deployed inside the Georgian territory on provinces that Russia has recognised as independent—the US shrugged off the setback.
Ukraine became the next main target in the 2014 revolution or a US-supported coup d’état, depending on whether it is the US or Russia describing the dramatic regime change in Kiev. Again, events followed a similar pattern. Moscow promptly intervened in eastern Ukraine that is populated with mainly ethnic Russians, as well as rapidly secured the strategically located Crimean Peninsula. Crimea was subsequently absorbed into the Russian Federation after a referendum among its predominantly Russian population. In short, another NATO target was on the verge of disintegration. Today, the ceasefire or contact line that runs across Ukraine is ultimately unwritten by the Russian military.
Despite these coercive actions, the US policy seemed stubbornly impervious to change. Since 2014, the US adopted tough sanctions on the Russian economy and doubled-down on the NATO. Since Ukraine’s membership became unviable in the near term, military linkages were pursued bilaterally, with the US and the UK leading the Western effort to shore up Kiev as a frontline state.
Although Ukraine has remained a thorn in the US–Russia ties, in 2021, timed with a new administration in Washington and troubling political changes in Kiev, Moscow began a fresh military build-up near Ukraine’s border. The disposition of forces, including advanced offensive weaponry and ground forces, suggested Russia was once again raising the stakes. In May 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted how
Ukraine is being turned, slowly but steadily, into an antipode of Russia, an anti-Russia … and our Western partners have not batted an eyelid, or have even supported these decisions.
The Biden White House responded by initiating a summit with Putin in the summer at Geneva. In substance, however, little changed. Washington did not rethink its confrontation with Russia. Since 2014, the US has committed $2.7 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, with $650 million in 2021. In August 2021, the US signed a Strategic Defense Framework agreement with Ukraine aimed at “bilateral security cooperation and US assistance that effectively helps Ukraine to counter Russian aggression, including through a robust training and exercise program.” In September 2021, in a publicised meeting at the White House, Biden told Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky,
The US remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression and our support for Ukraine’s Euro–Atlantic aspirations.
Having failed to get Washington to respond to the Russian signals, Moscow began another round of military deployments aimed at concentrating a large combined-arms combat force of over 1,00,000 troops to Ukraine’s north, east, and south capable of undertaking a wide range of interventions in Ukraine. It is widely accepted, including by the US policymakers, that Russia holds an overwhelming military superiority over Ukraine even after accounting for the limited US commitment and military support to Kiev.
We do not need to read any tea leaves to discern Russia’s paramount goal. In a series of pronouncements and press statements by Putin, the foreign minister Sergei Lavrov as well as other senior officials, Russia has articulated a series of demands, all aimed at resetting the security architecture in Europe. Moscow has also proposed two agreements to the US and the NATO outlining the essence of its thinking. In its draft agreement to the US, Russia has urged cooperation “on the basis of principles of indivisible, equal and undiminished security.” The most pertinent section is Article 4,
The US shall undertake to prevent further eastward expansion of the NATO and deny accession to the Alliance to the States of the former USSR. The US shall not establish military bases in the territory of the states of the former USSR that are not members of the NATO, use their infrastructure for any military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.
In a second draft document to the NATO and also intended for the European audiences, Russia has asked for the rollback of military forces and weaponry deployed by the NATO after 1997 in Eastern Europe and the Baltics (Article 4). Article 6 again spells out the central iss9ue of the NATO’s expansion,
All member States of the NATO commit themselves to refrain from any further enlargement of the NATO, including the accession of Ukraine as well as other States.
So, together, through these treaties Russians are calling for a fresh approach to Europe’s security architecture upon which they believe to hold significant leverage and influence similar to the US. As Russia’s red lines are being debated, what is clear is that any further expansion of the NATO in Eastern Europe or the US or its members’ bilateral military assistance to Ukraine, particularly on the development of offensive weapon systems, would almost certainly invite a retaliatory response. The formal US written reply to the Russian draft agreements has sidestepped all the central issues outlined by Moscow, which means the crisis remains at a serious impasse.
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The perils of the NATO expansion and the creation of an enemy out of the post-Cold War Russia was predicted, ironically, by none other that the principal author of the Cold War containment doctrine, George F Kennan, who warned that it would be a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” the NATO expansion, Kennan wrote in 1997,
would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected … to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.
As we have seen, the system of collective security in Europe after the Cold War developed at the expense of Russia. History attests, as Dmitry Trenin eloquently sums it up,
if a large, defeated power has not been incorporated into the post-war order, or if it has not been offered a place in it that it finds acceptable, then over time it will begin to take action aimed at destroying that order or, at the very least, significantly altering it.
Europe finds itself at this juncture today.
The US and the NATO’s exorbitantly overgrown ambitions have led to the creation of commitments in Eastern Europe that might not be worth the paper they are written on. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the Russian geostrategy over the past decade has contributed profoundly to the end of the unipolar age.
Zorawar Daulet Singh is an adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi and the author of Powershift: India-China Relations in a Multipolar World. He tweets @Z_DauletSingh. Views are personal.
This article was first published by the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). It has been reproduced here with permission.