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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO's Wrong Move




NATO's birthday celebrations are really under way now that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have joined the NATO family. But sooner or later the festivities will subside and the time will come to soberly analyze the significance of the alliance's expansion to the East and the implications of enlargement for European and international security. While the West is triumphant, Russia remains disgruntled, expressing its continued hostility to NATO expansion by boycotting the anniversary ceremony in London.


The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have become member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A fait accompli. Russia sits on the sidelines feeling isolated, marginalized from the major European institutions. NATO and European Union expansion are interconnectedprocesses. While both institutions have unambiguously stated that they are opera ting open-door policies for Eastern European countries, they have made it equally clear that the door will slam shut in Russia's face. Russia is too large, too poor, too Asian.


The problem is that keeping Russia out is creating new dividing lines in Europe. NATO seems to have lost its winning formula. Founded half a century ago to secure peace in Europe, the alliance was paramount in securing German-French and German-British reconciliation after World War II. But an extended alliance will not facilitate a similar reconciliation between former Soviet satellites and the heir to the Soviet Union. The simple fact is that while Germany, France and Britain were all members of NATO, in the case of Russia and Eastern Europe, the latter is an insider while the former is most definitely an outsider. Rather than fostering Russian-Polish accord, expansion will only further the rift between these two countries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe was no longer perceived in Moscow to be a security concern. NATO expansion has once again focused Moscow's attention on its Western neighbors.


These days are triumphant for the West and for accession countries. For Russia, the NATO celebrations, if it were not for acute domestic problems, would be felt very bitterly indeed. It is doubtful that given Russia's present crisis it population will muster the strength to manifest indignation.


NATO expansion is a bitter blow to Soviet veterans of World War II. No country suffered as many casualties as the Soviet Union in the defeat of fascism in Europe. V-E Day is the most poignant national holiday in Russia, a day when people commemorate the members of their family who died not only in the defense of the motherland but of the whole of Europe. NATO expansion is not resented because it is seen as usurping the place of former Warsaw Pact troops, but because it is seen to exclude Russia from the Europe it saved.


Reasons for Russian indignation lie also in the more recent past. Gorbachev allowed for Germany to be reunited ten years ago on the strict understanding that alliance troops would not be replacing Warsaw Pact ones. That the Soviet Union allowed Eastern Europe to leave the communist fold peacefully, without demanding high concessions from the West, should command respect. Instead, a decade on, awe has been replaced with triumphalism and we have forgotten the momentous events of 1989 and how the Soviet leadership let them happen. In this sense Russians are justified in feeling duped.


While NATO claims expansion is done in the name of unified European security, one wonders why the most stable Eastern European countries are joining first. The fact is former Soviet bloc countries are applying for membership precisely as a guarantee against any threat from Russia.


Russia is acutely aware of this and what is important are the long-term consequences of that awareness. As someone who has spent the past five years living in Russia, I can affirm that the popular conception of the West has changed dramatically. Gone are the enthusiasm and admiration of the early '90s. Instead there is a sense of betrayal: The people who fought to overthrow communism to make the world a safer place see themselves as the winners but are perceived as a threat. This shift in public opinion will greatly affect Russia's attitude toward NATO in the next century.


NATO expansion changes the balance of power in Europe. The provisions of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty make no sense any more. Even a theoretical prospect of nuclear missiles or a Theater Missile Defense System stationed in Eastern Europe can only be perceived by Russia in the way that the West perceived the stationing of missiles on Cuba in 1962.


Still unresolved is the question of NATO membership for the Baltic States and Ukraine. NATO has yet to rule out their membership. In fact, the U.S. Baltic Charter states that the U.S. would support NATO membership of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Surely EU membership would suffice in providing the Baltics with the security they seek without unduly antagonizing the Russians? Of course, Russia is too weak economically to meet the NATO challenge. The Russian military is in chaos. Soldiers are underpaid or not paid at all. But will this always be the case? There will come a time when Russia will be in a better position to express its interests and national identity. Just how Russia's identity is shaped is of vital importance.


Antipathy to American-led neo-containment strategies may be very damaging to the West in the long run. It will be interesting to see which side Russia will take in the global security game when new players, like China, join the top league. Russia's position today is comparable with that of Germany during the interwar period. Like Germany before Hitler's rise to power, Russia feels unjustifiably humiliated and isolated from the rest of Europe. The consequences may be sure to sober us up.


Rebecca Pickering, a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, worked in the Moscow bureau of Reuters news agency from 1994 to 1998.