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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Expansion May Prove a Fateful Error

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The NATO meeting held in Riga, Latvia, in late November attracted very little attention. Nothing of substance emerged from the conference and there was plenty of competition for headlines. Not that long ago, the very idea of a NATO meeting in a Latvia that was itself in NATO would have been a nightmare for Russia, like a Warsaw-Pact Canada for the United States.

In the initial post-Soviet years, Russian officials begged the United States not to let any former Soviet republics join NATO. Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov threatened: "If any countries of the former Soviet Union are admitted to NATO, we will have no relations with NATO whatsoever." For all their bluster, the Russians caved -- resentfully, perhaps nourishing dreams of vengeance, but they caved nonetheless.

In fact, three former Soviet republics -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- are now part of NATO. Seven other new members -- Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- were formerly part of the communist bloc. The United States and the rest of the West are now in the rather odd position of risking armageddon to defend Slovenia.

Many in the West opposed NATO expansion from the start, chief among them U.S. statesman George Kennan, creator of the "containment" doctrine. He called expansion "the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold-War era." Kennan foresaw it leading to a restoration of suspicion and hostility and the inflammation of the "nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion."

Others, however, had little faith that Russia would succeed in the transition to a free market and democracy. Estonia's former president, Lennart Meri, spoke of Russia in terms of a malignancy in remission. U.S. Senator Richard Lugar worried about "Russia redux," and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was among the first to use the word "quarantine."

Opinion was, of course, less divided in the actual countries at issue. For them NATO was a godsend, a stronghold of safety and security after centuries of domination by Moscow. From a simple human point of view, all those countries deserved to breathe free. President Boris Yeltsin, whatever his faults, did have the basic live-and-let-live instincts of a democrat and accepted the principle of national self-determination.

U.S. President Bill Clinton was constantly reassuring Yeltsin: "As I see it, NATO expansion is not anti-Russian." Others saw and see it differently. Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, when meeting with Rice and U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney last week, said that many Ukrainians saw NATO membership as "against Russia."

Chaotic and weak, Yeltsin's government had to accede to Western wishes. Rich and aggressive, the new Russia is no pushover on any subject, especially that of Ukraine and NATO. The new Russia may be willing to tolerate the existence of an independent Ukraine, as long as it is responsive to Russian influence, but would be dead set against Ukraine in NATO. Russia would essentially be encircled from the Baltic to the Black Sea if Ukraine joined NATO. The small remaining strip of Russian land providing access to the Caspian includes the rebellious Muslim areas of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, not to mention being bordered by Georgia, which is itself seeking NATO membership. As Clinton's Russia specialist Strobe Talbot put it in his memoir "The Russia Hand," NATO expansion is inevitably seen by Russians as spearheading a U.S. strategy "to replace their influence and exploit the vast oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea basin."

Part of Ukraine leans toward the EU and NATO, and part toward Russia. The two parts may have trouble coexisting for long. Russia would not risk confrontation over Slovenia, but it might over Ukraine, which could soon become a hot spot. There's still plenty of time for Kennan to be right.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."