Russia now considers NATO one of the main security threats it faces – and for good reason. Since the 1990s, NATO has consistently expanded to Russia’s doorstep despite the nation’s new role as a weakened regional power in Eurasia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left front, speaks with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Sevastopol, Crimea. Photo: RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
On the last day of 2015 Russia adopted a new security strategy that explicitly lists NATO’s expansion as one of the main security threats facing the nation. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the independent domestic and foreign policy conducted by Russia “triggers counteraction from the U.S. and their allies seeking to keep up their domination in global affairs.”
As usual, Western pundits responded as a chorus, condemning Russia’s paranoia. NATO officials were quick to react rehearsing an old adage that NATO enlargement is not directed against anyone. NATO, they say, spread stability and prosperity in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Unfortunately, there are signs that the by now familiar statements of this sort are, at best, an example of wishful thinking or, at worst, a rather awkward attempt to hide the truth. The truth, according to the Russian side, is that the United States is using NATO as an instrument of its influence in Europe and beyond.
What are the signs that this is, indeed, the case?
First of all, there is the very fact of the expansion of the Alliance, which has grown from 12 members at the time of its creation to 16 by the mid-1980s to 28 today. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, which was established six years later than NATO in response to the re-militarization of West Germany and its inclusion into the Western alliance, evolved from 8 member states to 7 by the mid-1960s to zero in 1991.
The only military alliance where Russia participates at the moment, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), has shrunk by three members over the years and currently includes 5 other post-Soviet states.
Why would NATO need to expand, despite the withdrawal of Russian troops from East Germany and other East European countries, the end of the Warsaw Pact, the victory of the pro-Western Yeltsin regime in Moscow and a more than tenfold cut in Russian military expenditures on the eve of the Alliance’s 1999 eastern enlargement?
It seems that post-Soviet Russia did everything it could to ingratiate itself with the West – at least until the 2008 war with the U.S.-backed, expansionist Georgia – and yet it still got a hostile military alliance at its border! Why?
The answer is honestly given by Stratfor, a CIA-affiliated private intelligence company, in its recent report, according to which it has never been the threat of Communism as such but rather Russia’s geopolitical significance as a long-standing bulwark against Western imperialism that propelled the centuries-old confrontation.
“The geopolitical imperative underpinning the United States' containment policy — blocking the rise of regional hegemons on the Eurasian landmass that could challenge the Western alliance structure — never disappeared. Thus, NATO and the European Union continued to expand,” Stratfor said.
NATO’s decision last month to invite Montenegro to become the twenty-ninth member of the Alliance was cheered by The Economist with a gleeful headline, “In the Balkans, NATO has outmuscled Russia.” Clearly, this was not meant to sound confrontational, was it?
Yet, the description of someone “outmuscling” someone else typically refers to a fight, a more or less violent confrontation where one side wins at another’s expense.
Outmuscling, squeezing out, pushing around as a means to spread stability and prosperity in Europe? It seems the language implies that Russia is not the one to share in this promise of prosperity and stability but rather the one that should be excluded from it.
Or more precisely, the whole purpose of the existence of the Western military bloc is to ensure the avowed prosperity to its members at outsiders’ expense, to undercut the non-Western leaders’ development in order to “block their rise,” according to the language of the Stratfor report.
Against such a background, it seems the new redaction of Russia’s National Security Strategy has been about sixteen years late in the making. It should also be clear why Moscow reacted so dramatically to the revolutionary change of government in Ukraine in 2014, seeing the change as prompted by the West and couched by the West in more or less openly anti-Russian terms.
The idea that the U.S. should check the rise of independent regional powers in Eurasia to prolong its own global dominance, by military means if necessary, speaks to American relations with China no less than to its relations with Russia. In both cases, the logic is similar. This logic applies to the case of a rising challenger – China – even more than to the case of a weakened regional hegemon that struggles to protect its shrinking sphere of influence.
Because of that, the conclusions that both countries might draw from the eastward NATO enlargement – and from U.S. attempts at the strategic encirclement of China – may well be similar, too - to counter the expansion of the Western alliance structures with an alliance structure of their own.
According to the principles of realpolitik, any action invites reciprocal counter-action, whether it’s based on paranoia or not. Western attempts to isolate and lock Russia in its own corner of the Eurasian continent may only end with integration of the Chinese and Russian “corners” in a new structure of continental security with no role for the Western partners to play.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.