NATO expansion isn’t the problem
There’s no reason for the United States or its allies to accept Russia’s victim narrative
To hear it from a number of American foreign policy pundits – not to mention the Kremlin – the expansion of the U.S.-led NATO alliance in the decades since the Cold War is responsible for the current showdown over Ukraine. In exchange for an agreement to allow a united Germany to join NATO, the story goes, the United States promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the alliance wouldn’t expand into what was the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Starting in 1997, the United States and its NATO allies brazenly broke this assurance by adding these countries – as well as former Soviet republics in the Baltics – to the alliance. As a result, it’s understandable (though certainly not justified) that the Kremlin would threaten to invade Ukraine to keep it in Moscow’s orbit.
It’s also the line that’s consistently come out of the Kremlin over the past month, with Moscow proposing risible draft treaties that would effectively hand over Eastern Europe to Russia. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov reiterated this line after a tete-a-tete with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Geneva, insisting that NATO “never, never, ever” admit Ukraine as a member and demanding the alliance “return to the borders of 1997.” Indeed, it’s revealing of Moscow’s underlying motives and goals that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that the collapse of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact “orphaned” the nations of Eastern Europe.
There’s a certain absurdity to Moscow’s attempt to overturn the post-Cold War settlement in Eastern Europe and force the United States to make unilateral concessions by threatening to invade Ukraine that would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. But the underlying narrative that NATO expansion lays at the root of both the current crisis and the general deterioration of relations between Russia and the United States doesn’t hold up. It’s not grounded in reality and should be seen for what it is: an excuse for geopolitical bullying and aggression, one that’s given far too much credence by far too many American foreign policy pundits.
Still, it’s worth briefly addressing these claims about the detrimental consequences of NATO expansion. Alleged assurances regarding NATO expansion made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 pertained to the future status of a unified Germany within the alliance; Gorbachev himself later stated that the issue of NATO expansion simply never came up in these talks. Later purported guarantees to Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s were garbled in transmission by Clinton administration officials, and in any case reflected confusion and disagreement within the administration itself. These supposedly broken promises against NATO enlargement were never as clear or as unambiguous as the Kremlin and sympathetic American foreign policy analysts assert today.
They also stand in sharp contrast to the explicit, formal promises made by Moscow in multiple agreements since the end of the Cold War. In 1994, for instance, Russia (along with United States and Great Britain) signed the Budapest Memorandum, in which, among other things, Moscow agreed “to respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine” and “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” Then there’s the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which committed both the alliance and Russia to respect the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states [in the Euro-Atlantic area] and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security.”
If anything, then, it’s Moscow’s own willingness to break promises made to Ukraine, NATO, and by extension the United States that underlay the current crisis – not the alleged failure of the United States to make good on ambiguous and uncertain promises to prevent NATO enlargement. Indeed, these broken promises show exactly why nations in Eastern Europe chose to join NATO in the first place; they certainly don’t see themselves as pawns to be sacrificed on a geopolitical chessboard.
That’s an important reality to keep in mind when thinking about the steps the United States and its NATO allies should take moving forward. It’s one that undermines the Kremlin’s professed desire for “ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding” security guarantees that Moscow itself has shown it does not take seriously or respect.
Nor do the United States and its NATO allies need to make preemptive concessions to Moscow to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s far from clear that the Kremlin can truly be appeased or satisfied by anything less than a total reversal of the post-Cold War settlement in Eastern Europe, and from an American perspective the consequences of giving into absurd Russian demands under threat of military force would be far worse than those that might result from an outright Russian invasion of Ukraine. For their part, as British strategic studies scholar Lawrence Freedman recently noted, “It is the Ukrainians who are in the firing line yet they have shown no interest in conciliating Russia and have not asked NATO to do so on their behalf.”
So far, the Biden administration has done well standing up to the Kremlin despite sending too many mixed messages about its own intentions. While Deputy Secretary of State Sherman took a firm line on NATO’s open door policy and the ability of European nations to make their own strategic choices after meeting with her Russian counterpart in Geneva, before the talks anonymous administration officials floated proposals to limit the scope and size of both NATO and Russian military exercises in Europe. Though these officials made clear that these proposals would require the approval of America’s European allies and reciprocal moves from Russia, the practical effect of this trial balloon was to sow public confusion about American intentions ahead of one-on-one talks with Moscow’s diplomats.
Looking ahead, there are three main steps the Biden administration can take to keep diplomacy on track, hold the line on Ukraine, and stand up to Russia’s attempt to bully Europe:
Stop negotiating with itself in the press. While Biden administration officials have made strong public statements rebuffing Russian demands, the administration has undercut itself by presenting unclear policy proposals in the press. It’s certainly worthwhile to pursue some sort of diplomatic agreement that might remove Russian cruise missiles from Europe in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to deploy similar missiles, for instance, but the value of anonymous administration officials outlining the potential for such a deal in the press ahead of bilateral talks with Moscow seems nil at best and actively counterproductive at worst. The administration should either leave such proposals to the actual negotiations themselves or have responsible officials lay them out in a public setting.
Go on the offensive against Russia’s victim narrative. American and NATO diplomats don’t do enough counter the false narrative of victimhood and grievance that emanates from Moscow. In part that’s due to disagreements among NATO allies over the correct approach to Russia; not for nothing does the German language now have a word for “Putin understander.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently pushed back against the Kremlin’s tall tales, but this welcome and important step forward was noteworthy for its relative novelty. Rather than understanding Putin and his actions, the United States and its NATO allies should make a more concerted effort to spotlight the explicit, formal agreements on European security Moscow has broken over the past decade – and its post-Cold War commitments in particular. In part, that requires undertaking a clear public information campaign that makes clear to all concerned - not least of all Americans here at home - what’s going on here and explains why the United States is doing what it’s doing.
Keep NATO’s door open to new members. At Geneva, Deputy Secretary of State Sherman made crystal clear that the United States would “not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open-door policy.” That’s the strong, categorical statement she needed to make, but the United States and its NATO allies should go further. To start, they should make clear that Sweden and Finland would be more than welcome in the alliance should they choose to join it. In the face of the current crisis and Russian demands about NATO expansion, for instance, Swedish and Finnish political leaders have asserted that they alone will decide whether their countries join NATO. Demonstrably keeping NATO’s door open to Sweden and Finland would make it easier for the United States and its NATO allies to tacitly acknowledge the reality that Ukraine and Georgia remain unlikely to join the alliance any time soon, if ever.
It’s important to remember that diplomacy alone remains unlikely to fully resolve the current crisis over Ukraine. That’s why the diplomatic offensive we’re seeing now need to be backed up and supported by complementary military, economic, and political measures. The Kremlin’s demands are simply too outlandish and unrealistic to be satisfied, not to mention contrary to U.S. interests in a stable and secure Europe. As numerous foreign policy commentators have suggested, there’s definitely space for more limited agreements regarding cruise missiles and military exercises. But given the extravagance of Moscow’s desires, it’s hard to see how these agreements would appease the Kremlin. The best the United States should expect from its diplomacy is to keep Moscow talking and postpone a Russian invasion of Ukraine indefinitely.