NATO’s Expansion Could Be Risky as Russia’s War Continues

When, in 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron warned NATO risked becoming “braindead,” objections were pro formaDon’t be passionate. Donald Trump pulled American troops from northern Syria after threatening to withdraw, but without consulting the bloc. NATO-member Turkey, which invaded northern Syria shortly afterward, forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country. Speaking with The Economist, Macron expressed serious doubts that NATO’s Article 5—which declares that an attack on one member nation is an attack on all—still applied.

Now, it is clear that the fate of Europe rests more on NATO now than at any other time since the fall the Soviet Union. Although historically neutral countries like Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands have sought to be part of NATO’s group. Article 5 is their only guarantee for security and sovereignty. At a landmark summit in Madrid on June 28-30, NATO unveiled a new once-in-a-decade Strategic Concept—its broad mission statement—amid a radical beefing up of defenses, raising its Rapid Response Force from 40,000 to more than 300,000 troops. Russia, unsurprisingly, was picked out as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security,” though China—some 3,700 miles from the Atlantic—was also named as a source of “systemic challenges.” On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden also announced increased American troop deployments across Europe. “NATO is strong and united,” Biden said.

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It’s a remarkable rebirth spurred by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which ripped up the international order and put European nations on high alert. But even earlier, NATO’s role had swelled to match Putin’s belligerence. Before he annexed Crimea in 2014 a, NATO’s eastern members hosted no foreign troops. In response to Russian aggression, Estonia and Latvia received around 1000 each in battle groups. This symbolically triggered a large-scale counterattack.

Madrid discussions are building on the symbolic deployments. They discuss expanding these defenses into brigades capable of repelling a Russian invasion. NATO is currently discussing the creation of a complete assistance package that will train and equip Ukraine’s Armed Forces. Four new battle units are also being created in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, reflecting the growing attention to the Black Sea. All NATO member countries are witnessing a massive increase in defense spending.

It’s unlikely this is what Putin envisaged when he ordered his tanks into Ukraine. It’s also something of a paradox, since NATO’s expansion in recent years fed Putin’s paranoia, providing a ready excuse to invade a sovereign neighbor. As unjustified and bloody as the escalating violence may seem, Putin is able to point out several red flags. Now, the bloc is expanding its remit under U.S. direction to include containing a resurgent China—notably, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand attended Madrid as observers for the first time. It is possible that previous mistakes could be repeated. Hitler, for example, used German anger about excessive World War I compensations to support his Third Reich in 1919. With Russia already calling the expansion deal “destabilizing,” some wonder whether a more powerful NATO risks cleaving the world into antagonistic factions.

NATO’s shifting mission

NATO was established in 1950 during the Cold War by North American and European allies. Its purpose was to provide mutual military aid in case of Soviet Union aggression. The Warsaw Pact had an equivalent group of allies. NATO was established in 1949 amid the Cold War. It has been expanded five times since 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. NATO also engages in military operations throughout the Balkans and Middle East.

After the Soviet fall, NATO and Moscow often cooperated. Russia helped NATO to end the 1992-1995 Bosnia War. It then joined forces with the peace process implementation force. Still, it’s telling that Russia refused to have its troops serve under NATO Command, instead officially deploying under U.S. Command—a fudge since U.S. General George Joulwan was commander for both.

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Given its founding mission, Russia always remained suspicious about NATO expansion—especially regarding Ukraine. When NATO was negotiating to admit Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary in 1997, it was made explicitly clear to Russia that Ukraine was “off-limits,” says Robert Hunter, U.S. The time was when Ambassador to NATO. “It was fully understood by everybody that Ukraine would not be in NATO. Hence, we had a NATO-Ukraine charter,” which codified the relationship between the bloc and a nation that was always intended to be outside.

Victoria Nuland, current U.S. Victoria Nuland, current U.S. “My memory of that first meeting in 1998 [is that] Putin was still in the place of, ‘maybe a different kind of Russia and a different kind of NATO could be aligned,’” she tells TIME.

The Kremlin grumbled and bit its teeth during several rounds of NATO expansion. Putin held two terms of office before temporary giving the reins to Dmitry Medvedev who, in 2008, proposed an updated European Security Treaty, into which NATO countries and Russia might be included. It was rejected by the Bush Administration. “I thought [that] was a mistake at the time, frankly,” says Nuland. “We should have just talked, even if it was just to keep the conversation going.”

Victoria Nuland, former Assistant Secretary of State European and Eurasian Affairs, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 20, 2018, in Washington DC. T

Alex Wong—Getty Images

Hunter is more blunt: “Beginning in 2008, people in power in Washington decided ‘Russia lost the Cold War so screw them,’ which was stupid,” he says. In 2008, President George W. Bush was at a NATO summit in Bucharest and proposed an action plan to allow Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. Others were shocked by the obvious red lines which would be crossed by NATO including key Soviet countries. “But to save George Bush from looking stupid when he went home,” says Hunter, they added the phrase: [Ukraine and Georgia]NATO member to the summit declaration Adds Hunter: “But everybody knew it really meant never.”

This addendum continued to be repeated at each NATO summit that followed. “Putin used this for his own purposes,” says Hunter. “But we stupidly played into his hands.

On Nov. 21, 2013, Ukrainians led enormous protests at Maidan Square in Kyiv against the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden decision not to sign an association agreement with the E.U., instead choosing closer ties to Moscow. Protests continued for three more months. Nuland was seen as a former Assistant Secretary of State in European and Eurasian affairs. He is controversially shown to have been surprised by the actions of protesters. handing them cookies. Then Nuland called the U.S. for a conversation. The conversation between Nuland and the U.S., in which they discussed potential candidates to be elected as Ukraine’s Ambassador, was then leaked online by Russian agents. Putin was led to believe that the U.S. sponsored a coup in Ukraine. This accusation led him to later twist it to justify his annexed of Crimea.

During the June 2021 summit in Geneva, Putin repeated his accusation. Observers say that Putin displayed the characteristics of COVID-19 isolation at that meeting. His team arrived on a different airplane, didn’t see him before it started, and complained quite openly to their U.S. counterparts that they didn’t get much briefing time. “So [Putin] was already his own consigliere then,” says one source present.

By November, Russia’s full-scale invasion plans for Ukraine were picked up by U.S. intelligence amid a huge troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders. Nuland was also charged with negotiating down Putin. “In the very first conversations after we caught wind of Russia’s plans, [we affirmatively] say ‘nobody’s putting offensive [weapons]Ukraine [that threaten Russia],’” she says. “And we also say to him that we’re not going to slam the door to NATO, but they’re not getting in anytime soon. So what’s the problem?”

Some speculate Putin’s war in Ukraine was an attempt to solidify his position domestically, or to cement his political legacy, and NATO expansion provided a convenient pretext. “You never knew with Putin,” says Nuland, “whether this narrative of grievance was politically expedient for him because he needed the external enemy to justify the arms build-up, to justify keeping the military busy, to have an enemy to explain why we couldn’t get along. Or whether he believed it. Or the third variant: that it was politically expedient at the beginning and then he talked himself into it.”

Learn More How NATO Is Responding to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

After all, China by any measure is a more immediate threat to Russia—given the long shared border and China’s increasingly potent army. Yet today, Russia and China have declared themselves friends “without limits.” American historian Timothy Snyder, writing in Russia, Europe and America: The Road to Unfreedom, says that “the West was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia.”

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation leaders in Madrid (Spain) during the second day of the NATO summit.

Valeria Mongelli—Bloomberg/Getty Images


In Madrid, NATO’s new Strategic Concept attempts to clarify policy on several global issues, such as climate change, cyber-security and the militarization of space. Article 5 was not limited to military kinetic force. It could be applied for cyber-attacks, space attacks or hybrid campaigns like cutting off energy supply and disinformation spreading. “NATO has wrestled with these things over recent years, but never have come to a declared definition, in part because nothing has ever been that intense,” says Hunter.

Madrid has a priority: ending the conflict in Ukraine, and ensuring that such violence does not happen again. On Wednesday, Finland and Sweden were invited to join NATO after Turkey dropped its objection after the two nations’ agreed to clamp down on the activities of alleged Kurdish separatists operating within its borders. “I think they’ll join within 2022,” says Nuland. “And they will be welcomed with open arms.” 

Both countries have powerful and significant militaries. The addition of Finland also adds 830 miles of NATO border to Russia, effectively “making the Baltic Sea a NATO lake,” says Stuart Crawford, a defense analyst and former Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania call for NATO divisional headquarters and more heavy weaponry to be placed in each country.

In the short term, at least, there’s little sign this expansion is lowering the temperature. Lithuania has been in dispute with Moscow over Russian supplies. In compliance with the E.U., Lithuania was not allowed to access Kaliningrad (a Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland). sanctions. Estonia reports repeated Russian military helicopters entering its airspace over the past few days. Putin suggested that he could give Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (a close ally), Russian nuclear weapons, and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

But, the most important thing is that NATO will not stop focusing its efforts on China. This shift in focus is evident by the attendance at Madrid of Australia, South Korea and New Zealand, as observers. Beijing’s backing of Russia has naturally sharpened a focus on China. Analysts are divided on whether or not this is a good thing. “NATO in the last five years spent a lot of time talking about China, but were they really ready when Russia invaded a neighbor?” says Lyle Goldstein, director for Asia engagement at the Washington D.C.-based Defense Priorities think tank and a visiting professor at Brown University. “It’s a fair critique.”

Crawford claims that NATO has failed to stop conflict in Europe, but it is not because any member of NATO has been attacked. “You could look at Putin’s attack on Ukraine as the preemptive strike to stop Ukraine joining NATO, which would leave him in an even weaker position,” he says.

This naturally begs the question about Beijing’s retaliation if the U.S. continues to draw its Asian neighbours closer to NATO. At the Shangri-la Dialogue security summit in Singapore on June 11, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III insisted “we do not seek a new Cold War, an Asian NATO, or a region split into hostile blocs.” But when Asian security becomes chiefly about containing China, just like European security became purely about deterring Russia, that is exactly what risks manifesting—that Beijing decides they are so isolated by Western security architecture that they have no choice but to try and destroy it. “The closer South Korea and Japan align with NATO, the closer China is certain to align with Russia,” says Goldstein.

For Hunter, it’s a risk of the lessons of history being forgotten—and not for the first time. Back in the 1990s, world leaders knew “nothing is going to work if you push Russia away,” says Hunter. “You don’t want to do what happened to Germany in 1919. It was very clearly understood.” That is, until it wasn’t.

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