Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 2

NATO Expansion: No Real Threat

By Andrei Zagorsky

The rhetorical side of the Russian discussion of NATO expansion is well-known; anger at the alliance’s approach to Russia’s borders has become an unchanging attribute of all of the speeches, both of government representatives, and of opposition figures. In spite of their references to the "geopolitical," military, political, and psychological challenges to Russia which NATO expansion would bring, emotional motives are clearly dominant in their rhetoric.

The political discomfort which a significant part of the Russian political elite is experiencing is understandable. But the discussion of NATO has so far given no answers to a multitude of questions which have to be clarified in order to solve the problem on a rational, and not an emotional, basis.

Among these questions are the following:

* What are Russia’s fundamental interests in Europe, and what effect will NATO’s possible expansion have on them? In essence, instead of answering this question, they have made the not-at-all obvious assumption that it is unacceptable for Russia.

* What concrete problems could arise for Russia as a result of NATO expansion?

* Is there any possibility of a collective solution to these problems, and if so, then what sort of an agreement has to be reached with the alliance?

In the present essay, I will try to propose at least partial answers to these questions.

1) Russia’s Interests in Europe

The first, and perhaps, the most important question boils down to this: what kind of Europe does Russia need? Is Russia interested in a united Europe or would a fragmentation of the continent, which could lead to the appearance of competing groups of states, oriented towards one large European (or non-European) power or another, be more in her interest?

It is hard to find direct answers to these questions in the speeches of Russian politicians. But even if you throw out the extreme alternatives — the idea of a Russo-German condominium in Europe, which was advanced at one time by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or the idea of creating a bloc of continental powers (Russia, Germany, and France) to be a counterweight to the maritime bloc (USA, Great Britain), one may say that the "geopolitical" conception of the world common among the Russian elite, multiplied by nostalgic dreams of great-power status, makes the alternative of looking for a "concert" of great powers at least understandable, if not desirable.

And clearly, many Russian experts, even those who do not fall into the "extremes" proceed from the assumption that a mosaic-like Europe would better suit Moscow, since it would allow her to profit from the contradictions between the European states, between Germany and France, in particular, and between the various Western organizations. Although most of these experts understand that a return to a concert of powers, such as existed in the 19th century, is impossible, many think that "in the short- and medium-term, due to Russia’s weakness, her interests would not be served by the rapid creation of a monocentric system in Europe. Russia would be interested in the preservation of a pluralism of centers of power in the West, and in particular, in the preservation of elements of competition between NATO, on one hand, and the EU/WEU, on the other." (1)

But there is another point of view: that the formation of a united Europe, the unification of its Eastern and Western parts, and the establishment of the principles of multilateral action there would be more in Russia’s interest than the fragmentation of the continent.

Of course, it is not at all a matter of indifference to Russia how Europe will be united — through a rapprochement, through the East and the West coming together under the roof of common European institutions, as was foreseen by the authors of the Paris Charter of 1990, or by the eastward expansion of security communities already formed in the West — the European Union and NATO. After all, the question of joining the EU and NATO is not before Russia.

But nevertheless, from the point of view of Russia’s main interest in promoting the unification, and not the fragmentation, of Europe — the question of the manner in which the continent is united is of secondary significance. Russia is interested not only in the preservation, but also in the expansion of multilateral mechanisms of European and Atlantic cooperation, which would lead to a gradual "denationalization" of security policy, particularly in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, thereby reducing still further the probability that a conflict in that region will escalate.

Insofar as the processes of EU and NATO expansion lead not to a split in Europe, but to its unification, they in principle do not conflict with Russia’s interests. They would conflict with the latter only in one case — if Russia and NATO see each other as likely adversaries.

Russia’s second interest flows from what has been said above: under conditions in which the unification of Europe takes place through the expansion of Western European and Euro-Atlantic organizations, guaranteeing at least non-hostile relations with their old and new members is of utmost significance. It would be best if friendly partnership relations could be established with them. Fulfillment of this condition would guarantee Russia that, at the minimum, there would be no hostile coalition on her western border. If friendly partnership relations could be formed with the EU and NATO, Russia could take advantage of potential multilateral cooperation, and integration into the world economy in her foreign policy towards Europe.

Finally, Russia’s third key interest lies not just in the preservation and expansion of the European security community, but also in herself becoming a part of it. For this, it is not necessary for her to join these Western organizations, but it is important to guarantee a high, and gradually growing, level of institutionalization of relations with her partners in the West, and above all, in the EU and NATO. It is important, at least on a limited level at first, to begin realizing the potential of this partnership in practice, to strengthen mutual trust between the two sides, and to remove the unnecessary fears which were inherited from the Cold War. In doing this, it must be realized that forming a partnership like this, for various reasons, takes time. But it is important to set this process in motion, and to give it real content.

In this context, it must be noted that the question of raising relations between Russia and NATO to the level of a Treaty or a Charter between them should not be seen as a sort of "consolation prize" which Moscow could receive for her acquiescence in the expansion of the alliance. Solid and stable relations between Russia and NATO are valuable in and of themselves.

In other words, Russia could adapt to the expansion of the Western European and Euroatlantic structures without harming her interests.

The best way to secure these interests is to guarantee two basic conditions: the resumption of hostile relations with the West must not be tolerated, and partnership relations with the EU and NATO must be institutionalized.

2) Problems Connected with NATO Expansion

The fact that NATO expansion is, in principle, compatible with Russia’s fundamental interests in Europe does not exclude the possibility that a number of problems demanding separate examination and resolution could arise. Unfortunately, since Moscow, for a long time, has refused to enter into a dialogue with the West on this question, many of these problems, which really could arise and which could be solved jointly, will have to remain, for a long time, "under the rug."

In the foreseeable future, there is no proposal for Russia to join the NATO alliance. This also applies to EU expansion. This gives Moscow the impression that she is being "squeezed out" of Europe and isolated.

Membership or non-membership in an organization, however, is not the issue. If one looks at the question from a purely institutional point of view, then one must admit that from this standpoint, Switzerland is much more isolated from Europe than Russia, even if she feels much less isolated than Russia does.

But it still must be understood that there is a problem here, although it looks different than it appears in the statements of Russian politicians. First of all, the West must understand the danger involved in Russia’s self-isolation from Europe if Moscow reacts to NATO expansion by turning her attention to the East, as unlikely as that possibility may seem.

On the military plane, if one abstracts oneself from the statements of the radical political forces and portions of Russia’s military establishment, the majority of the country’s political class does not see even an expanded NATO as a potential military threat. But nevertheless, the old stereotypes of calculating the "correlation of forces" continue to operate. This applies above all to professional military men, who prefer to proceed in their estimates not from whether or not a bloc proclaims itself to be a "potential adversary," but on its hypothetical capabilities. In connection with this, in addition to other changes to the "correlation of forces" that would come about as the result of the "first wave" of NATO expansion, military experts note that one of the biggest worries of Russian military leaders is that, using airports in Poland, for the first time, NATO tactical aviation would be in a condition to strike strategic targets on Russia’s territory. Even if one proceeds from the fact that NATO has no intention of taking advantage of this possibility, this clearly makes the Russian military uncomfortable, which is something that can hardly be ignored.

On the military-economic plane, representatives of the Russian military-industrial complex are clearly worried about being deprived of markets for their military production in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, if those countries’ armies are supplied with modern Western equipment.

3) The Possibility of Cooperative Decisions

The problems enumerated above can be solved cooperatively, if one proceeds from the main principle that NATO expansion is not inherently unacceptable to Russia. Moreover, if one understands the question in this way, one can only regret that a little over three years were wasted on fruitless discussions instead of on discussing real concerns which certain parts of the Russian elite — for the most part, military and military-industrial circles — have. That is, in addition to the already rather widely-discussed questions of whether or not nuclear weapons can be deployed on the territory of new NATO members, and the refusal to have foreign troops permanently deployed there, or the question of the need to raise the level of cooperation between Russia and the alliance (which would avoid the danger of Moscow’s "self-isolation,"), we consider it expedient to focus our attention on the following measures to ease Russian concerns in the short- or medium-term.

Military Planning Should Become More "Transparent"

With the help of a number of "trust-building" measures, including sending liaison officers to each others’ headquarters, military "transparency" must be increased, especially in the area of both sides’ operations planning. These liaison officers should become an important channel confirming the absence of any aggressive plans towards one another. Measures of "transparency" should not be limited to relations between Russia and NATO, but also extended to the main military powers of the alliance, such as the USA and Germany.

Joint Control Over Airspace

The military establishment’s fears of the possible approach of tactical aviation to Russian strategic targets can be significantly alleviated by measures to jointly control the airspace (a joint air defense system), which would presuppose, among other things, a broad exchange of air defense information. Such a step could become an important way to strengthen trust in relations between Russia and NATO.

The Creation of a Joint, Integrated Tactical Anti-Missile Defense System

Cooperation in this field would not only strengthen joint control over airspace, but would also have a broader significance. If other European countries in addition to Russia and the NATO countries, Ukraine, for example, would be included, the realization of such a project would do a lot to strengthen partnership and cooperation in Europe as a whole, outside of, and "overcoming," bloc boundaries.

Joint Activity Within the Framework of the Conception of Combined Special Designation Forces

This conception, adopted by NATO in Berlin in June 1996, if realized, would broaden the chances for cooperation between the alliance and non-member states in conducting peacekeeping or peacemaking operations. The realization of this conception in its broad form would help to make the new NATO border a cooperative one, and would establish a basis for joint actions with partner states. This could include conducting regular training exercises for Russian, Western European, American, Polish, and Ukrainian units set aside for peacekeeping purposes, which could be held on an alternating basis in the various countries taking part in the exercises.

Other Joint Measures

Under this heading, we include measures in areas not directly linked with NATO expansion, but which could give the partnership between Russia and the West a "second wind."

This could include adapting the CFE Treaty. The mandate for this was already given by the OSCE summit in Lisbon, at the beginning of December 1996.

Progress could also be made in implementing the START II agreement, in part, by unlinking strategic and tactical anti-missile defense systems (there has been some progress in this direction, but no decisive breakthrough as yet) and postponing the date of the agreement’s implementation. Even if the Russian Duma does not ratify the agreement, both sides must observe its parameters, as the USSR and the USA did with the SALT II treaty, which was not ratified by the US Congress.

The idea now being discussed about drafting and signing a START III treaty with a maximum of 2,000-2,500 warheads on each sides could be an important reinforcement to the agreements already reached in this area, and would make it easier for Russia to restructure its strategic forces as mandated by START II.

There could be an agreement, within the framework of the OSCE’s European Security Charter, proceeding from the need for division of labor and close cooperation in the area of guaranteeing European security.

And finally, there could be joint projects in the sphere of arms production, in order to alleviate the fears of the Russian military-industrial complex that they will lose their arms markets in Central and Eastern Europe.



1. "Geopoliticheskie ismeneniia v Evrope: politika Zapada i al’ternativy dlya Rossii." (Moscow, 1995) p. 12

Translated by Mark Eckert