Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 14

By Anna Matveeva

A year ago, Thomas Friedman published an article on NATO expansion in the International Herald Tribune, entitled “Ten Reasons Why Chile Should Be Part of NATO.” (1) Among the reasons suggested were that Chile is a very long country; that it is famous for one of the most vicious generals in the 20th century history, etc.

In a very light form, this article was making a very serious point — the Alliance was expanding for reasons not entirely clear even to itself, let alone to those who were left out of the road to the brave new world.

In the eyes of the Russian establishment, a huge military machine of formidable capabilities and vague intentions was moving closer to its borders — how could this not lead to a sensation of vulnerability? As a result, the whole body politic in Russia has had to readjust to meet the new challenge.

The role the international dimension plays in shaping domestic politics is a fascinating subject. (2) The single most important development in foreign policy to produce implications for internal Russian life was NATO’s eastward expansion. Since the break-up of the USSR, one of the stated goals of US foreign policy was to bring about a democratic, liberal and market-oriented Russia.

Let us examine the extent to which present and future NATO expansion has facilitated the achievement of this objective.

The Russian leadership, and above all, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, is pursuing a rational and pragmatic policy toward NATO expansion. Russia is still officially opposed to it, but has engaged in the discussion and negotiation process, in order to be able to influence the establishment of the new rules of the game, minimize the damage and preclude further international isolation.

Some argue in this connection that the Alliance got off easily. Russia entered into cooperation with NATO — at first through the Partnership for Peace program — and subsequently, an important compromise, the Russia – NATO Founding Act, was reached. They contend that no negative developments followed when Russia’s bluff was called — there were no arms control violations or new military deployments, as the Russian nationalists had threatened would happen.

This short-sightedness was mirrored in the Russian political establishment, which also assumed that as far as the intervention in Chechnya was concerned, the West let Russia off easily. But both sides are only looking at the immediate and direct consequences; the indirect implications are far more significant. The adventure-turned-tragedy in Chechnya severely damaged Russia’s international standing, while NATO expansion has achieved something the Russians could not do themselves — it has led to the emergence of a foreign policy consensus in the country.

The Russian leadership is cooperating with NATO, not because it believes that NATO expansion is in Russia’s security interests, but simply because they cannot afford to aggravate relations with the West further, while Russia is still weak and in need of trade and credits. They may not like it, but politicians like Primakov cannot afford to abide by widely held perceptions, symbols and stereotypes. They have to live in the real world, in which the correlation of forces does not favor Russia. Moreover, in reality, NATO cannot help Russia solve its security problems, which are internal in nature, such as the situation in the North Caucasus. NATO deals only with external threats and to get into a messy business of ‘soft’ security issues would be anathema to the Alliance.

If the present Russian stance is not a problem, this does not mean that there is nothing to worry about. NATO expansion was an exercise in Realpolitik, and the lessons Russia drew from the experience were highly conservative. Russia came to terms with NATO expansion at a price of a general rightward shift in its foreign policy doctrine, the promotion of nationalistically-minded figures into the public eye (and subsequently, into positions of power), and by resuscitating an ideology, which again, as in Soviet times, seeks to identify a scapegoat for the failure of domestic economic promises.

The foreign policy debate moved to the center-right compared to the heyday of Kozyrev diplomacy in 1992-93. None of Russia’s political actors — the parties, the military, the Duma, the powerful regions — believe that expansion is a positive phenomenon and could help to address Russian security problems. Moreover, the consensus is that NATO poses a threat; the only differences of opinion are over the degree of this threat and over which damage limitation strategies to adopt. This consensus has translated into developments which have occurred since the decision on enlargement was taken in 1994.

First, new kinds of people rose to prominence, while liberal Westernizers largely receded from public view. Who now remembers figures like Andrei Kozyrev, Mikhail Poltoranin and Fedor Shelov-Kovedyaev? The Foreign Ministry’s stance changed considerably when Yevgeny Primakov took office in 1996, while similar shifts took place at the lower echelons of the foreign policy establishment. Politically, the road was paved for heavyweight characters to emerge, the most prominent of all being the maverick Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the president of Belarus.

In the eyes of the Moscow political establishment, at the time when Russia was single-handedly raising opposition to the Alliance’s intentions, its CIS colleagues were calculating the possible benefits from such move. Only Belarus decided to offer a helping hand, to open up for military cooperation and thus, became Russia’s only de facto ally on its western flank. It did not even ask much in return – only closer political ties.

As a result, Lukashenka has emerged as one of the most feared and admired figures on the Russian political scene. He tours Russia’s regions and is welcomed by crowds. Recently, he went to the Far East and promised the navy officers who had just sold a warship named the Minsk for scrap metal, that Belarus is ready to pay for the upkeep of a new Minsk, if it ever appears in the Far Eastern fleet. Does the man harbor ambitions to become the next president of the Russian-Belarus Union? Would people vote for him in Russia as they did in Belarus? Who knows.

Second, the significance of NATO enlargement as a symbol of relations with the West for the general public should not be underestimated. True, ordinary Russians are far more concerned with unpaid salaries and crime than with foreign policy. However, for every Russian over the age of twenty who lived through the times when it was clear where the threat came from, NATO is a highly charged body. Historically, NATO was created to contain Germany and contain the USSR. With the demise of the USSR and improbability of German threat to Europe, the obvious conclusion is that the present NATO role is to contain Russia.

Therefore, people vote for those parties who exploit the NATO issue. The State Duma is dominated by the representatives of Communist and other “Russia first” parties. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an amazing barometer of public opinion, happened to be right predicting that his stance on NATO would be adopted by many. Those who managed to stay in prominence on a more liberal front, such as Grigory Yavlinsky, Vladimir Lukin of Yabloko and Sergei Karaganov of the Council on Foreign Policy, had to alter their stances considerably to adjust to the prevailing mood.

With the start of the presidential race, all the contenders will have to pay tribute to the issue, and the public debate will heat up once again. The West should be under no illusion that Aleksandr Lebed, who went (far) abroad for the first time in his life to Brussels in 1996, expressed positive views on cooperation with NATO. Lebed is a populist, and will go with the tide, which by the year 2000, with the discussion of NATO membership for the Baltic states, is unlikely to be very mild.

The West will have to learn to deal with this new breed of Russian politicians. Can we be sure of their democratic credentials? Not only are their reactions hostile on the obvious security issues, such as the Iraqi crisis or the present situation in Kosovo: they interpret the whole range of issues — such as Caspian pipelines — in the light of the East-West confrontation. People in the present Russian establishment regard nearly everything which comes from the West with the utmost suspicion, and always search for ulterior motives and hidden meanings. Relations with some of the CIS countries are interpreted in the same light. Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, all riven by severe internal problems, all hope that NATO will come and help in solving them, especially as far as secessionist conflicts are concerned. NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia strike a sensitive chord in the hearts of leaders in the South Caucasus. Shevardnadze talks about a Bosnia-type operation for Abkhazia. Azerbaijan needs NATO for Nagorno-Karabakh. The Alliance’s response is that all this is wishful thinking and they should not be cherishing such dreams.

But why not? NATO took action in the former Yugoslavia because it is European, but many geographers agree that the Caucasus is also a part of Europe. It is also the home of some of the first Christian states. The newly independent states, like the East European countries, desperately need protection from neo-imperialist Russia. The agenda is ready, and the Alliance has the power to fulfill it. This might not be the Alliance’s line, but it does not say what its line is. Hence, Russia is suspicious of possible peace-enforcement operations and imposition of an alien political order close to its borders. Therefore it denies that the South Caucasus leaders have independent interests, and interprets of their security policies as being exclusively NATO-driven.

Finally, as far as ideology is concerned, NATO expansion undermined the good will generated during perestroika. Whether firm assurances were given to the Soviet Union at the time of negotiations on the “Two plus Four” agreement that NATO would not expand further eastwards, whether it was a “gentlemen’s agreement,” never translated into documents, or whether Gorbachev simply was not prudent enough to think of the worst-case scenario, it is undeniable that the spirit of strategic partnership was irreversibly violated, even if the words of the accords were not.

Russian elites and the general public felt that Russia was taken advantage of when it was weak and naive, and that the achievements of the Second World War were sold out too cheaply. It became much more difficult to argue that the West had genuine good intentions toward Russia. The ideology which has emerged from this is that the day will come when Russia is strong again and then, the tables will turn. Again, the various political forces disagree on how this might occur, but not on the idea as such.

It is normal for large countries with long histories and distinct identities to generate a degree of nationalism as a way of protecting their integrity. Since the end of the Second World War, India, Iran and China have demonstrated different examples of such assertiveness.

But it is unfortunate when such nationalism is directed, not toward the revival of national culture and statehood, but against a concrete external force. The worst thing about NATO expansion, present and future, is the vagueness and ambiguity surrounding the issue. Where is it going? For what reason? Where will it stop? What is it clearly not going to do? All these unanswered questions leave the impression in Russia that the Alliance is going to take as much as it thinks it can get away with, and that the Russian mission is to show NATO its own limits.

In all likelihood, NATO enlargement was chosen as the most cost-effective way to assurance Eastern European nations that they are proper members of the European family. The question is whether the severe blow this has rendered to democratic development in Russia is too high a price to pay for enhancing the European identity.


1. Thomas L. Friedman, “Ten Reasons Why Chile Should Be Part of NATO,” International Herald Tribune, June 27, 1997 2. Fred Halliday, Rethinking International Relations

Anna Matveeva is a Research Fellow for the Royal Institute of International Affairs’ Russia and Eurasia Program. Before that, she worked as a Research Fellow at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations.