NATO, Russian Expansionism

The Cold War saw Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union and Western Europe with the United States squaring off against each other for over 40 years, each vowing to mutually destroy the other with defense agreements should an attack take place.

The West’s mutual defense pact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in 1949, described by NATO as a “child of the Cold War.”

The East responded by 1955 with the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, more commonly known today as the Warsaw Pact.

Fortunately for the world, NATO and Warsaw Pact signatory countries never came directly to blows. In fact, there was only one time during the Cold War when one of those mutual defense alliances was invoked. That was the Warsaw Pact, which was put into action in August of 1968 as members Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, and the Soviet Union invaded fellow member Czechoslovakia to force an end to liberalization reforms.

As the Soviet Union was becoming increasingly fragmented by the end of the 1980s, Warsaw Pact member states saw the writing on the wall. On February 25, 1991 the Warsaw Pact was officially declared obsolete.

Not so for NATO. In 1991 as the Warsaw Pact was unraveling, 16 countries counted themselves as NATO member states:

  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Luxembourg
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Greece
  • Turkey
  • Germany
  • Spain

Shortly after the Warsaw Pact fell apart NATO was making invitations to former Pact members. The first to join was East Germany, albeit indirectly as it became a de-facto member with the unification of Germany in 1990.

NATO Not to Expand “One Inch Eastward”

A former Warsaw Pact member joining NATO was significant for Moscow. NATO’s posture was an important factor for Soviet cooperation with German unification. At the time US Secretary of State James Baker tried to assuage Moscow’s fears of an expansionist NATO.

According to 1990 transcripts of meetings between Baker and the Soviets, the Los Angeles Times reports Baker:

“…suggested that in exchange for cooperation on Germany, U.S. could make ‘iron-clad guarantees’ that NATO would not expand ‘one inch eastward.’ Less than a week later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to begin reunification talks.”

While Baker was saying that in February, by March the State Department was briefing him on how NATO could organize Eastern Europe into the US sphere of influence. By October Washington was evaluating how to, “signal to the new democracies of Eastern Europe NATO’s readiness to contemplate their future membership,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

NATO Expansion Since the End of the Cold War

Left: Jan 1968, NATO (blue), Warsaw Pact (red). Right: Present, NATO members (blue), former-Warsaw-Pact NATO members (green), former-Soviet-Union NATO members (yellow), Russia (red). NATO members US and Canada absent from both graphics.

By 1999 NATO had worked out the details of three new members joining, all former Warsaw Pact nations:

  • Czech Republic
  • Hungary
  • Poland

At this point fully half of the Warsaw Pact countries were NATO members, and in 10 years’ time the rest minus Russia would join as well. This happened in successive waves with the next occurring in 2004:

  • Bulgaria – Warsaw Pact member
  • Estonia – formerly in the USSR
  • Latvia – formerly in the USSR
  • Lithuania – formerly in the USSR
  • Romania – Warsaw Pact member
  • Slovakia – Warsaw Pact member (as part of Czechoslovakia)
  • Slovenia – not formerly in the Warsaw Pact

Subsequently Albania, the last remaining former Warsaw Pact member outside of Russia, joined in 2009 alongside Croatia. Montenegro followed in 2017.

Despite the failure of a 2018 Macedonian referendum, Greece and Macedonia are currently in the midst of resolving a longstanding naming dispute that makes Macedonia all but certain to join NATO as its 30th member in the near future. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also a close runner up. Those countries’ accession would leave Serbia and Kosovo as the only Balkan nations that are not NATO members.

The following map shows a visual image of NATO’s expansion in Europe since the end of the Cold War up to the present.

Today’s NATO alignment in Europe: NATO members (blue), former-Warsaw-Pact NATO members (green), former-Soviet-Union NATO members (yellow), Russia (red)

Nuclear Armed NATO Members

Three NATO members are recognized nuclear powers in their own right:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • France

As part of NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing program, currently five other NATO members also host nuclear weapons:

  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Netherlands
  • Turkey

Connection Between NATO Membership and EU Membership

There’s a strong correlation between joining NATO (29 members) and joining the European Union (28 members). Only 13 countries that are members of either organization are not members of both.

  • 22 countries are both NATO and EU members
  • 7 countries are only members of NATO
  • 6 countries are only members of the EU
  • 17 countries joined NATO first and then the EU
  • 0 countries joined the EU first and then NATO
  • 5 countries joined the EU and NATO in the same year

From Moscow’s perspective it’s easy to see why joining NATO is synonymous with joining the EU. Here is a look at the actual data for year of accession to the EU and NATO by country:

Belgium France Germany Italy Luxembourg Netherlands
EU 1957 1957 1957 1957 1957 1957
NATO 1949 1949 1955 1949 1949 1949
Denmark Ireland UK Greece Portugal Spain
EU 1973 1973 1973 1981 1986 1986
NATO 1949 X 1949 1952 1949 1982
Austria Finland Sweden Cyprus Czech Estonia
EU 1995 1995 1995 2004 2004 2004
NATO X X X X 1999 2004
Hungary Latvia Lithuania Malta Poland Slovakia
EU 2004 2004 2004 2004 2004 2004
NATO 1999 2004 2004 X 1999 2004
Slovenia Bulgaria Romania Croatia Canada USA
EU 2004 2007 2007 2013 X X
NATO 2004 2004 2004 2009 1949 1949
Iceland Norway Turkey Albania Montenegro
NATO 1949 1949 1952 2009 2017

NATO Expansionism or Russian Expansionism

Russia’s illegal 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and its involvement in the Donbass region is regularly characterized as expansionism in the Western press, and it is. It comes in the context of Russia’s 2008 involvement in Georgian South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and to some extent its military presence in Transnistria since 1992, originally a peacekeeping force.

All those regions except Transnistria border Russia. From Moscow’s perspective these moves can be seen in the context of a response to a NATO expansion that has been continuing since the end of the Cold War.

The first time forces were deployed as part of a NATO mission was after the Cold War was over, conducting strikes against Serb forces and their allies in the Balkans as territories realigned throughout the 1990s following the breakup of Yugoslavia. This would lay the groundwork for a permanent NATO presence that continues to this day, and the establishment of the US’s largest military base in the Balkans, Camp Bondsteel located in Kosovo.

Following NATO’s first combat missions in the Balkans and subsequent permanent presence, the organization began membership negotiations with several countries bordering Russia:

  • Georgia in 2004
  • Ukraine starting in 2002, intensifying in 2005 and again in 2010, and being reinvigorated since the 2014 ouster of Yanukovych and subsequent Russian involvement in the Donbass and its annexation of Crimea

Negotiations with the Baltic States had begun earlier and resulted in the accession of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to NATO in 2004. At that time Moscow was still recovering from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and was not in a position to meaningfully intervene.

However it was able to deploy troops to Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 before those countries join NATO, in what can be seen – at least in part – to be the creation of buffer zones with Russia proper.

(title photo: US and Soviet tanks face off during the Berlin Crisis at Checkpoint Charlie, 1961)


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