NATO, Eastward Expansion, and Russia

By Kavya Verma

In the event that NATO had not expanded eastward after 1990, it is unlikely that the current state of US- Russian relations would be much better. However, despite the idea of Russia growing increasingly hostile towards the US, due to NATO expansion and what Russia views as encroachment on its historic sphere of influence, there has been little voiced concern in Russian political spheres regarding NATO expansion to the Baltics - given that no new military infrastructure is put in the Baltics. The main reasons why regardless of any NATO eastward expansion, US-Russia relations would not be in a significantly better state present-day, are in fact rooted in domestic politics and Russia’s need to distract from its waning global influence by flexing military might.

    Russian political leadership has actively sought on multiple occasions to communicate that the inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO is not an immediate security threat to Russia, and is something that was foreseen by Russia long before it happened. Additionally, although the Russian leadership knew that they were not at risk of NATO airstrikes, with NATO’s actions in Bosnia in the 1990’s and Russia’s simultaneously declining global influence, the stage was set for a decade of increasing public dissent in Russia towards what they likely must have seen as Western encroachment on Russia.

    Further evidence points to a Russian leadership unbothered by the eastward expansion of NATO because not only was this foreseen, but in the 90’s Russian authorities were even interested in joining. With even Putin failing to voice public anger at NATO’s eastward expansion until 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, it is likely that it was not until around 2007 that Russian leadership understood how widespread the nationalist sentiment that Marten speaks of had become.

    When explaining the current state of Russia-US relations, it seems that NATO eastward expansion, among a number of other factors, has exacerbated the rise in nationalist sentiment among the Russian public as a result of their increased awareness of Russia’s decreasing international clout. Despite Russian politicians’ attempts to assuage fears of Western imperialism over Russia, ultimately the leadership has come to see anti-NATO and anti-Western rhetoric and actions as crucial to their political survival. Hence, the current condition of US-Russia relations.

    Although it is doubtful that US-Russia relations would be in a better state today had NATO not expanded eastward in the 1990’s, given the observed rise in nationalist sentiment as a result of having to confront Russia’s greater political decline, at this point in time NATO does risk worsened US-Russia and European-Russia tensions if it keeps open the possibility of further eastern expansion.