Those of us who opposed the expansion of NATO in 1999 (admitting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) and 2004 (Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania) warned that it would lead to problems with Russia. Those problems have arrived.
A resurgent Russia flush with oil revenues and a strong leader who is using accumulated anti-U.S. resentments to become even more autocratic has just suspended the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty in retaliation for U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and U.S. plans to put components of a missile defense system into Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russians now say they reserve the right to redeploy tanks and heavy artillery on their western and southern borders and will stop allowing inspectors to verify their compliance with the treaty.
The tit-for-tat Russian action is rooted in suspicions that have their origins in America’s violation of the so-called Two Plus Four Treaty. Signed with the Soviet Union after the Eastern Bloc fell, the treaty was intended to allow for the unification and integration of Germany into the West. After two bloody world wars against Germany and a Cold War with a hostile NATO, Russia wanted some guarantees that a NATO substantially strengthened by a unified Germany would not pose a security risk. As a result, in negotiations for the Two Plus Four Treaty, signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush in 1990, the United States pledged not to station foreign troops or nuclear weapons in the eastern part of Germany and not to expand NATO eastward.
Since then, in violation of the treaty, NATO has added 10 new countries. And the United States would like to add more, including Ukraine, Russia’s largest and most powerful neighbor. No wonder Russia is beginning to feel encircled.
One need not have an affinity for Russia, Russians, or their autocratic leader to realize that the United States is principally to blame for the current tensions.
What has the United States gotten for its imperial expansion into eastern and central Europe? Only future headaches and potential conflicts. In the NATO Treaty, an attack on one alliance member is considered an attack on all meaning the United States has essentially pledged to provide security for an additional 10 nations in proximity to Russia. In fact, protection from Russia is the reason these small countries wanted to join NATO in the first place. In 1999 and 2004, however, U.S. politicians thought such paper commitments would never have to be fulfilled and that expanding the alliance would help “stabilize” the former Eastern Bloc.
Only now is it becoming apparent that such U.S. security guarantees, handed out promiscuously, might someday have to be honored in a potential tangle with a strengthened, more assertive, nuclear-armed Russia. In fact, the recent surliness of the Russian bear originates from having sand kicked in its face over a number of years by this U.S. encirclement in Europe not merely from U.S. plans to install a limited, anti-Iranian missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Even during the Cold War, the United States didn’t try to roll back Soviet control of Eastern Europe. The United States took this position for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that the region wasn’t regarded as strategic to the United States. Moreover, the United States recognized that the Soviet Union had a legitimate security interest in the region, which controls the routes which, historically, invading powers have used to reach the motherland. After all, the Russians lost 13 million people in World War II in bitter fighting on their own soil, far more than any other country, so it is understandable that they would want such a security buffer.
The disagreement over missile defenses is a symptom of a troubled U.S.-Russian relationship that the United States has helped create. The underlying cause, however, is Russia’s understandable fear of encirclement.
U.S. politicians would do well to cancel the planned deployment of missile defenses in the former Eastern Bloc, and to end the NATO expansion. Neither is needed for U.S. security, and these plans will only exacerbate tensions with a nuclear-armed and increasingly hostile Russia.