At the end of October, NATO officials told The Wall Street Journal that the alliance will likely consider and approve the creation of two new command centers, one focusing on sea lanes in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans and one to manage cross-border logistics, at an upcoming meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on November 8. According to NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu, “Fast-evolving security challenges mean new demands on our command…. So work is underway to ensure that the NATO command structure remains robust, agile and fit for purpose.”
The move takes place as tensions between NATO and Russia are on the rise; with the Ukraine crisis still unresolved, non-aligned European nations such as Sweden and Finland are making their interest in joining the alliance more and more overt, despite a historic commitment to nonalignment that served them well for decades prior to NATO expansion.
For three weeks in September, Sweden held what had been its largest military exercise in over 20 years. The Aurora-17 drill included 19,000 Swedish troops, as well as soldiers and airmen from both Finland and NATO member states such as the United States, France, and the Baltic republics. The reason for the drill, according to Sweden’s Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, was to prepare for the “new security environment in this part of Europe with the annexation of Crimea (by Russia), war in Ukraine and pressure on Baltics.”
And while the left-leaning Swedish government has ruled out membership for now, Swedish opposition parties and the public favor it. According to a recent report in The Economist, “Polls suggest that a plurality of Swedes favor NATO membership. A Pew survey earlier this year found 47% in support of membership and 39% against.”
Meanwhile, in Finland, which also took part in the Aurora-17 exercise, presidential candidate and current European Parliament MP Nils Torvalds is breaking with the country’s long tradition of neutrality, openly campaigning for the country to join the alliance. “Finland’s long-term security needs,” says Torvalds, “would be better served inside the NATO alliance. Our long-term policies should not be dictated by Russia as has happened in the past.”
In addition to Sweden and Finland, the possibility remains that the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine may also join. In August, Vice President Mike Pence travelled to Tbilisi, where he declared: “We strongly support Georgia’s aspiration to become a member of NATO. And we’ll continue to work closely with this Prime Minister and the government of Georgia broadly to advance the policies that will facilitate becoming a NATO member.”
And in July, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Kiev and said the two had discussed Ukraine’s proposal for membership. For his part, Stoltenberg told the Ukrainian parliament that he believes Ukraine “has the right to choose its own security arrangements” pointing out that “last month, NATO welcomed Montenegro as the 29th member of our Alliance. This shows that NATO’s door remains open.”
Taken together, these new developments, which have been little noted by American media focused on the threat allegedly posed by Russian Facebook ads and Twitter bots, may well presage an even more dangerous phase of this new Cold War. Meantime, no one seems to be asking whether or not the stated rationale for a country like Sweden to join (because of the developments in Ukraine) makes any sense. Do the Russians really have designs on the Nordic and Baltic states?
There also seems to be little awareness that at one time there was put forth, by then–Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, an alternative, reasonable, and even, in the words of the British historian Richard Sakwa, “visionary concept of European transformation.” This concept, outlined by Gorbachev in a 1989 speech to the Council of Europe, was, in Sakwa’s telling, “a program for geopolitical and normative pluralism in post–Cold War Europe. Gorbachev argued eloquently and forcefully that different systems could coexist peacefully.”
But the West was playing a zero-sum game in Eastern Europe, and instead chose to expand the most powerful military alliance in history up to Russia’s western border, thereby deepening the division of Europe. This led, in due course, to the crisis in Ukraine.
The political scientist John Mearsheimer has written that NATO expansion was the “taproot of the Ukrainian crisis.” Writing in The New York Times in March 2014, Mearsheimer wrote that it was “Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West” that drove the Russians to draw “a line in the sand.”
US policy-makers can’t say they weren’t warned.
All or most of what has come to pass was visible as early as the mid-to-late 1990s, when the Clinton administration first embarked on the policy. In June 1997, over 40 former diplomats, politicians, and area experts, including former senators Sam Nunn and Gary Hart, former ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock, and former CIA director Stansfield Turner, wrote President Clinton expressing their concern over the policy.
They wrote, presciently, that within Russia the policy would “strengthen non-democratic opposition, undercut those who favor reform and cooperation with the West, [and] bring the Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement.” The policy would also, they correctly foresaw, “degrade NATO’s ability to carry out its primary mission and will involve U.S. security guarantees to countries with serious border and national minority problems, and unevenly developed systems of democratic government” (i.e., Georgia and Ukraine). For these reasons, the policy was “neither necessary nor desirable and that this ill-conceived policy can and should be put on hold.”
A year later, in May 1998, the scholar-diplomat George F. Kennan told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that he thought it was “the beginning of a new cold war.” “I think” said Kennan, that “the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies…. It is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”
As relations between the West and Russia continue to deteriorate, now is the time to rethink the failed policies of the past and begin to consider reasonable alternatives to yet another round of NATO expansion that would take into consideration the security concerns of all (and, yes, that includes Russia and Ukraine) who would belong to what Gorbachev once called “a common European home.”