Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed April 1997
Copyright ©1997 by Abbott Gleason

NATO expansion from the Russian point of view

By Abbott Gleason

Abbott Gleason, the Keeney Professor of History at Brown University, is the author of Totalitarianism (Oxford, 1995).

"NATO is still an anti-Russian alliance -- precisely why Poland and the Czech Republic want to join it -- and that is why Russia doesn't want it to expand"

Secretary of State Albright, on her recent visit to Moscow, reassured the Russians that NATO is no longer a situation of "you versus us," but she "seemed to make little headway in easing Moscow's anxiety about expansion of the Western alliance," reported the New York Times. President Clinton had the same difficulty at the Helsinki summit. According to a recent USIA poll, 85 percent of "elite" Russians say there would be "no positive aspects at all" for Russia if central/east European nations join NATO.

These negative attitudes are scarcely surprising. NATO served a number of historical functions in its time. Going way back, the raison d'être for NATO was, in the words of an old aphorism, to "keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down." But the central and by far most important function was to confront the Soviet Union in Europe. NATO is still an anti-Russian alliance -- precisely why Poland and the Czech Republic want to join it -- and that is why Russia doesn't want it to expand. If it had been merely an anti-Soviet alliance, not an anti-Russian one, presumably one might consider Russia too for membership. This possibility is occasionally allowed "in theory," but is not going to happen.

For any Russian over 40 with experience in foreign affairs, the current situation in Europe represents the realization of their very worst fears. The United States is the sole remaining superpower. Its domination of Europe is challenged largely by its own inhibitions about using its power and by a certain French dyspepsia. Its German ally, the Soviet Union's great antagonist half a century ago, is the dominant economic power on the European continent. The Soviet buffer zone, cruelly acquired during and after the Second World War, has been lost.

The official voices of the American administration proclaim sympathy for a democratic Russia. Nevertheless, because of public attitudes toward foreign aid (and the semi-criminal chaos of Russia's domestic economic institutions), little aid has been forthcoming for that democratic Russia. Prospects for more any time soon are nil.

Meanwhile, the historical Russophobia of the American establishment -- understandable in light of history -- intermingles unpredictably with public apathy and isolationism. One might describe the dominant current of elite opinion in the United States in the following way. Yes, Russia is weak now, and that's great. Solicitude about Russian feelings is pure sentimentality and contrary to America's vital interests. Considering the ideological volatility of post-Communist Russia, its weakness is a gift from the gods. (If only all those nukes weren't there.)

To be sure [continues the analysis] the American government ought not to be unnecessarily provocative -- but American policy should be to take every possible advantage of Russia's dramatic loss of military power, so vividly demonstrated in the war with Chechnya. Above all, Central Europe should be brought under NATO's protection with all deliberate speed. Russia can do nothing about that and will not have the potential to take effective countermeasures for many years. By then, the Russians, if they are wise, will have long ago accepted what they were powerless to prevent.

Surely this sketch is fundamentally accurate if perhaps not sufficiently nuanced. No wonder Evgeny Primakov in Moscow is reported to be "negatively disposed."

There are other points of view, of course. One obvious alternative seems to be limited largely to academic students of Russia, whose influence on policymakers has probably not been weaker since the end of World War II. Its point is that the West should be much more cautious about NATO expansion than it currently intends to be. The United States in particular should recall Russia's profound historical ambivalence about the power and influence of "the West," which now means primarily the United States. If we press our advantage too hard, we make the establishment of a more democratic, less adversarial political culture even less likely and increase the possibility of a resentful, irrational, nationalist Russian government down the road. Such a government would surely seek by any means in its power to reverse the extraordinary series of victories that Russia's "enemies" have won in the last decade.

The rewards for restraint, however real, are hard to specify. The dangers, however real, are amorphous. The advantages of pressing Russia hard, while hoping loudly and often in public that Russia will join an expanded NATO in a "partnership for peace," are clearer, more obvious and nearer at hand. The dangers will be for the next generation to deal with.

Perhaps the Russians can console themselves for what is virtually certain to happen by considering the reluctance of Europeans and the United States in particular to actually employ their enormous military power if it risks even a single casualty. NATO, oddly enough, is expanding as isolationism grows stronger among Americans - it may be less dangerous to Russia than it appears. But Secretary Albright ought not to be surprised if a man as intelligent, ruthless and experienced as Mr. Primakov is not won over by American assurances. He fundamentally shares the realpolitik outlook of American proponents of NATO expansion like Henry Kissinger. Were he on the other side, he would undoubtedly push NATO as far to the East as he could.