Bursting the Bubble

NATO’s Eastern Security Threats and the Need to Go Back to Basics

25 September 2014 | by

Occupation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine was supposed to be a turning point in NATO’s relations with Russia. The Wales summit, in this regards, was expected to reform policies towards the country. However, the expectations did not come true due to the fact that the member states focused more on building an international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in an effort to deal with the rise of terrorism in the Middle East. In contrast, the alliance agreed to undertake rather limited actions to deter security challenges, posed by Russia. While setting up a rapid-reaction force, which represents the key decision of the summit in response to the eastern threats, can be considered as a step forward, the fundamental approach of the organization towards official Moscow has remained the same.

NATO’s current policy is based on the perception of Russia as an indirect security threat to the alliance. Thus, the organization advocates not a military, but a political solution. For more than two decades, NATO has tried to engage the Russian leadership in constructing the Western security architecture. Yet, this policy has long failed to produce positive results. In April 2008, at the Bucharest summit, NATO denied Georgia and Ukraine from the Membership Action Plan (MAP), in order not to provoke the Kremlin. Though, within three months, the Russian Federation occupied Georgian territories beyond the disputed regions and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian conflict, the alliance continued partnership with the country. Threatened by a military or nuclear response from Russia, in 2009 the USA’s plans for deploying long-range missile defense interceptors as well as equipment in Poland and the Czech Republic, which were supposed to become an integral part of NATO’s missile defense system, were canceled. Instead, the 2010 Lisbon summit saw spheres of cooperation between the alliance and the Russian Federation. In 2012, in frames of the NATO-Russia Council the chiefs of staff of the two sides also met to endorse a military cooperation program. Despite aforementioned accords, the policy of engagement could not prevent Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which not only violated the sovereignty of the neighboring state, but has denied the post-WW international order.

Illegal invasion of Crimea showed that military operation in Georgia in 2008 has not been an exception. Russian occupation has become a trend. In recent years the country has transformed into a military aggressor, which manufactures hybrid warfare in NATO’s neighborhood. The state destabilizes neighboring countries internally, supports and funds separatists, uses economic and energy blackmail, propaganda machine and ground invasion, to regain its influence. What’s more important, Russian military ambitions are growing. In 2011, Russian defense officials announced 10 year US$640 spending plan to modernize the army and fund re-armament. Russian military budget, which is already the third largest in the world and higher than the defense budget of any other European nation, is expected to rise from US$78 billion to US$98 billion by 2016. Russia is also authorized the use of nuclear weapons if national security is threatened. NATO’s response to the eastern security challenges, by creating a high alert force of a few thousand soldiers, thus, partially corresponds to potential threats, and is disproportionate.

The Wales summit outcomes show that the eastern security dilemma is underestimated in the West. Primarily, this is due to the fact that Ukraine’s case is still understood as a regional conflict in Washington. Obama’s administration is focused on dealing with terrorism, which the administration has recognized as a direct threat and a global security challenge. Limited American leadership against Russia does not create favorable conditions for the alliance to prioritize and further strengthen its defense capabilities in its East. Thus, while NATO’s attention is centered on the Middle East, Russian military build-up and influence in Europe is rising.

NATO expansion, as well as military infrastructure in Russia’s various backyards has been claimed as a direct military threat by the Russian national security strategy. But keeping itself far from the Russian borders has not promoted stability in the shared neighborhood. NATO has to strengthen the eastern border by permanent positioning of its infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe; but it also has to create an enhanced cooperative military framework with countries in the Russian neighborhood, which would need to go beyond training, exercises and interoperability opportunities. As President Petro Poroshenko said to the US Congress, “blankets and night vision goggles are important, but one cannot win a war with a blanket”. Credible assistance to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova to develop defense capabilities will be of a crucial importance.

Modern warfare does not necessarily require Russia to initiate a ground invasion against the members of the alliance. Moscow’s power to destabilize eastern states internally, especially where Russian minorities reside, should be analyzed in depth. In this critical time of history when Russian actions undermine and change decades’ long international order, NATO does not require minor initiatives. It needs to go back to the basics of its policy and adequately estimate threats coming from the Kremlin. If the alliance does not occupy itself with strengthening its defense capabilities against possible Russian aggression, the security of Europe will be tested.



  1. “But keeping itself far from the Russian borders has not promoted stability in the shared neighborhood” …

    Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine are claimed to be direct responses of increasing NATO activity in those countries, John Mearshaimer provides a quite reasonable theory for that as well. Which directly contradicts what you are saying. In itself that’s ok, except you deliver no facts to back up your claim, not even an explanation of a central point.

    Which makes your blog post just another semi-intelligent article portraying Russia as a dumb aggressor.

    Seriously, you are from Georgia, you should be trying to understand Russian politics and security concerns instead of writing drivel about how NATO should further worsen an already messed up situation by increasing military presence in Eastern Europe. If NATO didn’t mess around in Georgia you most likely would not have had a military conflict there.

    Apls gg

    • First of all, thank you very much for leaving the comment to the article. Again, it shows that the topic is controversial, thus, there is no doubt that radical stances exist.

      I would refrain myself from labeling the comment itself. Rather would try to extract legitimate questions and concerns, which I can read beyond the lines.

      I am not aware of precisely John Mearshaimer theory on this particular issue, and I doubt that such a theory exists, but I am well aware of the school of thought he follows and I am well-aware of his line of argumentation. Especially visible in his recently published paper in the Foreign Policy “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusion that provoked Putin”.
      His central claim, which apparently you completely share, is that “taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement”. This argument derives from a neorealist geopolitical thinking that “great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory”.

      Such claim is legitimate, but does not provide full picture. As I have mentioned in my article, for a long period of time NATO has kept itself from “provoking” the Kremlin by not positioning its infrastructure on the Russian border, denying giving MAP and military help to Ukraine or Georgia. It had numerously tried to engage Russia in a dialogue and partnership, including military-to-military cooperation. Though, this attitude has not prevented the Russian-Georgian war, or Russia’s war in Ukraine.

      The reason for this, I think, is not the fact that Russia is a “dumb aggressor”, as you may call it; but the internal politics of the country. The Russian leadership acknowledges the fact that the attention of the Russian citizens should be directed on external and not internal issues. Russian leadership has to justify its unwillingness to democratize, develop and modernize, create better conditions for ordinary citizens, with the notion of an external threat. It has to show that the external threats provide security challenges for the citizens and on the first hand, they should be dealt. One has to understand that the vast majority of Russians do not live like the rich in Moscow.

      Thus, NATO on its own or its enlargement does not provide any real serious security concern to Russia. NATO is not going to attack one of the biggest military powers of the world. And the Kremlin is perfectly aware of this. However, the government needs an external threat as a driving force for keeping itself in power.

      Now, another legitimate question/concern that I can observe in the comment is – how we deal with this situation? You, apparently think that strengthening eastern border of NATO can escalate the situation. Along goes Mearshaimer’s argument that the solution is in making the shared neighborhood as a neutral buffer zone between NATO and Russia, akin to Austria during the Cold War. And that the goal should be sovereign Ukraine or Georgia that fall neither the Russian not the Western camp.

      Here as well, respectfully, I disagree this claim. Neither Ukraine, nor Georgia is Austria. One should consider the nature of the region, the history and the countries. Poor and less important states do not have the luxury of being neutral. And the history of the region proves this claim. The first constitution of independent Georgia, after the collapse of the Russian empire, claimed in 1918 that the country chose neutrality in the international relations. In 1921, after Russia signed a treaty recognizing the independence of the Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1920, the red army marched in the country and installed Bolshevik regime. This later became the beginning of the Soviet era, lasting for decades.

      Russian strategic thinking has not changed much in our current times. Countries like Ukraine and Georgia need guidance. And if I follow Kennan’s telegram logic, unless NATO does this, Russia certainly will. In my opinion, NATO can provide a better guidance for these countries, than Russian can.

      Finally, strengthening NATO’s position in its East is not an advocacy for war. Peace is what needs better security and defense.


  2. Four questions to drive a point, and a bit of a comment:

    1. When the Soviet Union collapsed, why was still there a need for NATO? What is NATO united for against?

    2. In Ukraine, Yanukovych, an ELECTED president (and a corrupt one, too), was thrown out of office with the active support of very western government officials. How many months was Ukraine from holding its national elections (which could have thrown Yanukovych out of office according to Ukraine’s own constitution?)

    3. You stated: “Though, within three months, the Russian Federation occupied Georgian territories beyond the disputed regions and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Surely, Ms. Jarapashvili, something happened along the way? What happened that led to this consequence?

    4. You mentioned Russia’s military budget. Have you considered placing this (oh soooo) huge budget side by side with Russia’s defense/security requirements, based on its geography, defense doctrine, tactics, and force quality–among others? (hint: Russia still relies on the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Why do you think so?)

    Your piece well documents Russia’s “provocations” but disappointingly, is very much silent about Western actions that Russia perceives (rightly or wrongly) as real threats (again, rightly or wrongly) to its security.

    The year is 2014. How many years have passed since the Soviet Union dissolved? Now, do you honestly think that within such a short span of time, all Russian leaders (and majority of the peoples in Russia and Eastern Europe) have imbibed Western values and world view (all of which have taken them also hundreds of years to gestate)?

    Western countries are comfortable (and have come to terms) with their understanding of their history and their values. But this does not confer them superiority nor accuracy in interpreting other people’s (or countries) world views, fears, or even well-being.

    In trying to weigh narratives in conflict situations, truth does not matter. It is how the players perceive what truth is. And influencing this perception cannot be done by isolating one or several players. It is done by focusing and making the terms of engagement more principled and yes, purposely focused.

  3. Dear Odin,

    Glad to hear more issues put forward to stimulate the debate. I cannot promise to be able to respond all of them in this comment, but below are some key thoughts concerning your questions:

    1)When the Soviet Union collapsed, why was still there a need for NATO? What is NATO united for against?

    Your assumption seems to be (correct me if I am wrong, please) that after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was no need of keeping the alliance alive, but it was still preserved to be able to deal with Russia. I think this assumption is both right and wrong. Right, because NATO is a collective defense against any possible threat (including Russia, if this is a case). Wrong because after the collapse of the Soviet Union NATO was not concentrated on Russia, it was busy dealing with Yugoslav wars, which threatened the European security. Thus, the necessity of the alliance, which I think also kept it operational, existed.

    2) “Yanukovych, an ELECTED president was thrown out of office”/why Ukrainian people did not wait until the elections?

    This comment/question touches upon the evaluation of the processes in Ukraine, which I think is very important and thank you for bringing this up. The main question is – was it a coup d’état or a revolution. You seem to be following the Russian judgment that it was a coup ‘d’état. The alternative judgment, though, claims it was a revolution. And it is important to distinguish these two terms and understand how to name the things. Coup d’etat is the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a SMALL GROUP, and it is considered as ILLEGAL. Without any deep conversation on the term or the issue, Russia claims that the fact itself – overthrowing the President was illegal. Revolution on the other hand, is a RIGHT of people/of a nation to overthrow a sovereign/government (including an ELECTED President) that acts against their common interests. And this action is LEGAL. The Ukraine people had the right to exercise the right of revolution WHENEVER. The impatience to wait for several months until the elections(rightly, or wrongly), and not to leave in power a President under which demonstrators were attacked, shot in the streets, killed in the forests, is completely understandable. Removal of Yanukovych, a legally ELECTED president, thus, should be considered as a right of the Ukrainian people – thus, legal.

    3) What happened in three months after the Bucharest summit so that Russia suddenly became involved in military action with Georgia?

    I think the answer is – we should stop thinking in short terms. These wars and operations are long planned in the Kremlin. Yet in early 90ies Moscow back separatists and stimulated conflicts in the whole post-communist region – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh and now in Ukraine. In 2004, after the orange revolution Eastern Ukraine/Crimea had problems with separatism and Moscow played a crucial role by then as well. But separatist sentiments in Ukraine, compared to other breakaway territories in the region, had been unorganized, they existed but were underdeveloped. In 2004 Ukrainian government made agreement with separatists and the country back then could secure the territorial integrity. So that 2004 events did not repeat, this time Russia provided a clear military back up and ground invasion to stimulate the territorial conflict. That is because territorial conflicts are the best and the strongest instruments for Moscow to manipulate the post-soviet states and prevent them from integrating into the west.

    4) “Western countries are comfortable (and have come to terms) with their understanding of their history and their values. But this does not confer them superiority nor accuracy in interpreting other people’s (or countries) world views, fears, or even well-being.”

    The whole issue or the post-communist fight is about the values, but it is not about the superiority of values. First and foremost, it about freedom, it’s about freedom of choice. Some of the countries, like Georgia or Ukraine, have made their choice – to integrate in to the western culture that is where they think they belong. But it is still not respected by Moscow, claiming that bigger states and more powerful states should have a say over less powerful neighbors.

    5)“Huge” Russian Defense budget

    If we compare Russian defense budget with other states, or consider it’s security perceptions, we might talk in a different way. But this is misleading. Simply because what matters in this regard, is a tendency. The tendency is more military spending, reformation of the army and the military infrastructure. Here I would answer your question by asking you a question – why do you think this is the case? Because real security threats for Russia have multiplied and strengthened in the recent years or because Russia has become more dangerous for the whole world and thus, Russian leadership’s perceptions of threats have multiplied and strengthened?


  4. Dear Nino,

    first of all, thank you for your elaborate post and comments, which are really giving a deep insight in what is going on in eastern europe.

    In the short term, I agree with you that western countries have to think about how to deal with occupations of foreign countries by russia, especially if your claims that this has become a trend stay true in the future. Alas, I do not think that a rapid-reaction force is an appropriate idea (I actually do not know how they should respond when it would become necessary, but I expect that no one would allow a intervention and hence confrontation).

    So anyway, for the long term, you pointed out that especially in countries with russian minorities, russia would try to destabilize the countries. Since I am not familiar with the situation, I would like to learn why actually people are still that much separated there that this can work at all. Why they cannot develop a unified society without ethnical borders. In other words: Do you think that russians rather just mourn the old days, or are they more importantly concerned that the western countries just leave them behind in too many situations, nd that they do not feel accepted as minorities? At least the second would be an issue to be solved politically I think. And as far as it appeared to me, western countries tried as much to influence the developments in countries of the former soviet union persueing their own interests only, though for luck not through military actions.

    Please forgive me for writing generalizations like “russians” etc., I didn’t know how to express myself appropriately in this topic, but I hope that the meaning is clear. I am really curious to understand how such a situation could develop in europe – again.

    Best regards from Germany,


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