by Janusz Bugajski
February 23, 2021
The Washington Examiner
In his first meeting with NATO allies, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin asserted that Russia is a threat that will be held to account for its “reckless and aggressive actions.”
As the world’s strongest organization, both militarily and politically, NATO can indeed effectively counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The centerpiece of that countering effort remains NATO’s assurance of the national independence of all European states.
The Kremlin’s fears about the NATO alliance are rooted in profound anxieties about Putin’s political future. Putin has increasingly anchored his domestic legitimacy on restoring Russia’s great power status and dominating wayward neighbors. Such neoimperial aspirations are blocked when countries enter NATO and benefit from its core principle of mutual defense. By including new members, NATO diminishes Moscow’s ability to control the security and foreign policies of former satellites.
The Kremlin manufactures a thick mist of disinformation about NATO to disguise its expansionist policies. Lurking behind its propaganda offensive is a genuine fear that by thwarting Russia’s foreign ambitions, NATO will also weaken Moscow’s domestic authoritarianism. Officials in Moscow contend that NATO captured the post-communist countries in Europe’s east in order to threaten Russia’s borders and overthrow its government. In reality, NATO enlargement has been a voluntary process initiated by each aspirant state that emerged from Soviet domination. No neighboring country voices claims to Russia’s territory or its resources. Above all, NATO’s doctrine, exercises, and military posture neither endanger Russia’s statehood nor challenge its territorial integrity.
Unlike NATO, Moscow’s alliances are not voluntary but involve countries trapped in asymmetrical dependency relationships with Russia. These relationships are based largely on intimidation and blackmail. In seeking to restore their national independence, several capitals have turned to Western institutions for help and protection. When they do, Moscow claims that it is surrounded by enemies and needs to pursue an aggressive posture to combat them. In a glaring example of truth inversion, Moscow charged Washington with planning the overthrow of the government in Kyiv in February 2014 in order to deploy NATO forces closer to Russia’s borders. In reality, the Ukrainian revolution was indigenous and presented a viable precedent for Russia itself, demonstrating that mobilized citizens can replace an authoritarian regime.
The Kremlin dreads the prospect that Ukraine or Belarus can transform into democratic and economically healthy states that achieve EU accession and NATO membership. A successful Ukrainian or Belarusian model of development would expose Putin’s system
as a failure and inspire dozens of repressed and impoverished regions inside the Russian Federation to seek greater control over their own destiny.
Western officials seeking to develop closer relations between NATO and Russia should harbor no illusions.
Moscow does not see NATO as a potential partner but as its primary strategic rival and existential political threat. Limited cooperation in nuclear arms control or other common interests should not lull NATO leaders into a false sense of security. Russia’s multipronged attacks against neighbors and its subversion of NATO states will not cease until Putin suffers a major domestic defeat. For Austin’s statement to be implemented, Washington needs to uphold the principles upon which NATO was founded: defending allies and preventing any power from dominating Europe.
Reversing the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany is an important starting point and sends a strong signal that America remains committed to Allied defense. NATO’s eastern flank must also be strengthened by increasing the multinational troop presence, improving regional infrastructure, holding regular military exercises, and keeping the door open to all aspirants. Above all, Washington must uphold the fundamental principle that every state has the right to choose its alliances freely and to defend its security.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington. His recent book, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.