Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to justify his invasion of Ukraine through the threat posed by Nato. This has launched a fierce debate about Nato’s decision to expand eastward after the Cold War and whether that policy has ultimately served the interests of Alliance members. Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and currently visiting IAST, Jeffrey Friedman attempts to decipher the questions at the heart of this debate.
DOES PUTIN GENUINELY PERCEIVE NATO ENLARGEMENT AS A THREAT?
This question is basically unanswerable, as leaders have strong incentives to conceal their true intentions. However, Putin’s stated fears of Nato enlargement are not less plausible than the United States’ concern about keeping the Soviet military out of Central America and the Caribbean during the Cold War. Nor is Russia’s concern about this matter new: Russian President Boris Yeltsin vociferously objected to the launch of Nato enlargement in the 1990s. It thus seems that Nato enlargement predictably provoked Russian hostility against the West, though we of course have no way to estimate just how much this hostility raised the chances of today’s war.
WHAT IS THE BALANCE OF POWER BETWEEN NATO AND RUSSIA?
In Ukraine, we can observe that Putin is willing to fight a war that Nato will not join. Meanwhile, many observers have been surprised at Nato members’ willingness to
incur economic losses in order to sanction Russian aggression in Ukraine. It is thus hard to say how, if at all, the current crisis should shift perceptions of Nato’s joint resolve.
HOW SHOULD THIS DEBATE AFFECT OUR VIEWS OF POLICIES LIKE NATO ENLARGEMENT?
Major foreign policy decisions are surrounded by extreme degrees of uncertainty. And we must remember that these uncertainties were paramount when NATO announced its
intention to expand eastward 1994. In 1994, Vladimir Putin was not a well-known figure, Russia was historically weak, there was tremendous optimism throughout
the West about replacing the Cold War with a “new world order” of global cooperation; and it was hard to foresee that the United States would devote twenty years of its foreign policy
to armed nation-building in a manner that would sap domestic enthusiasm for military interventions overseas.
We must recognize that there is no way to confidently assess the costs and benefits of foreign policy decisions that are so bold and complex. Perhaps that means we should be
skeptical of NATO enlargement’s critics, on the grounds that their arguments rely on a host of claims that are all but impossible to prove.
Another reasonable view is that powerful states should generally avoid these kinds of bold and complex endeavors, on the grounds that it is always difficult to know whether these ventures' liabilities will end up outweighing their costs.