In Part One of this series, Russia and the West: NATO (Birth, Adulthood, and Evolution), I examined the history of the Atlantic Alliance, its hallmark moments, and how the mission of the alliance has shifted from collective defense to collective security since its inception in 1949. Additionally, I touched on the issue of enlargement, noting that states such as Georgia have repeatedly expressed interest in joining NATO only to be rebuffed for reasons related to geopolitical risk and the emerging changes in the international power structure. The policy of enlarging the Atlantic Alliance carries with it significant risk, off-set by rewards that often do not adequately value long-term strategic interests and instead seek to pursue short-term political gain and comparative geopolitical advantage over rival powers and competing alliances.

Throughout the Cold War, NATO enlarged a total of three times, admitting a total of four new member-states:

  • February 18, 1952: Greece and Turkey
  • May 9, 1955: West Germany
  • May 30, 1982: Spain

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO has admitted a total of 12 new member-states to the Atlantic Alliance:

  • May 12, 1999: Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland
  • March 29, 2004: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Slovenia
  • April 1, 2009: Croatia and Albania

The three most recent iterations of enlargement were largely governed by requirements laid out in the Membership Action Plan (MAP), a five-point plan for admission to the alliance. For nations to be admitted to the alliance individual governments must demonstrate that they are guided by policies that reflect  a maturing military apparatus capable of acting in concert with its prospective allied nations. MAP’s official plan is five distinct requirements:

  • Willingness to settle international, ethnic or external territorial disputes by peaceful means, commitment to the rule of law and human rights, and democratic control of armed forces
  • Ability to contribute to the organization’s defence and missions
  • Devotion of sufficient resources to armed forces to be able to meet the commitments of membership
  • Security of sensitive information, and safeguards ensuring it
  • Compatibility of domestic legislation with NATO cooperation

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the Cold War, the United States was widely regarded by most international relations experts to be the lone hegemon in the international system. Consequently, these experts noted the emergence of a unipolar moment. Defined by Charles Krauthammer in a notable Foreign Affairs Magazine essay, the unipolar moment refers to the period of time since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the bi-polar international power structure. The U.S. emerged from the Cold War as the preeminent power in the international system, unchallenged in comparative influence by any other state.  Consequently, the U.S. acted as the sole hegemon in the international system, realistically unchallenged by any comparatively powerful nation, unchecked by any comparative military or diplomatic power, and acting as the lone superpower on the planet. In this regard, the U.S. was the defacto leader of the Atlantic Alliance and consequently shouldered the bulkload of  both the financial cost of operation (evidenced in missions in the Balkans) as well as the country commanding operations and constructing strategic policy. As NATO moved to its first iteration of enlargement in 1999, many observers expressed concern that admitting former Warsaw Pact members would unnecessarily antagonize a weakened Russian state still reeling from years of Shock Therapy economic policies that had returned a large portion of the public to a near-rabid level of anti-government Russian nationalism. It is in this environment that President Vladamir Putin first arrived in the Kremlin and, over 15 years later, is still promising a return of the Russian state to its former great power status:

Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest abroad in both the former Soviet lands and elsewhere. We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored. (BBC News, Vladamir Putin: The Rebuilding of Soviet Russia, March 27, 2014)

The idea that NATO’s enlargement could catalyze a change in Russia’s foreign policy and national security strategies is not new. As NATO admitted former Warsaw Pact nations to the alliance, analysts and experts warned that the continuation of enlarging NATO to include these Russian near abroad states would likely inspire a resurgence of Russian imperialist policy, experts such as Dr. Christopher Jones continued to warn of the threat that NATO’s encroachment upon the borders of Russia could blow back in the form of Russian imperialist policies:

“Despite its current weaknesses, it is conceivable that in the future, a resurgent Russia could back away from its deepening relationship with NATO and and act aggressively towards its neighbors in the Near Abroad. Russia’s transition to a fully developed democracy and market economy is far from certain, especially if President Vladamir Putin’s recent infringements on political freedoms are any indication.”(Dr. Christopher Jones, “NATO’s Transformation”, Old Europe, New Security: Evolution for a Complex World, Chapter 6)

Geopolitical constraints have mitigated the efforts of Georgia to obtain member-state status: border conflicts in secessionist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia have lent an air of instability to the government’s legitimacy over key regions of the Georgian state. Specifically, Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia threaten to scuttle any effort by the Tbilisi government to gain full membership status. Further, if membership were granted to Georgia, the aforementioned border conflicts would straddle NATO with the responsibility of defending the state from outside nation-states as well as to support the security mission in ensuring that the instability cascading from the two breakaway regions does not further fracture and destabilize the state.  This would essentially put the burden of engaging in effective military operations whose mission it would be to put down the rebellion upon alliance members, specifically the United States. Further, a mission to support a security operation could theoretically put U.S. forces in direct military confrontation with Russian military forces now positioned in those breakaway regions. In this, we find the reasons that enlarging NATO beyond its current membership would place undue financial and operational burden upon the U.S given that the U.S. shoulders a disproportionately large amount of the financial and military force burden in NATO operations. Finally

As Dr. Jones lays out in his chapter on the transitioning of NATO, the policy of seeking to incorporate newly independent countries (notably former Soviet republics) as membe-states brings with it significant risks for effective execution of alliance missions:

As NATO grows, its capability to guarantee collective defense to all its members and thus, the credibility of that commitment, come into question. Most notably, the decision to bring NATO to the doorstep of the Russian Federation by extending membership to “captive nations” of the former Soviet Union- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania- is surely consistent of the political rationale of enlargement. More important, it constitutes a truly monumental event in the history of Europe. Yet the inclusion of the Baltic states within NATO defies all military logic.

One might argue that today “NATO’s military risks are surely less important than its political roles”. NATO’s founding members, which have embraced enlargement in recent years, clearly hold this view. Yet the three Baltic states do not share such a perspective. Their drive to join the alliance was motivated largely, although not entirely, by a desire to gain the protection of Article V.”  (Dr. Christopher Jones, “NATO’s Transformation”, Old Europe, New Security: Evolution for a Complex World, Chapter 6)

To provide a summary for concerns about enlarging NATO and the impact such an enlargement would have upon military effectiveness in carrying out NATO’s stated mission of collective defense against foreign attack, some key points to consider are:

  • Absorbing newly independent states with military forces that are insufficiently capable of managing their own state’s security and defense spreads unevenly the burden of cost and force structure commitment over the entire alliance
  • Absorbing these same state militaries, their military effectiveness in question, dilutes the effectiveness of the entire Atlantic Alliance in conducting military operations
  • Obstructions related to military command and control and mission inter-operability remain between states outside of the alliance and member-states) continue to impede the capacity of prospective states to carry out joint missions
  • Burden-sharing remains unevenly distributed; the United States carries a disproportionately high amount of the cost both in military forces and in financial resources.
  • Many new states are either incapable or unwilling  to commit the necessary funding to modernizing their militaries to NATO force standards. The reasons for this lack of political will are largely based upon popular domestic opposition to increased defense spending during a time of national difficulty while their national economies muddle through advanced phases of transition periods after years of central control under communist policies

Fast forwarding to the present day, we find the troubled nature of earnest Georgian pursuit of NATO membership. Georgia has been pursuing admission to to the alliance for years due to its fear of Russian encroachment upon its territory (notably in Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and its need for the protective umbrella of NATO military protection. In Part Three, I will examine the case of Georgia as a member of NATO and analyze the benefits and costs of admitting the South Caucasus nation to the Atlantic Alliance.


(Featured photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)