We can’t absolve NATO expansion as a cause for the Ukrainian Crisis | Ojel L. Rodriguez Burgos

The Russian war against Ukraine is an act of aggression with profound consequences in the short and long term for the strategic reality of the international system. A system that after the Cold War was dominated by the unipolarity of the United States and is now being superseded by a multipolar world. The new reality shown by the Russo-Ukrainian war is a strategic alignment between China and Russia represents a new balancing coalition against the United States and its allies.

Undoubtedly, commentators and scholars are and will have a lot to say about the effects and causes of this terrible conflict. Certainly, Vladimir Putin can’t be absolved from being responsible for instigating the first major conventional war in Europe since the end of the Second World War. However, in other to get a clearer view of the causes and effects of the conflict, we can’t also excuse NATO expansion from the equation.  

The absolution approach was recently taken in this journal by Matt Snape’s article defending President George W. Bush’s decision to expand NATO. One of the arguments made for the righteousness of NATO expansion is that if Georgia and Ukraine were in the alliance it would have likely prevented a Russian invasion. This is an argument often used about NATO expansion, that if the military alliance did not expand, Putin’s Russia would be in the gates of Berlin by now.

Given, the well documented difficulties of the Russian military in Ukraine, it’s debatable that Moscow would have the capability to re-established control in all of Eastern Europe. Indeed, it would be a mistake also to think that being a NATO member would mean absolute security from aggression. Great Powers, when they feel their strategic core interests are at risk, are willing to take military action and absorb a lot of pain to defend those interests. The latter point is clearly shown by Russia’s refusal to stop its aggression after the imposition of substantial sanctions.

Although, there hasn’t been as of yet a direct NATO-Russian confrontation, what we do know is that Russia is willing to use military force to defend its perceived interests, as the examples of Georgia, Ukraine and Syria show. Hence, considering Russia’s ability to use military, diplomatic and hybrid means to achieve geopolitical goals despite its national disadvantages, NATO membership is a safeguard, but not an absolutist one.

The second argument used to defend NATO expansion is that it has brought about a stable security landscape in Eastern Europe. The claim is that expanding NATO brought not only security to former Warsaw and Soviet Union members, but has brought them into the Western sphere. The problem with this line of argument is that its glosses over the security dilemma that comes from such a decision.

NATO expansion we can understand through the idealist project of Liberal Hegemony, a term often used in realist circles. Liberal Hegemony seeks to expand liberal democracy, economic interdependence and internationalization through global institutions, and as a result, the world would be a happy place. Glossing over the problems with pursuing Pelagians dreams, this doctrine can only be pursued by a state who is a regional hegemon or the unipolar power in the system. Here, lies the problem that concerns us.

The United States pursued this strategy through NATO expansion after the Cold War abandoning the logic of balance of power politics and intensifying the security dilemma of Russia by moving a military alliance to its borders. Dilemma, that not only the Russians constantly informed the World about, but even analysts warned about. Consequently, Russia has pursued a balancing strategy by increasing the military modernisation of its armed forces and seeking strategic alignment with China. We see the benefits of the latter strategy, in China’s joining and ongoing critique of NATO.

Thus, NATO expansion is a paradox, in the sense that it provides a security solution but at the cost of the larger security picture. Since its expansion has contributed to Russia’s siege mentality and its policy of balancing against this threat. Now, with the possibility of Sweden and Finland joining NATO, we are in the midst of an unnecessary and strategically unsound new Cold War with Russia. A development that doesn’t establish a long term pattern of peace, but a pattern of distrust, instability and insecurity. While in the East, Beijing sees the strategic utility of the West confronting two great powers.

NATO expansion is now in play as a concern in the international system, but also it’s a big driver of Russian security concerns and foreign policy. In order to understand how peace in Ukraine and a stable security landscape be achieved in Eastern Europe, NATO expansion can’t be taken out of the equation for understanding the causes of the conflict and changes in the international system.

Ojel L. Rodriguez Burgos is a Ph.D. Student in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews. His political commentary has appeared in The Hill, The Washington Examiner, and Forbes. Follow him on twitter: @ojelrodriguez

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