Russian foreign policy and the NATO quagmire

30 Jul 2018


President Trump told his NATO allies in the middle of July that the current spending situation of the organisation was “no longer sustainable” for the United States. While members have increased their spending in real terms on equipment since 2016, Trump was absolutely right to point out the unfair levels of spending in NATO. Of the 29 members, only 4 of them spent above the 2% GDP requirement on NATO defence in 2017 – the U.S. being way ahead at 3.57% with Greece at a close second (2.36%), followed by the United Kingdom (2.12%) and in 4th place is Russia’s (rather worried) neighbour Estonia (2.08%). 


There are those of course who do not see the point in NATO at all, following the end of the Cold War and the immediate need to prevent Soviet expansion. In 2013, Doug Bandow wrote in Forbes that NATO itself should ideally retire, or at least, the U.S. should step back and let the rest of the European countries foot the bill which Trump is essentially hinting at. Russia, in Bandow’s mind, was no longer a major threat, and at most would simply bully its neighbours, like it did to Georgia in 2008. Bandow of course was writing before events unfolded in Ukraine the following year. It was those events that reminded the West of the former Soviet Union and their expansion of the iron curtain in Eastern Europe. 


A circumstance of NATO and Russian foreign policy is that it is a cyclical security dilemma. Russian foreign policy will always be perceived as expansionary by most in the West. Consequently, there will always be a need for NATO and consistent spending within it. But is Russian foreign policy explicitly expansionist? Or is it based on a long held strategic culture that emphasizes security of the mainland? And in either of these cases, is the existence of NATO still necessary?


The Ukraine situation can tell us a lot about these fundamental questions. Simon Charap and Keith Darden reported in 2014 that the idea of Russia as expansionist holds some weight, when compared with the events in Georgia in 2008. During that year, it was Georgia who first used forced in the area of South Ossetia. Initially, by launching an artillery attack on its regional capital and attacking a Russian ‘peacekeeping’ base. Regardless of who actually escalated such tensions, Georgia’s actions resulted in Russian military personnel and citizens being killed and the invasion followed. 


Crimea is a different story altogether, they claim, because there was no such military provocation or attacks on Russian populations, decreasing the justification for its annexation. Indeed, the Russian populations in Crimea, and in almost half of Ukraine, were of far more use outside Russia’s borders. They could have effectively guaranteed a pro-Moscow President by simply voting as they did in 2010. Losing Ukraine for the sake of Crimea simply appeared irrational. That points to a Russian foreign policy that is merely intent on causing destabilisation and that aims for territorial expansion. 



On the other-hand, it may be that Putin and his generals in Moscow genuinely perceived that events in Ukraine signalled the possibility the country may join the EU and subsequently become a member of NATO; a direct threat to Russian interests. Not only was it a threat to its economic and military security but also, in Moscow’s eyes, to the regime’s very existence. The idea that a sitting government could be removed rather easily, via approval by the West of a revolution, only intensified their anxiety about their own population (this to an extent explains Russian policy in Syria). 


In the West, this scenario seems unlikely to most. Nonetheless, belief in such a nightmare in Moscow would have warranted such a reactionary policy. Such anxiety is not new. In 2006, a report to U.S. Defence Threat Reduction Agency summed up Russian strategy in its simplest of forms: “defensiveness bordering on paranoia, on one hand, combined with assertiveness bordering on pugnacity, on the other. In the Russian mentality, both an inferiority complex and a superiority complex can be simultaneously on display.” 


Russia’s defensiveness is not surprising, after-all it was Russia (and later the Soviet Union) that had been invaded in 1812 by the French, had over 9 million casualties in World War I and had been invaded again, by Germany, in 1941, this time losing an estimated 18-20 million people. Is it any wonder that in the period immediately following 1945 the Soviets took steps to create a barrier between their new enemy and their mainland? Perhaps this may explain Germany’s cautiousness in increasing their spending in NATO from 1.24%, lest Moscow become paranoid about a re-militarised past aggressor. 


Russia’s superiority complex came from the unfortunate promotion of communism. Those days of exporting have thankfully ended, but the strategy may have been the same. Security by expansion and superiority by asserting influence on its closest neighbours. This is not to suggest however that Germany, or indeed the EU, intends to invade Russia any time soon but a Franco-German dominated EU still poses a considerable (mostly economic) threat. As mentioned previously, NATO, the West, and Russian foreign policy is a depressingly cyclical calamity and strategic culture goes both ways. By installing communist governments friendly to it, the Russians exported an ideology that directly threatened Western values. Can the West therefore be blamed for thinking that Russia has always been inherently expansionist? 


The situation is indeed a quagmire. Both perceive each other as expansionist with intent to destabilise, and both outright deny their role in causing such perceptions in their respective spheres. No matter what case you believe when it comes to Russian foreign policy, NATO is a necessary organisation either to prevent Russian expansionism at worst or to police Russian over-influence at least. All members need to pay their fair share, however, to ensure each of these capabilities, even although they could paradoxically increase the possibility of both.

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