The ongoing Russian war on Ukraine was triggered (at least from a Russian perspective) by the Ukrainian intentions of joining the USA-led western military bloc, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Accordingly, one of the primary objectives of the war has been to prevent Ukraine to apply for NATO membership given the threat it represents to Russia because of Ukraine’s geographical contiguity with it. Far from deterring Ukraine from joining the bloc, the Russian invasion has pushed hitherto militarily neutral countries on its border – Sweden and Finland – to reverse their decades-old stance of neutrality by deciding to join NATO. What makes NATO membership so appealing to the new entrants? It is the search for security in an anarchic structure of the international system.
Overview of NATO expansion
Formed in 1949 with twelve founding countries to counter the expansion of military rival Soviet Union, NATO has continued its expansionary course bolstering its strength to 30 members and still counting. NATO has an ‘open-door’ policy for any European country wishing to join the military alliance after having met some basic membership conditions like being a stable democracy, civilian control over the military, capacity to pay sufficiently for one’s own and collective defence, and no internal dispute or external territorial dispute. The latest country to have entered the bloc on March 27, 2020, is the Republic of North Macedonia. Although NATO’s expansion continued unabated after 1949, the only waves of enlargements that became controversial were those that happened after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The first wave after USSR’s dissolution took place in 1999 which brought former Soviet republics –the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland—into the NATO folder. The second and hitherto biggest wave of expansion swept seven countries – Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania – into the NATO’s military ocean. In 2009, Croatia and Albania and in 2017 North Macedonia became NATO members. Moreover, there is an aspiring countries’ list waiting for the green signal from NATO to join it. Denouncing these eastward enlargements, President Putin of Russia said in a recent press conference: “You promised us in the 1990s that (NATO) would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly”.
Why NATO ceaselessly expands?
NATO’s utility for its members is two-fold – internal and external– in the anarchic nature of the international system. The realist concept of ‘anarchy’ is the structural condition of international relations where there is no sovereign supranational authority to checkmate the selfish behaviour of nations. This essentially leaves nations to self-help in times of crisis. The condition of anarchy gives birth to another realist concept of ‘security dilemma’ compelling states to assume and be prepared for the worst coming from the other state actor in the international system. The preparations for the worst lead to the piling up of more and more military hardware resulting in a vicious cycle of an arms race. To escape from or mitigate the effects of anarchy, states adopt one of the two strategies: ‘balance of power’, where states form countervailing alliances against the threatening power/alliance to deter it from attacking, for instance,the Warsaw pact against the NATO; the other is ‘band-wagoning’ referring to modest power aligning with a stronger power such as the special relationship between the UK and the USA.
Externally, NATO represents a balance of power factor for its members against the foreign threat, notably Russia. NATO describes itself as a defensive military bloc, but defence against whom? It was the USSR before its dissolution in 1991 and now its successor state, Russia. Russia would have liked to see breakaway states of the USSR as its sphere of influence and, therefore, disliked their decisions to join NATO. However, the opposition was rather muted due to the military and economic weakness of Russia and also because of their internal division on the question of the eastward expansion of NATO. Recently Putin echoed the same when he said that in the past, we were weak and we will no longer be weak, signalling Russia’s intent to stonewall further attempts at NATO expansion.
Thus, in the past, around the time of the USSR’s dissolution, if Russia’s response was ambivalent at best, with Putin in power for quite a long time now, Russia’s opposition to NATO’s enlargement became vocal and aggressive. As Russia escalated its opposition to NATO expansion, notably in the case of Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent ongoing invasion of the country in Feb 2022, it has set alarm bells ringing in other Russian non-NATO neighbours especially Sweden and Finland about the potential Moscow’s security threat. To deter any such potential security threat, they seek to join the NATO’s military alliance which provides a security umbrella to its members under article 5 (collective security) of the NATO. Thus, the extension of NATO obviates the security implications of anarchy for the new members. The pernicious implications of the condition of structural anarchy have perceptually increased for Ukraine, Sweden and Finland to such an extent that while the previous waves of expansion happened on NATO’s invitations, the above three countries have asked NATO to admit them.
For member states, NATO acting as a kind of supranational authority helps to mitigate or remove the self-help behaviour among the member states, an outcome of the anarchic structure of international relations. It reduces security competition instead; it enables security cooperation. Hence, a muted security dilemma. Being part of NATO insulates states both from other members’ offensive actions and, of course, from external attacks. This insulation from internal security threats has stabilised the regional political order of Europe. The significance of NATO-induced stability in Europe has to be understood in the context of two world wars when European powers were at daggers drawn, a consequence of the anarchic regional and international system. After the second world war, the new order that emerged brought in its wake many institutions of both military and non-military character which went a long way in addressing the problem of anarchy, thus speaking both to the case of neo-realism and liberal institutionalism.
To sum up, one cannot but agree with the fact that NATO has certainly enhanced security, stability and prosperity to the region primarily, as it were, by reducing the ‘security dilemma’ of the member countries, which in turn is the outcome of tamed anarchy. Having managed the Waltzian structural problem, the path to liberal institutionalism was cleared, the fruits of which are being reaped by the member countries, which acts as a gravitational pull for other countries to hitch their coach to the NATO engine.
The writer is a PhD scholar at Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. [email protected]