In 1991, some 50 years after NATO’s establishment for the defense of Western Europe against a Soviet military threat, the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the Soviet Union collapsed. Taking office in 1993, President Bill Clinton and his administration saw an opportunity to reshape Europe and bridge the divides that had emerged after World War II. By late 1994, U.S. policy with regard to NATO envisaged a three-track approach.
The first track entailed enlargement. This was provided for by Article 10 of the NATO Treaty and was consistent with the goal of building a united and free Europe. Many former Warsaw Pact members sought NATO membership, and many in the West saw enlargement as a way to underpin the democratic and economic transitions in those countries. With uncertainties about how Russia might evolve, the Alliance provided an insurance policy.
The second track aimed to forge a cooperative NATO-Russia relationship. Clinton hoped to build positive relations with Russia — “an alliance with the Alliance” — in hopes that such a relationship could allay concerns in Moscow about enlargement. He asked, “What if Russia sought membership?” His staff advised that Russia should be considered if it met the Alliance’s criteria, including military, economic and political reform. However, Moscow appeared to see NATO as “the United States and everyone else”, and being one of everyone else held little appeal for the Kremlin. It instead pursued the idea of a special NATO-Russia relationship.
The third track dealt with Ukraine. A NATO-Ukraine partnership would solidify links between Kyiv, the capital city formerly known as Kiev (Kyiv), and the West. This would address Kyiv’s concerns about being left in a gray zone of insecurity between the Alliance and Russia, and encourage Ukraine’s reform efforts.
The tracks came together in 1997. In May, Russian President Boris Yeltsin met with NATO leaders in Paris for the signature of the “Founding Act” on NATO-Russia relations. Among other things, the document contained two key security assurances for Russia: first, NATO had “no intention, no plan, and no reason” to deploy nuclear arms in new member states, and second, NATO did not envisage “the additional permanent stationing of substantial [conventional] combat forces” in new members.
That July, in Madrid, NATO leaders invited Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to become members. The “Charter on a Distinctive Partnership” between NATO and Ukraine also was signed, strengthening links between NATO and Kyiv. They would join the Alliance in time to take part in NATO’s 50th-anniversary summit in April 1999.
The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 led NATO to invoke Article 5 (an attack against one “shall be considered” an attack against all). In addition to enlargement and stabilization operations in the Balkans, the Alliance began sending troops to support the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
The NATO-Russia relationship, which had suffered a setback in 1999 due to Russian anger over Alliance air strikes against Serbia for its ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, got a restart in May 2002. President Vladimir Putin met NATO leaders in Rome and agreed to expand on and strengthen the Founding Act, including consultations on certain issues on the basis of individual NATO member positions, not an agreed Alliance position. NATO’s then-Secretary General George Robertson recalled that Putin even asked about joining NATO, but indicated that he did not want to wait in line and go through the process required of other applicants.
Later that year, NATO leaders invited Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia to join. They did so in 2004. Putin and the Kremlin expressed little objection to the 2002 membership invitations. By 2021, NATO would number 30 members, up from the 16 it comprised in 1991. Russian attitudes subsequently hardened, however, and Russia fiercely opposed requests by Ukraine and Georgia for membership action plans in 2008.
In Europe, NATO members nevertheless continued the process begun in the early 1990s of reducing their nuclear and conventional force capabilities. The U.S. force presence in Europe shrank to less than one-fourth the size of its Cold War numbers. Aside from small squadrons of fighter aircraft providing a Baltic air policing mission and a missile defense site in Romania, NATO had no real military presence on the territory of new members prior to 2014.
Russia’s military seizure of Crimea and its use of so-called “separatists” to provoke a conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014 prompted a true breakdown in NATO-Russia relations. The Alliance suspended all practical cooperation. (The suspension of all cooperation was a mistake; one rationale for a NATO-Russia relationship was to have a mechanism to jointly manage crises.)
After two decades of force reductions, NATO leaders agreed at their Wales summit in September 2014 to strengthen their defense capabilities. They pledged to boost members’ defense spending to at least 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024. Given concerns, especially in Poland and the Baltic states, about aggressive Russian actions, NATO deployed multinational battlegroups to each of the four countries. The U.S. Army deployed an additional brigade and prepositioned equipment for a second brigade in the region.
As Russia continued its low-intensity war against Ukraine, NATO took further steps to bolster its deterrent and defense posture. Moscow ignored NATO offers in 2020 and 2021 to convene the NATO-Russia Council, and NATO-Russia relations went into a tail-spin. In October 2021, Russia announced the suspension of its mission in Brussels and effectively closed the NATO mission in Moscow.
The Kremlin is unhappy with NATO enlargement, but enlargement critics in the West may well overstate how much it contributed to the decline in West-Russia relations. Russian pressure on Ukraine prior to the Maidan Revolution was intended to dissuade Kyiv from deepening integration with the European Union; the Ukrainian government then had ruled out drawing closer to NATO.
Critics also appear to downplay the impact of Russian domestic politics on Kremlin policy. In retrospect, Washington and NATO underestimated the degree of antipathy in Moscow towards the Alliance, and NATO had no way to deal with the domestic political factors driving the Kremlin policy. During Vladimir Putin’s first years as president, when a growing economy provided a strong basis for regime legitimacy, NATO enlargement did not seem to trouble him. He termed the 2002 enlargement “no tragedy.” However, as the Russian economy began to stagnate, he could no longer cite rising living standards as justification for his continued rule. He began to stress nationalism, particularly when returning to the presidency in 2011-2012. He recast Russia as a great power reestablishing its position on the global stage, and called for a more aggressive foreign policy — all themes that resonated with much of his domestic constituency. This construction increasingly depicted the United States and NATO in adversarial terms.
NATO should ensure that its readiness and capability to act in defense of member states is not in doubt, to avoid any miscalculation by the Kremlin. At the same time, the Alliance should leave the door open for dialogue, even though Moscow appears uninterested, at least for now. The possibility of a Russian military attack on a NATO member is considered low, though the prospect would have been put at zero 10 years ago. While the primary motive for enlargement was to underpin democratic transitions, new members now breathe a sigh of relief that they have the protection of Article 5. NATO has come full circle over the past 30 years; its central purpose again centers on deterrence and collective defense against a threat on its eastern border.
Originally for Divided We Fall