Fateful Collision: NATO’s Drive to the East Versus Russia’s Sphere of Influence

How did this dire situation come about?

In December 2021, Russia demanded of the United States and NATO that they sign a formal agreement that they would cease their activities to bring certain countries, particularly Ukraine and Georgia, into NATO membership and to place offensive weapons, particularly missile systems, within a broader range of countries within Central and Eastern Europe.1 As news headlines around the world proclaim, the Russians have backed up these demands by deploying 100,000 troops near Russia’s border with Ukraine.

This ultimatum represents by far the most fundamental and gravest Russian challenge to the way that NATO has conceived of its mission and conducted its activities since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the accompanying end of the Cold War. The actual content of Russia’s demands, however, is not at all new. Ever since the first post-Cold War expansion of NATO eastward in 1999 (i.e., the admission to membership of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary), Russia has been clear and consistent in objecting to NATO’s expansion to the East as a threat to its vital security interests. They have been especially sensitive to any expansion into the former republics of the Soviet Union. These include not only Ukraine and Georgia, which are the current subjects of dispute, but also the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which became full members of NATO as early as 2004.

By now, NATO’s further expansion to the East—be it in the form of new full members or merely in the form of increased military activities—has been the consistent objective and policy of five successive U. S. presidential administrations— those of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, even Donald Trump, and currently Joe Biden. Successive stages in this long march of NATO have been the full membership of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in 1999; of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria in 2004 (this simultaneous admission of seven new members truly being a great leap forward); of Croatia and Albania in 2009; of Montenegro in 2017; and of Northern Macedonia in 2020.

From the perspective of American domestic politics, the two political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, have become completely polarized, to the point that the political system has become immobilized, and increasing civil violence can be expected. From the perspective of American foreign policy, however, the continuing agreement of both parties on a policy of NATO expansion eastward, ever eastward, is a striking example of bipartisanship, equal in its robustness to the height of bipartisan foreign policy achieved in its golden age during the high Cold War.

But from the perspective of the Russian security elite, precisely this bipartisan consistency and continuity causes them to believe that NATO expansion to the East—and toward Russia—is a truly national policy of the entire American security elite, and that it is increasingly a threat to the vital security interests of Russia. And although the United States for almost thirty years has thought that it could ignore the perspective of the Russian security elite, it is now in a position to demand, even command, attention, and with its ultimatum to the United States and NATO it has done so.

How did this dire situation come about? In this essay, we will examine the deep structure and ongoing dynamics of the long-standing U.S. policy which has promoted ever-more eastward expansion by NATO. And we will see that this policy is indeed a national policy of the entire American security elite—and of the American economic, political, and media elites as well.

Although the first post-Cold War expansion of 1999 (that incorporating Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary into NATO) was disputed by Russia, a more-or-less stable equilibrium then ensued. It was the next round of expansion, the second expansion in 2004 (that incorporating the Baltic states into NATO), that transformed NATO expansion from a stable equilibrium into a destabilizing dynamic, a dynamic that has now produced the crisis that the United States and NATO find themselves in today.

The Great Debate That Never Happened2

In 1951, Washington, D.C. was the scene of what was then called the Great Debate. The issue was the conversion of the rather spare North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 into something that would be much more of an American military commitment: an integrated military organization under an American supreme commander and the permanent stationing of U.S. troops in Europe. Thirty years before that, Washington was the scene of an even more famous great debate. In 1920, the issue was U.S. membership in the League of Nations and a permanent U.S. security guarantee to Britain and France.

In June 2001, President George W. Bush proposed in a major address in Warsaw that “Europe’s new democracies, from the Baltic to the Black Sea and all that lie between” be admitted into NATO, with invitations for some to be issued at the forthcoming NATO summit soon to be held in Prague. Although Bush did not mention specific countries, it was taken for granted that he had the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in mind. Other nations that had applied to become members of NATO and that were being given positive consideration were Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Although the admission of these countries into NATO would entail an extension and transformation of U.S. military commitments as serious as that at issue in 1951 and in 1920, there was little sign of any Great Debate, just as there was no great debate during the late 1990s over the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.3 This lack of interest was all the more curious, given that great powers traditionally have considered their alliance obligations and military commitments to be at the heart of their foreign policies and that both the First World War and the Second World War began because particular great powers were honoring such commitments. NATO was supposed to be a military alliance, but there was almost no public discussion about the implications of NATO enlargement for its military strategy. And although there was much talk about not drawing a new line, which would divide Europe like the old Yalta agreement did, the whole point of a military alliance is to create an alignment, to draw a line.

It seemed clear enough that the line that would be drawn by NATO expansion would be one between Europe and Russia. Russia had consistently argued that it should be defined as part of Europe, and it had frequently proposed that it be admitted into NATO. Conversely, the United States had referred to almost every other country in Europe as a prospective member of NATO, but it had consistently refused to include Russia among them. This refusal, however, had not been based upon a Russian military threat to NATO’s prospective new members.

In the minds of the U.S. foreign policy leadership, NATO expansion has not really been about the expansion of a military alliance but about something else. Its real purpose has been to consolidate Europe into a coherent and integral part of the American vision and version of global order; it was to make of Europe not a Festung Europa but a kind of American fortress in the global struggle that was now developing over the grand American project of globalization. But because NATO itself has remained a military alliance, its expansion had, and will have, serious military and strategic consequences.

Globalization and Its Limits

During the 1990s, the grand project of the United States in world affairs had been globalization. Indeed, globalization had been so central to the United States, and the U.S. had been so central to world affairs, that it had given its name to the new era that has succeeded the Cold War; more than anything else, the contemporary period was being defined as the era of globalization. Globalization itself had been defined by American leaders as the spread of free markets, open borders, liberal democracy, and the rule of law (e.g., the incessant mention of “the liberal order of rules and norms”), of a world governed by what Thomas Friedman called the “electronic herd” and the “golden straitjacket.”4 Most accounts of globalization had assumed that the phenomenon was indeed global in its scope or that it would soon become so. In fact, this assumption was mistaken, and the awareness that globalization is not global and that it probably never will be would itself later become widespread.

After three decades of experience with globalization, we can see a greatly variegated map of the globe, and the reality that it presents is not a linear and smooth progression, but a lumpy and jagged construction. It is a pattern of uneven development, uneven acceptance, and uneven resistance. When even the U.S. State Department – one of the most enthusiastic promoters of globalization – identifies several dozen countries (including such major ones as Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela, and even much of Mexico) that Americans should avoid entirely because of war, crime, anti-American hostility, or simply chaos, it is clear that globalization still has a great distance to travel.

Indeed, vast areas of the globe are less integrated into the global economy and a world order than they were fifty years ago. This is the case with most of Africa, most of Southwest Asia, and parts of the Andean region of South America. These three regions add up to a vast realm where globalization has already failed and where it is highly unlikely to succeed anytime in the foreseeable future. In fact, no one has offered a credible plan or even hope for turning these regions into stable parts of the global economy and global order. On the contrary, they have created their own perverse and underworld version of the global economy, consisting of a global traffic in narcotics, diamonds, weapons, and human beings and run by global criminal or terrorist organizations.

Furthermore, major powers, in particular China and Russia, have declared that they oppose the American version of globalization. China is probably the biggest single winner from globalization, and Russia may well be the biggest single loser, but they can agree on one thing: they are not going to be globalized in the American way. There are also those “rogue states,” especially Iran and North Korea, which persist in trying to thwart the American project.

The regions where the American way of globalization has succeeded are actually rather few, and together they add up to much less than half the area of the globe and much less than half its population. These regions include almost all of Europe, much of Latin America, some of the peripheral countries of East Asia, and of course Australia and New Zealand. As it happens, these four regions largely correspond to the U.S. system of alliances as it already existed by the early 1950s (NATO, the OAS, a series of bilateral treaties with Asian countries, and ANZUS). The extent of “globalization” today is not that different from the extent of the “Free World” back then.

There is one big difference, of course, and that involves what was then Eastern Europe, the communist Europe, and what is now once again Central Europe, a liberal-democratic and free-market Europe. This is also the region where the first round of post-Cold-War NATO expansion occurred in 1999 and where the second round of expansion was proposed in 2001 and occurred in 2004. It is in this difference that can be found the link between the American way of globalization and the American project for NATO enlargement.

Globalization and America’s Europe

The United States of course wanted to expand and secure its new trade and investment relations with Central Europe. More fundamentally, however, it sought to consolidate all of Europe – Western, Central, and Eastern – into a secure core of the American way of globalization. It was crucial that this European core be integrally joined with the American one (which had recently been defined by NAFTA) and that Europe accept American leadership on matters of major importance.

It might seem odd to imagine that Europe would accept American leadership, at a time when much of the European media was criticizing Americans on issues ranging from the death penalty to the global-warming treaty and when many young Europeans were demonstrating against globalization. But in fact, there was now a vast realm of Europe that was willingly recreating itself in the American image. This was especially the case with people engaged in the new information economy and the technical professions. It was also especially the case with the peoples of Central Europe and of the Baltic states. It is true that many of the peoples there were not enthusiastic about NATO, but they did want to be part of an American alliance, even of something that would be akin to an American commonwealth. They loathed the Russians, were suspicious of other Europeans, and were attracted to the Americans, and these features have largely continued to be the case down to the present day. For these Central and Eastern Europeans, it has been true since the 1990s what was true for many Western Europeans in the 1950s-1980s: the purpose of NATO is to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.

With its project of NATO expansion, the United States sought to influence the economic and diplomatic policies of European states and to balance the weight of the European Union, which was dominated by Western European countries, within the wider European continent. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe were less critical and more accepting of America than those of Western Europe, and the U.S. objectives would best be met by bringing in the former as a balance to the latter. This would be furthered by the expansion, and dilution, of the European Union; it would be furthered with even more assurance by the expansion of NATO. The result of NATO expansion would be the consolidation of Europe under American leadership and its transformation into an embodiment and expression of the American way of globalization. The inclusion of the Baltic states would consolidate this American-led European core up to the frontier where the American project of globalization met one of its principal opponents – Russia. The inclusion of the Balkan states would consolidate this core up to the frontier where the American project meets another set of opponents – the rogue states of the Middle East.

NATO Expansion: A Default Position

What might be the ideal form of organization for this American-led Europe, which would be characterized by all the goals of American-style globalization – free markets, open borders, liberal democracy, and the rule of law, all within a security community or zone of peace? It would actually be some sort of American Commonwealth of Nations. It would be rather like the British Commonwealth of Nations of the first half of the 20th century (composed of Britain and the “dominions” of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). But, of course, this ideal form was not a practical possibility. The idea of an American Commonwealth would seem too close to the idea of an American Empire, and it would be unacceptable to both most Europeans and most Americans. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it has always been a distinctive feature of the United States to actually be an empire, while always denying that it is one.5

There was only one American-led organization for Europe that could have legitimacy among the major states of Europe, and that was NATO. The fact that NATO was supposed to be primarily a military alliance made it a poor form for organizing all of the complex relations between Europe and America, which added up to something that was actually as dense as an American commonwealth. On the other hand, it was because NATO is supposed to be a military alliance and it provides useful military benefits to the Europeans that it could remain legitimate, while actually furthering other purposes and performing other functions. But of course the military character of NATO, which makes it more legitimate with the Europeans, makes it at the same time illegitimate with the Russians.

The expansion of NATO to include the Baltic states, however, brought this American military organization, indeed an American commonwealth of nations, right up to the Russian border. Of course, this was not the first time that an American military alliance had immediately abutted a Russian border. NATO, with Poland, had bordered the Kaliningrad region of Russia since 1999; NATO, with Norway, had bordered the Kola Peninsula of Russia since 1949; and the United States itself has bordered eastern Siberia at the Bering Sea since it purchased Alaska in 1867. From the Russian perspective, however, the admission of the Baltic states into NATO produced a quantum leap in the strategic significance of their vulnerable border regions, with Estonia being only 150 kilometers from St. Petersburg and with the three Baltic countries together located astride the military approaches to all of Russia lying between St. Petersburg and Moscow. Moreover – and crucial for Putin and the Russian national-security establishment – the admission of the Baltic states was the first time NATO expansion extended to former constituent republics of the Soviet Union.

In the early 2000s, some international-affairs analysts argued that there were better ways to provide for collective security in the Baltic region than by NATO expansion. One alternative was to follow the example of Finland, a Baltic state that was a member of the European Union but not a member of NATO. Finland was clearly in the Western sphere in regard to politics, economics, and culture, even though it was practically in the Russian sphere, at least as a buffer state, in regard to security. Another alternative, plausible at the time, was to admit Russia itself into NATO. This would have redefined NATO from an American military alliance into a European collective security system. It would have dissolved the line dividing Russia from Europe.

There was something to be said in favor of each of these two (very different) alternatives to NATO expansion.6 Clearly the Russians preferred them, but many West Europeans did so as well. However, just as clearly the Baltic states themselves much preferred NATO expansion, as did the United States. From the perspective of the Baltic states, only NATO membership would consolidate their hard-won national independence. From the perspective of the United States, only NATO expansion would consolidate Europe into a secure core of the American way of globalization. This is why the United States pressed forward in 2001 with an expansion of NATO that focused upon the Baltic nations, which had progressed so far and so successfully along the American way.

A Tale of Three NATO’s

Almost all discussions of NATO speak of it as a homogenous alliance with its different members integrated into the organization in similar ways. In fact, however, NATO has always included a wide variety of forms and degrees of integration. It might be helpful, particularly if there might be any serious negotiations with the Russians in the future, to distinguish between three quite different NATOs, to be found respectively on the Central Front, the Northern Flank, and the Southern Flank.

The Central Front: High NATO. During the Cold War, the highest, fullest degree of integration of NATO was reached on the Central Front, especially in regard to West Germany but also at times with the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain. High NATO was distinguished by three major features: (1) U.S. troops were permanently stationed on the member’s territory; (2) U.S. nuclear weapons were positioned on the member’s territory; and (3) the member possessed serious and substantial military forces, which were integrated with U.S. military forces in regard to strategy, planning, and command. The ideal type or model for NATO was West Germany. Given the central importance of West Germany and the Central Front during the Cold War, it was natural to think of this model when thinking of NATO. But even in regard to the Central Front, France provided an exception after 1967, when President de Gaulle had France, including French forces in West Germany, withdraw from NATO as an organization, while remaining within the North Atlantic Treaty as an alliance.

The Northern Flank: Low NATO. A very different NATO existed on the Northern Flank, particularly in regard to Denmark and Norway. Here, none of the three features of high NATO was present: (1) U.S. troops were never permanently stationed on Danish and Norwegian territory (although they did engage in periodic exercises there); (2) U.S. nuclear weapons were never positioned in these countries, and U.S. naval ships carrying nuclear weapons normally did not visit their ports; and (3) the military forces of Denmark and Norway were hardly serious and substantial – in reality, they were more like a national guard – and they were not integrated with U.S. forces in any operationally important way, even though symbolic joint exercises were at times held. For all practical purposes, the NATO of the Northern Flank was neither an integrated organization nor even an alliance of equivalent powers; it was essentially a unilateral military guarantee given by the United States. Yet, Norway actually bordered upon Soviet territory (for about a distance of 80 kilometers along the Kola Peninsula).

The Southern Flank: Pseudo NATO. Yet another very different NATO existed on the Southern Flank, particularly in regard to Greece and Turkey. Here, each of the three features of high NATO was present but in a greatly reduced form: (1) U.S. air forces were permanently stationed on Greek and Turkish territory, but U.S. ground forces were not; (2) U.S. nuclear weapons were occasionally positioned in these countries, but they were rather peripheral to U.S. nuclear strategy (and even expendable, as was the case with the Jupiter missiles in Turkey on the occasion of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962); (3) the military forces of Greece and Turkey were large but not modern, and have always been more of a threat to each other than to the Russians; they could not be integrated with U.S. forces in any substantive way. For all practical purposes, the NATO of the Southern Flank was neither an integrated organization nor an alliance of equivalent powers; it was essentially a loose military coalition grouped around a leading power, the United States.

These three fronts or versions of NATO during the Cold War can help us in thinking about NATO expansion in the contemporary era, even though no one today thinks in terms of the old Central, Northern, and Southern fronts.

If there were a successor to the old Central Front in today’s NATO, it would seem to be Central Europe, especially those three members admitted in 1999 – Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. But these countries have been integrated into NATO, not like the high NATO of the old Central Front, but instead like the low NATO of the Northern Flank: (1) no U.S. troops are permanently stationed upon the territory of these three countries (or even on the territory of the old East Germany – the six eastern states of united Germany); (2) no U.S. nuclear weapons are positioned in these countries; and (3) the military forces of these three countries are not really fully-modernized and have not been integrated with U.S. forces in any substantive way. Of course, the United States can decide to transform one or more of these three features of low NATO into a feature of high NATO. To do so, however, will entail breaking yet another agreement between the United States and the old Soviet Union (in this case, the agreement that led to the reunification of Germany). It was a transformation in the Soviet threat (evidenced by the outbreak of the Korean War) that led to the transformation of the original NATO of 1949 (merely a military alliance) into the NATO of 1951 (with all the features of high NATO on the Central Front). On the other hand, despite the ups and downs of the Soviet threat over the forty years from 1949 to 1989, the United States never seriously attempted to transform the Northern Flank from low NATO to high NATO.

It was a serious change, therefore, when the United States installed U.S.-manned Patriot anti-missile batteries in Poland (and also in Romania) in the late 2000s. The Russians interpreted this initiative as a major degradation of the earlier U.S.-Russian agreement on the military status of Central Europe. This has contributed greatly to the downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations in the 2010s and 2020s.

The Baltic States as low NATO

When NATO was expanded in 2004 so as to include the Baltic states, this could have been interpreted as an expansion of NATO’s new central front, i.e., an extension of Central Europe. The historical connections between Poland and Lithuania lent themselves to such an interpretation. Alternatively, the inclusion of the Baltic states could have been interpreted as an expansion of NATO’s old Northern Flank, i.e., an extension of Northern Europe. The historical connections between Estonia and Latvia, on the one hand, and Finland and Sweden, on the other, lent themselves to such an interpretation. In either event, however, the expansion to the Baltic states could have been merely the expansion of low NATO. By itself, a version of low NATO could be made more acceptable to the Russians than the notion of NATO in general. They had already accepted a version of it on their Norwegian border for many years. And until the late 2000s, i.e., until the United States in 2006 pressed for the expansion of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia and until violent conflict began in Ukraine in 2013, Russia more-or-less accepted the Baltic states being members of NATO.

Before 1945, what is now the Kaliningrad oblast or province of Russia was the northern half of East Prussia, a province of Germany. East Prussia was rich in its history (it had been a center first of the Teutonic knights and then of the Junker class), but poor in its economy (the Junkers’ grain-producing estates could not compete in an unprotected market). The city of Kaliningrad itself was then Konigsburg, known as the home of Immanuel Kant and also for its beautiful buildings and promenades. But between the two world wars, East Prussia was best known for being a strategic anomaly, separated from the rest of Germany by the famous Polish corridor. As such, it was a perpetual irritant in Polish-German relations; along with the city of Danzig, the Polish Corridor provided the occasion for the beginning of the Second World War.

The Soviet Union conquered East Prussia in 1945, annexing the northern half while giving the southern half to Poland. Virtually every German living in the Soviet portion was either expelled or killed, and virtually every building in Konigsburg was either destroyed or demolished. The Soviets renamed the city after Mikhail Kalinin, who served as the titular president of the Soviet Union for Stalin, and they rebuilt it as an especially ugly and dreary example of the typical Soviet style. They also made of the Kaliningrad region a vast military complex, which included the headquarters for the Soviet, and now the Russian, Baltic Fleet. Today, the province (whose population is about 900,000 and whose area is less than that of Connecticut) represents a miniature version of the worst aspects of contemporary Russia; its rates of narcotic abuse, infectious diseases (particularly AIDS, environmental pollution, and criminal activity are among the highest in the Russian Federation. Its condition, and its contrast with the three Baltic states and with the old East Prussia, is a vivid reminder of what a mess Russians can make of a part of Europe when they are utterly free to be themselves.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Kaliningrad province has been separated from the rest of Russia by the territory of independent Lithuania, by a sort of Lithuanian Corridor. Across this corridor there runs a military railroad line, which supplies the Russian military forces in the province. The strategic anomaly and dismal slum of Kaliningrad is a black hole located right at the center of NATO’s military commitment to the Baltic states.7

During the Cold War era, West Berlin was a Western island and strategic anomaly, which was surrounded by a Soviet sea. For many years, it was a crisis in waiting, and indeed it became an actual crisis in 1948-1949 and again in 1958-1961. When the Baltic states were admitted into NATO, Kaliningrad became a Russian island and strategic anomaly surrounded by a NATO sea (along with the Baltic Sea itself). In its earlier incarnation during the interwar era as East Prussia, it was similarly a German island and strategic anomaly; it was also a crisis in waiting, and it became an actual crisis in 1939. Given these historical and geographical antecedents, it should not be surprising if, in what is supposed to be the new era of globalization, this obscure and backward place should also become a crisis in waiting, a blast from the past.

Of course the very vulnerability of Kaliningrad might make it into a hostage for Russian good behavior in international affairs, particularly their behavior in the Baltic region (rather like the vulnerability of West Berlin was a factor in restraining U.S. behavior on occasion). On the other hand, the Russians already have in place a nuclear tripwire in Kaliningrad (dozens of nuclear weapons), which makes the territory more like a landmine than a hostage.

Since the time of Peter the Great, no European power had ever made a commitment to defend the Baltic countries from Russia. As different as they were from each other, Sweden, Prussia, France, Germany, and Britain all concluded that the risks and costs of guaranteeing the independence of the Baltics from their massive Russian neighbor were beyond their interests and their capabilities. When the United States in 2004 made such a commitment to the Baltics, it was therefore doing something that was not only unprecedented in American history (the closest prototype had been the U.S. commitment to defend Norway and Denmark), but it was unprecedented in European history as well. This historical leap by the United States rested upon the then-current American conviction that, for decades to come, America would remain as strong and as committed as it was then and that Russia would remain as weak and as feckless as it was then. In the minds of the globalizing U.S. elites of the early 2000s, what is now the current balance (or imbalance) of American and Russian military power in the Baltic region was inconceivable, or at least they did not want to conceive of it. As such, they demonstrated that it was they, and not the Russians, who were weak and feckless.

Slovakia and Slovenia as Strategic Consolidation

The admission of Slovakia into NATO in 2004 actually removed a strategic anomaly, one that was created with the admission of only Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. This left Slovakia as a geographical wedge inserted between the other three states. When Slovakia joined, this wedge was transformed into an integral component of a neat and compact bloc of four.

The admission of Slovenia removed yet another strategic anomaly. Of course, many Americans confuse Slovenia with Slovakia (the two countries not only have similar names but nearly identical flags), and many others think that Slovenia is in the Balkans (it is actually geographically closer to the Alps and culturally closer to Austria). However, Slovenia had made more progress in establishing a liberal democracy, free market, and the rule of law than any other country then being considered for membership. Its admission also provided a direct geographical connection and transit route between Italy (and NATO’s southern region) and Hungary, making NATO’s central region even more coherent. (Of course, it also meant that Switzerland and Austria, two non-NATO states, were now completely surrounded by NATO members).

The Balkan States as Pseudo NATO

The expansion of NATO to include the Balkan states brought with it another set of anomalies. The hope of U.S. foreign policy elites was that the Balkan region would become an American sphere of influence. For most of the period since the middle of the 19th century, however, the majority of the Balkan countries had been in a Russian sphere of influence. This had been especially true of peoples that were both Orthodox in their religion and Slavic in their ethnicity, i.e., Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. However, Romania (Orthodox but not Slavic) had often been in the Russian sphere. Of course, NATO has had an Orthodox member, Greece, since 1952, but Russia could always interpret Greece as an anomaly, more of a Mediterranean country than a Balkan one. Similarly, they could interpret Croatia (which was Roman Catholic in its religion and which was admitted into NATO in 2009) as being more of a Central-European country than a Balkan one. (The Croatians certainly think of themselves in this way.) However, the admission into NATO of Bulgaria and Romania in 2004 and then Albania in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and Northern Macedonia in 2020 have demonstrably put an end to any semblance of a Russian sphere in the Balkans. As for the American role in the Balkans, it is now an extreme version of pseudo-NATO, to the point that it is a sort of Potemkin NATO.

The Balkan states have never achieved political stability in the same way as the other members of NATO, be they in Western Europe or in Central Europe. Indeed they are hardly states in the European scene at all. They are the heirs to very different religious traditions (Orthodox or Islamic rather than Roman Catholic or Protestant) and to a very different imperial history (Ottoman rather than Habsburg), and their political cultures reflect this. If Greece and Turkey have been difficult and troublesome members of NATO, the Balkan states could prove to be so as well.

America in the Baltic States: Interests, Ideals, and Identity

The issue of the second round of post-Cold War NATO expansion and of concomitant American military commitments did not produce a new Great Debate in Washington, but it did represent a new chapter in an old and ongoing debate over American foreign policy. This is the perennial great debate which is variously defined as being between interests and ideals, between realism and idealism, or between conservatism and liberalism (recently joined by neo-conservatism as well). A conflict between these two perspectives can now arise over any of the countries which were admitted into NATO in the second round of expansion, but it will be especially intense and serious in regard to the Baltic states.

From the realist (and conservative) perspective, there are no U.S. national interests at stake in the Baltic states. These three small countries together add up to an area that is only 50 percent of Finland’s (whose admission to NATO has never been seen as a U.S. national interest) and a population that is only 50 percent more. The United States has no significant strategic or economic interests in these countries, and certainly none that are anywhere near as weighty as the very substantial strategic risks and costs that come with a U.S. military commitment to them. When the Baltic states are weighed in regard to U.S. interests and when NATO is defined as a military alliance, their admission into NATO simply seems to have been reckless and irresponsible.

Conversely, from the idealist (and both the liberal and neo-conservative) perspective, there are fundamental American values at stake in the Baltic states. Over a period of more than seven centuries and in at least four successive incarnations, these countries have represented the easternmost extension of Western civilization; they have long seen themselves, and have been seen by other Europeans, as the East of the West.8

(Just as, ever since they were acquired by Peter the Great, they have been seen by the Russians as their “window on the West,” the West of the East.) Today, thirty years after the heroic restoration of their national independence, the Baltics have been extraordinarily successful in establishing and embodying the American values of liberal democracy, the free market, and the rule of law. If any countries ever deserved to become members of NATO by virtue of their achievements by American standards, these did. It was fitting indeed that, after one decade of national independence, they were welcomed into what expected to be many decades of American protection. When the Baltic states weighed in with regard to American values and when NATO is defined as a liberal-democratic and free-market community, their admission into NATO seems to be one of those truths that we hold to be self-evident.

In reality, what is at stake in the Baltic states is not just American interests or American ideals. It is American identity, in particular the reinvention of American identity by American political, business, and cultural elites to make it fit their new era of globalization. When America was by far the strongest power and the largest economy on the globe, these elites thought that it was no longer enough for America to be located only on the American continent and to be composed only of American citizens; that definition of America was now obsolete. However, when America was far from being the only strong power and the only large economy, it was not yet possible for America to be located equally on every continent and to be composed equally of every people on the globe; that definition of America was then premature. From the perspective of American elites, the definition of America that best fits the contemporary era – the era of globalization as an ongoing project, rather than the merely international era of the past or the fully global era of the future that they envision – is one that includes Europe, the continent that it most advanced along the American way, as part of the new and expanded American identity. When American elites have come to define America as the free market, the open society, liberal democracy, and the rule of law, they have come to define Europe as being, in all important respects, America. And this American Europe extends to the Baltic states.

In the twentieth century, America met and won three great challenges presented by the old international era – the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. It did so because of its great military power and economic strength, to be sure, but more important were the sophistication and the determination with which these assets were deployed by successive generations of American statesmen. When either the sophistication or the determination lapsed, as with the Korean War and the Vietnam War, all of America’s military and economic assets could not prevent a debacle or a defeat.

The extension of an American military commitment to the Baltic states, up to the very border of a sullen and resentful Russia that was armed with a sense of historical entitlement and 5,500 nuclear weapons, presented to the United States a strategic and diplomatic challenge with particular complexities which were unprecedented. At the same time, the integration of the Baltic states into America’s Europe represented the culmination of an American calling, of a 225-year project of spreading American values and re-creating Western civilization in the American image until it has at last reached its easternmost frontier, the East of the West. To bring both the challenge and the calling into a stable synthesis, to create a Baltic order distinguished by both peace and justice, will require of the American statesmen of the 21st century a level of sophistication and determination that would have amazed those of the 20th.

From the Baltic States to Georgia and Ukraine

As we have seen, the last several countries admitted into full membership in NATO have been in the western Balkans, with this occurring one or two at a time. However, the United States inaugurated a whole new theater for NATO expansion as early as April 2008, when the George W. Bush administration pressed for the admission of both Georgia and Ukraine, two more former constituent republics of the Soviet Union. As states which border both on the Black Sea and on Russia itself, each is considered by the Russian security elite to be a potential threat to Russia’s vital security interests, and with Ukraine, even to Russia’s vital identity.

The Bush administration’s choice of Ukraine is not wholly surprising, given its large area and population and its central location between Eastern Europe and Central Europe. However, the choice of Georgia is something of a puzzle. For what it is worth, in July 2008 I was having a conversation with the leading foreign-policy advisor to John McCain, the Republican candidate for president that year, and he explained that Vice President Dick Cheney had pressed to include Georgia, because it could be the location of a vital pipeline, transporting oil from the Caspian Sea region to the Black Sea and on to Europe, and in a way that would bypass and outflank Russia.

The reaction of Russia to the Bush administration’s Georgia initiative was immediate and effective. In August 2008, it invaded Georgia and de facto annexed two of its provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This essentially made it impossible for NATO to admit Georgia into NATO membership because NATO rules specified that states with disputed borders are not eligible for membership.

As for Ukraine, the Bush administration’s initiative immediately elevated Ukraine, and political and strategic developments within it, to the highest level of attention and scrutiny within the Russian security elite. Thus, in 2013, when the Obama administration began a large-scale program of support for anti-Russian political groups within Ukraine, the Russians began to prepare an effective response. The U.S. efforts culminated in March 2014 with the overthrow of the Russia-leaning president of Ukraine, and Russia immediately proceeded with the de facto invasion of two of Ukraine’s provinces or oblasts in the Donbas region – Donetsk and Luhansk – and with the actual formal annexation of the entire Crimea region. This too essentially made it impossible for NATO to admit Ukraine into membership.

In the midst of this March crisis, Henry Kissinger, the very exemplar of the realist approach toward American foreign policy, published an opinion piece in the Washington Post.9 In it, he argued that the future status of Ukraine should be a version of what has been the actual status of Finland during the Cold War. Kissinger’s article and policy proposal were knowledgeable, discerning, and wise. Consequently, it was utterly ignored by the Obama administration, which was driven by its own version of the globalization project and which was the very exemplar of the idealist approach toward American foreign policy. The administration continuously legitimated its globalization policy with repeated references to the idea of the liberal international order of rules and norms.

Despite all of the lurching back and forth in American domestic politics from the Obama, to the Trump, and to the Biden administrations, the general thrust of U.S. policy toward Ukraine has remained the same, right down to the current crisis arising from Putin’s ultimatum, backed as it is by Russia’s deployment of 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border. Throughout this succession of U.S. administrations and continuity of U.S. policy, the whole Russian national-security establishment has been watching, and now, amidst the cumulating political disfunctions of the Biden administration, the Democratic Party, and the U.S. political system, it thinks that its moment of opportunity, its moment for laying down the red line, has come.

And so, the whole epic journey of the NATO expansion project since the end of the Cold War—from the Baltic to the Black Sea and from Central Europe right up to the vulnerable borders of Russia itself—is now reaching its endpoint, and its moment of truth. Will it all end with a negotiated settlement, allowing for the Russian vital security interests, but also for the American vital ideals of political, economic, and cultural liberties? Or will it end with either a bang, or a whimper, or—if the latter—whose whimper will it be? This time, the whole world is watching.


1. For the full text of the Russian demands, see The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Press release on Russian draft documents on legal security guarantees from the United States and NATO,” December 17, 2021. This provides links to the two documents, “Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on security guarantees” and “Agreement on measures to ensure the security of the Russia Federation and member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” For a relatively thorough and objective analysis, see Yale Macmillan Center, “U.S. and NATO to open talks with Russia over Ukraine security guarantees,” December 22, 2021.

2. An earlier version of the next several sections originally appeared as chapter 9, “Europe: NATO Expansion versus the Russian Sphere,” of my book, The American Way of Empire: How America Won a World – But Lost Her Way (Washington, D.C., Washington Books, 2019), pp. 215-230.

3. There was a debate of sorts, one between leading traditional scholars and practitioners of U.S. foreign policy, on the one hand, and the Bill Clinton administration and almost all of the U.S. political and economic elites, on the other, but the latter utterly ignored and marginalized the former. At the time, George Kennan, then the exemplar of the traditional realist view, stated that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold-War era.” George F. Kennan, “A Fateful Error,” The New York Times, February 5, 1997.

4. Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), chapters 6-7.

5. Kurth, American Way of Empire, especially chapter 1.

6. I proposed the Finnish model in my “To Sing a Different Song, The Choices for the Baltic States,” The National Interest, Summer 1999, pp. 81-87.

7. Ted Galen Carpenter, “Is NATO Provoking the Russian Military Build-Up in Kaliningrad? Responsible Statecraft, December 14, 2020.

8. James Kurth, “The Baltics: Between Russia and the West,” Current History, October 1999, pp. 334-339.

9. Henry Kissinger, “To Settle the Ukraine Crisis, Start at the End,” Washington Post, March 5, 2014. (Also “How the Ukraine Crisis Will End,” Washington Post, March 6, 2014.)

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