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

Yves here. This otherwise comprehensive piece has an odd lapse. It does not mention the original US sin with respect to the modern Russia: that of welching on a commitment made to Gorbachev in the negotiations over the dissolution of the USSR. The US (Secretary of State James Baker) promised not to expand NATO into the former Warsaw Pact countries. The then USSR regarded this as a firm commitment, but the US did not, since it was not incorporated into any treaty. Confirmation of this pledge came indirectly, via the reaction of experts when the Clinton Administration initiated the move of NATO east. None other than cold warrior nonpariel George Kennan said that this would prove to be the biggest foreign policy mistake the US ever made. And here we are.

By James Kurth Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Senior Research Scholar, Swarthmore College. Originally published at the Institute of New Economic Thinking website

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 NATOs

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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144 comments

    1. BillC

      How different a belligerent?

      Expansion of NATO looks more motivated by expanding neoliberal economic Lebensraum than by any claimed democratic idealism, given the domestic political similarities of those new “democracies” to the former practitioner of Drang nach Osten.

      Never imagined I’d be nostalgic for Kennan and Kissinger!

      Reply
      1. JU

        The article somehow forgets that Russia poses an actual and existential threat to its neighbors. Was Finland not invaded by Russia in the 20th century twice and did it not have to give up a large piece of its territory – the Karelia??? And did Russia not seize the Kuril Islands from Japan after WWII? And now, all of a sudden Russia needs protection? From whom???

        Russia is no different from the “little rocket man” from North Korea by constantly threatening Europe. It is not capable of achieving economic success (like China); it tries to make up by issuing threats. If the Russians keep on it let them have their war – killing Ukrainians would probably destabilize Byelorussia and cause them to abandon Russian ties.

        Having grown up in Estonia, I can tell you that no one in the region admires Russia. I thought only idiots like Borat from Kazakhstan had a positive view of Russia. And now even that has changed???

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Russia did not invade Finland. The old USSR did. Two different regimes.

          Do you similarly depict Japan as warlike and expansionist because the old imperial Japan was?

          If you want to make a case, you need to limit it to actions of the post 1989 regime.

          Reply
          1. Polar Socialist

            There is the geographical aspect of Finland occasionally finding itself between European powers, so whenever Russia has felt threatened or has been attacked by that other power (Sweden, France, UK, Germany), Finland has been used as a buffer zone by Russia/Soviet Union.

            Unless, of course, Russia/Soviet Union has trusted Finns not to allow attack on Russia via Finland. In those times Finland has actually done pretty well, usually taking enormous steps either culturally or economically, or both. When one has 1000 km border with a much bigger country, one should remember that the only thing that makes that border secure is being in friendly terms and at least with some level of trust.

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          2. PlutoniumKun

            I believe there are still quite a few Finns who maintain that the Russian city of Vyborg is rightfully Finnish. It used to be the second city of Finland, and even has a beautiful Alvar Aalto library. Pretty much the entire population was forced out during the Winter War, and Finland was forced to recognise the annexation in the 1947 Paris Treaty (plus other chunks of its former territory).
            The descendants of those forced out are apparently still something of a political force in Finland, albeit one not particularly important anymore. Vyborg is now the main junction for Nord II, so obviously giving it back to the Finns is more certainly not on the agenda. But so far as I’m aware, this is still considered a sore point among many Finns. The Russian government is aware of this and regularly makes a point of reminding people of its ‘Russian’ nature these days, although they have apparently spent a lot of money doing up some of the older Finnish and Swedish architecture.

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            1. Polar Socialist

              I know a lot of people who’s families come from Vyborg, but only two or so who carry any grudge. For a couple of decades it has been possible for Finns to get a permanent residence in “old places”, but very, very few have taken the option. Shit happens, and then you move on.

              As for Vyborg being a Finnish city, that’s quite interesting question. For the first couple of centuries is was a German (Hansa) city, then it was Russian city, then it was attached to Grand Duchy of Finland in Russian Empire, then it was Finnish for 20 years after which it has been Soviet/Russian. Again.

              Vyborg was the most “cosmopolitan” city in Grand Duchy of Finland, having Swedish, German, Russian, Carelian and Finnish speaking population. The kind of multicultural “European Wonder” before the nationalism and World Wars made them disappear completely.

              Reply
              1. PlutoniumKun

                Yes, the loss of those cosmopolitan cities of the Hansiatic was a genuine tragedy. I don’t think many people today really appreciate just how ‘mixed’ much of urban Europe (especially the trading ports) was up to the 20th Century. Its not just in Europe of course, the same process has occurred in the Middle East and parts of Asia.

                Reply
          3. JU

            If the post 1989 Russia was so different why did it not hand back the seized territory to Finland and Japan???

            Instead, It seized Crimea from Ukraine.

            And somehow you believe that modern Russia it is “different”. So why did modern Russia never condemn Stalin’s crimes and genocide?

            Germany has condemned their WWII crimes. Russia never has. So what exactly is different? In Russia it is still the same criminal regime – Stalin, Putin – same war criminals both.

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            1. timbers

              Ms Rachel Maddow, Russia did not seize Crimea, which voted to freely reunite with Russia after America installed crazy folks in Ukraine that sought to kill them. Nor did Russia seize Ukraine after Obama illegally overthrew the legitimate government of Ukraine and replaced it with a neonazi regimen that seems to kill all Russians. And why aren’t you asking why the U.S. hasn’t fessed to mass killings of tens millions of brown and yellow folks with it’s illegal invasions bombings regimen change of Iraq Libya Afghanistan Syria Yemen Somalia Venezuela Pakistan Cuba Iran and some 50 other nations?

              Reply
              1. Keith Newman

                @JU, 4:42pm: Re Crimea: a couple of years ago the Washington Post highlighted a poll conducted by UK and other university profs that 82% of Crimeans were happy to be in Russia. All the assertions about Russia seizing Crimea are US+ influenced propaganda.

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              2. Harry

                I think it might be better to say the RF did seize it, albeit with local popular support. Whether they had the right to do so is moot. Same as whether the US has the right to over throw a Ukrainian government they do not like. It happened, and it will happen again.

                The better question is what next? Im not sure the US wants to pay for its new European satrapy. And the Europeans dont seem very keen on paying for it either. The clever idea was the the Russians had no choice but to continue to pay for it, but NS II suggests different.

                Nothing here is about area 404. Everything is about US control of Germany and whether Germany has interests separate from the US.

                So far the answer is unclear.

                Reply
                1. timbers

                  Why is it better to say Russia seized Crimera, when she didn’t, and Crimea vote by huge margin to rejoin Russia? Did the US seize 37 territories beyond the original 13 colonies?

                  Reply
                  1. Michael Fiorillo

                    Also, Crimea only became part of Ukraine in the 1950’s when Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, unilaterally changed its status within the Soviet Union.

                    Ninety percent of the population of Crimea speaks Russian and has minimal cultural or historical affinity with Ukraine. It also didn’t help matters when the Bandera fascist factions in Kiev and Lvov banned the teaching of Russian immediately after the coup (to say nothing of murdering dozens of people in the Odessa Trade Unions House in 2014).

                    Additionally, as a basic matter of geo-strategic and political reality, Russia would never (nor, all things being equal, should it be expected to) endanger its access to the port of Sevastopol, where the Black Sea fleet is located. Ending Russia’s control of Sevastopol was one of the primary purposes of the Maidan Coup; had Putin allowed that to happen, it would have been one of the worst strategic catastrophes for Russia in a century or more. It was never going to be allowed to happen.

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                    1. Harry

                      Agreed and agreed. But if you send your soldiers in before the (2nd referendum) is conducted, then its probably appropriate to say you “seized” it. Admittedly with popular support. But the wider point is I don’t think much of Great Power politics is really about legitimacy. The US has busied itself doing lots of illegitimate things and it really hasn’t been censured by any international body. No one really cares who is in the right. I suppose all anyone cares about is their own national security/strategic position. Which is why I dont really care why one side is in the right and the other the wrong.

                      The real question is how does this evolve? To whose advantage or disadvantage? With what strategic consequences?

                    2. timbers

                      Reply to: Harry
                      January 9, 2022 at 7:29 pm

                      “But if you send your soldiers in before the (2nd referendum) is conducted, then its probably appropriate to say you “seized” it.”

                      It’s hard to believe Russia was unaware of Obama Admin plans to “seize” (for real) Crimea, with American troops to be deployed in April in Crimea. Russian troop arrivals in March headed that off by mere weeks.

                      And I can think a much more likely interpretation – Russia sent her troops into Crimea not to “seize” it (why would she, when she probably already knew the sentiment on the ground and likely outcome of the election…you can’t seize what you already have) but to eject hostile Ukrainian troops who by the way later bombed the other break-a-way provinces.

                      And to prevent U.S. troops for seizing Crimea for real.

                      You said you don’t care if was legal/not legal. I agree. Instead, think of the benefit to humanity. Russia help contribute to averting a WW that the planned US troop seizure could have triggered. That benefits all of mankind. Good for Russia.

          4. José

            Finland also invaded the USSR, as an ally of Nazi Germany.

            See here:

            Siege of Leningrad, also called 900-day siege, prolonged siege (September 8, 1941–January 27, 1944) of the city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in the Soviet Union by German and Finnish armed forces during World War II. The siege actually lasted 872 days.

            https://www.britannica.com/event/Siege-of-Leningrad

            Reply
            1. PlutoniumKun

              That is factually untrue. The Finns attempted to regain their stolen territory in Karelia when the Germans attacked Leningrad as they saw their chance to take advantage of a distracted Stalin. The Germans repeatedly requested that the Finns co-ordinate their attacks on Leningrad but the Finns refused – their focus was on retaking Vyborg and Karelia..

              The Finnish-Soviet conflict was a separate conflict – this was recognised by the allies after the war.

              Reply
              1. Darthbobber

                When things were going well for them, the Finns were past the portions of Karelia lost in the russo-finnish war, and pursuing Mannerheim’s ambition to annex eastern Karelia. They participated in the siege of Leningrad, and closed the northern approaches.
                They had also signed the anti-comintern pact.

                What made things different from the allied perspective was that the Finns chose not to go down with the German ship, and adroitly changed sides, signing a treaty with the Soviets in September of 44 and agreeing to expel remaining German troops. Which led to the Lapland war against Germany for the next couple of months.

                At war’s end, the allies and Finns accepted the border reached at the conclusion of the russo-finnish war, and a 300 million reparations tab to be paid to the Soviets by the Finns.

                Reply
                1. Polar Socialist

                  Finland was only at war with Soviet Union and British Commonwealth. During the truce between 1944-1947 it was obvious Britain was trying to make the peace as easy as possible for Finland, so Soviet Union basically told them to go pound sand.

                  There was no treaty to expel Germans, it was a condition of truce: “Either Finnish army fights the Germans, or the Red Army will. Your choice.” That was a much bigger issue than the reparations, since Finland had to demobilize while still at war with German Lapland Army. A big giveaway for Germans was the evacuation of the population of Lapland right before the hostilities.

                  After Germans started to destroy houses and bridges while withdrawing, the Finns started to actually fight them, and there’s still a lot of bitterness against Germans especially in Northern Finland as a result. Which probably was the whole point.

                  Soviet Union trusted Finns to fight the Germans due to a mostly unknown battle of Suursaari, right after signing the truce. After realizing that Finland was making a separate peace with Russia, Germans tried to capture on the biggest island on the Bay of Finland to secure their northern flank.

                  Almost 3000 men landed on the island defended by 1600 Finns, and were seriously beaten after 20 hours of battle. This proved to Soviet leadership that Finns were not merely willing to fight Germans, but also capable.

                  One peculiarity of that battle was that German wounded came to Finnish medics to be treated and then returned to the fight.

                  As for the siege of Leningrad, it’s still controversial topic in Finland and in Saint Petersburg as to what extent Finns really took part in it. Front line on the Carelian Isthmus certainly didn’t make the life easier in the city. On the other hand, Red Army did rotate troops to Isthmus for rest and recuperation, since Finns were not active at all on that part of the font line.
                  Mannerheim, having spent most of his life in Saint Petersburg, detested the German plans for it.

                  And I don’t think he gave two hoots about East-Carelia, except as a bargaining chip for future peace talks. For most parts he was at odds with pro-German faction in Finland who were bonkers about East-Carelia (only to find out to their dismay that being a Finnic tribe didn’t make Carelians like Finnish occupation).

                  Reply
                2. José

                  The Finns were also much appreciated as allies by Germany during the first years of the war.

                  German historian Volker Ullrich writes thus, on this topic (on page 308 of the second volume of his biography of Hitler):

                  “On 4 June 1942, Hitler flew to Finland. The official occasion was the seventy-fifth birthday of the supreme commander of the Finnish armed forces, Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. With the exception of his trip to Italy, it was the only time that Hitler would ever travel to a country not under German control – a fact that underscored the importance he attached to the Finnish ‘fraternity of arms’. Indeed, his visit was intended to bind Finland even more closely to the Axis (…) Aferward Hitler raved about his trip. ‘The Finns have won the Führer’s heart,’ Goebbels noted. ‘They are steadfast, courageous and humble and do not need much to get by. Without doubt they will continue to be of great service (…).’

                  Reply
        2. Darthbobber

          And did not Japanese forces from the Kurils invade Soviet Kamchatka in 1918, not being entirely expelled for several years thereafter?

          And did not the Yalta agreement grant the Soviets the Kurils and half of Sakhalin in return for their entry into the Pacific war?

          Reply
          1. Harry

            I think this is clearly a silly point. The Soviets ended the Japanese war by invading Manchuria. Of course they were going to seize territory. The US still keeps its army of occupation in Japan. Why the outrage?

            Reply
        3. Harry

          Does it? But how is the converse not true? How would you expect the RF not to notice that NATO possess an existential threat to its existence and territorial integrity?

          And the RF is different. It possesses the capacity to eradicate its main enemies if it strikes first. The question is whether its apparent enemies can limit this threat by striking the RF first. The leaders of the RF are perfectly aware of this risk. And thats without noting that 30% of Europeans energy needs are met by exports from the RF.

          Having visited Estonia, I can tell you that Estonia’s Russian population has mixed feelings about the RF. As for admiration, my uncle, a Jew from Lvov, never lost his respect or gratefulness to the soldiers of the Red Army who fought to liberate him. Sadly it was too late for his family of 9 brothers (and their families) who were all exterminated by the Nazis.

          Reply
  1. Alex Morfesis

    Because under no circumstances whatsoever might the old kgb have their version of a stay behind operation to have grandchildren of former Comintern operatchix eating up and feeding back critical operational information…nah…that could never happen…these eastern European types are the most uncorruptible group of humans you could ever imagine…

    Reply
    1. Taurus

      I don’t think you quite appreciate the transformation which took place in the Eastern block. The KGB are capitalists now. Their children have flats in Kensington. Their interests in Eastern Europe are to corner the market on specific products or services, real estate speculation etc. The stuff from the Le Carre novels is gone – it is now truly historical fiction.

      Reply
      1. Alex Morfesis

        Yes…yes…and all those capitalist markets fully developed in the old Comintern nations…the folks in dusseldorf are staying up nights worrying…

        Reply
        1. Taurus

          I don’t know anyone in Düsseldorf so I would not know if they are staying up at night.

          As far as the capital markets in the East, they are slightly ahead of the ones in the West. We are trying to catch up with the Russians by nurturing our own oligarchs (and their children). Sometimes the vestigial rule of law interferes, but this is not going to be around much longer, the way things are going.

          Reply
    2. NiceBeaver

      What do you define as an “eastern European type” and how do they differ from “western European type”?

      Reply
    3. Stan

      Not agreement capable. Not in 1954 (Geneva Accords regarding US support for elections in Vietnam), not in 1999 (after NATO’s promise not to advance to Russia’s borders), not after attacking all the wrong countries after 9/11, not now, not ever.

      Who really are the most corruptible (and dumb) group of humans you could ever imagine?

      Reply
      1. Susan the other

        I was just thinking the same. Dumb like foxes. The latest blurb I read (PCR link) noted that yes, the US did commit to not invading eastern Europe along Russia’s border, but, gosh, we didn’t put it in writing because we aren’t the only party with standing. We, in our turn, must confer with NATO…. and NATO wants to extend western Europe a tad farther to the east. No big deal. Mainly just the areas rich with rare earth minerals and maybe a little more oil. No we didn’t fudge our promise; that’s just how it goes sometimes when there are lotsa people arguing over how to extract more money and resources into their own economies… the new European Manifest Destiny… it’s not our fault. And besides, just look at yourself Russia – you are on the brink of having an invincible military machine – dear god, we can’t have that.

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Reagan/ Bush the Elder did not anticipate just how deceitful and dishonorable Bill Clinton would be. Maybe it just never occurred to them that they would even have to put it in writing.

          Well, this and every future RussiaGov knows better now. Until large parts of the America Ruling Class are “deleted from existence”, the American government is Clintons all the way down. And Russia knows it.

          So Russia will want to get it in writing, and entirely in unambiguous small words, too. And in the event of such an agreement being secured, will then attempt to fill the created space as hard and fast as possible to make a ” not agreement-capable ” AmericaNATO agreement-obedient in any case.

          What would be the most effective totally-legal and nonviolent way for millions of Americans to show their utter hatred for the Clintons-all-the-way down OverClass Occupation Regime which currently colonizes us and our country? Imagine a million silent marchers silently marching down the biggest main streets of every key OverClass Occupation Sympathetic City in America. Imagine all those millions of silent marchers dressed in Eastern Orthodox Church black cassocks. Imagine them carrying 40-foot-tall Orthodox-style Icons depicting Vladimir Putin along with other 40-foot-tall Orthodox-style Icons depicting the illegitimate OverClass Occupation so-called “American” President of the day . . . . with the universally recognized Red Circle Slash emblem over that “President’s” face.

          That would really shake the OverClass up.

          Reply
  2. Brian Westva

    I’m no historian, geopolitical analyst, or anything similar but I think I could pick most of these countries out on a map which makes better than the average American. I would disagree with the author on a couple items. First, the statement:

    “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.”

    The US didn’t win WWII. The US joined the war in Europe rather late, went into North Africa all while the Russians were taking the brunt of Hitlers’ war machine. Was American late entry into the war intentional to weaken Russia? Who knows. Russia certainly paid a high price to win WWII. 20 million casualties. The US lost about a half million.

    The American values/ideals of liberal democracy, free markets and rule of law are mentioned a couple of times as the reason for NATO expansion and the remaking and consolidation of European in America’s image. These three ideals don’t exist in the US. Much of the American public is tired of being snookered by smooth talkers who speak of ideals such as these. Talk is cheap. How do leaders and countries act? On these three ideals the US is an absolute failure. Democracy has been taken over by the corporations, politicians, and special interests. Very little to nothing that the majority of people want ever gets completed. Free markets don’t exist where monopolies, government subsidies, and corporate power are in control. The US and it’s agencies only follow the rule of law when it suits them. A country such as the US that continually interferes in other countries sovereign affairs and invades other countries can’t claim rule of law as a value that they hold.

    There is no mention of the US and Europe supporting neo-Nazis and right wing fascist in Ukraine. The author portrays Russia as the bad actor and the US as a helpful friend. What a load of rubbish.

    The article was useful in providing some history of NATO expansion and the relative integration of different countries. The author hints at NATO basically being a part of the US empire which I would agree with. The US empire needs to be halted and dismantled. Every dollar and every resource that goes to the offensive war machine is taken away from the people who wish to live in peace with their neighbors.

    Reply
    1. timbers

      Yes, saying the U.S. won WWII is a whopper and insult to Russia.

      Here’s another conventional wisdom whopper Professor Kurth writes:

      “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…”

      Except there is no immobilized government nor polarization of Democrats and Republicans, because there is no fundamental difference nor disagreement between them on fundamental policy on the big issues. What Kurth calls immobile policy is more or less generally what both sides want. Disagreements on fundamentals are probably mostly timing, and non fundamental policy disagreements are used to distract the population and make them think they have a choice.

      Both parties are pro war, pro corporate, and generally ignore working folks and instead serve the rich an corporations at the expense of working class.

      Reply
      1. Keith Newman

        The grotesque whopper re the US winning WW2 pretty much eliminated the author’s credibilty for me. It’s one thing to disagree on arguable points but quite another to be 100% wrong on a fundamental one.

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        1. scott s.

          The US eliminated the British Empire as a competitor, established the Mediterranean as a US Navy lake, defended its Pacific empire and expanded it. Looks like a win to me.

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    2. Susan the other

      The more I think about it, the more I think WW2 was a very strategic operation on the part of the USA. We wanted to blow the old empires out of the water and take over trading networks. We had been frustrated ever since our own Civil War because the European global empires were not “free” traders; especially the British. And our heavy industries were about to explode – they had so much potential energy. While the old European powers were squabbling like princelings over this or that territory, we were pushing West. Getting bigger and bigger. But by the 1890s our economy began to turn in on itself and we produced the absurd Gilded Age – all that money and nowhere to go. The Europeans were creating inequality as fast as we were. Sounds like today, really. It was just a question of time before it all blew up in 2 world wars that never resolved anything and a prolonged “cold” war that really wasn’t cold. But the most dangerous thing threatening “the rule of law; democracy and free trade” is not lawlessness, anarchy and high tariffs – it is inequality. How full of irony we are. Notice how upset the NATO countries were when we pulled out of Afghanistan. Why? I’d submit it is because the heartland of the world, the Middle East, is the most oil-rich and accessible region on earth and Europe needs oil. Afghanistan was the perfect outpost to hold on to. And nobody ever talks about it. That’s the real tell. Nobody talks about oil, but everybody fights over it. And my point is this: the problem we must solve, all of us, is all that potential human energy. It is killing the planet. We need to re-direct it into scientific advancement, education and sustainability. And just stop all this nonsense. War history – including NATO stuff – is the history of our insanity.

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        The only way America can do that is to defect from NATO and defect from the Corporate Globalonial Free Trade system. If we can do that, and maintain it, then we can “redirect human energy” within our own borders. Otherwise not.

        Reply
  3. Taurus

    Over the years, I have observed firsthand how difficult it is to describe to Americans the paranoia of a small, militarily weak country sitting in the shadow of its much larger neighbor. The paranoia is often based on centuries of bitter historical experience. It is taught in schools and churches- it permeates the culture to a degree that is formative to most people in this small state. It creates the perception within the population that the small country exists at the suffering of the large neighbor.

    Consider the case of Bulgaria. Bulgaria spent 500 years under Ottoman rule. 20 generations. It was not pretty. For the second part of the 20th century, the USSR guaranteed Bulgarian independence. That guarantee came at a cost – Bulgaria was a Soviet mini-me but it was a huge improvement from the Turks. Then in 1989 that guarantee dissolved. Thankfully, Turkey was otherwise occupied- they were still trying to get into the EU.

    Consider the present day – with Erdogan at the helm of the larger neighbor. From the Bulgarian perspective, it is a good thing that Bulgaria is part of NATO as the Turkish Lira is falling precipitously. When Erdogan seeks a foreign distraction for his citizens, he would look somewhere else.

    The trope of the chess game between the superpowers gets a little old. It is more complicated than a Fischer- Spassky rematch — the chess pieces have their own interests :)

    Reply
    1. JohnA

      Turkey is also part of NATO.
      Look at Mexico, which has lost huge chunks of terroritory to the US over the years, Texas, California etc. Maybe Mexico should ask Russia for help in case the US wants more land. I am sure that would be perfectly acceptible to the US.

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    2. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, exactly. The world looks very, very different from the perspective of any (relatively) small country with a history of having to fear a larger neighbour. Small countries cannot suffer ideological delusions, decisions on international relationships have to be entirely based on pragmatism. The existence of the nation quite literally depends on this. For a very large number of countries around the world, being part of NATO or being under some degree of association with the US has nothing to do with western imperialism or being lapdogs. Its a simply pragmatic decision based on a rational assessment of the available options. If you share a land border with a more powerful neighbour with a past history of aggression, then its a very simple decision to make.

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        1. PlutoniumKun

          It’s only one way if you assume the boundaries of Russia are the same as what used to be called ‘the Russian Empire’. It was called the Russian Empire for a reason.

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      1. Polar Socialist

        There’s a great example of pragmatic decision based on rational assessment of the available options that eventually saved the Europe (well, depending on you point of view of course). When Soviet Union attacked Finland (to create a buffer zone against Germany and after exhausting every diplomatic option to create a common European security solution to contain Germany [Hmm, why does that sound familiar…]), France approached UK with an initiative to send troops to Finland to fight Red Army with the logic that Germany and Soviet Union were kinda allies, and being at war with Germany fighting Soviet Union made sense. And something about supporting minor countries, too. UK was interested to the extent that they would be able to occupy the Swedish iron mines in Northern Sweden on the way to Finland, to prevent that material reaching Germany.

        Both Sweden and Finland did not just say no, but “Hell, no!”, since the last thing they wanted was to become a battlefield in a war between Great Powers. Letting France and UK into Finland (and at the time nobody knew the abysmal fighting capability of either) would mean that the future Finno-Soviet relations would be decided between Paris, London and Moscow instead of between Helsinki and Moscow. If there would have been anything left of Finland.

        But that was then. Nowadays apparently rationality means giving away your self-determination and freedom of foreign policy with the vain hope that somebody else has your best interest at heart, and that they wont turn your country into a smoking ruin of the modern battlefield.

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    3. OIFVet

      As a Bulgarian (and also an American), NATO is hardly a security guarantee when I comes to Erdogan’s Turkey. Let’s remember that Turkey and Greece regularly have air and sea confrontations. Let’s also remember several maps and textbooks recently published in Turkey, which show large parts of Bulgaria as being part of the “Turkish world” ( and for that matter, large parts of other Balkan, former Soviet republics, and Russia itself). So, it appears to me that several NATO members and Russia have rather similar potential issues when it comes to Erdogan.

      Conveniently you omit to mention who did free Bulgaria from 500 years of Turkish rule: Russia. I suspect that you are a Bulgarian as well, of a certain type for whom Russia is bad no matter what. Me, I rather see in shades of gray and geopolitical realism. I don’t for a minute regret Bulgaria being part of NATO, but when it comes to Erdogan’s Turkey, I believe that Article 5 would be useless as Erdogan operates in Bulgaria using hybrid warfare (see the ongoing financial support b Turkey for efforts to radicalize Bulgarian Muslims, and the outright election interference of Turkey in November’s elections). So please let’s keep emotions out of this and rely on cold realism when it comes to the issue of our neighbor.

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      1. Taurus

        I was trying to make the point that the author of the article omits any agency of NATO’s new members. Vlade made this point better than me below in regards to the Visegrad countries.

        The expansion of NATO is not necessarily evil when viewed from Eastern Europe.

        As far as the bilateral relationship between Bulgaria and Turkey, the NATO membership strengthens the Bulgarian position and allows it to stay sovereign while this arrangement lasts.

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        1. OIFVet

          Some have agency, some have very limited agency. Bulgaria is in the latter group. The transformation from the most loyal Soviet satellite to a most loyal NATO/EU satellite is very telling about whose interests drive any such “agency”. As you pointed out in a different comment, the communist functionaries underwent a remarkable overnight metamorphosis in 1989-1990. They (and now their children and grandchildren) became vehement defenders of free market capitalism, western “values”, and the accumulation of wealth and property, which they achieved by robbing the state enterprises and driving them into bankruptcy. All of this was achieved with the approval of and at times the guiding hand of the West. The West needed new markets, the old elites wanted to remain elite after Gorbie told them the free lunch was over. So they went to look for a better deal, and found it in the West. In return for being allowed to remain in power under a new guise, the elites would switch their loyalty to the West, the West would politely look the other way as they stole everything they could get their hands on, and corruption would be allowed to continue apace.

          So, the state of Bulgaria can hardly be said to have an agency, the agency belongs only to its elites. 18 years after joining NATO and 15 years after joining the EU, Bulgaria as a state has remained poor, corrupt, a demographic basket case with the fastest shrinking population in the world, but it’s elites have done very well indeed due to their loyalty to the dictats of the “bosses”, as the former PM Borissov used to refer to NATO and the EU. And now these bosses have dictated that Bulgaria lift its veto over Macedonia’s ascension to the EU, despite Macedonia spewing ethnic hate,, a decidedly un-European value. Bulgarian “agency” in the relationship with its alliances is balderdash.

          I am saying this with regret, because the West has been very shortsighted these past 30 years when it comes to most of Eastern Europe, and we have seen the consequences these past few years in Poland, in Hungary, in Slovenia even. It has driven resentment in the ‘losers’ of these processes, which has been ably exploited by demagogues to their own ends by pointing fingers at the EU and NATO. So much squandered opportunity, all because of greed, both geopolitical and financial…

          Reply
          1. Taurus

            OIFVet – you have thought on the subject a lot. How would you fix it, if you could? This is an earnest question – I am simply curious, not trying to score rhetorical points or anything like this.

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            1. OIFVet

              How about we as Americans demand that our government actually pays more than lip service to the values we profess to uphold? There isn’t a single corrupt and homicidal regime we haven’t supported since WW2, just as long it stays loyal to the US. FDR put it best: “He may be an SOB, but he is our SOB.” The problem is, people globally have increasingly noticed the hypocrisy, and America’s reputation has gone into the crapper compared to what it was.

              The root of the problem is of course much deeper than that, the chosen economic policies demand ever increasing growth and thus the control of natural resources has become America’s policy (make no mistake, that’s what’s ultimately behind NATO’s expansion), but not supporting corrupt regimes and individuals would be a good place to start in mitigating some of the problems. I doubt we will see it in our lifetimes, though.

              And in particular regard to Bulgaria, acknowledging that allies have their own national interests within the alliance as well would be a refreshing change. The EU and the US have been particularly dense when it comes to acknowledging the problem with Macedonia, applying incredible pressure on Bulgaria while not acknowledging its very legitimate concerns with Macedonian conduct and actions. Now the new Bulgarian government will eventually lift its veto as soon as some phony face-saving “concessions” are made by the Macedonians, but 80% of Bulgarians won’t buy it. And that will very much sink a government that actually has a chance to start cleaning out corruption. It is so short-sighted of the US that it boggles the mind.

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    4. Risteard

      Neither the old Westfalian nor the newer Wilsonian (1916 -1945) divisions of nations or states really suited the Russians. All the chess-like explanations and details are correct, but not what Russians wanted. Kennan’s and Kissinger’s post-Wilsonian approach has now failed all logic, no principles remain, except importantly to provide a frontier held by brute force -“Article 5”, as Biden mumbled when he was asked about the future of NATO upon leaving Afghanistan. Its a huge reduction down to a rather brittle situation.

      Russians see all the inconsistencies to their West, many carefully dissected out in this article and comments, and while acting somewhat enigmatically, of course they now want their very own dispensation, also based on force.

      And while this goes on, they want higher prices for their energy. So do some in USA.

      Every single winter.

      That’s not chess at all.

      Reply
      1. JohnA

        Where do you get the idea Russia wants higher prices for their energy? They actually prefer and have offered long term, fixed price contracts, but the EU prefers spot pricing determined by Mr Market and the wild fluctuations this entails.

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    5. drumlin woodchuckles

      If America could leave NATO, then the EUropean countries could set up their own NEATO. Which would stand for North East Atlantic Treaty Organization. Neato!

      And America could bring back the Hundred Thousand NATO Hostages . . . . our soldiers who are still Prisoners of NATO.

      But we can’t do that until we have removed our own pro-NATO ruling class from power and public involvement.

      Reply
  4. Michaelmas

    “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.”

    Actually, not a bad piece, though I have my quibbles.

    Then I recall how the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, added to the losses and attrition of WWI, accelerated the collapses of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian empires.

    Just as their prosecution of the whole Russiagate effort so as to overturn a lawfully-elected president (however repugnant) then led to 1/6 (and so the presumable permanent confrontations that will now attend every US election’s results), abysmally incompetent US elites are just stupid enough to add war to the ledger of failures they’ve managed and bring their (and our) whole existing social structure down.

    ‘Pandemic Influenza: On Sclerosis in Governance’
    https://covid-19.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/mwkn3ci5/release/1

    “At the domestic level, influenza had a sclerotic effect on governance within severely affected countries, overwhelming the capacity of the state (and often the society) to deal with the debilitation and mortality … the epidemic may have prevented a German victory … and ultimately assisted in forcing the Central Powers to the table … On October 6 and 7, 1918, at the height of the influenza pandemic in Central Europe, the governments of Germany and Austria sent notices to US president Wilson requesting an armistice and peace negotiations based … the visitation of the final lethal viral wave on the immunologically naive population of Austria resulted in widespread death and debilitation and in sclerosis of governance, and ultimately contributed to the collapse of the empire … and the demise of Imperial Germany. “

    Reply
  5. Brooklin Bridge

    “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?”

    America’s, “Vital ideals of political, economic and cultural liberties”????? Ahem, courtesy plastic, er, upset bags are in the forward compartment…

    I think he means, American insatiable appetite for plunder and aggression, not to mention our loathing of the democratic process when it doesn’t suit our ends, hat tip Victoria Nuland, but, if there was any doubt of a hint of bias in the analysis, this ending liberates it.

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    1. Martin Oline

      Henry Kissinger opined, “Democracy is too important to leave up to the votes of the people” after the Chilean coup. I wonder if he was serious or thought he was delivering some sort of Winston Churchill wit? It was Winston who said of the two Dulles brother “Dull, Duller, Dulles.”

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      1. Brooklin Bridge

        A bit of both I imagine, but I agree with your point. Kissinger is a singularly odious specimen and evokes in me a gut reaction rather than a qualified one when encountering such encomiums as, “Kissinger’s article and policy proposal were knowledgeable, discerning, and wise.”

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        1. Brooklin Bridge

          Adding, gut rather than qualified, particularly in this case where there seems to be merit to the praise, but to call him “realist” tears it.

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          1. TimH

            Kissinger made it clear that the US didn’t care what domestic and international laws were broken, and foreign civilians killed, to further the current US leaders’ ideas of American interests.

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  6. David

    One of the professional weaknesses of historians is to try to impose “narratives” on the messy and often irrational sequences of events that we call “history.” To an extent, of course, this is inevitable, otherwise no coherent accounts could ever be written, but it can be dangerous if, as here, it tries to provide a neat ex post facto rationalisation of a process which was shambolic and disorganised at the time. In reality, there was no NATO “drive” to the East (with its Nazi overtones), nor was there a NATO “project.” There’s no real link with globalisation.

    Like many similar articles, this one is US-centric, and scarcely allows agency to any of the Europeans. But it was from Europe that the initiative for NATO actually came. Bankrupt and starving in the late 1940s, European countries feared more than anything else a repetition of the traumatic events of 1939-45. The Soviet Union now occupied parts of Europe, there was a civil war in Greece, and there was widespread violence in a number of other countries: France and Italy seemed close to civil war themselves. Whilst European leaders did not see a military threat from the Soviet Union, they did feel weak and isolated on a continent next to a superpower, no matter how enfeebles temporarily. Thus it was the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was the inspiration for the Washington Treaty of 1949. Contrary to what the article suggests, this did not create a “military alliance”: indeed it created almost nothing concrete. What it did provide was a highly qualified security guarantee to Europe in the form of Article 5. But the US was reluctant to provide such a guarantee, which is why the second alinea of the Article (which is never quoted) was included, to make it clear that the US did not actually have any obligation to intervene. What did produce NATO as we now know it was the Korean War, which convinced leaders on both sides of the Atlantic that the Soviet Union, after Korea, would now strike at Europe. So NATO was configured for an imminent war. When that war never happened, Europeans still began to find some pragmatic advantages in NATO: for Germany it was the road back to international respectability. For many small nations it was a guarantee that Germany (totally subordinate to NATO military HQs) could never again become a threatening military power. For the French it was the hope of never again being left in the lurch as in 1940, for the British it was a better chance of having influence with the US, and so on. And after 1962, the burgeoning Franco-German relationship made some of the smaller nations see NATO as a useful counterweight.

    It’s often not realised how much of a political earthquake the events of 1989-91 actually were. I remember asking a diplomat colleague just back from Washington in mid-1991 what the mood was there. “Total shock” was the reply. Nobody was making plans, nobody knew whether NATO would even survive, and for how long. In this context (and to pick up Yves’s point) it’s quite possible that the US government of the day had no intention of trying to expand NATO. But events soon pushed them aside. There were too many pragmatic advantages in keeping NATO going, and too many uncertainties (a powerful unified Germany, for example) in closing it down. But what was it going to do? After some years of arms control treaties and internal debate, the answer, to the surprise of many, was enlargement. This initiative came, once more, less from the US than from Europe. Originally, the three (later four) Visegrad countries had made it clear they didn’t want to be part of a another alliance, but the instability that followed the fall of the Soviet Union and the chaos of Yeltsin’s Russia made them think again. Even then, these countries didn’t see themselves really as joining a military alliance. rather, like small countries with big neighbours throughout history, they thought they would strengthen their strategic position if they had some larger friends. (I have never been able to get Americans to understand this for some reason). They were horrified when asked to participate in an actual military operation over Serbia in 1999.

    Enlargement, never really planned and often chaotic in its implementation, has had its ups and downs, as has NATO. The US has often been one of the most reluctant partners; indeed, a lot of effort was put into persuading the Bush II administration not to lose all interest in NATO. But as a number of us argued thirty years ago, once you start expanding, there is no obvious point to stop. And eventually, you hit the border of Russia. In the 90s, with Yeltsin in charge, this didn’t seem too much of a problem. That was then, and all the people who made the decisions are safely retired or dead. This is now. There’s a lot more to say but I’ve gone on long enough already.

    Reply
    1. vlade

      It is my eternal bugbear, how Americans, on all sides of the spectrum, give little to no agency to anyone outside the US, at most to Russia and China (although often it’s as if Russia or China were only reacting to the US, which is patently not the case).

      The eastward expansion of NATO was NOT, very definitely, driven by the US. In fact, the US army opposed the expansion strongly, and Clinton was not very keen on it to start with.

      Ultimately, it was Havel (the then Czech president) that managed to persuade Clinton to start with it, and it was no minor feat. This is not from some historian reading second hand documents or what have you. This is from me talking to a person who was very close to Havel at that time, and literally in the room when these discussions were going on, and who knew what it took and how hard it was to get the US to agree to it.

      As you say, V4 didn’t want to fall under Russia’s influence again, and saw NATO as the only way to make sure it didn’t happen (incidentally, this was also why then wanted into the EU, but that took much much longer). TBH, about many of them expected that NATO will either include Russia as an associate in not too far a future (yes, I know. But it was really discussed seriously in V4), or dissolve within a decade. As you say, they were pretty surprised on being asked to help in the Balkan intervention, although you may remember that Havel supported it.

      But even if NATO didn’t exist, V4 and Baltics would have wanted to be allied with the US. Most Americans have literally no idea how idealised was the US in 1990s, and how despised Russia was (and, in some of them still is) in these countries. *)

      Unfortunately, the simplistic “the warmonger Clinton expanded NATO to anger Russia” (or similar) has been trotted out too often, so I gave up on people – especially Americans – ever understanding the vastly more complex history of this.

      *) Another thing I find really amusing around this is how often the self-same people froth at say US occupation of Afghanistan, and have understanding for Afghans who see the US as occupiers – yet have no understanding for V4/Baltics where large parts of the population saw the USSR as an occupiers.

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      1. The Rev Kev

        Being occupied leaves an awful big chip on your shoulder and you can see it in other places like Asia where the people there still have long memories of the Japanese occupation and are still not ready to forgive them. It was similar in the US after the American Civil War where for generations the ex-Confederate States resented when they had been occupied by Union troops at war’s end. As an example, when General Grant took the vital city of Vicksburg on July 4th 1863, it was decades before the people of that city once more had Independence Day celebrations. Another example. Had a mate once who was in the American south with a mate getting a drink when they heard the curse-word “Yankees!” These guys came over to their table and asked where they were’ll from and when told Australia, said “Awstraya? Why boy, we were about to kick your a**. Here, have a drink.” And this happened over 120 years after that war ended.

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      2. PlutoniumKun

        I can recall when the expansion of the EU was being discussed it was very much seen in many countries as a matter of power politics with an eye to internal calculations. At the time, I was surprised that countries like Ireland and Portugal were very enthusiastic – I’d assumed they would be worried about the dilution of EU structural aid projects – but so far as I’m aware the calculation was that lots of smaller eastern European countries would be natural allies of smaller fringe nations and would help balance out the Franco-German access (this of course turned out to be a naive conclusion). The UK – to some extent correctly – thought that the eastern Europeans were more friendly to the anglophones than continental europeans and also considered that it would rebalance things away from the Franco-Germans. There was also I think a genuine sympathy in the 1990’s towards eastern Europeans, even if this didn’t extend to welcoming the semi-mythical Polish plumber.

        In all this, there was surprisingly little consideration given to the economics. I suppose in the spirit of the times it was just assumed that the magical market fairy would lift everyone up to Dutch standards of living. And nobody really anticipated that many countries would regress politically – or at least those that did were seen as old grouches and cynics.

        As for the defence side of things, as always Europe has been highly fragmented and incoherent. I think there was a general feeling that Nato would shrink in influence and strength over time, so it didn’t really matter if it expanded. And of course from the 1990’s onwards there were huge cuts in military spending, so there was pressure to expand Nato simply so the Germans and French would have someone to sell guns to. Some in Europe were quite keen on the EU developing a military side, but its hard to see what this would ever achieve apart from providing lifetime jobs for some bureaucrats.

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        1. Maxwell Johnston

          My earliest lesson in modern European politics took place in a bar in Brussels in the mid-90s, drinking too much beer with a Spanish (actually Basque) colleague. He was complaining that the UK was being obstructionist and that it was high time to kick the UK out of the EU. I was surprised at this and asked naively, “But what about Greece? Aren’t the Greeks causing lots of problems too?” Without hesitation he answered that the EU needs Greece. “Because the Greeks give us a reason to keep out the Turks.”

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        2. Risteard

          This acceptance of EU expansion partly as the concentric rings of opposing influences in Europe during and even long before the prolonged Wars of the Spanish Succession usually drew local parties in opposing directions in (say) Ireland. Jacobites versus others for example, its the same everywhere.

          And while history doesnt repeat, it rhymes, so Ireland, Portugal et al were and are happy to play the roles of small fish in orbit of bigger fish, but only as long as there remains enough common interest at the heart of the EU project to prevent the typical fissures spreading out and separating the layers again. None of the small fish want to be forced into taking sides as they have suffered from that in centuries past.

          Whatever about previous Westfalian, Wilsonian and post WW2 diplomacy, the Euro, and EU trade, was the main glue holding all this together since 1991. Europe has now unthinkingly walked into an energy crisis, a minefield involving Russia and also USA.

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      3. upstater

        I agree that the Baltics and others had agency in NATO expansion, but let’s say that the US certainly would never pass up the opportunity to add toys to its playthings.

        It should be understood, however, there is a deep history behind ethnic and religious fault lines which created the divides the US has exploited. There has been a visceral hate of Slavs and Orthodoxy on the part of the Baltics that goes way, way back to the time of the introduction of Christianity in the 14th century invading western Crusaders crushing paeganism.

        Sadly, these traditions also resulted in the enthusiastic support and complicity of the Balts in the extermination of the substantial Jewish populations in those countries once the Nazis came to town. Indeed, there was very little “occupation” necessary by the Nazis. The native Balts were to be assimilated into the Reich. My grandmother took her children (my mother among them) to Berlin, as she was recognized as Volksdeutsche in 1940. My grandfather used to warn his children of “yellow peril” coming from the east (he died before the war).

        The Balts clearly view “others” as Untermenschen to this day. Consider the blatant discrimination of Russians in Latvia. Or the establishment of CIA black sites in Lithuania before NATO membership (maybe Bush 2 was handing out rewards?).

        History rhymes…

        As the author states the Baltics embraced neoliberalism with zeal. Michael Hudson has detailed the ensuing wreckage better than anybody. Let it suffice to say, for decades a major export is educated or skilled young people and a large source of foreign earnings are remittances. Capital moves even more freely; Some newer light industries came with the EU, but Lithuania is a rustbelt place. Many things now have EU prices with less than half of the per capita GDP of Germany or France.

        In Soviet times it is a fact that religion and culture were celebrated by the population, although somewhat repressed. Now I’d characterize culture as Eurovision standard and churches rehabbed with EU money as tourist attractions. My family’s town of Kazlu Ruda had 15,000 inhabitants (the town itself), a hospital and ONE resident policeman before independence. Now it has SIX well-equipped cops, the hospital closed and the nearest is 30 km away and substantial population is gone. The Suwalki Gap supposedly defended by NATO from a Russian invasion of all of Europe is the same one exploited by Hitler and Napoleon to invade Russia.

        Let it suffice to say these places are indefensible and will be that way for the foreseeable future. Hopefully tensions can be relieved, because the only beneficiaries of the status quo are finance capital and the military-industrial complex. War with Russia (and China) would end very, very badly for the sclerotic US.

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      4. drumlin woodchuckles

        If you are correct in this report, then I will have to revise my thinking on this particular aspect of Clinton’s disgusting record of decomplishments.

        This makes it look more like NATO was indeed a European conspiracy to take America captive and make sure America would never be a diplomatically free and independent country ever again.

        It becomes more important than ever to break every connection America has with NATO, as well as with the International Free Trade Conspiracy. Let EUrope have its own war with Russia all by itself.

        Close America’s bases in EUrope and bring the Hostages of NATO home.

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    2. Maxwell Johnston

      I agree with you (and with Vlade’s comment) that NATO expansion was driven more by the Europeans than by the USA. But as the most powerful member by far, the USA might have shown more wisdom and restraint and even–gasp–some magnanimity towards Russia when the subject of NATO expansion came up. That didn’t happen; in fact, as the author notes correctly, there wasn’t even a debate. And at this point, I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s the USA that is pushing hardest for integrating Ukraine into NATO (even as only a de facto member, since de jure membership is probably impossible). We ignored Kennan’s advice, and now we pay the price.

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      1. David in Santa Cruz

        This Comments thread is filled with insight that is rare in 21st century American discourse. The U.S. didn’t appear to have a “plan” to expand NATO.

        Rather, since Watergate Americans have had a propensity for putting a series of half-wits in charge of our government. Reagan, Slick Willie, Shrub, the Kenyan Prince, and the Swindler from Queens all shared an ignorance of history that was truly abysmal (I intentionally skip over Carter and HW Bush). Russian rhetoric about U.S. expansionism is propaganda — their foreign policy establishment clearly understands that the U.S. has been repeatedly “rolled” by what passes for local elites in the former Warsaw Pact and SSR’s.

        The comments about the divisions remaining from the former Southern Confederacy are well placed. This is why electing ignorant leadership and a weak central government have such appeal to a large swath of Americans. Not racism per se, but Confederate revanchism nonetheless.

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        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          A velvet divorce between a NeoUnited States of America and a NeoConfederate States of America is “Blue-ish” America’s only hope of avoiding Total NeoConfederization of every last aspect of economy and society and culture.

          Don’t believe it? Watch, and learn.

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  7. RJ McElroy

    Thanks Yves and upstater for noting the representation made by James Baker and HW Bush to Gorbachev not to ring Russia with NATO which was never formalized.

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    1. Polar Socialist

      There were many, many more promises to that effect, and the latest “ultimatum” is basically just a demand to finally get that representation formalized.

      Don’t really know to what purpose, just looking at INF or JCPOA, agreements don’t seem to mean much in the current world.

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      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        An agreement with Nuclear Peer Russia could mean something because Russia could MAKE it mean something.

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  8. John

    History as narrative has to make a choice. Either it smooths out the fractal complexities that lie between or among the more imposing headlands or it produces one of those excruciatingly detailed tomes gathering dust deep in the stacks. Anyone conversant with history can pick out points which they would qualify, or with which they would quibble or disagree. That said, if you look upon Americanization and especially globalization as the motive of those who saw wealth, power, prestige, ego fulfillment for themselves and “the people who really matter” then I think the writer has a point. That coterie or set or however you describe them (the elites?) did, have, and are plowing ahead, looking neither right nor left, ignoring all warning signs, convinced that they and they alone are correct. They see only their ideal, their utopia, as they drag the rest of us along with them ignoring the looming presence of the, “rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem.”

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    1. Michaelmas

      That said, if you look upon Americanization and especially globalization as the motive of those who saw wealth, power, prestige, ego fulfillment for themselves and “the people who really matter” then I think the writer has a point.

      Agreed, and that was what I took from it.

      Reply
  9. hemeantwell

    It’s hard to decide where to grab hold of this long, wandering article. David and vlad focused on an important point. But their objection to overemphasis on the role of the US in the post-1991 expansion shifts away from what I would want to question, which is the author’s failure to flesh out what was going on during the period following WW2.

    It’s great that Kennan called out the foolishness of the Clinton administration. But Kennon helped to propagate a cartoon-simple understanding of Soviet motivations: that the Soviets were like a ‘wind-up toy’ that would move forward until it ran into an obstacle, and so it had to be contained. This metaphor nicely conveys one of the features of the ideological quality of foreign relations of the period: the thoughtlessness of the wind-up toy makes it unnecessary to consider Soviet motives and pari passu those of NATO.

    At the risk of another oversimplification, which system actually had wind-up toy characteristics? US state planners in the ’40s took it for granted that the US capitalist order needed markets. The Soviets and their system? Not really. The author of the article nods in the direction of this with talk of’ globalization,’ but there is barely a whiff of the idea that we’re talking about a system imperative. Was there something like that influencing Soviet strategy? Welllll, it was the understanding that the capitalist system they faced was governed by such an imperative and so they best be prepared,. Kennan’s pseudotheory was in this respect a form of psychological projection.

    I don’t have a good understanding of all that went on in the tangle of negotiations and posturing that occurred during 1945-48, particularly around the question of German reindustrialiation, reparations to the Soviet Union, and the question of how to handle atomic power. My impression, however, is that the US and Britain indicated to the Soviets that at the end of the day, and well before that, Germany was going to be restored, the nukes were going to be held on to by the US, and so they had better dig in. To me it’s telling that at the point in his narrative that the author might take this up, he jumps over to talking about the Korean War as a way of gauging Soviet intentions. He should know that was a whole different kettle of fish, involving a fight between Korean forces structured by a past of collaboration with the Japanese and those fighting against it, a new Chinese communist state worried about US intervention, etc etc. Instead of getting of giving that its due, the author plops down into the comfortable platitudes of the newspaper headlines of the time re commie expansionism.

    The point here isn’t to ‘apologize’ for the Soviets. It’s just to suggest that the relatively open situation that Kennan saw being blown in the 90s may have also had an earlier edition and, in my view, that’s a story that needs to be reopened.

    Reply
    1. upstater

      It is also interesting that Khrushchev offered Eisenhower to reunite Germany as a neutral state like Austria in 1955, but was turned down. NATO probably would have ceased to exist in 1991, as it should have.

      Reply
      1. Kilgore Trout

        There were likely other missed opportunities during the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower’s 1953 speech after the death of Stalin, and only a few months into his presidency was one. If memory serves, I have read that follow-through was squelched by John Foster Dulles.
        http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/ike_chance_for_peace.html

        And then there is JFK. According to James Galbraith, and others, Kennedy had signed off on withdrawal of all advisors from Vietnam in October ’63. James Douglass’ book on the assassination reports on the back channel talks Kennedy and Kruschev opened and maintained after the Cuban missile crisis. We know how that all ended.

        Reply
        1. Michael 3

          “The Cuban Missile Crisis, that was real? I saw that movie, and thought it was bullshit.”

          Apologies to David Chase, Terry Winter and Michael Imperioli, but the Sopranos reference (from the much-loved “Pine Barrens” episode) couldn’t be helped…

          Reply
      2. hemeantwell

        Thanks for bringing that up. I believe that neutralization of Germany was in the mix early on in postwar discussions but was blown off by Truman and Churchill. A very appropriate point of orientation to the current treatment of the idea of declaring the Ukraine a neutral state.

        Reply
    2. Kouros

      Very sensible analysis.

      Nobody mentions how exhausted the Soviets were after 1945 and how they just wanted to sit down, lick their horrendous wounds and rebuild and have kids.

      Reply
      1. Polar Socialist

        I’ve lately been developing the idea that NATO was not really aimed towards Soviet Union, but mainly served two purposes in Europe; defending against the (now totally forgotten) leftist tendencies rampant in Europe right after the war – the politico-military arm of Marshall plan, if you will, and secondly to continue the long term British policy of keeping continental Europe weak and prevent it from allying with Russia – this time taken over by the new leader of the anglo-world, USA.

        The latter has been made somewhat obvious by the way Russian are talking with USA right past the EU and NATO regarding the security arrangements in Europe. By following USA militarily and in foreign policy, EU and European countries have been been found totally lacking their own will and power, which likely is no coincidence. Even Stoltenberg has making a lot of noises this week trying appear like he still had any importance.

        Reply
  10. Brian Beijer

    I don’t have a comment specifically on this piece. I think though that any event that happens in the world today needs to be interpreted through Karl Rove’s perspective first. I remember reading what he said in the early 2000’s and thinking he was an egomaniacal lunatic. Now, I think he was probably being candidly honest about how the world ” really works”.

    From the Atlantic (not sure if it is the original source):
    The aide said that guys like me [Suskind] were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    I’ve come to believe this quote is extremely valuable to understanding world events, from NATO’s drive to the East to even the pandemic.

    Reply
    1. Taurus

      There was indeed a short-lived window in the late 1990s when the geopolitical world was truly unipolar. Things evolved subsequently and this is no longer true. The US hollowed out its industrial base over the intervening 25 years and geopolitics are realigning slowly to reflect this- objective – reality.

      Reply
    2. EY

      Rove sounds very much like Boeing executives who wanted to clue their pesky engineers in on how their world really worked. Not such a good outcome for Boeing in the long run.

      Reply
  11. dftbs

    David and Vlade both point out how US-centric this type of analysis can be, particularly in only assigning historical agency to the US. I would also add in accepting the benevolent interpretation of US actions so that negative ones are seen as mistakes rather than aggressions or provocations.

    Somewhere near the start of the piece the author compares the apparent domestic division in US politics, where adherents of two parties may come to “civil violence”, to its unity in foreign policy where red and blue grandees clamor for war with Russia.

    I find this “contradiction” revealing in that it helps identify the formulating force creating US motivations. That is, from Marvel movies to Athletic events, NGOs and “think-tanks”, etc., Americans are the greatest producers of propaganda. Historically this was used to burnish the national image at home and abroad. But as US actions overwhelmed the narrative and other nations created their own narratives we also became propagandas biggest consumers as the bulk of this mental narcotic came to be consumed domestically.

    The author notes that both US parties are congruent in their foreign policy vision. I’m sure he’d find more congruence, if not in rhetoric certainly in effect, if he looked at other policy domains. For generations the public has been so propagandized into believing they are in a “democracy” that they ignore the near universal policy equivalence of both parties and focus on the rhetorical facade to the point of “civil violence”.

    The affect of this propaganda on the US brain is so pervasive that we actually believe we can DO things that Tom Clancy probably dreamt up in his commode. As Brian Westva points out in the comments, the US didn’t even win double u double u 2. Our track record for military operational success isn’t stellar, and the professionals on the “other side” often point out its rather embarrassing.

    This is a MIIMC that spends more getting people to believe the F-35 is a good plane than actually getting the F-35 to fly. This is a MIIMC that spends more trying to get Twitter blue checks to recognize Juan Guaidó than actual Venezuelan people. We have innumerable think thanks whose job is to get more funding for useless weapons that would be sunk or blown out of the sky by the Russians or Chinese in the event of actual hostilities, as opposed to thinking of actual strategies for success.

    Commenter Bill C. attributed US actions to the malign desire for “economic lebensraum”. I’d like to think our actions are, if that bad, at least that rational. But the Russians didn’t close their markets to us, even now they don’t withhold their goods from Western markets. On the opposite side of the world, China, the other nation we antagonize is the largest producer of our consumer goods.

    It seems to me that much like Tony Montaña at the end, we are in the thrall of our own product- propaganda. We have been snorting our own supply for so long we can’t tell what’s real or fake at home or abroad. We have moved on from creating propaganda to justify our actions to taking actions to satisfy our propaganda.

    Reply
    1. Stan

      Yes, dftbs.

      The US’ shirking responsibility for NATO’s putsch against Russia, and silly statements like “American identity is at stake in the Baltics [sic]”, give US voters more excuses to vote (R) & (D), and they will go on snorting too much of its own product for its own good.

      Reply
      1. John

        I read it as “American identity” as conceived by those hell bent on the Americanization and globalization of the world. I am not one of those and they scare me to death because they are at once ignorant and consumed by their grandeur, hubris it is.

        Reply
        1. Michaelmas

          Agreed. When the original post talks about ‘American identity,’ I take that as meaning the imposition of neoliberal markets uber alles.

          Reply
        2. Stan

          That ignorance and hubris still rules the nuthouse as they continue exposing a ridiculous degree of incompetence — so soon after losing more than one offensive, unprovoked war against small, pre-destroyed, non-nuclear armed countries.

          Reply
          1. Dftbs

            I agree Stan and John, ignorance and hubris have mixed into a potent incompetence. What I was trying to draw out with the comparison to “Scarface” is that all the actions taken under this cognitive deficiency ultimately undo the very things espoused by these incompetents.

            Let’s say you were some neo-(lib/con) under the employ of the Atlantic Council, with the institutional credentials and perception of intelligence that is usually attached to those. Your counsel is derived from a faulty perception of American exceptionalism and benevolence. It is also formulated by an overestimation of American economic and military power and an underestimation of that of our “adversaries”. Moreover, you are likely a true believer of these things, you want to see perpetual American supremacy. The problem is that the more your sort of advice is followed the weaker the US becomes. This contradiction is so bad that to achieve your tangible political goals you’d be better off retiring your philosophical goals. If you wanted the US to remain ascendant you’d be better off shutting up.

            This also applies to those in actual power. Let’s say you were General Milley or Secretary Austin. If you actually wanted to prepare the US military for a conflict with Russia and/or China you should honestly start by handing in your resignation. Actually I’m wrong , first you would purge the ranks of all the incompetents that yielded the results, failures, of the last three decades and then you’d tender your resignation.

            But since at all levels we are mastered by, not masters of, our propaganda this is an impossible task. The nefarious amongst us can’t even begin to see they are the biggest hurdle on the path towards their nefarious goals.

            Reply
            1. Stan

              I don’t disagree with anything you said today. My beef is with US voters. Fault lies at their feet because dumbed-down psychopaths gonna do what psychopaths do, and “good people” [sic] should know better. But Americans insist on voting themselves deeper into that swirling toilet every election cycle, and the attitudes and screw-ups inhabiting US think-tank land are never going to change until voters stop rubber-stamping them.

              Of course, having choices limited to (R) or (D) is no choice at all. And voters who finally clue-up to that reality, then decide they know which policies are best for the gen-pop and start voting for specific solutions to specific, prioritized problems, will learn their beloved Alphabet Stasi’s gargantuan black budgets are dedicated to prohibiting meaningful politicization of the general public. But that’s another problem and conversation.

              Meanwhile, as you put in other terms, tenured “deciders” have more important things to do: losing some even more expensive wars after successfully finishing off the real national economy.

              Reply
              1. Tom Pfotzer

                Stan, you’ve go it, and said it well.

                What counts is the character of the individual. No nation or culture can escape that fundamental fact.

                And that, indeed, is where the work is.

                Reply
              2. drumlin woodchuckles

                US voters did not remove Sanders from 2 out of 2 primary seasons. US politicrats did that.

                The only sense in which your comment correct is in many Americans’s passive acceptance of the Overclass-fostered establishment deathculture.
                And passive acceptance is easier than active rejection. But active rejection has to start somewhere, and it will take a first few cuture-rebels to demonstrate the visible living-out of a superior minority’s green-life culture against the inferior majority’s fossil-death culture.

                Reply
            2. Stan

              @Dftbs: “This also applies to those in actual power. Let’s say you were General Milley or Secretary Austin. ”

              I missed that important point about who is in actual power (not civilians).

              Reply
    2. bwilli123

      For the US the danger of NATO stalling (much less taking a step back) is that it is one less bond holding the the national imagination together.

      “The glue of America has thus ever been what Niccolò Machiavelli called virtù in service of “a commonwealth for expansion.” Such a republic is always in tumult, yet a tumult that, if well-ordered, finds glory.
      It is this promise of greatness, this glory of the expanding republican empire that knows only the boundary of the earth itself, that has been the glue of America. Because the United States is not a nation in the European or even Asian sense, common descent, common religion, and common culture bind only parts. That common glory of imperial expansion, combined with a republican form of government through which all citizens secure it and share in it, binds the whole.

      Forward motion thus becomes the lifeblood of such a polity. Without it, the purpose of the civic bonds of unity inevitably come into question. An America that is not a glorious republican empire in motion is not America, full stop….”
      From The Republic’s Glue Loses Its Stickiness
      https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-republics-glue-loses-its-stickiness

      Reply
    3. Kouros

      An interesting essay from Michael Brenner: https://consortiumnews.com/

      But I think that America’s “exceptionalism” is driven by greed, plain and simple. Wealth is power, and if you have ever known anyone with wealth you know exceptionalism. It is celebrated every day in the media where centibillionaires are the brightest stars in the universe.

      The problem is that the population at large, to keep marching on the imposed drumbeat, are instilled with this exceptionalist idea, which is nothing more than what LBJ said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

      That is the fundamental of American exceptionalism at global scale.

      Reply
    4. Tom Doak

      We have moved on from creating propaganda to justify our actions to taking actions to satisfy our propaganda.

      That’s a great line, and all too true.

      Reply
          1. dftbs

            I love the vulgar formulations of this, and so I’ll contribute and say that of course our elites love the smell of their own farts. But to be honest I think the “pathology” on display goes beyond simple egomania.

            The initial article was trying to give, imo, a pedantic and incomplete summary of the conditions and events that brought us to the present moment of geopolitical tension. I think the subsequent comments ascribed some more honest potential motivations for the folly of US actions on the global stage: capitalism, neoliberalism, imperialism, American exceptionalism, et al.

            What really struck me in Professor Kurths’ article was the inadvertent acknowledgment that reality exists in a realm far beyond our(American) capacity for perception. In the US we think we have these deep political cleavages, but as Kurth admits our politicians are actually on the same page about the most important policy actions. What could be more important than nuclear war?

            What becomes more apparent with time is that the motivating force for our actions is the self-delusion of our propaganda. Whereas propaganda was traditionally used to justify action motivated by other imperatives(good or bad); in this present moment our actions are taken to meet the expectations set by our propaganda. We are driven to uphold self-delusions, rather than to achieve some tangible if innoble goals.

            This goes beyond beyond “believing our own pr”. Even corporate delusions are driven by the desire to fleece or enrich your shareholders (tangible if ignoble goals). Here the metric seems to be the maintenance of the delusion(illusion) for its own sake.

            Reply
            1. Tom Pfotzer

              It’s possible that we have a case of psychological inertia (rut-think). Yes, that’s plausible.

              But that rut was and still is carefully crafted and maintained by someone with a lot of resources and talent.

              What I find very interesting is Ray Dalio’s book The Changing World Order.

              Scroll down a little on the page I link to above, and look at the glowing reviews from all your favorite people:
              Jamie Dimon, Henry Kissinger, Henry Paulson, and even Larry Summers.

              Ray Dalio’s book says “you’re in decline, you gutted your country, you’re lashing out, you’re mis-allocating resources”.

              Even the people that abetted, enabled, and profited most from the pillage are now sounding the alarm.

              So the intellectual momentum of the self-reinforcing echo chamber is being disrupted _from the top_.

              The fact that Dalio’s book was written, released now, and endorsed by the characters (and many more) at the top of the commercial side of the policy hierarchy….says a lot.

              I think there is a lot of daylight opening up between the various factions that influence policy. That red-blue consonance on the “things that matter” is fracturing. As it should; it’s well past time to change course.

              Reply
    5. ChetG

      I agree with your viewpoint entirely, dftbs, but I believe it’s worse than propaganda.

      For example, describing the Snowden “incident,” Craig Murray wrote,

      The USA, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Austria combined to force down President Evo Morales’ jet in Vienna in 2013 after the CIA falsely reported whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board.

      I feel the point is that the EU is too ready to roll over on its back and wave its legs in the air whatever the US requests. The question is, Why? I’m guessing the answer is well-directed money.

      Reply
  12. Eetu

    One small correction:

    “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 is not a Baltic state, it’s a Nordic country.

    Reply
  13. David Otness

    I think you meant James Baker as then-Secretary of State making the empty promises, not Reagan SecState, George Schultz.

    Reply
  14. Roland

    The sovereignty of the Baltic republics is not something that can be defended on the battlefield. It’s something that one might try to restore at a peace conference, or not.

    The sort of garrison needed to actually defend the Baltic republics would be indistinguishable from an offensive buildup against RF. Such a deployment would not prevent war, but ensure its outbreak.

    I’ve mentioned before that the post-Cold War expansion of NATO was the typical behaviour of a finance-capitalist elite: expansion and over-leverage when the going is good and easy. If the going gets bad, there will a crisis of confidence and panic. But in war, whence comes the bailout? War is not a market, but a rather different kind of human activity.

    The best solution is Atomic Poland. The perennial strategic liability could be transformed into the very Bulwark of Europe. There would be none of the credibility concerns which inevitably plague outside guarantees. Also, a regional power-political matter would remain what it should be: regional.

    Reply
    1. Kouros

      Wouldn’t Atomic Poland be an international illegal act, flying in the face of the NPT? Wouldn’t be it simpler to negotiate in fairness for a new security architecture in Europe with Russia? Have you seen their draft documents for the US and NATO? How is an Atomic Poland better than what the Russians are proposing?

      Reply
    2. Tom Doak

      Yes, let’s give to Poland what we gave to that one country in the Middle East. That surely helped stabilize the region.

      Reply
    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      If EUrope wants an atomic Poland, let EUrope be the one to atomify Poland all by itself. And let America separate itself by several thousand miles from the Chernobyl that an atomic Poland will help EUrope turn itself into.

      Reply
  15. Tom Pfotzer

    I have a rather different recollection and emphasis of the U.S.’ actions in enlarging NATO and encroaching on Russia.

    Russia, central Asia, and China are one of the last frontiers of resources and eager consumers available to an Empire Which Needs Markets and Materials.

    The West’s term of “globalization” is a euphemism for “we get whatever we want anywhere on the planet”. But globalization hit three major – and I mean truly major – speedbumps over the past two decades: Putin, China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the ensuing Belt and Road Initiative.

    Central Asia is book-ended by Russia/Afghanistan/Iran on the one side, and China on the other.The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a political, economic, and security organization and is the Asian landmass’ analog to NATO and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is (roughly) the economic counterpart of NATO.

    The SCO was the political platform from which the Belt and Road Initiative was launched, and which provides the physical infrastructure (roads, railways, ports), the commercial ventures and bilateral trade relations necessary to put the freight onto that transportation infrastructure. The U.S. continental railway system and its effects on the U.S. economy provide a precedent.

    SCO / BRI is Asia saying “Asia is us, it’s ours, and we don’t need nor want US involvement in our economic or political future”. It is a direct, sizable, and growing obstacle to the Western elites’ version of globalization.

    NATO’s eastern expansion is a geopolitical tool to weaken Russia, so the West can get access to Asia. The conflict with China, including the recent Taiwan dust-up, is a Western gambit to weaken China, so the West can get access to Asia.

    Book-ends.

    Let’s dispense with the flowery talk and faux-nobility of intent we’re attempting to dress this pig with. NATO-eastwards is about the Project for the New American Century. Neo-cons. Global elites looking for new rents to extract. Remember when the E.U. was reluctant to engage in full-scale coup activity in Ukraine in 2014, and Victoria Nuland, point person for NeoCons at the State Department said “F*** the E.U.”?

    So this is all the European’s idea, is it?

    The notion that eastern expansion of NATO is happening because the E.U. or central European nations “want it” is certainly somewhat true, but not at all the dominant factor.

    What’s different now versus 20 years ago is that Asia is ready for the U.S., and is willing to fight. Not only are they willing to fight, they’re able to fight.

    Another big difference is that no one seems to know how deep the self-delusion of our purported leaders really is.

    Reply
    1. Kris Alman

      How does the timing of the turmoil in Kazakhstan, a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, factor into all of this?
      https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/putin-dreams-of-a-russian-sphere-of-influence-kazakhstans-protesters-are-the-latest-to-push-back/ar-AASzCdL
      Although Putin clings to Soviet nostalgia — and to a self-drawn map of Moscow’s “sphere of influence” that covers much of the former empire — the countries surrounding Russia have other ideas. The latest example is sweeping anti-government protests in Kazakhstan that have rattled a political system entrenched for three decades and brought in Russian-led forces to try to keep a lid on the unrest.
      Putin has long accused the West of trying to curtail Moscow’s reach. Now, he is portraying Russia as more threatened than ever and is demanding guarantees from the United States and NATO that the military alliance will stay out of what he considers the Kremlin’s turf, and he has called for the removal of NATO infrastructure installed in Eastern Europe after 1997.
      For Putin, the wider goals are to rework the consequences of the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991 — what Putin last month called “a disintegration of historical Russia.”

      Reply
      1. Tom Pfotzer

        Kris – those are great points to bring up. As far as Russia’s ambition to return to its former glory and political clout in its immediate vicinity, I’d be quite surprised if it was otherwise.

        If the Monroe Doctrine got pruned down to continental U.S. tomorrow….boy, I’m not sure how much of the U.S.’ economy and psychological coherence would remain. It’d be touch and go for a while. Of that I’m sure.

        On the other questions you raise about timing and the point about the pawns in the game having different ideas…these next remarks are my speculation, and the situation in Kazakhstan is not clarified yet.

        I know that Kazakhstan is in the midst of power transfer to the next generation, and you can imagine how many coiled springs there would be if we did a power transfer every 30 years. It just about rips the country apart to do it every 4.

        So, power transfer moments are a terrific opportunity for outsiders to more easily stir the pot. So, if outsiders did have a motivation to gum up the SCO works, boy, this seems like a good time to do it, wouldn’t you say? So the timing is good, if indeed the discord is pot-stirred from without .vs. coiled-spring internals.

        What I don’t see happening is that Russia will let this situation deteriorate the way Ukraine did, if indeed the Khazakhstan turmoil is externally abetted. The Russians don’t care what the West thinks, says, or wants. That is different from the context of Ukraine in 2014.

        As far as the relatively small or less populous nations surrounding Russia not being entirely on board with Russia’s geopolitical aspirations, it’s perfectly reasonable and likely that these countries are going to do their best to negotiate for most favorable terms, just like Mexico, Canada, U.K., Japan do with us.

        Who gets to make and sell the cars, steel, TVs…who has to sacrifice their national best interests in order to keep the U.S. on-side? This is the normal stuff of statecraft, and as several posters above said better than I can, these states have to be practical. And they’ll be practical.

        What’s most relevant, in my view, is how real the former satellite states think BRI and Asian integration is. The more cogent that vision is, the less pot-stirring the U.S. can do.

        We’ll see shortly.

        Reply
  16. Alek Davis

    If Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and Georgia were in response to the movement to have them join NATO, what led to occupation of Moldova in the early 90s? Btw, hadn’t Russia occupied Abhazia and Osetia long before talks about Georgia joining NATO started? Question: Dou you think Russia would occupy Georgia or Ukraine if they were NATO members?

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Russia did not occupy Ukraine. It already had a base in Crimea. The citizens of Crimea voted to join Russia.

      Russia does not want the eastern part of Ukraine. It’s an economic basket case. It wants it to remain “Ukraine” as a buffer zone but with no NATO missiles in it.

      Reply
      1. MILLER

        I will simply add, in addition, that Russian troop deployments that are the cause of Western hysterics are merely the muscle behind the oft repeated warning to Zelenskii and his entourage: an attempt to seize the Donbass by force will put in question the very existence of Ukrainian statehood. As in the case of Western “reporting” on the March-April mobilization of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, we are naturally never told that half of the Ukrainian armed forces – 125,000 men with all manner of heavy weapons – are lined up on the contact line with the Donbass republics. Daily shelling of civilian neighborhoods by Ukrainian forces continues.

        I agree emphatically that Russia is NOT interested in absorbing the Ukraine and taking on the truly enormous costs of rebuilding its shattered economy and infrastructure and feeding and administering a hostile population. When Zelenskii was in the U.S. for his conference with Biden, he floated some sort of plan entailing $279 billion in Western aid to transform the Ukrainian economy. Never heard anything further about it, but it the figure is quite plausible as an annual requirement for stabilizing the situation, taking into consideration, as a given, that parts of such a sum will simply end up in someone’s offshore accounts.

        Thirty years ago, Ukraine’s starting position at independence was better even than that of the Russian Federation. I recall that at that time Kravchuk and the national leadership aspired to rank alongside France as an economic power in Europe; at this juncture, it is nearing the status of a “failed state”, not least of all (1) because of the West’s insistence that Ukraine cut its economic ties with Russia and (2) the severe limitations on admitting Ukrainian high value-added products to EU markets.

        In this last connection, I often wonder whether the German reunification (annexation?) was an early template for this sort of transformation (deindustrialization, depopulation, etc.), as it is described in more recent (and less triumphalist) scholarship. See for example, SPD member of the Bundesrat Petra Köpping’s 2018 volume “Integriert doch erst mal uns! Eine Streitschrift für den Osten”.

        Great comment thread!

        Reply
    2. Stan

      Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, is the birthplace of Russian culture. American culture — as it were — was “born” in Virginia. What would “Real Americans” think about chunks of Virginia being stuffed with Russian weapons as a Russian organized color coup pushed for separation from the US?

      I do understand you are really really exceptional, and I cannot suggest you indulge in a bit of empathy with Russia’s perspective on NATO’s putsch on their borders. That would be extremist of me.

      Reply
      1. Polar Socialist

        Just a minor historical technicality, but the rules who created Russian culture in Kiev pretty much all came from Novgorod, so it’s not really as clear cut. History having been political tool in Russia/Soviet Union/Russia for so long, and now in Ukraine (Ukrainians build Jerusalem, if didn’t know) makes the understanding to the birth of both somewhat confused affair.

        In any case, has anyone asked if Ukrainians even want to join NATO? Oh, they have, and majority does not – even when Crimeans and Donbassian were not included.

        Reply
        1. Stan

          Rus culture did grow from Kiev. I was accurate if not precise. And history is every nation and state’s political tool, including the Jim Crow state I was born in. ;-)

          I worked with some people who escaped Ukraine in the 90s — from Odessa, Sevastopol, L’viv — and worked very closely with some, 10 years ago. The people from Odessa told me some stories about the early years of the Soviet collapse. I heard some pretty ugly things about conditions in Ukraine at the time. A math professor described seeing people who drank gasoline after vodka stocks had had run out. Another woman I worked with, also from Odessa, told me a joke about old Soviet newspapers printing stories about people shooting themselves in the back of the head four times. (In America, the Stasi is more covert, but just as deadly, like their DDR Stasi models. For the old East German and contemporary American Stasi organs, image is everything. )

          The Ukrainians I speak of are all still in the US, and I’m certain they are all pro NATO expansion into Ukraine. They are wrong, and they do not understand how big a mistake it is for NATO to threaten Russia even more than it has. (But they do not care.) Now, each one of those Ukraine ex-pats I knew are having to deal with the Replacement Theory folks; I think they truly understand the nature of the threat.

          Reply
          1. Stan

            “… I think they truly understand the nature of the threat.”

            Moving NATO weapons and troops into Ukraine and starting a war with Russia will not benefit Jewish Ukrainians in the US one bit.

            Reply
          2. Stan

            I think my follow up comment was blocked because it contained a keyword the moderation algo didn’t like. What I wanted to say after


            “The Ukrainians I speak of are all still in the US, and I’m certain they are all pro
            NATO expansion into Ukraine. … Ukraine ex-pats I knew are having to deal with the
            Replacement Theory folks; I think they truly understand the nature of the
            threat”
            ,

            was this: the threats they face in the US are not from Russia, and NATO expansion into Ukraine will not benefit them at all.

            Reply
        2. MILLER

          Actually no. Riurik and his entourage were certainly Scandinavians – a fact that displeases Russian nationalists to this day – and their initial base (tentatively in 862) was at the mouth of the Volkhov River on Lake Ladoga, accessible to the Baltic via the Neva River. In this year, Riurik was said to have built a fortress at Ladoga, but later moved south to found a “new fortress” (Novyi gorod). Historians long considered this to be Novgorod, but urban archeology his precluded this theory (the earliest measurable dating is 962) in favor of a smaller settlement on Lake Il’men 2 miles south of Novgorod, which continued to appear as a purely local princely residence long after Riurik successors had moved to Kiev (displacing an earlier pair of Scandinavian adventurers) and it served this purpose until the end of the Novgorod’s independence in the 1470s. All of the early treaties between Riurik’s successors (907, 911, 941) and Byzantium show that the Rusian entourage was entirely made up of persons bearing Scandinavian names.

          Reply
  17. p fitzsimon

    As I recall there was a lobbying group called “The U.S. Committee to expand NATO” created by the defence contractors, Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, back around 1996. The president of the committee was a Lockheed VP and neo-con, Bruce L Jackson. Actually, I think it still exists.

    Reply
  18. Ronald

    I’ve heard US’s opportunistic approach to USSR’s dissolution was underpinned by Coasian economic theory.

    Reply
  19. Harry

    NATO took a big hit with Brexit. UK was the key NATO supporter in Europe and UK is now seen by much of Europe as the ‘enemy’. Inside Europe, only Poland and Baltic States are ardent supporters of NATO. France & Germany want NATO to fail to be replaced by an EU defense force. NATO is over-reaching and past its ‘used by’ date and Putin is using this to his advantage.

    Reply
    1. Risteard

      UK now has a worse energy and trade crisis than many EU members. If UK matters at all anymore in this European game, it’s only to persuade a future USA, perhaps a Trump Version II USA, that a EU split into up to 30 little countries to suit UK is somehow better than a EU aligned with an updated version of NATO.

      All the possible graduations in any US withdrawal from continental European bases don’t require UK inputs at all.

      UK has almost no influence on any US guarantee to any version of NATO, other than to act as an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

      Brexit innit.

      Reply
  20. Punkonomics

    Having an example what Russia has done to Prussia in Kaliningrad, you may understand, why Lithuanians after so many Russian occupations are so keen supporters of NATO.

    Reply
    1. Polar Socialist

      To be honest, during it’s history Lithuania has fought more with other powers (Sweden, Poland, Germany) than Russia.

      Regardless of that, how can anyone see NATO as protecting Lithuania instead of just causing a multitude of problems for it? Isn’t it more of an identity thing: being a “Western” country instead of one of those pesky Eastern European between wars dictatorships so recently raised from serfdom?

      Reply
  21. Michael C.

    Why does the unnecessary NATO even exist except for the arms industry to continue selling weapons to new countries? After the breakup of the USSR, instead of the frenzied drive to raid Russia by privatizing all its assets, if the West would have allowed it to integrate slowly into the economies of Europe we might very well have a world not on the brink of nuclear extinction.

    I am telling you, these insane fools running US foreign policy are psychopaths who are divorced from the reality of a shrinking, daily more at risk earth–think climate change here too–in pursuit of world domination. They don’t realize the world has shifted under its feet and nations no longer will quietly exist under the neoliberal, extraction policies of the few crazies attempting to run the world.

    They have in their stupidity, and the ignorance of their world designs, created a powerhouse China (and good for them) aligning with Russia, Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, and all the other to join nations that reject US “rules order” hegemony where it sets the rules and ignores all of them.

    Interesting if dangerous times ahead for sure. Hold on to your seats, or get under your desks and tuck your head between your knees.

    Reply
    1. Martin Davis

      Those interested in a ‘realist’ take on all this could do worse than reading Lieven (https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/01/07/dont-kick-the-can-two-key-us-proposals-for-upcoming-russia-talks/). As for the Europeans, in their various guises, it should be a reminder to try a bit harder to follow Franklin’s advice on hanging together, if that were possible. In the long run, and perhaps sooner, the US will withdraw from Europe. Parallels with the departure of the legions from Britain may then, alas, become apposite.

      Reply
  22. Victor Sciamarelli

    It should have been obvious that NATO’s expansion to include Ukraine would be a threat to Russia’s “vital security interests” which basically means something you will fight and risk dying for.
    However, Ukraine is clearly not a vital security interest of the US. Thus, we are willing to back Russia into a corner for which they will fight, and risk a possible nuclear war, over a country which is not a vital security interest for the US. I thought the US foreign policy elite were obsessed with an ideology that they could not see was flawed, and now I think they are divorced from reality.
    Besides Russia, the US has three other wars on the table: Iran, North Korea, and China over Taiwan. Though Russia is not a great power, China is a great power and rising rapidly. The last thing we should do is push Russia and China together.
    Moreover, Russia has international influence and experience. It can help the US more than hurt. Russia can help when dealing with the Middle East, especially Iran, Syria, and Turkey, as well as with terrorism, Central Asia, and China.

    Reply
  23. jl

    where do you people get your news?

    “Russia does not need to occupy the territory of NATO for any lengthy period—just enough to destroy whatever military power has been accumulated by NATO near its borders.

    And—here’s the kicker—short of employing nuclear weapons, there’s nothing NATO can do to prevent this outcome. Militarily, NATO is but a shadow of its former self. The once great armies of Europe have had to cannibalize their combat formations to assemble battalion-sized “combat groups” in the Baltics and Poland. Russia, on the other hand, has reconstituted two army-size formations—the 1st Guards Tank Army and the 20th Combined Arms Army—from the Cold War-era which specialize in deep offensive military action.

    Even Vegas wouldn’t offer odds on this one.”

    Reply
  24. Geoffrey

    “Kaliningrad – a vivid reminder of what a mess Russians can make …. when they are utterly free to be themselves”: Not unlike many US cities then – especially inner cities – where the US is utterly free to be itself!

    Reply

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