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NATO Expansion

I am not an expert on modern international relations, but I know something about how states act and I have an interest in the subject insofar as it can affect my own life. I have been sceptical of NATO expansion since back in the 1990’s, when I was at Yale and NATO’s expansion was a very new subject. I remember listening to a talk by William Odom on his article, “NATO’s Expansion: Why the critics are wrong” and thinking that expanding NATO into Eastern Europe seemed dangerously provocative of Russia, but I was glad to see it both for the sake of the original members of the alliance (as an additional security against Russia) and for the new members, would would otherwise be on their own and more or less helpless against potential Russian aggression.

That was a different time, of course. Russia was a different country, still more or less democratic and still trying to find its way in a post-Communist world. In 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine expressed an interest in joining NATO, Russia announced that it would consider such moves aggressive. Just months later, they supported separatists in South Ossetia in a short-lived war against Georgia. The Ukraine situation remained dormant longer, probably because of the lack of any plausible separatist groups to support. In less than a decade, however, Russia managed to foment sufficient unrest in eastern Ukraine that they could claim there was a separatist movement in two areas of the “Donbas” (Donets Basin) region. This led to war, with Russia’s supporting the separatists, and it is this same region that provides the main justification for the current war in Ukraine.

I would be glad to see Ukraine brought into NATO, but, from a practical standpoint, I am not surprised that Russia would react negatively, and I think there is justification for their doing so. If Mexico joined a military alliance aimed primarily against the United States, surely we would also object. There are better and worse ways of handling the situation, however, and it looks like we (the West in general) have handled Ukraine’s NATO membership in probably the worst way. By dragging it out, neither cancelling the application nor approving it, we have given Russia plenty of opportunity to express its discontent in ways that hurt Ukraine and the people who live there.

Should Russia have a veto on Ukraine’s membership in NATO? “Should” here is a slippery word. In principle, a nation should decide on its own foreign policy, without regard to other states. In practice, the security of neighbouring states is a primary concern in foreign policy, and it is unrealistic to expect Russia passively to accept the encroachment of NATO right up to its borders — and not just the tiny border it shares with Norway, but a very long and open border with Ukraine. Whether there could be some way to convince Russia to allow Ukraine to join NATO is, at this point, a moot point since it was apparently never discussed. The Russian invasion appears to be on the verge of solving the problem in a semi-permanent fashion, as Ukraine has already offered its neutrality and non-membership in NATO as the principle for a peace with Russia. Suppose NATO had instead initiated negotiations with Russia along these lines in the first place. It is possible that they could have gotten a similar deal, with NATO as a group formally guaranteeing Ukraine’s security, but without incorporating the Ukrainian army into NATO’s military structure.

I think this is the gist of a couple of articles I have read recently arguing that Russia needs to be involved in negotiations around Ukraine’s status, and it is unfair to expect them to sit idly while a vast military apparatus creeps up to their doorstep. The latest of these is from yesterday, “The Story of the Siberian Husky.” That article also mentions the Peace of Westphalia, although the promised discussion of its relation to the Ukraine war is never forthcoming, so it’s hard to tell what the author had in mind.

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