On the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev's 90th anniversary (born March 2, 1931) and the 30th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact dissolution (February 25, 1991) we once again and not without reason look at the reasons and consequences of NATO's expansion to Eastern Europe, which was accompanied in turn by increased military and political pressure on Russia in the first half of the 21st century.
Of considerable interest to us are events that led to the fact that NATO, as an anti-Soviet military-political bloc, not only did not cease to exist after the collapse of the Soviet Union but significantly moved deep into Eastern Europe and came very close to Russian borders. As a result, we can see that outbreak a military threat from the North Atlantic alliance in the 1920s is neither an illusion nor a possible theorizing, as many used to think back in the 1990s, but the harsh reality of modern international relations. For many analysts in Russia, eastward expansion of NATO is not only the consequence of a mistake, or perhaps a betrayal, based on colossal naivety turning into stupidity, which the Soviet ruling class committed more than thirty years ago.
After a considerable time, we can positively state that, affected by public sentiment, arms race fatigue and confrontation with the West, CPSU General Secretary and President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as his associates CPSU ideologist Alexander Yakovlev, and USSR Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, offered unprecedented concessions to the West. Being in the illusions of rapprochement and reconciliation with the West, and solving all their internal challenges at its expense, they launched the process of Germany's reunification, withdrew troops from Eastern Europe and dissolved the Warsaw Pact and the COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), startted the policy of "new thinking". It seemed that such gesture of goodwill should have been appreciated by Western European partners, but after 30 years we, unfortunately, state the tragic and sometimes terrifying consequences of the "great deception" on the part of the West.
These emotional and ill-advised decisions, among other things, led to crisis of the Soviet elites with the result in "conspiratorial Treaty in Belovezhskaya Puscha" (December 8, 1991), to the anniversary of which we are also fast approaching with congratulations to Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Vyacheslav Kebich who, having signed this Treaty along with Gorbachev's inaction, in fact, destroyed the single Soviet state.
The collapse of the USSR and the entire social bloc was followed by a sharp decline in Russia's international authority and a rapid reorientation of the countries the region to the West, which the world community perceived as a natural outcome of the collapse of the Soviet model. The United States as well introduced in the mindsets of the world community, through controlled global and regional media, the image of the USA as a winner possessing the full moral right to shape the paradigm of a new world order. In the best traditions of American exceptionalism and messianism, George H.W. Bush declared the strengthening of world's liberal ideology. In 1991, speaking about changes in the East European countries, he noted that the United States aspires to a new mono-polar world. The new order, according to Washington, was to be based on common (universal) values, including the ideas of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and rational economic management, which together symbolize the secret of the success of the American model of development.
Based on the above, the U.S. President made it a goal to introduce and enforce in every possible way these values in Eastern European countries and communities.
One of the most effective tools for strengthening American positions in Eastern Europe were sound economic policies towards former Soviet camp. Groups of comprador bourgeoisie, as well as "white collars" who worked for large Western companies, became a significant resource of influence in these countries. The principle of "open doors" and "equal opportunities" meant for post-Soviet economies the bankruptcy of local manufacturers and their absorption by American in particular, and Western in general, financial capital. This happened amid the fusion of local party elites with the nouveau riche and the formation of oligarchic-corrupt structures through which the United States increased its influence in these countries.
No doubt that the turn of the 1980s and 1990s was a "window of opportunities" for the United States. Fortunately for the USA, the Bush administration understood that "doors" to Eastern Europe had "opened", and it was important to to enter these doors. Washington made vigorous efforts to establish trade with the countries of the region, to abolish the previous discriminatory laws. The goal was also to link in an international legal way the actions of these countries through integration into the World Trade Organization, as well as their maximum inclusion in the Bretton Woods financial system through providing loans and conducting foreign economic activity exclusively in US dollars.
Obviously, very important for disseminating American liberal ideology in Eastern Europe was the promotion of the so-called idea of the development of civil society. This implied the active use of various educational programs, non-governmental organizations, foundations, whose purpose was to attract the best minds in the United States, promote political pluralism and train the pro-American political elite and a network of pro-American public organizations in former socialist countries, which was the basis of the so-called soft power of the United States in the region.
These tools were also applied by the United States in relation to Russia, whose foreign policy in the early 1990s was oriented in a beneficial for Washington direction. The Kremlin sought liberal transformations and partnership with the United States. Being in this illusion, the ruling class of Russia embarked on building a democratic society, political and economic transformation, took an unprecedented in history reduction of its armed forces, made a large-scale pullout of troops from Central and Eastern Europe, withdrew all nuclear weapons within its national territory.
It is no secret that the United States was interested in weakening the ex-rival's positions as much as possible and stopping all potential and real possibilities to revitalize the Russian pole of power. The vital need of the United States was to make sure that under no circumstances would Russia regain its former influence in Eastern Europe. To that end, Washington and its Western European allies took concerted actions to prevent the enhancement of Moscow's role in the post-Soviet space and the real rapprochement of these countries around Russia. It should also be noted that objectively, in the early 90s of the 20th century, the stance of the West in these countries was strengthening, this inevitably complicated integration processes in the post-Soviet space, on the one hand, and, on the other, posed a threat to Russian security. To the great disappointment of idealistic liberals in the Kremlin, not only did the NATO military-political bloc not cease to exist in the mid-1990s, but it considerably increased its influence on the number of East European countries, which became a sort of a surprise to the Russian ruling circles of that period.
To implement this policy as well, with support of the United States, the Partnership for Peace Program aimed at NATO military cooperation with non-member states, was launched in 1994. In the very first year, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Estonia, i.e. almost all European countries that were part of the Soviet influence or part of the Soviet Union (the three Baltic republics), joined the Program.
Moscow kept on hoping that participation in the program refers exclusively to the cooperation of ex-NATO countries, but in no way their membership in the bloc. Nonetheless, the NATO's leaders stated at that time that the Membership Action Plan (MAP) was a preparatory phase before entering NATO.
It became obvious after a while that the United States were challenged to open access to the organization to new members, but to do it in a way not creating much complications for Boris Yeltsin's regime experiencing significant instability inside the country. The fear of the communists returning to power in Moscow, especially after the "shooting of the parliament" in 1993, partially stopped and forced the expansionist aspirations of the Bush and Bill Clinton administrations to be veiled. Another important factor was that the successor of the USSR, Yeltsin's Russia, addressed resolving internal problems, primarily social and economic, and had not yet formulated its long-term foreign policy goals, which created a vacuum situation in the region convenient for Western countries. It was only in 1994 during a meeting with B. Clinton, that Yeltsin, perhaps for the first time, publicly voiced Russia's aspiration to retain its dominance in the post-Soviet space and the desire to prevent the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance. The Kremlin's position was that the transfer of the former confrontational logic based on the containing the Soviet Union, to Russia was unacceptable and counterproductive under the current conditions.
However, no one considered this statement in Washington seriously. It was believed in the American expert community that Russian Federation was an "outgoing superpower", a "dog that does not bark", etc.; for many, the existence of Russia seemed to be a temporary phenomenon that could be neglected.
Such disregard of Russia's interests resulted in the next four stages of the Alliance expansion.
As known, the North Atlantic Alliance had seven stages of expansion. The first, the second and the third expansions took place even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, – Greece and Turkey in 1952, Federal Republic of Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, which we can fully attribute to the consequences of the Cold War stand-off .
The first alarm was the unification of Germany. In 1990, as a result of the unification of Germany, the Alliance territory extended to the lands of the former GDR and occupied the entire territory of the united Germany although the unification negotiations reached an oral agreement that foreign (non-German) troops would not be deployed on the ex-GDR territory. Also, the Soviet delegation was convinced of the inadmissibility of NATO's expansion to Eastern Europe.
The existence of such agreement and its subsequent violation by NATO had been repeatedly declared by the Russian leadership. However, after a while, all claims were actively rejected by the Alliance and are still being rejected nowadays. Ex-President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev is rather inconsistent about these agreements, confirming their existence in some interviews and denying them in others.
On April 24, 1999, NATO summit in Washington altered the procedure for NATO accession supplementing it by the so-called "candidacy" stage.
The NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) contributes strongly to preparations for NATO accession. In the future, all subsequent NATO members went through the MAP.
The appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as the Foreign Minister in January 1996 was a crucial "U-turn over Atlantic". The post-Soviet space was declared a priority direction of foreign policy, a "zone of Russian vital interests of Russia", the concept of multipolarity was announced, and NATO's approach to the borders of the Russian Federation was considered a potential threat.
Yugoslav crisis (March-June 1999), NATO's open aggression against Yugoslavia intensified anti-NATO and anti-American sentiments in Russia in the elites in particular, and in public opinion in general.
It is obvious that the quintessence of the U.S. strategy towards Russia was very frankly outlined back in 1997 by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his article "A Geostrategy for Eurasia". In the article, the author identified two major imperatives for his country in the Eas European region. The first: expansion of the most critical strategic foothold in Europe by moving eastward, including the Baltic region and the Ukraine, and the second: elimination of Russia as a great Eurasian power. Instead, it is necessary to create a kind of confederation consisting of the "European Russian Republic, Siberian Republic, and the Far Eastern Republic".
Significantly, his ideas were used in formulating a "new strategy" of NATO aimed at the maximum weakening and collapse of Russia, acquisition of its resources, asserting control over its nuclear potential.
NATO is pursuing the same goal aspiring to annex to the Alliance as many post-Soviet states as possible, thus changing the geopolitical situation throughout Eurasia.
The situation was very precisely described by the well-known American political scientist M. Maldebaum who called the decision to expand NATO a "bridge to the nineteenth century".
According to him, the expansion of NATO is building a buffer between Russia and Germany, creating an artificial barrier to the natural rapprochement of the two great countries. He also notes that NATO not only is not an instrument for democracy development; it has not been inherently created for this purpose. "Rather it is a military alliance, an association of some sovereign states directed against others. The 'other' in this case is Russia”.
Vladimir Putin, who replaced Boris Yeltsin as Russian President in 2000, advocated for idea of a strong and self-sufficient statehood of Russia. At the beginning of his first tenure, he saw his goal in "returning honor and dignity to Russia". The foreign policy concepts of the Russian Federation adopted on June 28, 2000, emphasized that "the NATO's current political and military attitudes do not coincide with the security interests of the Russian Federation, and sometimes directly contradict them. Therefore, cooperation between Russia and NATO is possible only if built on the basis of due consideration of the interests of the parties, and unconditional fulfillment of the commitments".
The situation was further aggravated by the so-called fifth expansion of NATO, which took place in March 2004, when 7 states joined the bloc at once: Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia.
At the April 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO agreed to the accession of Albania and Croatia.
It should be noted that Russian side has repeatedly expressed its concern that accession of new NATO members – the countries of Central and East Europe – significantly increased the capabilities of the Alliance countries to destroy the facilities of the Russian nuclear deterrent forces (SNF). Suffice it to recall that accession of only the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland resulted in the fact that 290 airfields, a number of naval bases and warship bases located in close proximity to the Russian territory, are at NATO's disposal.
As a result of the latest NATO expansion at the expense of the Baltic countries - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - the Alliance's area of responsibility moved 700-750 km deep to the East, thus having critically reduced strategic warning time for Russia and Belarus.
Very significant and alarming at this summit was the position of the two post-Soviet states (Ukraine and Georgia), which formally "showed the political will to membership". For instance, Ukraininan President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Arseniy Yatsenyuk wrote on January 11, 2008 the so-called "letter of the three" in which they asked NATO to provide Ukraine with MAP. Literally, "...We hope that the progress made by Ukraine within the framework of an Intensified Dialogue on Membership and related reforms will soon be recognized by the Alliance ... Currently, Ukraine is interested in joining the Membership Action Plan... We hope that the level of readiness of our state for new achievements will be the basis for a positive response during the next NATO summit in Bucharest." But awarding MAP to Georgia and Ukraine was suspended, in particular, due to positions of Germany and France.
Besides, no nationwide survey had been conducted in Ukraine at that moment. Based on the Constitution of the Ukraine, only a national referendum could decide whether or not Ukraine would join NATO. The sensitivity of the issue for Russia was lifted for some time when the power in Kiev changed and Viktor Yanukovych was elected President of the Ukraine. On April 2, 2010, Yanukovych liquidated the interdepartmental commission on preparing the country for joining NATO and dismissed the national center for Euro-Atlantic integration.
Confrontation in the Ukraine was accompanied by vivid Washington's anti-Russian position during the South Ossetia conflict in 2008. The United States, using the mass media, contributed to shaping the image of Russia in the minds of the world community as an aggressor, an enemy threatening the liberal world order.
Once again the hope for restoring partnership relations and dialogue between Washington and Moscow appeared with the the Obama administration's arrival in the White House, which announced a policy of "reset" in US-Russian relations.
These hopes were ruined as a consequence of abrupt tension in bilateral relations in 2014 following the political crisis in the Ukraine, when Crimea rejoined the Russian Federation.
In military-strategic and geopolitical aspect in Eastern Europe, until 2014 Russia retreated and "surrendered" one by one all its allies and strategic partners, which affected the international image of the Russian Federation. The annexation of Crimea and Donbass events are symbolic and fateful. Russia made a counter-strike and demonstrated to its allies that it had entered a decisive stage of confrontation with the West. There is a clear geopolitical dilemma: either Russia ceases to exist as a state, as the Joe Biden administration wants, or we will see Russia's revenge for the defeat in the Cold War.
In the face of a tough confrontation, these events were extremely negatively perceived by the United States and its allies and led to imposion of anti-Russian sanctions. "Western democracies" accused the Kremlin of violating Ukrainian sovereignty and annexing the Crimean peninsula. A special place in this process is occupied by the so-called "limitrophe states" Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) with leaders of the Baltic countries playing the first violin. The Baltic leaders are active in claiming fears that their states could become new targets for "aggressive" Russian expansion. At the end of 2014, the US Congress adopted Resolution 758 "On the sharp condemnation of the actions of the Russian Federation", "which has carried out a policy of aggression against neighboring countries aimed at political and economic domination".
Amid this confrontation, on May 19, 2016, Alliance signed a protocol on Montenegro's accession. This was taken extremely painfully in Russia, since Serbs – and Montenegrins are the Serbs - had been historical allies of Russia. From that moment on, Montenegro was granted the right to participate in all NATO meetings as an observer. Demonstratively, on June 5, 2017, Montenegro officially became a member of NATO. On March 27, 2020, another former Yugoslav Republic, the Republic of North Macedonia (formerly Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia, - Vadim Verbovsky), officially became a member of NATO.
Thus, in the conditions when Russia started to take real actions to protect its national interests, mass media of the United States and Western Europe characterized its policy as aggressive. At the same time, information content often differs by projecting Putin's personal and political characteristics onto the entire foreign policy of Russia. The image of the Russian President is being demonstrated as that of a leader seeking to destroy the "democratic" world formed after the collapse of the USSR. There is a process of demonizing the President's personality and personalizing the entire foreign policy of the Russian Federation.
Unfortunately, not having a wide arsenal to protect own interests, Russia takes a defensive and wait-and-see position, paying special attention to the military development and positioning itself in the international arena as a fundamental advocates of following the norms of international law. Russia is conducting an awareness-raising and information campaign to reveal Washington's dictatorial and "undemocratic plans and methods" in imposing standards that do not match lifestyle, traditions, or culture of most countries. A special place in Russia's foreign policy is occupied by the idea of a multipolarity of the world that does not hinder the realization of national sovereignty, which takes into account the rights of each state to pursue a sovereign and independent domestic and foreign policy. In this regard, Russia prioritize close integration with its neighbors to retain the identity of peoples in the Eurasian space, which was embodied in the establishment of the EEU (Eurasian Economic Union).
Considering Eastern Europe as a single geopolitical region, we should not forget that it is represented by states with different cultures, mentalities and political traditions. In addition, for most of their history, these countries have been subject to policies of great powers and often acted as a bargaining chip in a big geopolitical game. Among other things, these reasons explain the policy of East European countries in aspiration to maximize benefits by playing on the contradictions of Russia and Western states.
Stating the outcomes of NATO's eastward expansion, it must be mentioned that it is accompanied by active military and political pressure on Russia. A special place in this policy is given to information warfare against Russia, the use of "double standards", depicting it as an "enemy" threatening liberal values and the well-being of the global community. Under Donald Trump, and especially under Joe Biden, the United States at the level of officials expresses the conviction that Russian politics revitalize imperial ambitions and aggressiveness which call into question the independence of small states on the Russian periphery.
At the same time, according to a certain part of the American establishment and analytical community, Russia addresses ensuring its national security in the long term, where large-scale energy and transport projects occupy a key place. In this regard, the construction of the South and Nord Streams, the Power of Siberia gas pipelines, and the development of the Northern Sea Route provide some degree of economic stability and form a coalition of Russia's economic partners.
However, it should also be noted that after the collapse of the socialist system, Russia lost effective tools to ensure its influence in Eastern Europe and had to take a defensive and wait-and-see position. This was especially evident in the Minsk peace process in particular, and in settling Donbass situation in general.
Therefore, the resilient trend towards NATO eastward expansion convinces the Kremlin that Washington is continuing the "containment policy" against Russia, forcing it to pay special attention to the development of the army and modern military equipment. The new types of weapons voiced by President Vladimir Putin in his March 2018 address have become unprecedented. To some extent, this was Russia's asymmetric response to the deployment of missile defense by NATO countries. After deceleration of the Minsk format and intensification of pro-NATO rhetoric in the Ukraine, repeated calls have been made for the militarization of the economy and the "de-occupation" of the country. Public opinion in Russia is more than ever aimed at a huge spike in its economic and political development. Russia is in desperate need for a breakthrough in the economic, and especially in the technological area, the country once again has faced the urgent issue of overcoming the technological and economic gap with the West. The openness of the economy to innovation and advanced development is one of the defining qualities of the competitiveness of the Russian economy. At the same time, the diplomatic rhetoric in the international arena, positions Russia as a country ready for an equal dialogue with the United States, a supporter of a multipolar world where all countries have the opportunity to pursue independent sovereign foreign and domestic policies. In this regard, special importance is given to compliance with the norms of international law, non-interference in the affairs of sovereign countries, which, according to Moscow, the United States often neglects guided by the power of force, imposing its values and ideals on different countries and thus striving for a unipolar world.