In May, the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defence system in Romania - to be operated by NATO - was declared operational amid pomp and fanfare, stoking fresh tensions with Russia. The missile defence system is the latest example of NATO policies which have proved to be destabilising, but let us rewind for some context. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War, the West, and by extension NATO, found itself in a very advantageous position: there no longer existed a rival in the military sense, European integration continued with the peaceful unification of Germany and the development of east European states which had been separated by the Iron Curtain, and Russia, the former enemy, increasingly became a trading partner. From a Western perspective, the Cold War really could not have ended any better. Why then, when the status quo was so much in its favour and the world was (mostly) stable, has NATO expanded, provoked Russia and arguably contributed to undermining global stability?
While much of contemporary literature, particular in the Western popular press, has been devoted to lambasting Russia’s bellicose actions (albeit legitimately), going deeper by also exploring NATO’s role in precipitating them has, conveniently, received somewhat less attention. Though Russia’s actions cannot be condoned, there are, as always, two sides to the story, and due to its expansion, provocation and interventions NATO has also contributed to the instability and tension which characterises the current international political climate.
Recruiting in Russia’s back yard
One of the factors contributing to NATO-Russia tensions has been NATO enlargement - despite pledges that it would not move eastwards, nor recruit former Warsaw Pact members - which Russia says threatens its security. This perception was formalised in its Military Doctrine of 2010 which identifies NATO military infrastructure moving closer to its border as the main external military danger. Since the Cold War ended, Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia have joined the Alliance, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia and Montenegro (with which an Accession Protocol was signed in May) lined up to join. According to the Alliance its policy on enlargement is that “NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.” The question can be asked however, has NATO enlargement contributed to security in the Euro-Atlantic area?
Security in the Euro-Atlantic area, though admittedly influenced by a multitude of complex factors, is largely predicated on good NATO-Russia relations. It therefore follows that provoking Russia through expansion - thereby altering the balance of forces as well as the geographic distribution of those forces i.e. the security conditions that have ensured peace since the end of the Cold War - negatively affects NATO-Russia relations and, hence, negatively affects security in the Euro-Atlantic area.
Even if the case can be made that countries in the European Union, or soon to join it, should also join NATO in order to also integrate them into the European defence architecture, this would not cover countries clearly in Russia’s “back yard” such as Georgia. If this country joins NATO, then Russia’s fear of being encircled by the Alliance would not be paranoia but an undeniable reality. In such a case, it can be expected that Russia will respond, presumably by raising new forces and/or stationing them further west, which in turn could prompt NATO to respond and lead to a tit-for-tat remilitarization to the detriment of Euro-Atlantic security.
Missile shield (not) aimed at Russia
The logical principle called Occam’s Razor states that all things being equal, the simplest (or most logical) explanation is usually the right one. From a Russian perspective, if it applied this concept to the NATO missile shield currently coming online in Eastern Europe - which NATO claims is to protect Europe against rogue states in the Middle East and Russia fears is aimed at weakening its nuclear deterrent thereby altering the nuclear balance of power -Russia would (and did) conclude that its explanation is the more likely of the two. Even if one subscribed to the view that the missile shield was aimed at rogue states, NATO officials have been vague about whether it could be reconfigured to be used against Russia.
Although NATO officials have consistently stated that the Aegis anti-missile system would be ineffective against Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles or ICBMs, evidently this has not allayed Russian fears. Russia also claims that the launching platforms could be used to launch cruise missiles, thereby violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and described it as a threat to regional and global stability. President Vladimir Putin has warned that any attempt to neutralise Russia’s strategic deterrent risks a new arms race and that Russia will take responsive steps and develop strike weapons capable of overcoming any missile shield. Thus, regardless of which explanation of the missile shield’s true purpose one believes, the reality is that after decades of mutual staged nuclear disarmament, nuclear rearmament is now a distinct possibility and it is NATO that has precipitated it.
Stability in the international system is predicated on peremptory norms - or jus cogens - of international law being observed without derogation. One of these norms governs the use of force, specifically the prohibition of fighting wars of aggression, i.e. wars fought not in self defence, unless they are collective actions authorised by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 - regardless of whether or not it was the right thing to do - did not have the authorisation of the UNSC and therefore undermined the legitimacy of the United Nations and sent the dangerous message that unilateral interventions are acceptable in certain situations.
Another NATO intervention, this time in support of UNSC Resolution 1973, namely in Libya in 2011, though decisive and ending quickly, has also been dubious for a different reason. Libya is now largely lawless, with an array of armed militias controlling different areas of the country. The chaos has resulted in the Islamic State becoming increasingly active in the country, which has also become a paradise for people trafficking networks smuggling refugees across the Mediterranean - usually crammed into unseaworthy boats – as part of Europe’s migrant crisis. Although the intervention in Libya was in support of a UNSC resolution, NATO, as the main firepower provider, also carries responsibility for turning Libya into a failed state.
NATO has been, and continues to be, a valuable - if not irreplaceable - institution which serves an important purpose. This does not mean however that it should not be looked at critically, its policies questioned and its dubious actions pointed out. In order for the Alliance to continue to contribute to global stability, rather than stoke instability, the following conclusions are arrived at:
1. Further expansion of the Alliance will bring more disadvantages than benefits (potential candidates bring very little military capability but a range of potential problems) and will provoke Russia which fears NATO is encircling it.
2. The missile shield in Eastern Europe clearly antagonises Russia (weighing the risks of a rogue state striking Europe against the risks of a new nuclear arms race with Russia suggests the latter are the greater).
3. Foreign interventions set a dangerous precedent (when embarked upon without UNSC authorisation) and even when undertaken in support of a UNSC resolution should be carried through properly not to leave the chaos of a failed state in their wake.
(*) Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza is a political columnist and PhD candidate who has spoken at numerous international conferences and published articles on international affairs.