The Time Is Ripe for Détente 2.0, Cont'd

Matryoshka dolls on display at a market in St. Petersburg, Russia, in January 2009. (Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In a letter to hello@theatlantic.com, Oana Lungescu, a spokesperson for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, responds to my essay advocating a “Detente 2.0” between the NATO alliance and Russia. Spokesperson Lungescu begins by countering a figure I cited:

The United States does not “cover 72.2 percent of NATO’s budget.” This is a very misleading statistic. In reality, the U.S. share of the NATO budget is precisely 22.1446 percent. While the United States does account for over 70 percent of total defense spending by NATO countries, this funds U.S. security commitments worldwide, not just in Europe or related to NATO.

Jeffrey Tayler also repeats the old myth that NATO promised not to expand to the east at the time of German reunification. NATO has never made such a promise. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself refuted the claim, saying “the topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years.”

Mr. Tayler reiterates President Vladimir Putin’s claim that NATO planned to take over naval bases in Crimea—again, complete fiction. The facts are that Russia has violated sovereign borders by force—unprecedented in Europe since the end of the Second World War—and that it continues to supply weapons, equipment, and personnel to the militants in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Tayler’s “Détente 2.0” proposes a written renunciation of “NATO’s plans to invite Ukraine and Georgia.” Leaving aside the fact that Ukraine is not currently seeking membership, this approach embodies a worldview past its sell-by date: the idea that the large can dictate to the small. Each sovereign country has the right to choose for itself whether it joins any treaty or alliance. This is enshrined in international documents that Russia itself has signed up to.

Throughout Mr. Tayler’s essay we see a fundamental confusion of cause and effect. It is Russia’s actions in Ukraine that have prompted NATO to increase its military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance. This was simply not on the agenda before 2014. Our response has always been defensive and proportionate, transparent and fully in line with our international obligations.

I’ll close by rebutting the claim that absent a “Soviet-level threat or any real public debate,” NATO “has been expanding beyond its historical mandate.” In recent years, we have seen Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, as well as its military build-up from the Barents Sea to the Baltic, and from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. We have also seen turmoil wrack the Middle East and North Africa, as well as other threats like cyber attacks and nuclear proliferation. At the Warsaw summit in July, NATO leaders took clear decisions to tackle all those challenges, while also keeping open political dialogue with Russia. Dialogue is even more important when tensions are high, to reduce risks and increase predictability.  

NATO represents nearly one billion citizens, and half the world’s economic and military might. Our “historical mandate” is set out in the Washington Treaty of 1949: a commitment to “collective defense and … the preservation of peace and security.” In an unpredictable world, NATO allies remain committed to defending one another.

Institutional blindness, and the propensity of an institution to perpetuate and aggrandize itself, are on full display in Spokesperson Lungescu’s response to my essay. Simply countering with a flurry of budgetary statistics fails to address my basic point: Why had Washington been devoting such tremendous resources to its defense (which NATO is intended to buttress) in the absence of a major foe equal to its stature? That is, after the collapse of the Soviet Union? This growth was underway long before 2014, when the current, exacerbated standoff with Russia began.

George Kennan’s prediction, along with the critique by George Will I also cite in my essay, speak for themselves. NATO’s enlargement has validated Russia’s historical suspicion of the West. It has fostered the very anti-Western atmosphere about which Kennan warned, and increased the chances of a “hot war.”

The United States has long had other areas on which it could have been spending. Given the need to deal with its perpetual budget crises, to say nothing of its crumbling national infrastructure and relatively anemic economic recovery, such huge allocations for weapons constitute nothing short of an obscenity.

Kennan’s prediction has been born out with NATO’s expansion (and NATO operations of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia), convincing Russians that the United States has done nothing but seek to press its strategic advantages following the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. This has sown suspicion and enmity among previously pro-Western Russians and changed the political climate in the country, setting the stage for Putin’s rise to power and continued popularity. As one who lived through the end of the Cold War and has resided in Moscow since 1993, I can attest to this personally.

The result: the Russian leadership and a substantial share of Russians have evaluated, negatively, the expansion of NATO.  As Spokesperson Lungescu surely knows, strategic planners everywhere, including Moscow, consider words one thing (they may be uttered today and retracted tomorrow), but military bases, troops, and weapons systems quite another. Military capabilities count more than words, however much they are intended to placate.

In my essay, I cited then-Secretary of State James Baker’s promise to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward (according to the source I cited, “hundreds of memos, meeting minutes and transcripts from U.S. archives” affirm this, as do others). No serious rebuttal would attempt to assert that the United States is not responsible for NATO and which countries join it. Gorbachev confirmed the promise as late as 2009, and the U.S. ambassador to Russia at the time, Jack Matlock, has concurred. As I stated in my essay, no written guarantee was made between Baker and Gorbachev. Russia’s decision not to request one was both a huge mistake and entirely emblematic of the trust reigning between the two sides at the time.

NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration proclaims that Ukraine (and Georgia) will eventually join; and the Ukrainian Parliament voted in late 2014 to abolish its “non-bloc” status in order to pave the way for this. NATO obviously has never retracted its words, nor has Ukraine restored its non-bloc status (though, as things stand now, it will not be joining NATO soon, if ever). The decision on Ukraine joining NATO will obviously be jointly made. But it cannot come about at all unless NATO—the inviting party—makes it.

Looking back to Ukraine’s pro-Western Maidan protest movement, and at the 2008 Declaration, the conclusion is clear: NATO would, if it could, have embraced Ukraine—at Kiev’s request, of course—and with it the Crimean Peninsula. In that eventuality, the strategic situation for Russia along its 1,500-mile border with Ukraine would change dramatically.

That Russia caught the West so off-guard with its stealth invasion of Crimea attests to Western policymakers’ blindness to the impact of NATO enlargement on Russian strategic thinking. Spokesperson Lungescu’s response to my essay shows nothing in NATO itself has changed. And that is worrisome.

NATO’s ongoing, relentless, U.S.-backed enlargement has fostered the present (dangerous) climate of tension with Russia. Apparently, advocating for détente—for a lessening of that tensions, and for peace, in other words—strikes Spokesperson Lungescu as an outrage that demands rebuttal. That only further drives home my point: Policymakers in Washington who oversee NATO need to understand the consequences of the enlargement process and stop it now.