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NATO Expansion: More Muscle for U.S. To Flex

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At a 1999 summit in Washington, D.C., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization welcomed its first new members of the post-Cold War era: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The expansion was broadly hailed in Europe and the United States as a bridge-building effort to seal the Cold War rift. Moscow did not agree, and the expansion condemned Russian-Western relations to the deep freeze for three years.

Once the brouhaha of the summit died away, however, there were some uncomfortable questions that NATO's supporters had to deal with. The alliance was formed to defend Europe from the Soviet Union; what would it do, now that the Soviet threat no longer existed? The answer from the new members was simple: Soviet = Russian. The answer from the Russians was equally simple: Disband NATO. Others felt that NATO should evolve into a political talk-shop, a peacekeeping force, a military adjunct to the European Union or some other nebulous confidence-building organization.

Five years later — 15 years after the Berlin Wall fell — it is a different world and a different NATO. On March 29, the alliance admitted the three remaining former Soviet satellites (Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia) and three former Soviet republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), as well as a piece of the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia).

But the expansion did more than add 50 million people and rationalize NATO's eastern border.

For the most part, the confusion of 1999 is gone; with the 2004 expansion, NATO knows exactly what it is — even if some members are not happy with the outcome. NATO is an instrument for Western (read: U.S.) influence globally. The alliance now has troops operating in long-term missions in Afghanistan, and soon will have troops in Iraq. Because the United States remains the pre-eminent power in the alliance — and in the world — it is Washington that calls the shots.

Core NATO members such as France and Germany certainly disagree with this turn of events, but have lacked the influence to stop it. That has become — and will continue to be — the case because of the admittance of NATO's newest members. All of the fresh blood can be safely grouped into the "new Europe" that U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so charmingly coined in the lead-up to the Iraq war. These states all share historical experience in betrayal by France and domination by Germany and Russia. It is only natural that such states would search further abroad for allies to help guarantee their security. In the 1999 Kosovo war, the United States was able to use NATO to generate a veneer of international respectability for actions that it could not get the United Nations to sanction. From Estonia to Bulgaria, the United States now has 10 new — or newish — states within NATO that Washington can count on for support when such a state of affairs surfaces in the future. The 2003 Iraq war is a prime example; Bulgaria practically led the charge at the United Nations for Washington.

Russia might not be thrilled with this development, but it is certainly glad NATO's eyes are casting about the planet and are not riveted solely on the East. Further smoothing Russian-NATO relations is the fact that — although U.S. influence over the alliance is stronger than ever — NATO forces in Europe are weaker than ever and are only expected to be further downsized. Germany, long the European bugaboo, has cut its military forces to the point that it has next-to-zero power projection capacity, while the United States is openly discussing pulling troops out of bases across Europe (much to the Berlin's chagrin, we might add).

NATO's home front is not merely secure, it is not even a front anymore. The only spot on the European continent that requires forces is the Balkans, and even this is child's play compared to the tasks of NATO's past. Places such as Kosovo will be a headache for at least a generation, but such brushfires do not threaten NATO's core — or even new — members. That has changed the very nature of NATO from a defensive (or offensive, depending on your politics) military alliance to a tool of global influence.

NATO's Neighbors

On the surface, Russia's strategic situation is miserable. All its former satellites — plus three of its former republics — are in an alliance with a nuclear first-strike policy that was formed to counter the Red Army. Its only reliable allies are an incompetently led Belarus and militarily insignificant Armenia. Russian military spending is well up from its late 1990s lows, but failed nuclear exercises earlier this year and the 2000 Kursk submarine sinking are real reminders that even the once-feared Soviet nuclear arsenal is only a shadow of its former self. The question at the top levels of the Russian government is how to manage the military decline; they are not yet to the point of asking how they can reverse it.

In this regard, NATO's 2004 expansion is a symptom of a much deeper issue: Russia's endemic decline. Putin spent the bulk of his first term simply asserting control over the levers of power. Now, with a tame Duma and a relatively loyal government at his beck and call, Putin is focusing Russia's energies on halting (and hopefully reversing) Russia's not-so-slow-motion collapse. Attempting such a Herculean task will take nothing less than 200 percent of the Russian government's time and attention, assuming everything goes perfectly — and in Russia things rarely proceed perfectly.

In the meantime, Moscow simply lacks the bandwidth to seriously address anything going on in its neighborhood, much less farther abroad. Attempts to counter what it considers unfriendly developments will be flimsy and fleeting. Witness the recent violence against Serbs in Kosovo: Russia sent a few harshly worded press releases and some humanitarian aid, and that was the end of it. The fact that the Baltics made it into NATO with so little Russian snarling — or that Georgia transitioned to such an anti-Russian government so easily — is testament to Moscow's distraction.

It is also a harbinger of things to come as Russia's introspection creates opportunities for power groups far more aggressive than NATO:

  • Uzbekistan hopes to become a regional hegemon, and will capitalize on its indirect U.S. backing to extend its influence throughout eastern Central Asia, particularly vis-à-vis Russian allies Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
  • Militant Islamist groups will deepen their influence in the southern former Soviet Union, particularly in the Caucasus.
  • China will continue quietly encouraging its citizens to populate eastern Siberia while working to lash Kazakhstan, traditionally Russia's playground, to it economically.
  • India is planting flags in the energy-rich Caspian basin, particularly in Kazakhstan, while its intelligence services flow anywhere Kashmiri militants might travel.
  • Turkey is deepening its political, economic and military ties with Georgia and particularly with Azerbaijan where Turkish military forces often patrol the Azerbaijani skies.
  • Japan is looking to carve out the resources of Siberia for itself and is steadily expanding its economic interests in the Russian Far East.
  • The European Union is pressing its economic weight across the breadth of Russia's western periphery. As it brings the former Soviet satellites into its own membership, Russian interests will find them cut off from their old partners and markets.
  • The United States is making inroads whenever and wherever it can.

    The question is not whether Russian influence can be rolled back in the years ahead, or even where — it is by how much.

    NATO's Future

    Diplomatically, the second post-Cold War expansion was not as loud an affair as the first. The 1999 expansion also occurred during the run-up to the Kosovo war. Within a two-month period Russia saw the three most militarily powerful of its former satellites join an opposing alliance with a nuclear first-strike policy, while its most loyal European ally suffered a bombing campaign, courtesy of that same alliance. Russia fought tooth and nail in diplomatic circles to prevent the expansion, and quite rightly felt betrayed. One of the deals made by the administration of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush in the last days of the Cold War was that Moscow would allow Germany to reunite and remain completely in NATO, so long as the alliance did not expand eastward.

    STRATFOR does not expect NATO's next enlargement, likely within the next five years, to be particularly troublesome. If Russia had a red line, it drew it at the Baltics — three of its own former republics — or Kaliningrad, a Russian Baltic enclave that NATO's new borders seal off from direct resupply. The next enlargement is likely to take in the Balkan states of Albania, Croatia, Macedonia and perhaps Bosnia. All fall behind NATO's new eastern "front line" and would not threaten Russia at all.

    The only expansion in the near future that might elicit a rise would be one that included Finland — which considered submitting an application in the late 1990s — but even this would not be as traumatic to the Russians as the now-official Baltic entries. There is even the possibility that Austria, another of Europe's traditional neutrals, might someday join NATO. Vienna is already more active in NATO exercises than are several full members. Any serious discussion of a second across-the-Russian-red-line expansion will be put off until well after 2010, although by that point Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine could shape up as possibilities.

    NATO certainly has challenges ahead of it. The strain and political arm-twisting that are likely to precede the expected Iraq deployment could well reopen wounds that only recently closed, and competing visions of what NATO should be will certainly hound it for years. Ironically, this divergence of perception is part of what will keep NATO powerful, present and relevant to U.S. policymakers.

    While several Western states — and STRATFOR — no longer view NATO as a true military alliance, that view is not shared uniformly. It is a simple fact that many European countries feel threatened by the political or military strength of Germany or Russia. The age-old adage of NATO that it existed "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down" was always far more than a clever turn of phrase. Many European states still see this as a core NATO raison d'etre. Such belief is not an issue of wealth — Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway are just as pro-NATO and pro-American as Latvia, Hungary and Bulgaria — it is an issue of place. These countries, by virtue of their proximity to large neighbors with a past predilection for domination, want a counterbalance.

    So long as that is the case, a majority of NATO's membership will be enthusiastic about the alliance as an alliance. Even the dullest of U.S. administrations will be able to translate that energy into international influence in Europe — and beyond.

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