Foreign Policy Blogs

Russian Resurgence Exacerbates NATO Schisms


President Obama joins European leaders in a discussion with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko before the NATO Summit in Wales, on September 4, 2014. (State Department)

While NATO’s upcoming July summit in Warsaw will address threats such as ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis, the undisputed elephant in the room will be Russia and how to counter its assertiveness.  Although some members might see Russia’s reemergence as a blessing in disguise because it refocuses NATO’s core mission after years of drift, the issue has also planted seeds of conflict both within individual NATO countries, as well as between the Alliance’s different geographic areas. 

You’re (All) Fired

The U.S. Presidential election season has witnessed a groundswell of support for anti-establishment candidates, such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both candidates have managed to tap into the frustration and anger of many Americans suffering from the effects of a weak economy: persistent unemployment, inadequate social services, and crumbling infrastructure.

Trump is now the presumptive candidate of his party in the general elections in November. He remains singularly unimpressed with Senator Hillary Clinton’s assertion that NATO is “the greatest military alliance in history.” Indeed, Trump supporters are asking why the U.S. should continue to pay the “lion’s share” for NATO when they have their own domestic economic problems.

This question finds even more resonance given many NATO members’ historical reluctance to reach the minimum 2% of GDP defense spending requirement. Similar to Trump’s declaration that if elected President, he would re-evaluate the necessity of many Asian alliances, he has also set his sights on NATO. Claiming that the U.S. should be ready to “walk away” from NATO if fellow members continually refuse to meet their burden-sharing requirements, Trump and his supporters have labelled many European states as “free-riders.”

This has led to the development of the “America First” point in Trump’s platform, namely that all alliances will have to be re-evaluated to determine how they, if at all, currently serve America’s interests first and foremost.  This was driven home during Trump’s recent foreign policy speech at the Center for the National Interest.

In his speech, Trump also highlighted the necessity of working with new states in order to deal with future threats like ISIS, which he evaluates NATO—at least in its present form—is unable to deal with effectively. He also intimated that Russia, after being engaged once again through extensive diplomacy, would in fact be one of those states.

While many European countries’ economies are still struggling after the eurozone crisis, the economic suffering in the U.S. is highlighted because it is the de facto leader of the alliance.  If doubts emerge within the U.S. electorate about NATO’s continued viability, the effect of any negative decision reached regarding future NATO obligations will be much more pronounced.

Lastly, even if Trump is defeated in November, the underlying national sentiment which supported him will not disappear overnight. More than likely, it will find an outlet in yet another candidate in the next Presidential election.

Russia is an Existential Threat

“Russia is an existential threat.” This sentiment was recently expressed by former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove before a U.S. House Armed Services committee hearing. This perception comes in the wake of Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine The event illustrated the strong linkage between economics and politics given that Ukraine’s initial refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement is what initially sparked the Ukraine Crisis. From the Russian perspective, the agreement symbolized a route for Ukrainian EU membership, leading to possible future NATO membership as well.

This political-economic linkage also plays a role in determining certain countries’ outlook towards Russia: this is especially the case with France and Germany. Indeed, a multitude of German multinational firms operate in Russia, while the French are careful not to jeopardize its trade ties with Russia, wanting to avoid another incident such as the failed Mistral helicopter carrier deal. Economic interests also explain the recent French parliament call to end sanctions against Russia.

In addition, for historical reasons both France and Germany have better relations with Russia than other NATO members. In the past, France has formed several alliances with Russia in order to balance Germany—with the Former Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, but also with the Russian Empire against Prussia. Conversely Germany sought Russian assistance in order to balance Poland— eventually leading to three consecutive partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In effect, it can be argued that these earlier alliances with Russia has led to a somewhat more moderate view of Russian foreign policy.

History might also be why, of all NATO members, Poland is most aligned with General Breedlove’s assessment. Throughout Polish history, Russia was instrumental in curbing the power of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at one point one of the most powerful European states. Longtime rivals of their Russian neighbors, Poles will give no quarter either to a resurgent Russia, or to those who advocate a more conciliatory policy towards Moscow.

Turkey has even more historical baggage with Russia than does Poland.  At its zenith, the Ottoman Empire held de facto dominion over several areas, including the Black Sea. Russian Empress Catherine the Great gradually changed this as she set her sight on the Crimean Peninsula. This conflict was one of the contributing causes of the Crimean War as the U.K. and France were afraid that the Ottomans simply were not strong enough to face Russian power in the Black Sea alone.

The Western powers were bent on having the Turks serve as an effective balancer to Russian ambitions. Even though Russia eventually lost the war to the Western powers, the Ottoman Turks continued to decline as a result of political dysfunction and corruption. Although Turkey was never dissolved as a state like Poland, its history with Russia explains its eagerness to join NATO specifically to keep Russian naval power contained in the Black Sea, away from the Mediterranean Sea.

Given this brief history, it would seem that if Russia was responsible for a given country losing its preeminence in its geographical area, then that particular country’s foreign policy toward Russia is much more confrontational. Conversely, despite Russian contributions to Napoleon’s and Hitler’s defeats, if a country at one time forged an alliance with Russia in order to balance others in its neighborhood, that country’s policy is not quite as harsh.

In effect, economic and historical ties have resulted in tensions between core NATO members (France and Germany) and eastern members (Poland and Turkey), making it all the more difficult to form a consistent NATO-wide policy towards Russia.

In sum, intra-member and inter-member conflicts will make it increasingly difficult for NATO to retain some sense of solidarity against Russia, in the spirit of the Three Musketeers’ motto: “All for one, and one for all!”.



Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting L.L.C., where he provides strategic advisory services regarding US-China relations. He has conducted numerous cross-border business policy and feasibility research projects and has been engaged in international geopolitical risk assessment and analysis for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in international business policies in the U.S. and emerging markets and has provided policy advice for numerous firms and institutions. He is a regular contributor to several foreign policy outlets, including the Foreign Policy Association. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.