NATO’s Eastward March: How Far is Too Far?

How far east should NATO expand? This is a question that is often asked, often debated and often divisive. From its foundation in 1949, NATO has been the West’s political and military alliance, encouraging democratic values and promoting defence cooperation with the goal of preventing conflict. Since its inception, NATO, through Norway’s membership, has always been at the Russian border, and during the first round of expansion in 1952, gained a foothold in the Black Sea region with Turkey joining the organization. There were several other rounds of expansion during the Cold War, in 1955 and 1982 with Germany and Spain joining respectively. The next expansion would come in 1999, which would be the start of NATO’s true eastward movement, which, in three waves, saw many former Soviet states join. With the current European security situation, the next expansion may be soon.

Polish Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak
Polish Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak

Now, with next year’s NATO summit taking place in Warsaw, Polish Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak, has recently said that the summit should see both the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro invited to join NATO. Currently, both nations are taking part in the Membership Action Plan (MAP), which outlines the necessary steps for aspiring members to join, however, does not guarantee membership. Bosnia and Herzegovina has also been invited to take part in MAP.

Regarding their membership, Siemoniak was quoted as saying “it seems that the NATO summit in Warsaw, if deprived of this element, will not bring satisfaction to many nations, including Poland.” Last year however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said that any NATO expansion to Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina would be viewed in a provocative manner. This brings the future of these nation’s NATO membership into question, as some within NATO, particularly Poland and the Baltics, seem to want to see these nations join to strengthen the Alliance’s presence in the region as well as increase pressure on Russia. But, do the benefits of including both the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro outweigh worsening relations with Russia? It remains to be seen, but likely not. Fortunately, Macedonian membership to NATO hinges on coming to an agreement with Greece over its name, a nation which has spent the last several months looking to improve relations with Russia and potentially could further drag out discussion on the name in a sign of good faith to Moscow. However, even if Greece does not do that for Russia, an agreement on the name is still not likely to happen in the near future.

Along with such statements by the Polish Defence Minister, there has been increasing discussion amongst NATO on how to strengthen cooperation with Sweden and Finland. This was one of the topics discussed the meeting in Turkey in mid-May 2015 by NATO foreign ministers. This discussion follows a jointly written op-ed by the defence ministers of the five Scandinavian nations, which outlines how Nordic cooperation would increase, predominantly aimed towards deterrence. This possibility of increased cooperation between the two Scandinavian non-NATO nations is a “special concern” for Russia, with the Foreign Ministry releasing a statement saying that such northern European military cooperation is not constructive to regional security, particularly from Sweden and Finland, which have had policies of non-alignment.

Joint press point by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Finnish Prime Minister, Alexander Stubb
Joint press point by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Finnish Prime Minister, Alexander Stubb

While such cooperation is understandable between Scandinavian nations, it has a few drawbacks, specifically with such a clear statement directed against Russia. First and perhaps most obviously, it provides the possibility for NATO forces to have an increased presence on and near Russian borders, even if Finland and Sweden do not join the alliance. This would be due to increased cooperation, including joint drills, with Scandinavian NATO members, which has the possibility to see NATO troops in both nations more frequently. This would, of course, be something Russia would ideally like to avoid, but given the way they are handling the current increase in NATO presence in neighbouring nations, they will likely further strengthen their own presence in the respective military districts. This move would really only affect the European members of NATO, but provide fuel to the fire for the more anti-Russian members of NATO and continue in a tit-for-tat increase in military assets in both eastern NATO members and Russia.

Second, and what is certainly important to Canada and Russia, is the impact this would have on circumpolar relations. Currently, of the eight members of the Arctic Council, Russia, Finland and Sweden are the only non-NATO members. Increased relations between Finland and Sweden with NATO is likely to reduce the effectiveness of the Council, as it is probable Russia could view some discussions as directed against it, and with the Council working on consensus of all eight members, Russia could stall its work, making it ineffective. As a nation with the Arctic playing such a dominant role in its policies, Canada relies on good circumpolar relations to advance its national interests in the region. As the status of sea routes have yet to be determined and the delimitation process is still ongoing, good relations amongst Arctic nations, especially those with coastal territory, are necessary.

So why should NATO care and just how far is too far? NATO should care for one simple reason, “NATO membership is open to ‘any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” The key point to take from that statement is the applicants’ ability to contribute to North Atlantic security. Looking at nations’ abilities to contribute should perhaps have been examined a little more closely during previous membership bids, but it certainly should now, at least within the context of how much benefit new members would bring compared to probable Russian response. If the reason for expansion is for the sake of expansion and increasing NATO’s sphere of influence in the face of a more aggressive Russia, than it is too far east. Such a decision would provide some credence to Russia’s claims that NATO policy is, at least in part, directed against it.

Facebook Comments