THE STRATFOR WEEKLY
02 April 2004
NATO Expansion: More Muscle for U.S. To Flex
On March 29, NATO took in seven new member states. The
enlargement ensures that the NATO of the future will work as a
reliable arm of U.S. policy.
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
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
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
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
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
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-a-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
The question is not whether Russian influence can be rolled back
in the years ahead, or even where — it is by how much.
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
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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