151. Russian Policy on NATO Expansion In The Baltics

By
Stephen Blank

One of the key issues in the debate over NATO enlargement is the question of the relationship between NATO and the Baltic states and how an expansion of the alliance would affect Russia's relations with Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. While it is clear that the Baltic states will not be entering NATO anytime soon, it is worth noting that the arguments of those who opposed NATO's enlargement because of its impact on Russia have already been proven wrong.

Detractors claimed that NATO's expansion, as a threat to Russia, would lead it to rekindle efforts to threaten its European neighbors. Exactly the opposite has occurred. Prior to the conferences that ratified the first round of NATO enlargement, Russia waged a bitter diplomatic campaign against it and resorted to all kinds of threatening rhetoric vis-a-vis the Baltic states. Russian policy openly advocated economic warfare against these countries and regularly denounced their policies toward resident Russian populations. (These measures may be unwise and misguided, but they do not depart from European norms.) Many prominent elites in Russia also called for demonstrable military activities to coerce the Baltic states. Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, for example, even demanded a revision of the post-1989 borders before the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Simply put, Russia's policy toward the Baltic states is a textbook manifestation of Great Power chauvinism which is even more wrongheaded now than it had been earlier.

In this respect, Russia's stance regarding the Baltic states fully comported with its overall European policy. This policy refused to treat with the Central European states, sought a Great Power deal over their heads, and demanded unequal security for Russia at everyone else's expense. It was a policy that sought status, not responsibility. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Russia's motives, policy, and behavior are regarded with universal skepticism and disappointment, if not worse, across all of Central Europe, not just the Baltic States.

Russia waged a staunch diplomatic campaign to blunt NATO's enlargement, not just to prevent any adhesion of Poland in particular to the military alliance, but, more importantly, to keep NATO outside of the old Soviet Union. Domination of the CIS remains Moscow's preeminent foreign policy goal and NATO enlargement forecloses that imperial option. Hence it is not surprising that since enlargement has begun, Moscow has made tactical and perhaps strategic adjustments to its policies.

Russia has signed major treaties with Ukraine and Lithuania although neither has been ratified by the Duma (and perhaps never will be ratified). Thus the legal boundaries of Russia with these states, and other issues, remain de facto calm, but unsettled de jure. President Yeltsin and his foreign policy team have also proposed confidence-building measures, a regional security guarantee of the Baltic, and are de-militarizing Kaliningrad to a significant degree. Although the latter move relates more to the urgent imperatives of the long-overdue Russian military reform than to European issues, it is a welcome step, as are the confidence-building measures. However, the substantive issues of security guarantees reflect a purely tactical effort to retain a sphere of influence in the Baltic littoral, to obstruct NATO, and to diminish the effective sovereignty of the Baltic states. Moscow still talks of economic sanctions and threats against the Baltics even though wayward and inconstant policies jeopardize the regional development of Russia's own Northwestern provinces and economies. Because the Nordic and Baltic states can see through both these concessions and Russia's rashly trumpeted motives, the new policy is going nowhere and reflects only tactical changes. But Moscow thinks that if it persists along the same course long enough, it will achieve positive results. This is misguided and illustrates the continuing failure of Russian diplomacy to reckon with European realities.

In fact, Moscow's own internal paralysis prevents it from carrying out its threats of economic warfare against the Baltic states. Key factions and sectors or interest groups benefit from the status quo and have privatized policy to such a degree that they can impede a truly strategic view of Russia's national interests. This is a widespread phenomenon in Russia's international economic policies and figures in the Baltic as much as it does in the Caucasus. Lastly, Russia's bluster has also clearly led Sweden and Finland to look more favorably on NATO than ever before and to be more inclined to cooperate and even integrate with NATO to some degree. Thus, in the Baltic region, as in Europe more generally, Russia persists in a course which is bound to isolate it in Europe.

Dr. Blank spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on January 27, 1998.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant