NATO’s Birthday Bash

The 60th anniversary of NATO is nearly upon us, and next week’s much ballyhooed meetings in France and Germany are expected to produce the first revision to NATO’s Strategic Concept in over a decade. Russia will be high on the agenda. Today, in a fascinating interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, the Rand Corporation’s F. Stephen Larrabee breaks down why.

Q: What are the other problems facing NATO right now?

We touched upon the question of [NATO] enlargement. Here I would say that there’s a very different situation today than was the case with admission of central and eastern European members, because the two countries that now are being considered for membership, or at least who have applied for membership, Georgia and Ukraine, are part of the post-Soviet space. And here, Russia is very sensitive, much more sensitive than it was about central Europe and eastern Europe. The invasion of Georgia last August only underscored the sensitivity that Russia feels about any further expansion of NATO; indeed in the way it was designed not simply to punish President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia for his pro-Western orientation and desire to join NATO, but to send a broader message to the West. That message was that Russia considers itself to have vital interests in the post-Soviet space, and is prepared, if necessary, to defend those issues with force.

That puts the situation in a very different context, because it does mean that before any further expansion of NATO, the alliance needs to undertake a really serious examination of how it can carry out an Article 5 security commitment [to defend any member state] to Ukraine and Georgia. I’m not saying they shouldn’t become members, but before they do, the alliance has to undertake that type of study. It has not.

Q: On the same subject of former Soviet areas, recently, of course, the President of Kyrgyzstan went to Moscow, got a deal for a $2 billion loan, and then canceled the U.S. rights to the airbase in Kyrgyzstan, and the parliament backed him up. Do you think this is another sign of Moscow weighing in, showing where it’s interests lie?

Absolutely. The message was very clear, which was if you want something in the post-Soviet space in Central Asia, don’t talk to the tenant. Talk to the landlord. And in that case, basically they were trying to emphasize again that this is an area of what President Dmitri Medvedev has called “privileged interest” to Russia. And if the United States wants to do anything there, it has to talk to Russia first.

Q: I noticed Russia has agreed to allow land shipments to Afghanistan go through Russia into Central Asia. But that, of course, gives Russia the right at any time to hold it up, right?

That would be one of the dangers, but the other is the larger point, which is that they’re angling for a deal, but this deal would require the United States and the West to de facto agree that post-Soviet space is part of a Russian sphere of influence, and that this has been a policy that Russia and the Soviet Union have always pushed over a long time.  It was true during the Cold War and it’s still part of Russian foreign policy. But this would be contrary to the whole thrust of U.S. and Western policies since the end of World War II and particularly since the end of the Cold War, which has been not to agree to spheres of influence and not to try to build new dividing lines, but rather erase old ones.