Published: 16:32, April 14, 2023 | Updated: 16:52, April 14, 2023
NATO’s mission creep remains a threat to European and world peace
By Ramesh Thakur

In September 2014, in the aftermath of the Maidan coup that saw yet another in the distressingly long list of US-engineered regime change coups in foreign lands where the government proved insufficiently deferential to the ruling Washington foreign policy elite, I argued that NATO’s mission creep had become a threat to European and world peace. The article was published in The Japan Times on 9 September 2014 and reprinted in Pearls and Irritations on 29 October 2016.

I began by asking: ‘Have NATO leaders created a crisis to justify NATO’s continuation after its original purpose expired’?

An alliance forged against the existential Soviet threat successfully deterred the enemy without firing a shot. But then it waged war on Serbia which had not attacked any member state, contemptuous of a defeated, diminished and impotent Russia. Kosovo’s forcible detachment from Serbia in 1999 was the prelude to taking on a more diffuse peace-maintenance role that saw NATO’s geographical reach expand to Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Libya, taking on decidedly imperialist hues but without demonstrating much by way of lasting achievements.

If Western publics back their governments in the continued slide into confrontation with Russia, I cautioned, we may rush headlong into a catastrophic war with the risk of nuclear escalation. This was so because Russia’s justifications for its actions in Ukraine ranged from principled and strategic to relative to what the US and NATO themselves had done.

Leaders and countries yet to be held to domestic or international criminal account for the illegal war of aggression against Iraq in 2003 including, unfortunately, Australia, had no moral authority to demand punishment of Russia and Putin. The West could bankroll and support destabilisation of an elected pro-Russian government in Kiev (as it then was), but Russia was not permitted to destabilise a pro-Western government installed by coup on its doorstep.

NATO bombed Serbia into submission on Kosovo’s secession in 1999, yet continues to back Ukraine’s demand for the return of Crimea. Part of Russia since the 18th century, Crimea was ‘gifted’ to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 without consulting its people. The Russians annexed it in 2014.

The divine right of Europe’s kings to rule has not morphed into the divine right of Westerners to determine the world’s territorial borders. Those who used military force to dismember Serbia have no moral authority to insist Crimea must be returned to Ukraine regardless of its people’s wishes. Sevastopol in Crimea is the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, whose loss would cut off naval access to the Mediterranean and squeeze Russia out of the Caucasus.

In 1962, Cuba was a sovereign state that entered into an agreement with the then Soviet Union for stationing missiles on its territory. This was interpreted, correctly, as a hostile act directed at the US mainland. The resulting crisis, which risked a nuclear war, was resolved with the withdrawal of Soviet missiles. But the Eastern European countries as sovereign states must be conceded the right to enter into a defence alliance with the US and to station NATO troops and missiles on their territory? And if Russia regards this as a threat to its core national security, well, tough shitsky?

Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, has been the geographical gateway for some horrific invasions of Russia, including by Napoleon and Hitler. After the Cold War, NATO crept steadily closer to Russia’s borders in violation of the understandings on which post-Soviet Russia had agreed to the peaceful reunification of Germany and to united Germany’s membership of NATO. Undertaken in a fit of absent-mindedness without strategic hindsight or foresight, NATO’s numerical, territorial and mission creep progressively alienated Russia, encouraged recklessness by some East European states and put NATO credibility on the line – without making it stronger.

After the US Senate ratified the decision to enlarge NATO in May 1998, George Kennan, the architect of the Cold War containment doctrine, said: ‘I think it is the beginning of a new cold war … Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong’.

In the 1999–2020 period, 14 countries from central and eastern Europe, seeking security against future Russian threats, joined NATO, taking the alliance ever closer to Russia’s own borders and heightening their paranoia. As Kennan foreshadowed, they reacted in Ukraine in 2014 and again last year. And, as Kennan predicted, pro-NATO enlargement enthusiasts describe Russia’s actions as ex post facto proof of the correctness of the decision to expand NATO. This is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sweden and Finland joining NATO – not a cause but a direct consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – will only intensify Russian perceptions of growing strategic encirclement by a hostile military alliance. How will Putin react? Doing nothing is not an option. The best proof of this is the fact that he did react to the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO. Another clue comes from his observation in 2016: ‘When we look across the border now, we see a Finn on the other side. If Finland joins NATO, we will see an enemy’ (Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö in an interview with Der Spiegel, 14 February 2022).

Finland’s membership of NATO doubles the alliance’s direct land border with Russia from 1,200 to 2,500km. It tightens the strategic encirclement with a ring of steel around the Baltic Sea, complicating access to the Kaliningrad and imposing fresh restrictions on the Russian Navy. It intensifies the threat to St Petersburg, Russia’s second city after Moscow. It exposes the strategically important Kola Peninsula which hosts Russia’s Northern Fleet, including nuclear submarines armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles (SSBNs) that are critical to a survivable second-strike retaliatory capability. Any NATO operational-tactical missile complexes located in Finland would represent threats to the military-industrial complex in the Arkhangelsk region and transportation infrastructure.

This is why Russia cannot and will not sit idly by, as well explained by Nicholas Lokker and Heli Hautala (a Finnish career diplomat) last month. New Russian force postures and deployments are almost certain, including beefed up surveillance and patrolling operations. Most concerningly, it might lead to an increased role of Russian nuclear weapons, including stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. In turn this will set off a fresh round of NATO countermeasures. Where will it all end?

For Ukraine, for reasons of geography, history, language, economics and ethnicity, a choice between Russia and Europe is painfully impossible. That’s why realists – Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt – have long recommended an acknowledgment of and respect for Russia’s core strategic interests with a united but neutral Ukraine as a buffer, a federal system with regional autonomy and guaranteed rights for all groups. After all, Switzerland chose armed neutrality in order to immunise itself against the great power conflicts in Europe between France, Germany and Italy, all of which language groups make up substantial chunks of the Swiss population.

An African proverb holds that ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. Substitute the Russian bear for the lion, NATO for the hunter, and the mainstream media dominated by Western commentators as the first drafters of history, and the proverb is remarkably applicable to the current geopolitical tensions in Europe.

Ramesh Thakur is a former UN assistant secretary-general, emeritus professor at the Australian National University and director of its Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, and Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute. He is the editor of The Nuclear Ban Treaty: a Transformational Reframing of the Global Nuclear Order.

The article was first published at PEARLS & IRRITATIONS:

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