What is Next for NATO and Russia in the New U.S. Administration?

By Matthew Yang.

Many new and controversial changes have come to the world in the months since Barack Obama left office. With the Republican Party back in power after eight long years of Democratic leadership, various policies that Obama set in place are being heavily scrutinized and criticized, if not rescinded entirely.

Since the early days of the Cold War, the United States has taken a leading role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO was originally established in April 1949 as a security alliance to counterbalance growing Soviet influence in Europe at the time, and to provide for a means of collective defense should the ever-present hostilities between the Western and Eastern blocs escalate to a breaking point. 

While the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself have long since dissolved, NATO has expanded six times since its foundation, adding new members to its ranks and steadily growing in economic and military might. Its last expansion was in April 2009, when Albania and Croatia joined the Alliance. NATO intends to expand yet again this year by having Montenegro become its 29th member. The final steps necessary for accession and ratification are expected to be completed some time this spring.

A major rupture in relations between the West and Russia occurred about three years ago in March 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula despite the protestations of both Ukraine (to whom Crimea was gifted by the USSR five years after the formation of NATO) and most Western powers. U.S.-Russian relations in particular have seriously deteriorated since, with an upsurge in anti-American sentiment in Russia. According to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015, only 15% of Russians expressed a favorable view of the U.S., compared to 81% who viewed the U.S. unfavorably. 

President Obama wasted little time in openly condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves in Crimea. He immediately joined the European Union in imposing a series of stringent economic sanctions upon Russia, which have taken a considerable toll on the Russian economy and livelihood. In 2015, as many as three million Russians fell into poverty. The West has stated that it will consider lifting these sanctions only if Russia withdraws from Crimea, something that both Putin and a vast majority of the Russian people today are strongly against.

As evidenced by the 2016 election, however, Russia is hardly the only country to have experienced a palpable rise in nationalism. Last November, the increasingly populist and conservative views of the Republican Party managed to attract a significant segment of the U.S. population, even drawing many voters who had previously voted for Obama. This draw of voters resulted in the resounding defeat of Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, to the shock of many around the world. 

While the new President has stated several times that cooperation with Russia in the Middle East against extremist groups is a possibility, the future of U.S.-Russian relations still remains very uncertain. Allegations of covert Russian interference to help ensure a Republican victory in last year’s election have surfaced, and Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser, resigned several weeks ago after it was revealed that he purportedly misled others about his contact with the Russian Ambassador to the United States. These recent developments, combined with the unresolved civil war in Syria (another place which the U.S. and Russia find themselves on opposing sides of the same conflict), have severely complicated efforts to bridge ties between the two countries.  

Even before the 2014 Crimean crisis, NATO was perhaps the greatest point of contention and disagreement between the two countries. Russia has repeatedly claimed that NATO’s exercises and enlargement closer to its borders are a direct threat to its national security. Indeed, the widespread fear of Ukraine (formerly part of Russia’s traditional sphere of influence) eventually becoming a NATO member was arguably one of the factors that prompted Russia to interfere in the Ukrainian civil war in the first place.  

Although the new U.S. President and his advisors have publicly stated that they still support the NATO treaty, they have also voiced doubts on its existing structure and relevancy. On more than one occasion they have demanded that European allies adequately pay for their own defense instead of relying so heavily on U.S. protection. Ironically, however, according to findings from a WIN/Gallup International poll conducted between October and December 2016, most people in Bulgaria, Slovenia, Greece and Turkey (all NATO member states) chose Russia over the U.S. as their preferred ally in times of difficulty.

In the past few years, surveys conducted in the U.S. regarding people’s opinions of NATO have yielded more ambiguous results. According to the Pew Research Center’s Spring 2015 Global Attitudes Survey, although their perceptions of Russia and Putin concurrently plummeted, and as many as 62% supported Ukraine joining NATO, only 49% of Americans expressed a favorable view of NATO. However, a February 2017 Gallup World Affairs poll revealed that 80% of Americans believe that NATO is necessary, compared with 16% who believe it to be no longer necessary.

What few people know is that the Soviet Union and its successor state Russia considered joining NATO on as many as four separate occasions. The first was in March 1954, when Vyacheslav Molotov first raised the idea of NATO membership for the USSR, which was rebuffed by the West only two months later. In 1991, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin sent a letter detailing his country’s “long-term political aim” of joining NATO after the end of the Cold War, but apparently failed to achieve this goal. Putin himself raised the question at least twice from 2000 to 2002, the first in a meeting with Bill Clinton and his advisers, and the second time during a NATO-Russia conference. All these attempts, however, have ultimately been in vain.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded on noble ideals—the protection of freedom and democracy in the West, the safeguarding of human rights, increased European unity and mutual trust with one another in the bloody aftermath of two world wars—but it cannot be a global police force, nor should it be one, especially in today’s world. It may not quite be the utterly outdated Cold War relic that some people accuse it of being, but neither is the absolute pillar of security that others envision it to be, without which they feel the fabric of European civilization would suddenly collapse. NATO’s military interventions in Yugoslavia and Libya, in 1999 and 2011 respectively, have garnered not only great praise, but also harsh condemnation and controversy, for its inability to prevent the civilian casualties that it sought to prevent. Even the ongoing campaign against the Taliban has purportedly resulted in thousands of Afghani victims, one of numerous cases reported being the death of seven women from Laghman in a NATO airstrike.

So in the end—yes, NATO should continue to exist, and the U.S. should continue remaining as a member for the foreseeable future. However, it should also reconsider the value of continuing to expand its membership, as well as reaching some agreement with Russia without compromising European security. Perhaps, had Russia been allowed to join NATO years ago, the Ukrainian crisis might have been averted altogether.   

NATO must take any allegations of war crimes, accidental or not, concerning its military operations very seriously, and strive to avoid such costly mistakes in the future. Everyone is entitled to live without fear, oppression, and war, to live free from all forms of terror and violence. Sadly though, sometimes even the very best of intentions can bring more harm than good in the long run.

While many in Europe see NATO’s presence as a beacon of comfort and hope, many around the world see it instead as a symbol of carnage and thinly disguised imperialism. The line between what defines liberty and what constitutes security is very thin and delicate, sometimes barely visible at all. For better or worse, it is something each of us must walk however best we can, for even the best of us can cross it, and without even knowing so.


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