A number of foreign policy realists (Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Henry Kissinger) have accused NATO of provoking Russia’s attack on Ukraine by expanding into former Soviet satellites and republics. It’s fair enough to ask what might have happened had NATO not expanded.
A realist dictum is that power vacuums will be filled. Had NATO not expanded, there would have been a power vacuum along the swath of countries from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea. In the real world, NATO filled that vacuum, as those countries recovered from Soviet domination. Here’s a possible scenario, the alternative parts italicized.
In 1989, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev removed Russia from the governance of what were called the Soviet satellites: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, and East Germany. By November of that year, the Berlin Wall dividing West Berlin from East Berlin had fallen.
Germans on both sides of the wall had wanted reunification, but the rest of Europe and the USSR were wary of a reunified Germany, with good reason. West Germany joined NATO in 1955. East Germany had been part of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union’s buffer against Europe, its sphere of influence made explicit.
NATO and the United States were very aware of the damage the Treaty of Versailles had done to Germany and motivated it toward another war, so they tried not to humiliate the Soviet Union as Germany reunified in 1990. Conferences were held with Russia and others on the question of NATO participation in a reunified Germany. Germany’s status in NATO would be inactive, a vague description to be reviewed in five years. NATO’s membership would be frozen at its 1990 status: the US, UK, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, and Spain.
After the loss of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet republics began to pull away. The Baltic states, which had been independent between the World Wars, had mounted their Baltic Way demonstration in 1989. They continued legislative steps toward independence, asserting the sovereignty of their laws on their territory, legalizing their pre-WWII flags, and reorganizing their supreme soviets as parliaments.
When the Soviet military attempted a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, several republics took the opportunity to declare independence. The Union was declared dissolved into fifteen new nations on December 25, 1991: The Russian Federation, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Rejoining the world economically was difficult for all fifteen of those nations. Some in the US proposed a Marshall Plan for those nations, but it had been difficult enough to pass the original Marshall Plan. NATO remained out of the deliberations, as it had promised. There was no Partnership for Peace. The Nordic nations saw opportunities, particularly in the Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, and they provided aid in expertise as well as financial aid. The expertise would open the way for construction, banking, and other potentially profitable interactions. Additionally, Sweden, Norway, and Finland had reason to keep a watchful eye on Russia. Through the 1990s, Russia remained weak and had no energy or resources to even think about influencing its former possessions. Russian troops withdrew from the Baltic states by 1994.
Germany’s ambiguous status within NATO convinced its governments that it was on its own. The 1995 conference renewed that status for five more years. Germany’s economic development proceeded apace. NATO withdrew its nuclear weapons stationed on German soil.
By 2000, Russian and European economies were significantly improved. Sweden refurbished the Krenholm Textile Mill in northeastern Estonia, on an island near the Russian border. They also oversaw the cleanup and refurbishing of the Sillamäe rare-earths production plant and developed a port there. Similar development projects in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, along with expansion of Nordic banks into the Baltics, built employment opportunities in those countries. Saab invested in Ukrainian defense firms. Nordic involvement in Germany was less because of the wealth in the former West Germany, but there was cooperation, particularly on environmental projects like that at Sillamäe, which could utilize mining expertise from East Germany. Nongovernmental foundations funded democratic development.
NATO and Russia flirted with rapprochment throughout the 1990s, and a Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation was signed in Paris in 1997. Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 2000.
em>The five-year Conference on German Neutrality that year was contentious, but reauthorized a continuation of Germany’s awkward NATO status. Through the next few years, Russian provocations began to appear in the independent states: a labor union in Poland calling for more support of Russia was found to have been infiltrated by FSB agents; Belarus and Lithuania were at odds over Finland’s funding of a rebuild of the Ignalina RBMK reactors and a reactor installation to be built nearby in Belarus by Rosatom; Russian influence was found in several cities in East Germany where dissatisfaction with the rate of economic progress was mounting; and Latvian border posts with Russia were being subjected to harassment, while organized crime violation of that border increased.
The breaking point came in 2004, when a bomb exploded, damaging one wing of the Krenholm factory, and Finland broke up an arms-importing ring across its Russian border. The Northern Alliance Conference in Stockholm in December of that year brought together Sweden, Norway, Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in a defense alliance. Germany and Ukraine had observers at the conference and were granted associate status.
The shocker at the conference was Sweden’s announcement that it had restarted its nuclear weapons program and was in a position to field eight nuclear weapons within the next two years. Saab already had produced a prototype of the Swedish bomber, which did a flyover of the conference.
I think I’ll stop there and allow you to imagine Russia’s response.
There would have been a power vacuum in those new nations after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Nordic nations did indeed step in to help. Those nations have been at odds with Russia at various times in history.
The realists have not told us how that power vacuum would have developed without NATO. I look forward to hearing from them.
Update (September 19, 2014): There have been several things in the news lately that support this scenario. The first one or two didn’t seem strong enough to me, so I didn’t update. But there are just too many. Here’s the latest: Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine create a joint military unit.
Update (September 21, 2014): Some thoughts on counterfactuals like this one. It’s long – be sure to read all the way to the end!
Graphic: The bomber that Saab might have made for a Swedish nuclear bomb.by