NATO: Rebellion in the Ranks?

By John Feffer

The countries of the former Warsaw Pact are not knuckling under to pressure from Russia. They’re trying to avoid a new cold war.

Vladimir Putin, the wily strategist of Russian revanchism, is well on his way to reconstructing the Warsaw Pact. That, at least, is what the pundits of The Washington Post are making it out to seem. Last week, Jackson Diehl penned a column on how Putin has driven a wedge between NATO and its easternmost members. Anne Applebaum, meanwhile, pins the failure to maintain quiet on the eastern front on NATO itself and its decision not to establish bases in the region 10 years ago. The resulting crisis of confidence in what were once Soviet satellites, she laments, has undermined alliance cohesion.

These misreadings of what’s taking place on the eastern stretches of Europe contribute to an almost 1946-like sense of foreboding and inevitability. The small countries of Eastern Europe are bending to Moscow’s will, and the West is doing little more than appease the bear. Diehl and Applebaum stop short of declaring a new Iron Curtain and insisting that the region choose sides (over and above membership in NATO). But their all-or-nothing logic tends in that direction.

Contrary to these assertions, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the rest of the region are not replaying 1946. Although these governments are pursuing very different strategies, they all know that a new Cold War would exact a terrible price on their countries. In most cases, they are quite sensibly trying to forestall this scenario. NATO’s imperative to push ever eastward, which pundits like Applebaum are urging it to do now under the cover of demonstrating resolve, will only make matters worse.

To understand why these pundits are wrong, first it’s important to understand how Russia and NATO arrived at this impasse.

1990’s: Tentative and Uncertain Connections Between East-Central Europe and NATO

After the Berlin Wall fell nearly 25 years ago, the new democratic governments in East-Central Europe couldn’t wait to leave the Warsaw Pact. Who could blame them: the Pact was a symbol of their subjection to the will of the Soviet Union. They showed a measure of caution, however, and didn’t disband the alliance until February 1991. Then, again at a rather cautious pace, they crept under the umbrella of NATO. First the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland took the plunge in 1999. In the second wave of expansion in 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Baltic countries joined the fold. Albania and Croatia had to wait until 2009.

Russia was not overjoyed at these developments, to put it mildly. The Kremlin was under the impression that it had received guarantees that NATO would not expand to its doorstep. As Mary Elise Sarotte writes in Foreign Affairs, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and company received unwritten assurances early on that not even East Germany would be part of NATO. Then, in exchange for what amounted to a huge Deutschemark bribe, Gorbachev assented to a united Germany entering NATO. The Soviet Union didn’t expect NATO to move further eastward. But then, the Soviet Union also didn’t expect to disappear with the stroke of a pen. It is to the Russians’ perennial dismay that they never got any of these promises down on paper.

NATO didn’t have to twist the arms of the former Warsaw Pact members to switch sides. The coup in Moscow in 1991 and the outbreak of hostilities in Yugoslavia were both reminders of the importance of a security guarantee – against a revival of Russian imperialism and the potential of internecine conflicts. Also, whatever reservations they might have had about joining an alliance that had lost its original overarching purpose and however ambivalent they might have felt about the costs of modernizing their militaries to achieve interoperability with NATO, the countries in the region realized that membership conferred enormous non-military advantages. With accession to the European Union still in the future, NATO’s imprimatur was a powerful signal to investors that it was safe to pour money into the aspirant countries.

Still, significant portions of the population throughout the region expressed reservations about NATO membership. In Hungary and the Czech Republic, support for joining was actually quite low: at 32 percent and 28 percent respectively in 1997. Bulgarians were generally split down the middle. Only in Romania, often an outlier in the region, was support consistently in the 70 percent range.

Then the governments went to work on persuading their citizenry. Bulgarian opposition to NATO fell to a mere 1 percent by 2002. In Slovenia, where the public was quite skeptical of the alliance in the 1990s, opinion turned around sufficiently by 2003, when the country held a referendum on membership in both the EU and NATO. Citizens backed both measures, though their enthusiasm for the EU (89 percent) overshadowed their approval of NATO (66 percent). The populations in the other countries in the region similarly fell in line.

The 2000’s: Troubling NATO Demands and Actions

But this fundamental ambivalence never entirely disappeared. In fact, latent dissatisfactions sharpened when the countries in the region began to understand that NATO wasn’t just a security guarantee: it was a set of obligations. And those obligations were not simply to modernize their militaries and participate in periodic exercises. It meant authorizing combat missions (in Kosovo in 1999) and contributing soldiers to out-of-area operations, such as Afghanistan.

The Czech Republic joined NATO only six days before the alliance started bombing former Yugoslavia over the issue of Kosovo. “Javier Solana phoned me up and informed me that NATO would start to bomb former Yugoslavia the following Monday, and we as a new member of NATO should formally accept that decision,” then-Czech foreign minister Jan Kavan told me last year. “Given the traditional friendship between the Czechs and the Serbs going back many many years, this was a very difficult decision. After a very acrimonious debate at the cabinet level that lasted until early in the morning, we finally agreed. But we only agreed to allow NATO planes to fly over our airspace, no other form of cooperation. Neither our air force nor the army played any role in an action that most of us had major problems with.” It was not the kind of cooperation NATO expected. “Because it took us such a long time and was obviously a reluctant decision, NATO made it clear that it was not happy with us,” Kavan concluded.

The war in Afghanistan two years later was even more controversial. When Polish soldiers began to die in the NATO mission, enthusiasm for the more confrontational style of the United States began to wane. By 2009, 77 percent of Poles wanted their troops out of Afghanistan.

Then came the war in Georgia in 2008. It didn’t last long, and the origins of the conflict are murky. But what was abundantly clear, particularly to the countries of East-Central Europe, was that NATO didn’t do much in response. Of course, because Georgia wasn’t a member of NATO, the alliance’s collective security clause didn’t come into play. But that was a fine distinction for many in the region. They were fighting in wars far from their border