Poking the Bear: Explaining Russia-NATO Hostilities

In February 2022, Russian forces began a full-blown military invasion of Ukrainian territory.

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 1st class essay.

The post-2014 hostility between Russia and NATO results from two conflicting geostrategic policies that have contributed to a negative relationship spiral between the two sides: NATO expansionism and Russian irredentism. To illustrate this, I demonstrate how the Russo-Georgian War and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War were borne out of necessity to counter NATO expansionism, giving rise to Russian irredentism. Following this, I present counterarguments to alternative explanations for the source of the ongoing conflict. To conclude, I assert that the spiral model best explains the rising hostilities between Russia and NATO.

Following the end of the cold war, NATO gradually extended membership to former Eastern Bloc states, traditionally considered part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Coupled with long-standing grievances over NATO’s involvement in the Kosovo War and concerns over NATO’s missile defence program, Russia viewed this expansion into eastern Europe as a threat to its security. This eventually came to a head at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, where NATO agreed to extend membership to Georgia and Ukraine. Doing so would have left Russia surrounded by what it views as a hostile military bloc. In response, Russia militarily supported separatist groups in Georgia later that year, recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. This effectively blocked Georgia from entry into NATO as other member states were unwilling to inherit the country’s ongoing territorial disputes. Thus, the Russo-Georgian War served as a way for Russia to protect itself from NATO expansionism and any threats it would pose to Russian security.

In a similar vein to the Russo-Georgian War, the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War also halts NATO’s expansion by preventing Ukraine from joining the alliance. That said, there is one key difference between the two conflicts. In the case of Georgia, Russia did not annex any territory, instead opting to support the South Ossetia and Abkhazia separatists without absorbing them into the Russian Federation. Lending legitimacy to their respective causes was enough to dash Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO. However, if all Russia has to do to stop NATO expansion is support and recognise separatist states in Ukraine, why did Russia choose to annex Crimea in 2014? The answer lies in a critical change in Russian geostrategic policy post-2008: Russian irredentism.

Irredentism is a type of expansionist policy in which a state desires to annex territory based on shared history and strong ethnic ties. While both Ukraine and Georgia were formerly part of the Russian Empire and USSR, the ethnic Russian population of Georgia is only 0.7% compared to Ukraine’s 17.3%. Therefore, it would not have been strategically justified for Russia to annex Georgian territory during the Russo-Georgian War. In contrast, Russia has far stronger irredentist claims on Ukraine due to a sizable number of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians concentrated in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This irredentist reasoning subsequently formed the basis of Russia’s rationale for annexing Crimea. As Vladimir Putin stated in his Presidential Address on the 18th March 2014: “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” In years since the annexation, Russian support for the war remains strong, thereby illustrating Russian irredentism’s effectiveness as a counterweight to NATO expansionism.

To recap, what started as a mutual desire for security has since spiralled into a conflict of competing geostrategic policies. In the post-Cold War period, both NATO and Russia sought to improve their individual security. For NATO, this meant following an expansionist policy of extending membership to former Eastern Bloc states. However, this threatened Russia’s security, provoking Russia to launch the Russo-Georgian War and begin following an irredentist policy of responsibility over Russians living in neighbouring countries. In response, the only way for NATO to ensure its security was to double down on its expansionist policy and strengthen ties between existing member states. This posed an even greater threat to Russia, provoking Russia to launch the Russo-Ukrainian War, the current source of hostility between Russia and NATO. In short, both parties have become increasingly hostile in response to the actions of the other, a clear example of the spiral model in effect.

That being said, geostrategic conflict is not the only reason cited as a cause of the Russo-Ukrainian War and ongoing hostilities between NATO and Russia. Some political commentators argue that there exists a fundamental rift between the democratic world and the authoritarian world. In their worldview, NATO represents the democratic ideal to which Russia’s authoritarian regime is an anathema. Hence why cooperation is impossible, and hostility is inevitable. However, when one considers that NATO enjoys close ties with authoritarian regimes such as Jordan and includes flawed democracies and hybrid regimes such as Romania and Turkey, the merit of this argument is considerably weakened. Evidently, NATO is more than willing to work with authoritarian regimes if it is to the advantage of its expansionist policy. Similarly, Russian supporters often claim that the recent invasion of Ukraine was done under a moral obligation to combat Neo-Nazism embodied by groups such as Ukraine’s Azov Regiment. This is also a weak argument given the prevalence of Neo-Nazism throughout Europe and Russia itself.

In conclusion, the hostility between Russia and NATO results from competing geostrategic policies and is best exemplified using the spiral model. NATO expansionism and Russian irredentism contributed to the escalating tension in the post-Cold War period. While other reasons have been cited for the conflict, such as the democracy-authoritarianism dichotomy and the moral problem of Neo-Nazism, evidence suggests that these factors take a backseat to the geopolitical realities. Ultimately, the solution to the NATO-Russia conflict lies in reconciling the mutual security interests of both parties via negotiation and compromise. Until this is realised, the spiral model will continue to play out, with each side responding to the other in a never-ending cycle of conflict.

4 thoughts on “Poking the Bear: Explaining Russia-NATO Hostilities

    1. I did want to include the strategic importance of material assets such as a warm water port and the need to control the canals running from Ukraine into Crimea, but was limited by the 1000 word cap. So I decided to just focus on the conflict between Russian irredentism and NATO expansionism. I would probably say that a Black Sea Port is definitely a strategic goal for Russia but one that it justifies by using irredentist language.

      Liked by 1 person

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