There are two major expansions, one occurring in 1999 with 3 countries being admitted under President Clinton and the second in 2004 with seven countries being admitted under President Bush. I do not believe that NATO expanded too quickly. I know for a fact they did not break any assurances with Russia in accepting these countries. Denying admission to the Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland would have been a serious strategic mistake. Russia would have been angered by the admissions whether it was done in 1990, 2000, or 2010.
The argument against admission is that the US now is committed by the NATO Article 5, to defend any member country which comes under attacked, and thus this would override the Senate’s right to declare war. See link NATO Article 5. This is referred to as the collective defense principle. The US and other allies look for a general interest in the country as a whole as wanting to be part of NATO.
From Putin’s perspective, the admission of any Eastern European country into NATO was denounced as an act of aggression. He believes the Soviet Union should never had granted independence to the 15 former republics. The Kremlin is quoted as follows:
“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” He has also stated, that NATO is really controlled by the US.
NATO is a collective defense organization, and the reasons for joining NATO was because the smaller countries felt they were vulnerable to Russia expansionary policies, particularly once Putin took office.
Putin and other autocratic nations use fear of the West, to gain popular support in their countries. As Putin has shut down news stations that are not supportive of the invasion of Ukraine, the population of Russia hears Putin’s propaganda, and not much honesty seeps in.
Admission to NATO is not judged by its proximity to Russia or how much of their culture and history is tied to Russia. To do so, would cause NATO to cater to the whims of Russia and undermine their mission.
The first criteria for acceptance is:
“Willingness to settle international, ethnic or external territorial disputes by peaceful means, commitment to the rule of law and human rights, and democratic control of armed forces”
I am very glad that a commitment to human rights is included. Yet, it does make the criteria more subjective.
I would agree to prior statements by Robert Gates, former Department of Defense Secretary under President George W. Bush that decision to allow admissions was more political (and also economic) rather than military. At least, we can say that in 1999, the immediate military need was not apparent.
However, I would argue that to deny admissions would have made the newly independent republics very weak just as the Russian government under Putin began massive military spending. Countries outside of NATO on Russia’s border have done poorly. Two good examples are Chechnya and Belarus, which are authoritarian regimes and very dependent of Russia.
Another example of a country which is suffering because it does not have the collective security of NATO would be Ukraine. It is the best example of Putin’s expansionary policies which makes NATO membership necessary for surrounding countries, to remain independent and free. Russia’s initial attempt to take Kyiv was a total failure. Now, they are targeting civilians with missile attacks at schools, hospitals and apartments. They are going after farm equipment and grain silos in the farms. They have blockaded the Azov and Black Sea ports.
A country must alone decide if it is in their interest to join NATO. The decision to join NATO must be done when the country can assure NATO that it can live up to the rules governing NATO, a stable, democratically elected government.
Opinions to the contrary
George Kennan, the father of Russian containment policy, believe this was a mistake in his 1997 Op Ed, published by the New York Times. George Kennan: A Fateful Error
Boris Yeltsin was president in 1997. Kennan recognizes that Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland would be admitted, and this would be perceived by Russia as a hostile move into their area of security. History shows that this is right, particularly once Putin came to power.
Also, Tom Friedman, New York Times, And now, a word from X (May 2, 1998) echoes the same points as before. Friedman recounts a discussion with George Kennan, who calls expansion a tragic mistake, and goes on to say, “There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”
Also, in 1997, Susan Eisenhower, the grand daughter of President Eisenhower, sent a letter to President Clinton which was signed by 47 prominent retired military leaders, diplomats, senators and scholars, opposing expansion of NATO. See letter.
Among those signing the letter are Robert McNamara, Stansfield Turner, Sam Nunn and Paul Nitze, very prominent Americans with long service to our country. They went on after government service to lecture at universities, write books, or work for non-profit organizations.
Robert Gates in his book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War published in 2014, writes “moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to incorporate so many of the formerly subjugated states into NATO was a mistake.” Further he states, “Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching.” He harshly criticizes NATO expansion as a political act.
Note that Ukraine and Georgia are at present not members of NATO. So, the US did in fact, move quite cautiously in admitting the newly independent countries in NATO.
It is also noted that Robert Gates became Secretary of Defense in 2006, for President George W. Bush, and he was not involved in the decision to admit seven additional countries into NATO in 2004. He had the task of dealing with an angry Putin at the Munich Conference in 2007. Each president from Clinton to Trump supported the application of newly independent republics to NATO.
Gates’ book is a great memoir of his time as secretary of defense under both George W, Bush and Barrack Obama. His comments must be taken in the context of the times. Under George Bush, the US pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) in 2002. Interceptor missiles are by nature defensive weapons. But, it can be argued that if a country has enough ABM’s, then it would be able to conduct a first missile attack without concerns about retaliation. A proposal by the US to base ABM’s in Poland with radar stations in Czech Republic was approved in December 2006, which Gates writes angered Putin as it would further encircle his country with missiles.
From Wikipedia “In interviews with Oliver Stone in 2017, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that in trying to persuade Russia to accept US withdrawal from the treaty, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had tried, without evidence, to convince him of an emerging nuclear threat from Iran.” This is consistent with Gates’ book. It is well described how we tried to work with the Russian on defensive missile systems.
Recently, others have joined the argument, that the US should have more respect for the Russian point of view that NATO expansion or establishing bases in countries within Russia’s “Security belt” would be de-stabilizing, and hurt the very necessary disarmament efforts.
This video is certainly controversial. I do not accept that Russia has reason to be fearful of NATO. Moreover, this is in the mindset of Putin, having been in isolation during Covid-19 pandemic. The statement that George H.W. Bush promised Gorbachev it would not expand NATO eastward was never part of any agreement. Gorbachev said it just didn’t come up in the 4+2 Treaty negotiations, except in regard to NATO deployments in the former Eastern Germany. NATO had no plans to expand eastward, in 1990, because the countries belong to the Warsaw Pact. No new members for 9 years following the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved because its member nations no longer considered it necessary.
The comment by William Burns in 2008, that accepting of Ukraine into NATO would be viewed as a hostile act, is also accurate, and it is noted that Ukraine is not a part of NATO. The strong protest of NATO expansion from Russia at the 2007 Munich Conference is correct.
Just as I was concluding this rather long piece, there was an exchange between Secretary Blinken and Senator Rand Paul on the Ukrainian crisis. Rand Paul stated Russia had reasons for the attack. Blinken pushed back saying the invasion was unjustified and unprovoked. Youtube likely has this exchange.
In summary, the Eastern European countries, gained independence from Russia in a legal manner in December 1991. As independent countries, they are free to chose whether to make application for NATO membership which is a collective defense organization. I believe the acceptance by NATO, US and the allies should not have been slow tracked or denied.