The Myth of Russian Aggression and NATO Expansion

Benjamin J. Fernandes & Nathan K. Finney


With the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many foreign policy experts such as Kenneth Waltz, Michael MccGwire, Michael Brown, and others warned against expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to former Soviet-aligned countries, arguing expansion would unnecessarily provoke the Russians to take steps inimical to America’s interests. The events of the post-Cold War era simply do not support this assertion. Rather, the historical evidence suggests Russian leaders act aggressively when the cost-benefit-risk of aggression weighs heavily in Russia’s favor—a threshold past NATO expansions have never crossed.

In the intervening 20 years, Russia has protested NATO expansion but never acted aggressively in response to expansion. Russia did respond militarily to events that threatened their interests, such as the revolution in Ukraine and improving Ukraine-European Union economic ties. In those cases, the benefits of military action dwarfed the costs from the perspective of Russian leaders. Recent Russian actions indicate U.S. and NATO will likely continue clashing with Russia, regardless of changes to U.S. administrations, due to the dramatically different values and assumptions held by Russian and NATO leaders. NATO’s defense reductions combined with perceptions the West has few red lines have helped foster an environment where Russia likely believes the costs of aggression are low. To counter this perception, the United States and NATO should continue and expand policies, like the European Reassurance Initiative, likely to increase the risks and costs associated with aggression from a Russian perspective.

Russian aggression has resulted from a combination of many different factors that created a situation where the benefits of aggression significantly outweighed their costs. While Russians certainly like using NATO expansion to justify aggression, this article describes facts suggesting Russia’s motives have little to do with fears over NATO expansion or military forces. We will first explain U.S. and NATO efforts to strengthen and cooperate with Russia based on the assumption Russia could be a partner. This Western perception contributed to dramatic reductions in NATO’s combat power in Europe and prioritization of non-military spending.

Second we will examine Russian perceptions and reactions to NATO activities. Vladimir Putin likely never viewed the United States as a partner but reluctantly cooperated when he lacked alternatives or when cooperation substantially improved Russia’s relative position. Unlike the United States and other Western countries, Russia does not differentiate between economic competition, political maneuvering, and physical warfare.This different perspective likely led to perceptions that Western economic and diplomatic policies were threatening and a deliberate attempt to hold Russia down. While the decline of conventional NATO unity and military capabilities probably fostered Russian perceptions that there were negligible costs and risks associated with physical aggression in Georgia and Ukraine or psychological operations aimed at sowing discord in Western democracies (France, England, United States, etc.).

U.S./NATO Foreign Policy

From 1992 to 2014, the United States and NATO made every effort to treat Russia as a partner. The belief in democracy and a liberal international order fostered a consistent U.S. foreign policy towards Russia that spanned two Republican and two Democratic administrations. Fundamentally, U.S. and NATO leaders believed international cooperation would benefit all countries, and the United States provided Russia with financial, diplomatic, technical, and military assistance. From the Soviet Union’s collapse until 2014, the U.S. obligated over $18.1 billion in military and economic assistance to Russia.[1] These funds had the stated goals of 1) fostering democratic governance; 2) encouraging free markets; 3) reducing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons proliferation; 4) supporting counterterrorism efforts; and 5) providing humanitarian assistance. Evaluating the efficacy of this assistance remains difficult at best. However, from a Western point of view, the assistance clearly shows a U.S. desire to help and partner with Russia, regardless of Russian perceptions.

Russia has received tremendous, albeit fluctuating, U.S. assistance since 1991. Data from U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Western philosophical belief in a liberal international order and the right of every country to make its own foreign policy, regardless of past membership in the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact, underpinned NATO expansion. While Russian leaders likely believed they should have a say in NATO expansion, Western leaders believed the decision belonged to NATO and the sovereign prospective member nations alone. For Western countries, expanding NATO would improve collective security and support efforts to expand political and economic cooperation to the benefit of all. NATO expanded in 1999, 2004, and 2009 based on the mutual agreement of NATO and applicant countries. Russian concerns were considered and likely led to expanded Western efforts to cooperate with Russia. However, no Western nation believed Russian permission was necessary to expand NATO.

Each expansion led to strong protests from Russia, but Russian reactions to NATO expansions never went beyond diplomatic protests. Russia’s resulting lack of dramatic action after expansions may have limited Western fears of subsequent NATO expansion. The 2004 expansion was the most potentially threatening to Russia because the expansion included the Baltic states, which share a border with Russia and provide the “land bridge” to Kaliningrad—a Russian exclave and a key Russian naval base on the Baltic Sea. This expansion may have encouraged Russia’s subsequent remilitarization.

NATO Expansion Over Time: NATO has incorporated many Warsaw Pact nations since 1991 and incorporated Russia into NATO to alleviate Russian fears. (NATO)

Western leaders perceived a minimal threat to Russia because Western nations avoided “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in new NATO members’ territory and because Russia was on the road to democracy. Russia’s willingness to continue accepting Western foreign assistance, partnering with NATO in areas of mutual interest, and participating in NATO forums reinforced Western perceptions about the lack of a Russian threat, despite protests over NATO expansion.

More importantly, Western actions reduced the overt military threat they presented to Russia. U.S. belief in Russia as a potential “contributor across a broad range of issues” and a net security contributor were explicit assumptions underlying U.S. and other European decisions to reduce combat power in Europe to address other policy goals. From 1990 to 2011, the Netherlands entirely eliminated their armor forces (three Armor regiments with 913 tanks) and reduced their jet fighters from 181 F-16s to 68. From 1990 to 2014, Britain’s Army shrank from four tank regiments and 800 tanks to one regiment and 156 tanks, while British forces forward stationed in Germany declined by over 75%, with further reductions planned. And Germany reduced its active arsenal of 2,125 tanks to a little over its goal of 225—some remain in storage. Similarly, Italy cut its tank, artillery, and mortar forces by more than half from 2001 to 2012 while substantially reducing planned purchases of advanced fighters. These high-end systems represent the most important capabilities for military warfare with a country like Russia but have far less value for counter-terrorism and peacekeeping missions.

The result was a precipitous decline in U.S. and NATO combat power. From the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, U.S. force levels in Europe fell by 80 percent greatly reducing U.S. combat power by reducing fighter squadrons, naval activity, and ground forces. This decline understates the loss in U.S. combat power quickly available to NATO for two reasons. First, U.S. joint and service headquarter staffs account for a greater percentage of total troop numbers in 2014 than they did in 1989 because many headquarters functions—e.g., coordinating with foreign partners—require approximately the same number of personnel whether they are supporting an exercise that involves one squadron or two. Larger events require more support, but certain fixed “costs” remain the same. Second, the United States’ most powerful and difficult to deploy ground units in Europe, tank brigades, all relocated to the U.S. in 2013.

U.S. forces in Europe have declined consistently since 1989, thus presenting a far smaller conventional military threat to Russia. Data from U.S. European Command Historian.

Russian Perspective

Unfortunately, many Russian leaders, such as Vladimir Putin and General Valery Gerasimov (Russia’s most senior general), view the world differently than Western leaders. Western leaders see the political and economic integration of former Warsaw Pact members with Europe as stabilizing. Russian leaders see the same situation as threatening to their influence and prosperity. Furthermore, they believe the West achieved integration through a combination of military and non-military activities that fostered the “Color Revolutions” which spread chaos in the region. Although Western nations viewed Russia as a potential partner and security contributor, Russia viewed the West as a competitor and potential threat. This suggests Russian cooperation with the West always rested on a careful cost-benefit-risk calculation. Russia chose not to act against NATO expansion in 1999 or 2004 because Russia lacked the capability to oppose the expansion and had more important security concerns—e.g., Chechnya. The 2009 expansion to Albania and Croatia was likely less threatening and Russia continued to lack the means to resist NATOdemonstrated by the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.

Lacking the means to resist, Russia’s only remaining option was cooperation. The North Atlantic Cooperation Council (now the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council) cost Russia little but provided the ability to gain a better understanding of NATO operations, collect intelligence, and attempt to influence NATO decision making.

Russian cooperation on issues of great importance to NATO also provided Russia with transactional benefits. For example, the Russian-enabled Northern Distribution Network (NDN)—crucial to NATO operations in Afghanistan—provided Russia with significant economic benefits and a degree of influence over U.S. and NATO foreign policy. Russian cooperation extended beyond economically profitable operations to joint training operations with NATO members and counter-piracy operations supported by NATO. While Westerners viewed these actions as those of a willing partner, Russians probably viewed cooperation as one aspect of realpolitik in a world where they were weak. Russia’s cooperation with NATO grew from a position of weakness that made its leaders uncomfortable.

Russian weakness resulted from severe economic hardships created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hollowness of the inherited Soviet Army. Russian leaders viewed their weakness as the result of Western efforts to undermine Russia through non-military means, such as economic warfare and sowing discord through information operations. The resulting economic weakness forced Russian leaders to shrink its military. However, Russia’s economic rebound allowed it to invest in its military and address operational weaknesses identified during Russia’s barely-successful 2008 foray into Georgia.

The desire to reform created a situation where Russia prioritized military funding higher than NATO countries that did not perceive Russia as a significant threat. Among NATO countries, only Poland increased military expenditures as a percentage of GDP after 2008. By 2014, Russia’s military investments bore fruit. Even though the Russian military was almost a third smaller, Russia’s investments in military equipment modernization and professionalization created a much more capable military force.

Only Russia and Poland have increased military expenditures as a percentage of GDP since Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008. Data from the World Bank.

Russia has demonstrated improved military capabilities through large snap exercises as well as operations in Ukraine and Syria. In Ukraine, Russia has successfully developed tactics combining unmanned aerial vehicles and artillery to decimate Ukrainian forces. In one instance, Russian fires “wiped out two mechanized battalions with a combination of top-attack munitions and thermobaric warheads” in about three minutes. Similarly, in Syria, Russian employment of aircraft and missiles effectively stabilized Syrian regime military forces allowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces to retake the offensive in several areas.

Russia’s “snap” exercises dwarf NATO exercises and occur without warning, frequently surprising NATO and U.S. military leaders. Radio Free Europe.

The war with Ukraine potentially demonstrates Russia’s security calculus best. President Viktor Yanukovych’s overthrow threatened to place a Western leaning government adjacent to Russia, remove Ukraine from Moscow’s sphere of influence, and threaten access to the Black Sea Fleet’s primary base. Yanukovych’s departure and the Association Agreement did not present a significant conventional military threat nor was there any evidence NATO would expand to Ukraine in the near future. These events primarily presented economic and political threats to Putin. Additionally, Putin probably made a reasonable assessment that the West would not stop him due to the asymmetry of interests - Ukraine is very important to Russia with minimal value to NATO members. This large interest asymmetry suggested NATO would be unlikely to intervene just as NATO chose to do little when Russia invaded Georgia. Additionally, Putin may have determined he needed an external event to consolidate his hold on power due to a 19 percent decline in his approval ratings from 2008-2013. The fall of the Yanukovych government represented a number of threats and opportunities to Moscow, but NATO expansion was not one of them.

In 2014, Russia used its improved military to illegally seize Crimea because Russia saw vital interests at stake and believed the benefits outweighed the costs. NATO responded to Russian aggression through sanctions and diplomacy, which likely consolidated Russian public support for Putin and against NATO. From Putin’s perspective, Western sanctions look like a continuation of Cold War economic warfare. From a military perspective, reductions in NATO’s high-end combat power—tanks, fighters, etc.—ensured NATO’s inability to effectively use military force to counter Russia’s 2014 military operations. Prior to the invasion, Russian observations of NATO operations and interactions with its members likely convinced Russian leaders of the great reluctance NATO members have towards confrontation and the difficulty of NATO collective action. Furthermore, many NATO members rely on Russian natural gas, a fact highlighted in September 2014 when supplies to Germany, Poland, and Slovakia mysteriously dipped. Finally, several NATO members (Britain, Germany, etc.) have historically expressed concern over migrants from Eastern Europe suggesting they would have domestic difficulties expending significant resources protecting Eastern European countries.


Russian aggression results from a fairly straight forward cost-benefit-risk framework based on Russian leaders’ view of the world. Although Russian leaders dislike NATO expansion, this has never been the primary driver of aggression. Instead, Russia’s military aggression is part of a whole-of-government approach used when they have both means and a provocation. Accepting the argument that NATO expansion triggered Russian aggression requires accepting two unlikely propositions. First, NATO expansion rather than a resurgent economy accounts for Russia’s re-arming. Given Russia’s history and their view of themselves as a great power, this assertion seems unlikely. Second, NATO expansion rather than Russian interests drove their military in aggression in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. Under that logic, had NATO not expanded, Russia would not have engaged in these conflicts. Alternatively, Russian actions can be attributed to the pursuit of their interests and desire, as stated in their 2015 National Security Strategy, to control “their” region. In this counterfactual reasoning, without NATO expansion, the aforementioned conflicts could be playing out on the German rather than the Polish border.

More importantly, Russia’s world view highlights a significant long-term problem. Western leaders will not realistically restrain European Union expansion or promotion of democracy because they believe these programs promote political, religious, and economic freedoms—basic human rights. Western countries generally feel a responsibility to peacefully encourage and support countries in adopting policies promoting these values. On the other hand, Russia sees this foreign policy as a direct threat to their regime because these policies could incite revolution, which Putin may perceive as a Western goal. While the West must engage in negotiation and dialog, they should do so with a clear understanding of these fundamental differences.

The West must deal with Russia comprehensively, in a manner it understands. In addition to dialog, if NATO wants to deter further aggression, it needs a credible deterrent that increases Russian perceptions of the costs and risks associated with further military aggression. More NATO military forces are unlikely to encourage more aggression and may not prevent Russian aggression to address what they perceive as a vital interest (e.g., Crimea). However, a more robust NATO military presence in Europe will certainly tilt Russian cost-benefit-risk calculations to forego military aggression as a viable method for less important objectives. Furthermore, for vital interests, greater NATO military capabilities will provide members with more response options if Russia continues using military force to violate international norms. The alternative appears more likely to allow Russia free reign and dooms millions of people to suffer under its shadow.

Benjamin J. Fernandes is a George Mason University PhD student, Council on Foreign Relations Term Member, and U.S. Army officer. His studies focus on security assistance, governance, principal-agent theory, and grand strategy. He is currently assigned to U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). He infrequently tweets at @benwarlordloop.

Nathan K. Finney is an officer in the U.S. Army and a PhD candidate in history at the University of Kansas. He is also the founder of the online journal The Bridge, founder and Managing Director of the Military Fellowship at the Project on International Peace & Security, a member of Infinity Journal's Editorial Advisory Board, a founding member of the Military Writers Guild, a non-resident fellow at the US Military Academy’s Modern War Institute, and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations. Nathan holds masters degrees in Public Administration from Harvard University and the University of Kansas, as well as a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona.  He tweets at @NKFinney.

The conclusions and opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government, U.S. Army, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, or U.S. Army Pacific.

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Header Image: Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of his security council in 2014. (Ria Novosti/Reuters)


[1] Disbursements are only available post 2001.