NATO in Russia’s Backyard: The Failure of Strongman Tactics

NATO in Russia’s Backyard: The Failure of Strongman Tactics
Photo by Nikita Karimov / Unsplash

Throughout history many nations have dictated their sphere of influence through aggressive tactics. The Theodore Roosevelt doctrine of “speak softly and carry a big stick” worked well enough because many countries were simply not organized enough to push back with a united front.  From the early years of colonialism, we see this type of doctrine being used internationally, as countries who had a vested interest in another were willing to use their military forces to threaten or take direct action to secure these interests. From the opium wars between China and Great Britain to the American advances in Latin America and Southeast Asia these tactics have often worked.  The smaller nations could not stop the influence of larger nations and had to bend the knee to ensure their own survival.  This lack of coordination as well as active unity was one of the casual factors that allowed Nazi Germany to maneuver against its neighbors without direct intervention. To make this point, most of what has been talked about here is history, not the present day, so what changed?

In the post-World War world, the bi-polar division of east and west, capitalism and communism, two major alliances formed. This was that union of smaller nations into a larger union that was intended to block big stick diplomacy. NATO and the Warsaw Pact, both were intended to stop the growth and interference of larger nations while also forcing smaller ones to take a side.  When they did not take a side, very few nations were safe. While countries like India and Yugoslavia both had a Soviet tilt, they stayed out of this split by playing both sides against the middle and were successful. For counties like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Korea, and Columbia their lack of protection left them vulnerable to internal and external conflicts that would tear them apart. Overtime instead of being alliances based solely on individual survival both NATO and the Warsaw pact became pacts of nuclear deterrence.

When the Soviet Union collapsed so too fell what was left of the Eastern Bloc, many of the countries under the former thumb of Moscow now saw their own position as vulnerable.  This vulnerability led many of these countries to look for new protection, primarily NATO, but why did this happen? In a declassified conversation former Bush Sr. Secretary of State James Baker made overtures to the then Premier of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO forces had no intention of expanding eastward past Germany. This begs the question, what changed? Was it NATO expansionism, or something else?

The answer is like most international politics, multifaceted and constantly shifting.  In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian Federation that formed out of the collapse was far less peaceable and isolated than expected. In the late 90s and early 2000s the Balkan instability pushed many former neutral or Russian backed areas to find new protection of the superstates. Whereas before peace would be mediated through the two larger powers playing proxy it would seem that only NATO had stood the test of time.  Further than this Russia became increasingly isolated and less globally influential than before.  We can see this in countries like Greece looking towards China for economic development where before this business if not conducted with the United States would have been given to the Soviets. This lack of possible exertion of power that at one time was free use to Moscow increasing has seen deterioration in modern times. It isn’t a far reach then to see why Russia in the last two decades has acted as it has.  When countries like Russia begin to see their own power fading quickly, they feel isolated and easily threatened by their neighbors regardless of intention. This can lead to them feeling that they have to adopt the Big Stick policy and try to batter all of the presently neutral countries into submission to reverse this isolation.

From this stance the earlier conflicts that Russia had decided to get involved were nearly all former Soviet states that had yet to join NATO or seek outside alliances.  Starting with supporting then fighting Georgia over Abkhazia, through their conflict with Ukraine, the Russian Federation has nearly been in a perpetual state of warfare. For nearly two decades now this policy has worked to perfection.  Many of the countries in the Caucasus have either routinely aligned with Russian interests even when Russia continued to undermine their own authority.  This constant backing into corners and then taking whatever they want has underlined and been a pinnacle of Putin’s government since its inception. This also begs another question, why did the west not intervene? In some ways they did by sanctioning Russia, but not nearly on the scale that has been seen with the current conflict in Ukraine. It truly is hard to say why now, but many of the earlier conflicts were with smaller nations, whose particular position was not always strategic to NATO’s interests as the combatants were confined to specific areas. The conflict in Ukraine changed this, as though NATO’s sphere had always covered western Europe directly in the past decade this has more or less changed to all of Europe.  NATO intervention has now been aimed at preventing war in what can be considered NATO confined areas although this doesn’t necessarily mean with their direct members.

Russia’s plan then has worked so well so far, but as the saying goes there will eventually be a straw that breaks the camel’s back. While countries that have been historically neutral through eastern and western conflicts such as Sweden or in post-World War Finland, these aggressions are no longer tolerable.  As mentioned above when countries do not have protection the Big Stick policy works in favor of the country wielding it as the smaller nations have no recourse to defend themselves.  In the modern day this is emphasized by NATO interventions on the side of the anti-Russia countries.  In the long-term, Russia’s policy is set to backfire because many of these countries are no longer backed into a corner that can’t escape from, due to a relatively open-door policy NATO ready to welcome them with open arms instead of being threatened by Russia. Further than these countries such as Georgia, Bosnia, and Ukraine in the last few years have opened the door to discussions of their possible integration into NATO. Ukraine now has shown that it cannot in the present moment join due to the ongoing conflict, but Russia’s invasion has put the pressure on more countries to seek application instead of staying neutral in that they now know they are not safe from Putin’s policies.

In the past few weeks two new countries are preparing to vote on whether the time has come to get that guarantee of safety through NATO applications as both Sweden and Finland have put forth motions in the assemblies.  This turn of tides was what Putin seemed to have failed to understand, as his invasion of Ukraine not only showed countries what will happen if they do not have a safety net but that now they have options. There are deeper implications here too, as now counties who are not constantly and directly anti-Russia are re-evaluating their situations.  Particularly in NATO itself, Germany has had rather pro-Russian business policies with their Nord-Stream Pipeline being a great asset to the Russian economy while simultaneously staying fairly neutral on their state affairs. This is beginning to change with a new chancellor and a revisiting of the military budget of Germany who has allowed itself to become outdated and unused.  In a modern world, big stick diplomacy and aggressive countries no longer has the same desired effect it did in the old world, something that Putin’s government is learning the hard way.