NATO expands towards Russia’s borders

First published: July 1997

The first East European states will be admitted to NATO in July at a summit in Madrid and become full members by 1999. Having delayed for fear of losing Boris Yeltsin last year’s presidential elections, NATO is now poised for rapid expansion towards Russia’s western borders.

The states most likely to be admitted in July are Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. All three occupy the strategically crucial central European corridor between Russia and Germany. Other candidates are Romania, which has the backing of France, and Slovenia, sponsored by Italy.

A big obstacle to NATO enlargement was cleared away by a charter between NATO and Russia – the ‘Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security’, agreed by NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov on 14 May.

The ground work for this was laid at a summit meeting between the United States and Russian presidents in Helsinki on 21 March. This summit secured Yeltsin’s de facto acceptance of NATO’s eastward expansion.

Expansion into East Europe does not stop at the formal enlargement of NATO. The US is also moving into the former Soviet Republics, Ukraine and the Baltic states.


Closer ties with Ukraine are due to be announced at the Madrid summit. In April General George Joulwan, NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, held talks in Kiev aimed at a formal agreement with Ukraine and the possible establishment of a NATO-Ukraine council. Ukraine is the third largest recipient of American aid, after Israel and Egypt.

US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, visited the Baltic states at the end of March, as part of the US’s efforts at drawing up an interim security agreement with Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

The Madrid summit will also announce the setting up of an Atlantic Partnership Council to take forward NATO’s ‘Partnership for Peace’ initiative, whereby the US has extended its military relations across East Europe. There are 27 members to date, many of whom are now participating in joint military activities with NATO, including in Bosnia and Albania.

The Founding Act not only secures Russia’s acquiescence in NATO’s eastward expansion, but also establishes that Russia will not even be able to veto the incorporation of former Soviet states into NATO. The crucial clause of the Founding Act states: ‘Provisions of this document do not provide NATO or Russia, at any stage, with a right of veto over the actions of the other nor do they infringe upon or restrict the rights of NATO or Russia to independent decision making and action.’

At the same time, the Act reaffirms the central features of NATO expansion: the right to station nuclear weapons and foreign troops on the territory of new members in East Europe. The text of the Founding Act reasserts NATO’s nuclear first-use policy. While a preamble says that there are no plans to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members at present, the key clause states: ‘the members of NATO reiterate that they have no… need to change any aspects of NATO’s nuclear posture.’

The text also clarifies NATO’s right to move foreign troops into new members’ territory as it chooses. It asserts: ‘reinforcement may take place when necessary.’

The Act also ignores Russia’s demands for a legally binding treaty defining its relations with NATO, and for a veto on matters affecting Russian interests. NATO insisted on a vague charter allowing it to retain a free hand, or as the New York Times put it: ‘to assert the most important character of the North Atlantic Alliance – to carry out military planning and make decisions without Moscow’s blessing.’

In addition to these fundamental aspects of relations between NATO and Russia, at the Helsinki summit Yeltsin accepted a series of steps which will allow the US to engage in a new phase of nuclear rearmament. He agreed three things. First, to push for the ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Start II – which the Russian parliament refuses to pass. Start II would cut Russia’s long-range nuclear warheads to 3000 by 2003. Second, Yeltsin agreed a proposal for a Start III treaty which would further slash Russia’s nuclear arsenals to about 2000 within 10 years – 20 per cent of their Cold War levels.

Third, Yeltsin withdrew opposition to the development by the US of a medium-range battlefield anti-missile shield. The significance of these systems is that they would allow the US to use its nuclear weapons, while protecting its own forces from any nuclear response. In other words, anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) constitute a crucial step away from the phase of deterrence and towards nuclear war-fighting strategies.

Since Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ (the Strategic Defence Initiative), the US has been campaigning to gain acceptance for ABMs. The proposal for ‘theatre’ ABM systems is a step in that direction – with the advantage that it would not involve the astronomical costs of the full Star Wars programme.

The US is working on a joint project for theatre-wide anti-missile defence with Germany and is pressing Britain to join. Britain recently also floated a proposal for an ABM system.

The Guardian was correct to point out that ‘the real US objective is to move to a far more ambitious Start III regime, along with a formal settlement of the vexed issue of theatre missile defence – small and regional versions of the anti-missiles defence systems originally proposed in Ronald Reagan’s strategic defence initiative’ (22 March).

This agreement on nuclear weapons would dramatically shift the military balance in favour of the United States and, ultimately, remove Russia’s capacity to defend itself against NATO attack.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said the agreements reached were in effect a ‘Treaty of Versailles’ for Russia and that Yeltsin was ‘guilty of completely betraying the national interests of the country’. Zyuganov correctly observed that NATO’s commitment not to station nuclear weapons on the territory of its new members should be treated as seriously as the promise to Gorbachev in 1989 that East Germany would not be brought into NATO after German unification.

In reality, Yeltsin has acquiesced in an advance by NATO which would greatly reduce the time taken for NATO nuclear missiles to reach Russian cities. It is because they understand that fact that the vast majority of Russia’s people oppose NATO moving east.

NATO expansion is also going to unleash some serious political problems. First, it has the effect of totally unifying the Russian military against the West. As the military is required to envisage scenarios threatening Russia’s integrity, the obvious menace of the most powerful war machine in the world advancing towards Russia’s borders while the government starves the army of funds, can only intensify hostility to Yeltsin’s government. On 22 May, President Yeltsin sacked both his defence minister and the head of the general staff – amid signs of serious disaffection in the armed forces.

Second, Belarus has responded to the NATO plan to move up to its western border by campaigning for reunification with Russia. This has been accompanied by the crushing of all the capitalist political forces in Belarus. The US has responded by trying to overturn the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko – but he appears to enjoy wide popular support, particularly around his proposal to restore the union with Russia. On 2 April, Belarus, which shares a long border with Poland, signed a treaty with Russia for closer military and economic cooperation.

Third, while East European states see joining NATO as a first step towards getting into the European Union – which many wrongly suppose will bring them West European living standards – they will find that the big increase in military spending envisaged exacerbates rather than improves their economic problems. This will feed the popular unease already developing at the idea of making their countries the likely battlefields in any new war.

In Slovakia, for example, the Financial Times reported that ‘Opinion polls suggest most Slovaks do not want nuclear weapons or foreign troops on their soil’ (4 April). A Czech opinion poll showed only 42 per cent of respondents favour membership of NATO (Guardian, 23 April).

A US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study in March 1996 estimated that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic would have to increase their defence budgets by a massive 60 per cent to meet the costs of membership. The CBO reported to the US Congress earlier this year that the total cost of NATO expansion would be up to $35 billion over the next 12 years – with the US paying a mere $2 billion of this.

These sorts of costs will have a devastating effect on East European economies. In the case of the Czech Republic, for example, the 1997 budget earmarked 32 billion koruna for defence. The government said it will increase this gradually in line with an anticipated growth in the economy. But official figures show a sharp contraction in economic activity in the opening months of this year. On 16 April, the Czech government announced steep budget cuts.

At the beginning of April, the Polish parliament approved a new draft constitution, which includes a cap on national debt of 60 per cent of GDP and forbids central bank financing of the budget deficit. President Aleksander Kwasniewski said the new constitution ‘confirms the values and principles… which lie at the root of the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union’. Critics warn that clauses allowing for Polish entry into NATO and the EU could be misused to derogate sovereignty and also point out that it fails to enshrine trade union rights.

Poland is introducing pension reform to bring public spending down. Defence minister Stanislaw Dobrzanski recently announced cuts in the armed forces – from 230,000 at present down to 180,000 by 2004 – to help pay for new equipment that will be needed to make Czech Republic forces NATO-compatible.

The Hungarian government too is adopting harsh spending cuts. During February, farmers demonstrated against tax and social security contribution increases, culminating in a protest in Budapest on 11 March.

This next phase of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe will not proceed without strains, however – which are poised to grow as the real effects of NATO expansion become clearer. These must be explained to as wide an audience as possible, to begin to develop the movement against NATO expansion that is urgently needed.