Further NATO Enlargement: Myth or Reality?

An Interview with former Deputy Secretary General of NATO Alexander Vershbow

Kristina Zeleniuk is a Ukraine-based political and international observer and journalist, and a 2021 FES DC Media Fellow. This interview was originally published in Ukranian on TSN.ua and has been edited for clarity.

The Kremlin continues to insist that the US promised Russia not to enlarge NATO to the East, in exchange for uniting Germany. That’s arguably why Moscow creates military conflicts in different countries which were previously part of the Soviet Union.

However, instead of a united response to the threat from Russia – or new threats from China – the transatlantic community is going through difficult times. After Donald Trump’s presidency – during which the alliance suffered from Trump’s hostile attitude and questions about its future – Joe Biden has created the AUKUS security alliance with Great Britain and Australia. What does this new alliance mean? Is there a danger that NATO will become an alliance of the past? Who will Washington call on in Europe after the current transition of power in Germany?

To understand how the balance of power on the geopolitical stage will change after the end of the Merkel era, the creation of new US alliances, possible hot conflict with China, as well as how all these issues will affect the EU and NATO, I spoke with Alexander Vershbow, the former Deputy Secretary General of NATO in 2012-2016, and US Ambassador to Russia from 2001-2005.


For a long time, the US was considered the guarantor of Europe's security, particularly within NATO. Can we say that the decisions of the Biden administration to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and create the AUKUS security alliance changed this approach?

The short answer is "no". I would maintain that the Biden Administration is still committed to NATO and other US alliances with other democratic nations in other parts of the world. We saw this again with Secretary of Defense Austin’s participation in the NATO ministerial meetings where he participated in very important decisions to strengthen NATO’s defense and deterrence posture against Russia. That being said, the Administration's view is that NATO needs to prioritize the threat from China on an equal level with the threat from Russia. China in some ways is a bigger threat in the long term, but Russia is the most immediate threat.

In light of that, the conclusion was that the 20-year mission in Afghanistan while it may have achieved a lot at the beginning had descended into a protracted stalemate which was draining NATO resources and political attention. And the withdrawal was certainly carried out in a very clumsy way, which raised some questions about the planning. But I don’t think it signifies anything more fundamental. I think Europeans recognize that we do have to reprioritize new threats alongside old threats and that NATO can’t do everything at the same time. So I think allies don’t doubt the US commitment to play a leading role in NATO.

When it comes to the AUKUS alliance, which is still just being developed now, here I would say that allies never really agreed that NATO should be the first responder to China. And the US thinks that way as well.

NATO has many roles it can play, and is dealing with the broader Chinese threat including technology and the Belt and Road Initiative. On the military side I think it makes sense to focus on a coalition of willing allies with capabilities in the Pacific region. And that's what AUKUS provides. I do hope France can be brought into this. But the idea of a coalition approach to the Chinese military threat, with NATO playing a more supporting role, is the right solution.


Henry Kissinger once asked: "Who should I call if I want to talk to Europe?" For four American presidents, it was Angela Merkel. With the change of chancellor in Germany, won't the White House decide that it needs to call another number?

It’s likely that the US will need to have several world leaders on its speed dial list until somebody with the stature of Angela Merkel emerges as the first among equals. In fact, she may prove to be unique, having been Chancellor at such a pivotal moment in the evolution of the transatlantic relationship, with her unique biography being born and raised in East Germany, then becoming a political leader in a united Germany. So her shoes will be difficult to fill by anybody else. But I think that the US will develop relations with all the allies but particularly with prominent figures like Macron, Boris Johnson and probably the new German chancellor. It looks like it will be Olaf Scholz. And the important thing is that we consult with all the allies and with the leadership of the EU, while realizing that we all have different perspectives, but, we all have common interests in strengthening the democratic family of nations in deterring aggression by revisionist powers like Russia.


Will the US remain NATO's leader? Or is it time for Europe to take care of its own security? If so, is there a danger that NATO can become an alliance of the past?

I wouldn’t phrase the question as you did. Because on the one hand, the US needs to play a leading role. And I think it will. That is certainly Biden’s instinct. And even Donald Trump, while he didn’t like NATO, didn’t do any lasting damage to the institution. So I think the US will and must play a leading role. But on the other hand, Europe has to grow up and play a bigger role inside the transatlantic community. It’s not just a question of defense spending and the famous 2% goal. It’s about taking more responsibility as the security environment changes, as the US will be required to focus more of its energy and resources on the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, Europe needs perhaps to compensate by doing more in and around Europe. So I could see a new division of labor developing. But that depends on the Europeans actually being serious and not just engaging in lots of rhetoric about strategic autonomy. The key question is: can they take more responsibility? If they do, I think the US should welcome that and not feel in any way threatened by a stronger Europe.


Do you believe there will be a third wave of NATO enlargement? Which countries can join the bloc? Is the "Moscow reaction" a key factor for NATO enlargement?

Well I certainly do believe that there should be a third wave of NATO enlargement. And of course, I have in mind especially Ukraine and perhaps Georgia (although we have some issues as democratic developments are lagging in Georgia). But I believe in the original vision of NATO as an inclusive organization that opens its doors to other democracies that are prepared to contribute to our common security. It’s a complex question inside NATO. But this process should continue. And we need to do it in a way that on the one hand listens to the Russians’ concerns, but on the other hand, doesn’t allow the Russians to block us from doing what is the right thing and what is allowed under the Helsinki Final Act and other agreements that Russia itself has signed.

I know Ukrainians wonder whether Russia has a veto even though we say it doesn’t. I think we need to worry about that perception because it’s not going to satisfy Russia. It will only make Russia bolder in threatening Ukraine, destabilizing the whole former Soviet space and trying to go back to a divided Europe – "Yalta-2" – to which we should be determinedly opposed. But some allies are very nervous about the Russian reaction. That’s why MAP [the Membership Action Plan] has been denied to Ukraine and Georgia for 13 years. And I don’t see any early solution to the MAP question.

But the MAP isn't the most important thing. The most important thing is, in the short term, to make sure that Ukraine and Georgia can defend themselves and deter any new military aggression from Russia. But also to help Ukraine and Georgia strengthen their civil society and their political institutions so that the Russians are less able to exploit weaknesses and divisions within society that can stand in the way of Euro-Atlantic integration. So there is a lot of work to be done. Right now Ukraine isn’t quite ready. But I worry that Ukraine will be ready sooner than the rest of NATO. The US needs to play a leading role in persuading other allies that Ukraine is a good candidate for membership in the Alliance and that we should do everything possible to help Ukraine defend itself and ultimately walk through the open door.


Do you agree that the two main waves of NATO enlargement in 1999 and 2004 took place in the absence of bloc confrontation and Russia's weakness?

In some ways that’s true. Clearly there was less of a bloc confrontation particularly in the 1990s. And I think it even extended into the early years of Putin’s administration when we were trying to develop a longer term partnership on fighting terrorism and other 21st-century threats. Russia was then – objectively speaking – weaker than it is today. But that wasn’t why we pursued enlargement. It was really about building a unified European security system that has a place for Russia. That’s why we signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997 and why the relationship between NATO and Russia was upgraded in 2002. The aim was to have a partnership with Russia and it was still the goal right up until 2014. I remember when I first came to NATO in 2012 as a Deputy Secretary General. We were discussing what could have been a quite remarkable program of cooperation on missile defense against threats from countries like Iran and Syria. But things were unfortunately less optimistic by then. We saw Putin become disillusioned with cooperation with the West even as early as the Orange Revolution, and we were aware of his famous speech in 2007 in Munich.

But I don’t think it was NATO that drove Putin to become anti-western. There were other considerations. Most important is his fear of democracy spreading from places like Ukraine to Russia itself. Anyway, we can debate that, but I think the important thing is to continue to hold out the prospect of membership for countries that meet NATO conditions. And that includes Ukraine. We should find a way to manage Russian opposition rather than succumbing to a Russian veto.


Fear of war and occupation of our territories are the main obstacles to joining NATO?

Well certainly it makes it much more difficult when part of the territory of Georgia and Ukraine is occupied by Russian forces. I say Russian forces – these are not just local farmers and coal miners. These are people maybe without insignias but a lot of them come from Russia and they are, of course, funded, armed, and trained by the Kremlin. And so extending a guarantee of security to Ukraine and Georgia in those conditions is complicated. But it’s not impossible. The NATO guarantee could be extended only to the territory that is under the actual control of Kyiv and Tbilisi until such time as those occupied territories are reintegrated. So that shouldn’t be seen as an insurmountable obstacle. But it makes it much more complicated. It makes it harder politically to convince all 30 allies that agreeing to defend Ukraine, as membership would imply, is worth doing even with the challenge of dealing with the Russian occupation. So I wouldn’t make it sound like it’s easy, but it’s not impossible.


Russia recently announced that further NATO enlargement is a threat to their national security. If NATO decides to enlarge, could Russia start a new war somewhere else?

First of all, the Russians are very quick to draw red lines these days. And the first thing NATO needs to do, and President Biden himself needs to do as the leader of the allies, is to make clear that we do not accept Russian red lines. It is the legitimate right of a country like Ukraine to choose its own security arrangements. It is up to NATO together with Ukraine to decide whether or not Ukraine will become a member. So that’s what we should say politically. But clearly we need to do everything possible to deter the Russians from acting on their self-declared red lines. And that’s why I think in the short term it’s more important that Ukraine and Georgia to some degree have the capacity to defend themselves, to impose serious costs on Russia if it launches some new aggression or seizes some more territory, so that the Russians think twice about ever even considering that. It’s not war-fighting. It’s deterrence. And I do worry that deterrence has weakened over the course of this year, as the Russians became more provocative in the Black Sea, with the big mobilization of troops in the spring that left their troops in a very offensive position which could launch aggression without much warning for NATO and for Ukraine. So we need to strengthen deterrence while continuing to work with Ukraine to help it through the process of preparing for NATO membership in the years to come.


Does everything depend only on US leadership? Can Biden go down in history as a president whose term will witness the next Alliance enlargement?

Not everything depends on US leadership. NATO is an alliance of 30 mostly democratic nations who have their own perspectives. All the allies have a role to play in both strengthening NATO and helping Ukraine defend itself and become ready to go through the open door. I think that actually we need to see more contributions by the allies, not only by the US and just a few countries like the UK and Canada, that are doing more to actually provide military assistance to Ukraine – training and equipment – and even find ways to rotate their troops into Ukraine on a more frequent basis. That can make deterrence even stronger than it is today. I would like to see preparing Ukraine to defend itself as a strategic priority for NATO in the new strategy that the Alliance is going to be adopting next year. All the allies need to contribute.

But US leadership is still the key. I certainly hope that President Biden can at least bring Ukraine closer to the open door during his term as President. That hasn’t happened so far today. When will actual membership be possible? We don’t know, but we shouldn’t rule it out. I think the key is to strengthen deterrence, help Ukraine with its reforms to make Ukraine ready for NATO, to make clear that no Russian red line is legitimate, and that we reject the idea that Russia has a veto over this. That is why the voice of the US has to be the strongest and lead the allies to a common decision – a united front – on this issue. Allies may disagree on other issues, but I think the security and defense of Ukraine has to be a strategic priority for all the allies.

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