[ACE Explainer] EU and NATO Expansion in the Soviet Bloc

By Charlie Bluestein

Photo Credit: Lisa Ferdinando/DVIDS

The Realist Review is pleased to provide this briefer courtesy of the Alliance for Citizen Engagement (ACE).

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) coordinate closely and often operate with similar strategic goals in mind. The two alliances also uphold similar requirements for membership.

Essentially, they each require member states to have democratic institutions of government, functioning market economies, and general respect for human rights within their country. Historically, NATO has been oriented towards issues of defense and collective security, whereas the EU focuses more on economic integration and trade. These Western alliances and their respective institutions expanded in recent decades into Eastern Europe and the territories of the former Soviet Union. 

NATO and EU expansion has had two main components: diplomatic and military expansion.

Diplomatic expansion is the process of incorporating new member-states into the alliances. NATO has conducted eight rounds of enlargement since 1949, and the EU has grown from six to twenty-seven members since 1951. Military expansion involves more ambitious defense agreements and coordination with additional countries. This includes, most notably, the revamped military strategy of NATO’s Allied Land Command or LANDCOM.

Since the Warsaw Summit in 2016, this military branch has adopted the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) initiative which created a more active security apparatus in Eastern Europe. The EU does not retain standing army units like NATO. Instead, the EU relies on member contributions and networking with regional entities to execute military operations when necessary.

Member states in NATO and the EU are often supportive of expanding the alliances. The alliance charters established open-door policies towards aspirant countries for the sake of regional security, should they meet the general requirements.

NATO states the “enlargement process poses no threat to any country (…) [it] is aimed at promoting stability and cooperation, at building a Europe whole and free, united in peace, democracy and common values.” 

Several nations are currently working towards membership. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine are potential candidates for NATO membership, while Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Turkey are being considered for EU accession. Ultimately, NATO and the EU see eastward expansion as an opportunity to strengthen the organizations and promote Western-democratic reforms. 

NATO was originally formed by the United States as a bulwark against Soviet power, so Russia remains wary about the intentions of the Western coalition. In recent years, the Kremlin has viewed expansion as a direct threat to its security strategy and key regional interests.

NATO membership for Ukraine and Balkan states could decrease Russian influence in those countries. The Kremlin’s aversion to expanding Western alliances is thus rooted in legitimate fears of geopolitical isolation.

A 2017 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace states: “The Kremlin charges that the West is conducting hybrid warfare through a combination of military and other means, particularly democracy promotion activities in and around Russia. From Moscow’s perspective, these activities encircle Russia with Western agents of influence, create opportunities for Western intervention, and empower groups inside Russia opposed to the Russian government.” 

The Russian security establishment remains entrenched in this view, making strategic concessions highly unlikely. 

Similarly, leaders in NATO and the EU remain committed to diplomatic expansion and enhanced security initiatives. The prospects for improved relations between Russia and the alliances, therefore, seem bleak in the immediate future.

Ukraine continues to make increasingly legitimate strides towards NATO accession, a move that Russia has declared it would view as a “Red Line.” It remains to be seen what developments will take place with regard to new member states, in addition to how far Russia is willing to go with a direct or indirect response.

It is certain, however, that the role of alliances like NATO and the EU will continue to be a source of conflict in relations between Russia and the West.

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