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NATO enlargement: evaluating its consequences in Russia


It is often claimed that NATO’s post-Cold War geographic enlargement threatened Russian security interests and caused the downturn in Russia’s relations with the West. This article unpacks and challenges that causal claim, making three basic arguments. First, NATO enlargement made the alliance weaker. Russia knew this and did not react militarily to any perceived threat from Europe until after it seized Crimea in 2014. Second, the downturn in Russia’s relationship with the West was overdetermined and most likely caused by Russia’s reaction to its own declining influence in the world. While NATO’s geographic enlargement aggravated this situation, it was probably not the most significant causal factor. Third, while Russia certainly reacted negatively to NATO enlargement right from the start, the reaction was manipulated and magnified by both the nationalist opposition, and Vladimir Putin’s regime, to serve domestic political interests.

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  1. 1.

    The OSCE data have not been made public, and other reliable sources on weapons deployments (such as the Institute of International Security Studies’s annual The Military Balance series) do not break down Russian troop and weapon levels by their base location inside Russia.

  2. 2.

    Russia and the West have never agreed on how to interpret CFE Treaty limits. Russia wanted NATO to be permanently limited to only three additional brigades beyond what its 19 members held in 1999—at a time when NATO had negotiated an additional brigade for each of its 3 new Visegrad member states. NATO did not accept that interpretation. Although brigades vary in size, they typically range from 1500 to 5000 troops each.


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This article benefited from the terrific discussion at the Boston University Policy and Security Initiative Workshop ‘Evaluating the Legacy of NATO Enlargement’, May 2019. Particular thanks go to Thomas Berger, Jim Goldgeier, Alexander Lanoszka, Barry Posen, Jeff Tagliaterro, and Mike Williams for their comments and suggestions, and I am immensely grateful to Carol Saivets, Joshua Shifrinson, and an anonymous reviewer for their thorough and incisive critiques of entire earlier drafts.

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Marten, K. NATO enlargement: evaluating its consequences in Russia. Int Polit 57, 401–426 (2020).

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  • Russia
  • NATO enlargement
  • Threat
  • Status