NATO Enlargement — A Case Study

May 15, 2017 · 9 min read

Adapted from Recalibrating U.S. Strategy toward Russia

This chapter of Recalibrating U.S. Strategy toward Russia seeks to shed light on the question: why and when does Russia resort to the use of force? The CSIS study team examined six instances over the past two decades when Moscow confronted a security challenge and faced the choice of whether to use military force. This case study will focus on NATO enlargement.

NATO Enlargement, 1990–2004

The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of Soviet dominance in Central and Eastern Europe meant nations in that region were free to pursue independent foreign policies and relationships with the West. The goal of U.S. policy was to build a post-Cold War Europe that is “whole, free, and at peace.” Opening NATO’s door to new members, as outlined in Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, was thought to advance that goal.

As enlargement discussions intensified through the 1990s, the West sought to persuade Russia that its interests aligned with this idea of new pan-European security order. Some Russian leaders even speculated (however fleetingly) about the possibility of Russia, itself, joining the alliance.

In the early post-Cold War period, the then-16 members of NATO were cautious about bringing in new members, but consensus eventually emerged and enlargement, combined with specific efforts to elevate NATO’s relationship with Russia, ultimately came to define the West’s approach to European security. The alliance admitted the Visegrád Group (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) in 1999, and the Vilnius Group (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia) in 2004.

As the successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia had also agreed- under the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 and the Charter of Paris in 1990 — that states have the right to freely choose their political associations.

There are several factors that dissuaded Russia from using stronger means or force to thwart NATO enlargement or punish aspirants. These include: the political aspirations of individual Russian leaders; the contemporaneous policy imperative to establish Russia’s international role in a changed international environment; domestic turmoil that made security and foreign policy second-tier priorities; and the fact that Russia was a nascent democracy that in its first decade also faced severe economic troubles, which made Russia dependent on Western support.

German Unification: 1990

German unification was the first post-Cold War expansion of NATO’s geographical boundaries, and the united Germany’s membership in NATO was accepted by the four victories of World War II, including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Much has been written about the negotiations, particularly Soviet and American positions on Germany’s remaining a NATO member.

Controversy over a unified Germany’s future membership in NATO centers on an exchange between Secretary of State James Baker and Gorbachev during a meeting in Moscow in February 1990. In discussions about the presence of NATO forces in a unified Germany once the former East Germany was incorporated, Baker told Gorbachev that,

“There would be no extension of…[the] forces of NATO one inch to the east.”

This commitment was reflected in the treaty on the Final Settlement with with Respect to Germany in September 1990. Gorbachev subsequently confirmed that those discussions and commitments related only to Germany, that they had been scrupulously carried out, and that there had been no discussion of other former Warsaw Pact countries joining NATO. Only years later did Russian commentators and officials begin trying to portray the Baker-Gorbachev discussion as a U.S. promise that NATO would not enlarge, and this largely forms the official Russian characterization. However, the Soviet, U.S., and other declassified official records of those negotiations, and the final treaty, do not support this interpretation.

NATO Welcomes the Visegrád Group: 1997–1999

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a new energy among former Warsaw Pact states to secure their independence but uncertainty about how to do so while the Warsaw Pact remained in existence and Soviet forces remained in Central Europe. In May 1992, the prime ministers of the Visegrád countries met and expressed their common desire to join NATO, and followed up collectively and in bilateral channels with the United States and NATO allies.

In Russia, President Boris Yeltsin initially conceded to the growing momentum of enlargement. In August 1993, alongside Polish president Wałęsa, Yeltsin stated that Moscow did not object to Poland’s joining NATO. The meeting communiqué stated,

“In the long term, such a decision taken by a sovereign Poland in the interests of overall European integration does not go against the interests of other states, including the interests of Russia.”

This came as a shock to many in Russia, including within Yeltsin’s own cabinet, as two days earlier Russian foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev had publicly rejected the idea.

After Yeltsin’s October 1993 clash with hardline parliamentary leaders, his sensitivity to the issue of NATO enlargement increased. At the same time, Washington was more concerned about maintaining unity and consensus within the alliance in its current configuration, the need for reforms in countries that aspired to membership, and the unpredictable effect the issue might have inside Russia. The Clinton administration developed the idea of NATO’s Partnership for Peace in part to forestall rapid accession of new members and reduce the immediate problem for Yeltsin, while keeping open the possibility of enlargement further in the future.

In January 1994, a NATO summit meeting in Brussels agreed that enlargement would be “evolutionary,” but established no criteria for new members, leaving the impression that enlargement had been put on the back burner. Yeltsin became more and more unhappy with the clear, albeit slow-moving trend, toward NATO enlargement, and firmly established opposition to NATO enlargement by March 1997’s summit held in Helsinki. Yeltsin expressed his concern that enlargement would lead to a threatening buildup of combat forces near Russian borders. While Clinton stressed this was not the case, the two agreed to work together to promote cooperation between NATO and Russia as an important element of European security. This newfound cooperation was cemented in the May 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.

In July 1997, at its Madrid Summit, NATO officially invited Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic to join the alliance. Yevgeny Primakov, then the Russian foreign minister, voiced firm opposition, but emphasized Russia’s willingness to “minimize the complications that may arise if expansion goes ahead.” As domestic pressure rose and NATO enlargement came to be viewed as a source of humiliation by the Russian public, Yeltsin and Primakov continued to voice their open and strong opposition to NATO enlargement until the end of Yeltsin’s term in 1999, the same year the new members formally joined the alliance enlargement.

Yeltsin, despite behavior that at times appeared erratic, remained the principal decisionmaker on Russia’s policy and actions towards NATO. Yeltsin faced multiple internal and external pressures: Russia’s public position varied throughout this period as those pressures rose and fell, but Russia did not at any time undertake steps that threatened NATO aspirants with consequences for joining the alliance. Yeltsin wanted credit for bringing Russia into a new era of closer political and economic relations with the West and realizing the goal of an undivided Europe with Russia playing a leading role. Closer ties with the United States were a component of this transition, and as a result, Yeltsin looked for mutually beneficial solutions. However, Yeltsin was also constrained by domestic opposition, notably from the legislature (first the Supreme Soviet, and then the Duma that took its place in 1993).

While domestic pressure from the Duma showed a growing anti-West sentiment, those with the political power to alter Yeltsin’s stance towards NATO enlargement resided principally in his own cabinet. In November 1993, Foreign Intelligence Service head Yevgeny Primakov (later Yeltsin’s foreign minister and prime minister) published a study opposing NATO enlargement, suggesting significant opposition within the government notwithstanding Yeltsin’s positive statements to Wałęsa and Havel. On numerous occasions, subordinates presented a harder line than Yeltsin, forcing him to backtrack on commitments or statements made in public. The lack of clarity on exactly what Russia would and would not accept placed members of the alliance in the position of trying to interpret where Russia stood on the question of NATO expansion.

The Vilnius Group, 2004

The George W. Bush administration entered office having promised to press NATO enlargement forward, a point of continuity with the outgoing Clinton administration. At the 2002 NATO summit in Prague, the then-19 allied leaders extended membership invitations to seven countries, including Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, as well as three former Soviet republics — Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. After completing the accession protocols, including ratification by all allied governments/parliaments, the countries were formally admitted into the alliance at the June 2004 NATO Summit in Istanbul. Russia was openly against the expansion, arguing that it was addressing a threat that no longer existed. President Putin asserted,

“This purely mechanical expansion does not let us face the current threat… and cannot allow us to prevent such things as the terrorist attacks in Madrid or restore stability in Afghanistan.”

The accession of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to NATO was especially unpalatable for Moscow due to its tumultuous past with the three Baltic States and tense relations since the fall of the Soviet Union. Since regaining their independence, the Baltic States had sought to keep Russia at arm’s length and integrate rapidly into Western institutions. While recognizing their independence, Russia simultaneously sought to retain political and economic influence across the region.

Putin realized that he would not be able to block NATO’s enlargement, acknowledging that “each country has the right to choose the form of security it considers most effective.” While Russia was publicly against the move, domestic turmoil and economic imperatives constrained Russia from taking other actions.

An additional factor that hampered a harsher response from Russia was an improving relationship with the West in the form of the new NATO-Russia Council, established in May 2002. This initiate replaced the Permanent Joint Council and brought Russia an expanded dialogue with NATO on issues like terrorism, crisis management, nonproliferation, and theater missile defense. Russia also supported the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and used the NATO-Russia Council to facilitate increased security cooperation. As momentum for a more cooperative relationship grew, there was also a greater push to integrate Russia into Western international institutions beyond NATO.


Despite U.S. and NATO efforts to balance enlargement with improved relations with Russia, the Russian popular narrative continues to portray enlargement as encirclement that challenges Russia's security and as proof that the West, and the United States in particular, did not seek a genuine partnership with Russia. The December 2015 Russian national security concept reflects this new thinking. It states, “The buildup of the military potential of NATO and the endowment of it with global function pursued in violation of the norms of international law, the galvanization of the bloc countries’ military activity, the further expansion of the alliance, and the location of its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders are creating a threat to national security.”

Whereas past domestic concerns, including political opposition, a struggling economy, and depleted military capabilities, prevented stronger Russian opposition to NATO enlargement, these factors no longer constrain Russian behavior towards NATO. Having failed to prevent NATO’s past enlargement through diplomatic means, Russia today is more inclined to consider military intervention and saber-rattling as options to advance Moscow’s aims. Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and its 2014 intervention in Ukraine are two examples of Russia using military force to, among other objectives, derail any potential for NATO enlargement along its borders.

Download the full report here

View other case studies: Russia’s Intervention in Syria — A Case Study

Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

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