OPINION | ART HOBSON: U.S. interests in Europe aren't always aligned with other NATO nations' strategies

Russian fear of NATO is legitimate

As I've said before in these pages, U.S. global "leadership" is overly aggressive and militaristic. America cannot run the world.

NATO expansion into Eastern Europe poses a threat to Russia that could develop into a confrontation similar to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. NATO began in 1949 as a military alliance between several Western European nations, the U.S., and Canada that would provide security in the event of invasion by the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, NATO forces, including hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Europe, faced off against NATO's eastern counterpart, the Warsaw Pact military alliance. The Cold War ended in 1989 as Eastern European nations rebelled against Soviet dominance. Although the Warsaw Pact collapsed, NATO's military alliance persisted and even expanded to include Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary. It then continued, over the years, into Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

This expansion flies in the face of the advice of the first NATO supreme commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became the U.S. president. He stated in February 1951: "If in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project (NATO) will have failed."

Other Cold War participants voiced similar views. George Kennan, the American diplomat and historian who formulated the policy of "containment" that was our basic strategy for fighting the Cold War, stated in 1997: "Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected ... to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking."

President Eisenhower's granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, sent an open letter to President Clinton in 1997 that described plans to expand NATO as "a policy error of historic proportions." The letter was co-signed by an impressive group of 49 military, political and academic leaders.

There is good reason for this advice. Russia's greatest fear is Western aggression. Russia suffered invasions by Turkey (1571), Poland (1605), Sweden (1610), France (1812) and Ukraine/Belarus (1814). This fear was re-confirmed in spades when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, initiating World War II, and then invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941. In that war, 24 million Russians -- 10 percent of the Russian population, including at least 12 million civilians -- died.

Today, Russia finds itself largely surrounded by a hostile NATO military alliance. Now Ukraine, a large nation that has received significant U.S. military assistance and shares a long border with Russia, seeks membership in NATO. It was entirely predictable that Russia, fearing above all the possible placement of offensive missiles at Ukraine's border, would view this as an existential crisis and vehemently resist.

A similar situation developed just after World War II. Finland, a democratic Western nation with a free economy, felt threatened by the huge Soviet Union to its immediate east. Amid postwar tensions, Finland signed a Treaty of Friendship with the Soviets, declaring neutrality in superpower politics and guaranteeing that the USSR need not fear attack from or through Finnish territory. This preserved peace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has submitted a statement of security measures it wants to negotiate with the U.S. and NATO. These measures include guaranteed Ukrainian neutrality, precluding it's membership in NATO. Putin warns that mounting tensions could push Russia into a showdown similar to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that put the world on the verge of nuclear war. The comparison is apt: In 1962, the Soviet Union had secretly stationed intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba. When informed of this by American intelligence agencies, President John Kennedy vehemently opposed such missiles near the U.S. border and resolved to remove them despite the inevitable risk of nuclear war arising from this decision. Putin today voices a concern similar to Kennedy's concern. A hostile Ukraine, allied militarily with the West, could place offensive missiles at Russia's border, five minutes from Moscow. A pledge of neutrality from Ukraine, similar to Finland's 1947 pledge, is reasonable and desirable for all sides.

The U.S. has long overplayed its hand in NATO and in the world. Last September, the French foreign minister suggested Europeans need to define their own strategic interests relative to nations such as China (and, by implication, Russia). I agree and have a modest suggestion: America should withdraw from NATO and allow Europe to follow its own strategic interests.

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