NATO, Russia, and Europe’s Chessboard: How Mutual Distrust Will Lead to Conflict

Russia intervened in Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, and its behaviour towards Ukraine is just a small component of a much larger regional manoeuvre to push NATO away. Its strategy includes hybrid warfare as a way to weaken what it perceives as US-led NATO expansion. Like in Ukraine, Russia is escalating its presence in the Baltics, as a response to what it believes is NATO aggression.

In turn, NATO members see Russia’s actions as expansionist, which encourages the US to take a tougher stance. Both actors believe that the other is expansionist and not a security seeker, which will lead to conflict. The United States and its NATO allies can debunk Russia’s concern through halting NATO expansion, which will force Russia to either reveal itself as an expansionist actor or compel it to also de-escalate.

The United States’ current policy concerning Russia, and the practice of deterrence, is ineffective and can escalate to an armed conflict. NATO was developed to protect the West from Soviet aggression. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s expansion increased tensions between two security-seeking states. Furthermore, the United States continued to deploy armored brigades and missile installations in NATO countries that are close to Russia’s western border. These actions were intended to assure security, but they paint Russia as an aggressive adversary thus raising Russian military concerns over US’s build up. As mistrust grew, Russia’s recent use of hybrid warfare was an effective alternative to open war between major powers. Its annexation of Crimea was a defensive measure designed to counter NATO but made it appear expansionist. As each party continues to present bolder signals of resolve, armed conflict seems inevitable. Mutual distrust can cause two security-seeking states to escalate into an armed confrontation.

The United States’ signalling, such as encouraging NATO expansion and ‘hand-tying,’ paints NATO as an aggressive military entity instead of a defensive alliance. The United States and its allies wanted to enlarge NATO because they felt that it would encourage growth in Western democratic values.[1] NATO’s actions to support European stability and to reassure its members hurt its credibility and reputation with Russia. The United States maintained bases in Europe such as Germany, and in areas close to Russia, like in Bulgaria and Turkey. Placing American soldiers in these regions sends a positive message to its NATO allies, but threatens Russia. John Mearsheimer argues that the “tripwire doctrine,” a hand-tying signal, encourages Russia to rapidly counter the US through coercive actions such as engaging in forms of hybrid warfare.[2] He believes that Russia’s acquisition of Crimea was to prevent a NATO base from operating there. Had Ukraine joined NATO and accepted American forces, it is likely that the US would deploy missile batteries and militarize Crimea. The situation in Ukraine is an example of an unintended adverse consequence for hand tying and expanding NATO.

Putin’s success in Ukraine showcased his capabilities in matching NATO expansion. According to a RAND Corporation report, Putin’s three-pronged hybrid warfare strategy relies on the integration of ethnic Russians, subversion, and covert action (Radin 2017). When Russia took Crimea, it used or took advantage of a large Russian population that supported Putin, a weak local government, and unmarked forces. As the crisis in Ukraine grew into a civil war, Putin supported the rebels because he saw them as an effective agent to push NATO’s influence away from Ukraine.

The Ukrainian conflict is an example of NATO’s failure and an act that legitimizes Russia’s concerns.  John J. Mearsheimer criticized NATO’s actions in Ukraine in his Foreign Affairs article stating that, “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis.”[3] He argues that NATO’s expansion presents a direct security threat to Russia. Mearsheimer asks the reader to imagine, “the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it.”[4] Mearsheimer’s claim is understandable. NATO’s expansion and its goal to include Ukraine present a non-negotiable concern to Russia, especially given recent history where NATO made other attempts to include countries that neighbor Russia.

The 2006-2008 push to include Georgia into NATO, marks an excellent example of contention and possible military escalation. From Georgia’s perspective, membership into NATO will provide much needed security against its Russian neighbor. Should it receive membership, Georgia would rely on NATO’s collective defense clause, requiring other NATO countries to assist in case of war. Looking back at Putin’s 2008 interview with CNN, he argued that there was a tremendous double standard. He argued that Russia is constantly condemned whenever it pursues regional security, while the US and its NATO allies continually display irresponsible expansionist behavior (CNN 2008). In fact, in a 2007 Moscow news conference, Russian General Yuri Baluyevsky threatened military action along its borders should Ukraine and Georgia join NATO (Reuters 2008). As a representative of the Russian government, General Baluyevsky’s hand-tying statement of resolve is a clear indication of how serious Russia believes its security is being threatened. His concise and clear statement does not leave any room for doubt that from Russia’s perspective, pushing back NATO is essential to its national security.

Some political scientists and security officials contest Russia’s claim that it is a security seeker. Hicks and Samp argue that the United States needs to definitively practice deterrence against Russia (Hicks and Samp 2017). They argue that NATO should not disengage, but reaffirm its position as a defensive alliance. Furthermore, NATO needs to present a more unified front because Russia under Putin’s leadership is expansionist. In their view, Ukraine is just one example of a resurgent Russia, and the Baltics can be the next flashpoint. However, they concede that cooperation with Russia is also advantageous and feasible, and could de-escalate tensions (Hicks and Samp 2017, 8).

An alternative for the United States and its NATO allies is to halt the continual deployment of offensive assets and push for cooperation with Russia. Joint counter terror exercises can be a small step forward in a more amicable relationship. Furthermore, both actors need to revisit mutual agreements and build new partnerships. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act laid the groundwork for increased security and cooperation.[5] Treating Russia as a welcomed partner may decrease “us vs. them” tensions and improve our popularity with the Russian people, which will reduce their fears of NATO aggression. This policy will reduce Russian paranoia by accomplishing two objectives, slowly reducing NATO’s expensive military presence and creating an environment where the Russian population is not fearful of NATO’s intentions. However, given the high tensions, the weakness of this proposal is the culminating assumption that Russia is not an expansionist.

NATO’s security dilemma is in determining whether Russia is an expansionist actor or a security seeking one, and NATO needs to force Russia’s hand politically to reveal its intentions. NATO cannot afford to remove members to appease Russia as it will send a poor signal, especially if Russia is a hostile expansionist actor. Instead, it can halt further expansion and re-evaluate what hardware is deployed. A change of policy will allow NATO to straddle deterrence and de-escalation while avoiding Neville Chamberlain’s strategy of appeasement. The United States and its NATO allies should maintain a presence in the Baltic region, but they need to avoid notions of expansion through further introduction of offensive weapons and invitation for new members. With this change in strategy, it will be more difficult for Russia to maintain a status quo narrative that NATO is an expansionist actor.

Critics argue that this policy creates a tremendous security risk. Russia’s recent military exercises numbering over 100,000 troops question its character as a security seeker.[6] Hicks and Samp argue in a CSIS article that the United States needs to definitively practice deterrence against Russia.[7] They argue that NATO should not disengage, but reaffirm its position as a defensive alliance. Furthermore, NATO needs to present a more unified front because Russia under Putin’s leadership is expansionist. In their view, Ukraine is just one example of a resurgent Russia, and the Baltics can be the next flashpoint. Furthermore, withdrawal of heavy assets would allow Russian forces to storm the Baltics virtually unopposed. Such an action would likely force the Baltic states to enact article 5 within NATO’s charter, and call for aid. Without deterrence, the United States and its NATO members risk a conventional conflict while at a disadvantage.

Even with the current system of deterrence, Russian forces outmatch NATO’s presence in the Baltic region and therefore might choose to seize the initiative rather than wait for NATO to make the first move. Due to the nature of modern warfare, continuous “spiraling” may force Russia to employ hybrid warfare techniques in the Baltics to degrade or destroy NATO’s presence.[8] Andrew Radin argued that Russia could utilize similar tactics as it did in Ukraine and Crimea, to take portions of the Baltics under a pretext of protecting ethnic Russians.[9] Through hybrid warfare, Putin can destabilize the Baltic region and intervene, similar to what the US did in Kosovo.[10] US commanders are troubled by the RAND Corporation’s report, which acknowledges that Russia can take the Baltic state capitals within sixty hours, and that area denial assets deployed in Kaliningrad could deny NATO’s naval assets and reinforcements.[11] If this invasion occurs, it is likely that these states will call for help from other NATO members through Article 5, which states that an “attack on one, is an attack on all.” If the United States does not help the Baltics it will “irreparably harm the United States’ reputation for reliability and integrity, permanently damaging its ability to exert influence abroad.”[12] Furthermore, if the United States does not help, it will likely dissolve NATO as a whole. This dissolution will bring further instability and potentially new conflicts. As such, it is prudent for US-led NATO and Russia to de-escalate through positive signaling.

It is beneficial for the United States to pursue this think tank’s alternate policy as it is more cost effective. In a RAND report, the upfront costs of adding three new US ABCTs including its supplementary equipment such as artillery and air defense, would cost $13 billion with an annual maintenance cost of approximately $2.7 billion.[13] Instead, the United States could focus on defensive weaponry such as patriot systems, or even use this money for domestic non-military projects.

Overall, the United States doesn’t have the option to pursue the status quo and must reconsider its defense policy in the Baltic region. Russia’s actions in Crimea indicate a resurgent resolve. If NATO halts adding new members, it is a manageable costly signal that will also attack Russia’s narrative. In turn, Russia will be more compelled to work with NATO and slowly de-escalate through measures such as disarmament. With both parties making gradual measures, it is possible to increase stability in the region. 

Alexander Grinberg is an officer in the U.S. Army. He has a degree in Defence Policy and Strategy. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defence, or the U.S. Government.



[1] Kimberly Marten, “Reducing Tensions Between Russia and NATO,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 2017, 9,

[2] John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs, January 28, 2016,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation signed in Paris, France,” NATO, accessed November 29, 2017,

[6] Kathleen H. Hicks et al., Recalibrating U.S. strategy toward Russia: a new time for choosing (Lanham: Rowman et Littlefield Publishers, 2017)  14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] RAND notes that “Both Tallinn and Riga are also home to significant ethnic Russian populations—more than 30 percent in the former, 40 percent in the latter. If even a small minority of these people is actively sympathetic to the Russian invaders’ cause, it could pose a major internal security challenge for the defenders” 13.

[9] Andrew Radin, “Hybrid Warfare in the Baltics: Threats and Potential Responses,” RAND Corporation, February 23, 2017,

[10] Marten, “Reducing Tensions Between Russia and NATO,” 11.

[11] Radin, “Hybrid Warfare in the Baltics: Threats and Potential Responses,” 28.

[12] Marten, “Reducing Tensions Between Russia and NATO,”  8.

[13] David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016)


Hicks, Kathleen H., Lisa Sawyer Samp, Olga Oliker, Jeffrey Rathke, Jeffrey Mankoff, Anthony Bell, and Heather Conley. Recalibrating U.S. strategy toward Russia: a new time for choosing. Lanham: Rowman et Littlefield Publishers, 2017.

MacAskill, Ewen. “Russia says US troops arriving in Poland pose threat to its security.” The Guardian. January 12, 2017.

Marten, Kimberly. “Reducing Tensions Between Russia and NATO | Council on Foreign Relations.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed November 29, 2017.

Mearsheimer, John J. “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.” Foreign Affairs. January 28, 2016.

NATO. “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation signed in Paris, France.” Accessed November 29, 2017.

Radin, Andrew. Hybrid Warfare in the Baltics: Threats and Potential Responses. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017. Also available in print form.

Shlapak, David A. and Michael Johnson. Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016.

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