As the preeminent institution for maintaining European security, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) must address the growing sphere of Russian influence in non-NATO member states. Under the guidance of Vladimir Putin, Russia is using a combination of diplomatic, subversive, and overt means to create a sphere of influence over neighboring and former Soviet countries. NATO, through its Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, must proactively engage these countries in order to simultaneously deepen their relationship with NATO and aid their withdrawal from the Russian sphere of influence.
Partnership for Peace
NATO founded the Partnership for Peace program in 1994 to “increase stability, diminish threats to peace, and build strengthened security relationships between NATO and non-member countries in the Euro-Atlantic area.”1 Today, twenty-one countries participate in the PfP program, engaging in a wide range of activities including defense reform, civil-military relations, disaster response, and defense policy and planning. Each partner state develops its own level of involvement with the Alliance, cooperating as little or as much as their individual governments deem appropriate.
The PfP presents a unique opportunity to Western governments. The framework of the agreement has established a network for engagement between the twenty-nine NATO member states and the twenty-one non-member partners. Instead of allowing each individual country to set its agenda with NATO, the Alliance should take a more proactive approach to engagement.
Since Vladimir Putin’s election as President of the Russian Federation in 1999, and his subsequent terms as President and Prime Minister, he has possessed clear objectives for Russian foreign policy: to restore Russia’s place as a great world power, halt the spread of Western ideals and institutions, and create a sphere of influence matching that of the former Soviet Union.2 Despite describing the downfall of the Soviet Union as “…a major geopolitical disaster of the [twentieth] century,”3 Putin does not want to return to the Soviet Union’s borders. He does, however, want to restore Russia to the former prestige, standing, and influence it had during the days of Soviet rule.4 A key component of this plan is establishing “regions where [Russia] has its privileged interests,”5 also known as spheres of influence, which extend to any nation once a part of Imperial or Soviet Russia.6 The so-called “Putin Doctrine” reflects these ambitions in its rejection of the West, withdrawal of Russia from the European order, and assertion of Russia’s right to defend ethnic Russians abroad.7
The tactics used to create this sphere of influence can be broadly broken down into three categories: diplomatic, subversive, and overt.8 Through the diplomatic method, Putin uses international organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).9 Because these are multilateral organizations, they have “established supranational bureaucracies that allow Russia to embed personnel within [them].”10 This helps Russia control the organizations from the inside and leads to EEU and CSTO policies mirroring Russia’s own foreign policy goals.11 The wording of membership charters further codifies ties to Russia. For instance, the entire CSTO must agree before one of its member countries allows a non-member state to station troops within its borders.12 This gives the Kremlin a measure of control over how individual members of the CSTO interact with those countries outside the membership of the organization. In theory, it also gives the smaller members of the CSTO a measure of control over Russia. In practice, however, Russia is the organization’s strongest power and can ignore the protests of the CSTO’s other members without fear of reprisal.
Russia uses many subversive methods to spread its influence. Chief among these methods is using propaganda and disinformation to control the narrative and push their agenda. Television stations such as Russia Today, Channel One, and news sites like Sputnik report world events through a pro-Russian filter and promote misleading and false stories.13 These fallacious and exaggerated rumors are then propagated around the world through social media platforms, where they are widely read and believed by an unwitting audience.14
Another method is “passportization,” a process by which Russia makes it easier for ethnic Russians living abroad to gain Russian citizenship and be issued passports. The Kremlin can then militarily intervene in other countries while claiming it has legal justification to protect Russian citizens.15
Lastly, Putin makes use of “frozen conflicts” in separatist regions of neighboring countries to create instability and force the country to turn to Russia for support. Russia has stationed 1,200 peacekeepers in the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, which has given Putin leverage in his negotiations with Moldova over its decision over whether to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU): Putin has offered to help solve the political crisis in exchange for Moldova acceding to EEU membership.16 The Kremlin is using a similar ploy with the Nagorno-Karabakh region to also bring Azerbaijan into the EEU.17 These frozen conflicts “provid[e] Russia with the ability to exert influence over warring factions and play a key role in peace negotiations. This forces some breakaway regions to remain highly dependent on Russia for their economic development and security.”18
Putin makes judicious use of the Russian Armed Forces to overtly expand and defend its sphere of influence as opportunities arise. In August 2008, Russia invaded the separatist Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.19 After the ceasefire agreement, Russia unilaterally recognized the independence of the two breakaway states and stationed peacekeepers along their borders with Georgia.20 Russia has also taken steps to further politically and militarily integrate these two regions with itself.21
In 2014, in reaction to pro-European protesters toppling the Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovych, Russian conventional and special forces (Spetsnaz) seized Ukrainian political offices and military bases in Crimea and annexed the territory after a referendum.22 They also fomented a separatist movement in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine with weapons, supplies, and volunteers before twice intervening with troops to shore up the separatist defenses that were on the verge of collapse.23 Most recently, Russian Border Guard vessels fired on Ukrainian Naval ships attempting to sail into the Sea of Azov, wounding six sailors, before boarding and seizing the Ukrainian ships.24
In 2015, Russia deployed part of its air force to Syria to aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and began a bombing campaign against both the Islamic State (ISIS) and Syrian opposition forces.25 Their strategic bombing has turned the tide of the Syrian Civil War and has allowed Assad’s forces to go on the offensive for the first time since the early stages of the conflict.26
NATO has two main options to block Russia from spreading its sphere of influence:
Further Enlargement: NATO could continue to offer relevant and interested states the ability to join the alliance, especially by easing the path for countries already belonging to the Partnership for Peace.
A Proactive Partnership for Peace: NATO needs to work through its Partnership for Peace program to deepen engagement with these partner countries.
Analysis and Recommendations
1. Further Enlargement
The easiest way to stop the spread of Russian influence is to have more countries join Western institutions such as NATO. According to Article V of the NATO alliance, “…an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all…if such an attack occurs, each of them…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking…such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force…”27 This guarantee acts as an effective deterrent against Russia spreading its influence by either soft or hard power. Thirteen former members of the Warsaw Pact have already joined the alliance.28 The countries most at risk for Russian interference are already members of the Partnership for Peace program. Easing the requirements for becoming full members of NATO would allow these countries to begin joining Western institutions and shift away from their dependence on Russia.
The most serious concern with this policy is the possible Kremlin reaction to further NATO enlargement. Russia already considers the location of NATO military infrastructure along its border as a threat to its national security, and has threatened war in response to further NATO expansion.29 Since the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, the Soviet Union and Russia have tried to use other countries to create a buffer between their borders and those of NATO, and they have vehemently protested NATO’s post-1991 eastward expansion.30 Increasing political ties to NATO and the West are considered an underlying rationale for Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and 2014 invasion of Ukraine,31 and Russia has threatened military action against Sweden and Finland should they consider joining NATO.32 Even Macedonia, surrounded by NATO members and sharing no border with Russia, was flooded with Russian disinformation, propaganda, and Kremlin-subsidized extremist groups prior to the September 2018 name-change referendum (changing the country’s name from Macedonia to North Macedonia would end its dispute with Greece and remove its sole barrier to joining NATO and the EU).33 It passed.
Additionally, countries along Russia’s border attempting to join NATO could face a military response. Even though these countries are Partnership for Peace members, NATO’s Article V does not serve as an effective Russian deterrent because the article only applies to full members of the alliance and thus is not extended to members of the PfP.34 It is also unlikely that Russia would allow existing members of the CSTO to leave this organization, meaning countries already under the diplomatic influence of Russia would be unlikely to break from that control. Granted, Uzbekistan has twice withdrawn from the CSTO, most recently in 2012, but that was in a pre-Crimea world. Today, with Putin’s domestic popularity increasingly tied to a bellicosely anti-Western foreign policy, it’s unlikely that the Kremlin would allow a CSTO member to easily withdraw from its security treaty.
Further enlargement could also result in a security dilemma as Russia devotes more of its military resources to defense against the security threat of NATO, sparking a continuous escalation of force enlargement by both NATO and the Russian Armed Forces. Selecting this policy option would significantly increase tensions between NATO, PfP members, and Russia, and also risk an armed intervention by Russia against a PfP country. These factors make further NATO enlargement unadvisable.
2. A Proactive Partnership for Peace
NATO needs to deepen cooperation with its Partnership for Peace members in Russia’s near abroad,35 particularly those states that are also members of the CSTO. The existing framework of the PfP allows member countries to determine their level of involvement with NATO based on a two-year Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme.36 Instead of these countries setting their agenda with NATO, NATO needs to proactively coordinate a wide range of engagement opportunities including military training programs, defense policy and planning, civil-military relations, disaster response and relief, and anything else within NATO’s purview within each country’s Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme. This policy should be seen as a continuation of preventative diplomacy.
Deepening engagement works on several levels. First, it strengthens these countries’ ties to the West and could aid their transition into other Western institutions. A deeper cooperation between Western institutions and these countries can provide an alternative and help counter Russian diplomatic influence. Second, non-military engagement with NATO, particularly disaster response, presents the Kremlin with little opportunity for loud protestations. This policy should be implemented because it is unlikely to garner a heavy response from Russia and because it better equips countries to prevent Russia from spreading and deepening its sphere of influence. This would be most effective in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The twenty-first century has seen Russia rise from its post-Soviet torpor. Once again, the Kremlin is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy, using diplomatic, subversive, and overt means to exert a sphere of influence over its near abroad. The NATO Alliance is in a unique position to counter the spread of Russian influence. Through its Partnership for Peace Programme, the Alliance has existing bilateral ties with many former Soviet countries threatened by Russia. The Alliance should use these ties to proactively engage each country’s civilian and military leadership. NATO can offer both real assistance in the way of reforms and other aid, while also providing an alternative to Russia.
About the Author
1“Partnership for Peace Programme,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
2Robert Gates, “Putin’s Challenge to the West,” Wall Street Journal, Commentary, March 25, 2014; Dmitry Trenin, “Here’s a Breakdown of Russia’s Foreign Policy Goals,” Moscow Times, Opinion, August 16, 2017.
3Vladimir Putin, “Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation” (speech, The Kremlin, Moscow, April 25, 2005), Translated.
4Fiona Hill, ‘How Putin’s Worldview Shapes Foreign Policy,’ in Russia’s Foreign Policy: Ideas, Domestic Policies and External Relations, ed. David Cadler and Margot Light (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 44-45.
5“Medvedev on Russia’s Interests,” The Economist, September 1, 2008.
6James Goodby, “The Putin Doctrine and Preventative Diplomacy,” The Foreign Service Journal (November 2014): 27.
7Vladimir Putin, “Address by President of the Russian Federation” (speech, The Kremlin, Moscow March 18, 2014), Translated.; Vladimir Ryzhkov, “The New Putin Doctrine,” Moscow Times, Opinion, April 3, 2014.
8For the purposes of this paper, the terms ‘diplomatic,’ ‘subversive,’ and ‘overt’ will be defined as the following: Diplomatic: legal measures in accordance with international law such as diplomacy, treaties, and international organizations. Subversive: Acts intended to undermine the established order or create instability, can be legal, and are usually nonviolent. Overt: Visible, forceful acts most likely in violation of international norms and law.
9Alexander Cooley, Whose Rules, Whose Sphere? (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C., June 30, 2017).
12Article 7, “Charter of the Collective Security Treaty,” October 6, 2002, Translated.
13Jim Ruttenberg, “RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War,” New York Times Magazine, September 17, 2017.; Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security, 115th Cong., 2d sess., January 10, 2018, 40-43.
14Max Boot, “Russia Has Invented Social Media Blitzkrieg,” Foreign Policy, October 13, 2017.; Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe, 43-46. For further reading on Russian disinformation techniques, see Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe pages 197-198.
15Alexandra Sarlo, “Russian Foreign Policy in the Putin Era: A Conference Report,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, May 18, 2016.; The Council of the European Union, Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, Volume II, (Brussels, Official Journal of the European Union, September 2009): 19, 147-148. For a detailed reading on the legal issues surrounding passportization, read pages 147-183 of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission.
16Ana Maria Touma, “Putin Vows to Help Moldova Save Transnistria,” Balkan Insight, October 11, 2017.
17“Putin Aide: Bringing Azerbijan Under Kremlin’s Influence Would Solve Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict,” BNE Intellinews, October 17, 2017.
18Whose Rules, Whose Sphere?, 3.
19Nikolai Pavlov, “Russia, Georgia Seek Control of Ossetia Capital,” Reuters, August 7, 2008.
20Sally McNamara, “Russia’s Recognition of Independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia is Illegitimate,” Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, August 28, 2008.
21“Putin Strengthens Ties with Georgia Breakaway Region; “Tbilisi Protests,” Reuters, November 24, 2014.; Vladimir Soldatkin and Timothy Heritage, “Russian Treaty with Rebel Georgian Region Alarms West,” Reuters, March 18, 2015.; “Moscow Moves to Absorb Rebel Georgian Region’s Military,” Reuters, March 14, 2017.
22Kathleen H. Hicks, Lisa Sawyer Samp, et al., Recalibrating U.S. Strategy Toward Russia (Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington, D.C. March 2017), 48-51.
24Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofman, “Russia and Ukraine had a short naval battle. Here’s what you need to know,” Washington Post, Analysis, November 28, 2018.
26Russian Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations (Defense Intelligence Agency, 2017): 15.
27Article 5, “The North Atlantic Treaty,” April 4, 1949.
28“NATO Member Countries,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, (accessed February 14, 2018). This count includes both countries that formerly made up Czechoslovakia and three countries that were part of Yugoslavia.
29>Russian Federation Presidential Edict 683 dated 31 December 2015, “On the Russia Federation’s National Security Strategy,” Collection of Russian Federation Legislation, December 31, 2015.
30Benn Steil, “Russia’s Clash with the West is About Geography, Not Ideology,” Foreign Policy, February 12, 2018.
31Whose Rules, Whose Sphere?, 3; The New NATO-Russia Military Balance, 5; Denis Dyomkin, “Russia Says Georgia War Stopped NATO,” Reuters, November 21, 2011; Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe, 2 and 74.
32“Russia Issues Fresh Threats Against Unaligned Nordic States,” Defense News, May 5, 2016.
33“Macedonia is a Tiny Country with a Giant Russia Problem,” Washington Post, Opinion, September 20, 2018.
34U.S. Government Accountability Office, NATO Partnerships: DOD Needs to Asses U.S. Assistance in Response to Changes to the Partnership for Peace Program, GAO-10-1015 (Washington, DC, 2010), 6.
35The near abroad is a geopolitical label given by Russian politicians to the newly independent countries (excluding Russia) that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The near abroad includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
36“Partnership for Peace Programme,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization.