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Nato, Russia, and the history of the post-WW2 tensions

The formation of Nato, and the resulting Soviet and then Russian fear of western dominance, is crucial to understanding today’s conflict, writes James Ellison. Find out more about the history of the alliance and its search for post-Cold War purpose …

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, US President Bill Clinton, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and French President Jacques Chirac at the NATO Summit in May 1997
Published: March 1, 2022 at 3:21 pm
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In October 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall shocked the world, East Germans sensing the prospect of freedom from communism sought to travel west. The leader of the German Democratic Republic, Erich Honecker, was determined to stem the tide. At first, he used bureaucracy – travel permits that would not be issued were needed to leave the GDR. When citizens tried to flee on trains from East German cities regardless, the state used water cannons to dissuade them.

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In Dresden, Soviet KGB officials watched thousands demonstrate. They sought guidance from Moscow in expectation of support, but none came. One of those KGB officials was current Russian president Vladimir Putin. It's possible that he never got over witnessing the collapse of communist East Germany and then the Soviet Union.

Ten years later, as Putin rose to the leadership of Russia, western leaders hoped at first that they could work with him. In 1999, US president Bill Clinton described Putin privately to UK prime minister Tony Blair as very smart and thoughtful”, even suggesting that I think we can do a lot of good with him”. Such was the optimism of the 1990s, and the post-Cold War triumphalism of the west. Many could not conceive of a day when Russia would again threaten global peace. Instead, Russians were expected to reconcile themselves to the liberal order dominated by America that emerged after 1989. This worldview was not one that Putin shared.

At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin warned the world of his rejection of it. He described international relations destabilised by “an almost uncontained hyper use of force”. This was the era of the US's war on terror, its struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and George W Bush’s Freedom Agenda, his pledge to promote and strengthen democracy around the world. For Putin, it was evidence that the US had “overstepped its national borders in every way”, a fact “visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations”.

Vladimir Putin gives a speech in Munich in 2007
At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin described international relations destabilised by “an almost uncontained hyper use of force”. (Image by DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP via Getty Images) Vladimir Putin gives a speech in Munich in 2007

The pursuit of democracy through enormous US power was deemed by Putin to be "extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe”. Russia, he claimed, had made "a peaceful transition to democracy”, but now had to counter threats. He noted many but singled out one: the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). "It turns out that Nato has put its frontline forces on our borders, and we continue to strictly fulfil the treaty obligations and do not react to these actions at all”.

Of all the steps taken by Putin's regime since to destabilise democracy, none have sought to defy the post-1989 architecture of global security, or been as dangerous, as its decision to invade Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is largely a response to a sense of encirclement of Russia by the idea of western democracy and the reality of Nato, a fear first expressed by Joseph Stalin at Nato's foundation in 1949. To understand why Putin wishes to bring war to the continent of Europe, to sacrifice his own forces and the soldiers and citizens of Ukraine, is to grasp the Cold War and post-Cold War histories of Nato and Russia. It is also to understand that in his actions, Putin may strengthen the threat he seeks to repel.

How was Nato established?

The Cold War's origins came quickly to a continent ravaged by the Second World War. Any chance of maintaining the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and its western allies was lost in London in December 1947 as diplomacy among foreign ministers failed. The Berlin Blockade of the following June, when the Soviet Union attempted to limit the Allies’ access to sectors of Berlin, achieved something not seen in America's history: consideration of a peacetime security guarantee to other nations.

The result was the North Atlantic Treaty, signed by 12 states – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, UK and US – in Washington DC on 4 April 1949. Its Article 5 was an historic statement of collective security, which committed Nato members in an Atlantic Alliance to mutual defence: "an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all”.

Article 5 was never called upon during the Cold War, a blessing in a nuclear world of "mutually assured destruction”. It was also true at Nato's inception, as it is today, that Americans have been suspicious of the concept of collective security. US politician Henry Kissinger once said that "America would do anything for the Atlantic Alliance except call it an alliance”.

President Harry S Truman signs the North Atlantic Treaty
President Harry S Truman signs the North Atlantic Treaty which marked the beginning of Nato. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Successive US governments did nonetheless commit to Western Europe's defence, despite having regularly questioned their share of the burden of military costs. In turn, America's partners have not always found US dominance easy to accept, even though they have enjoyed the defence provided by American might and Nato's military shield. Charles de Gaulle, president of France from 1959 to 1969, believed that Nato was a vehicle by which the US exercised "hegemony disguised as Atlantic solidarity”. In the 1960s, he withdrew France from Nato's integrated military command and ejected Nato from French soil, leading to the relocation of its headquarters from Paris to Brussels. President Lyndon Baines Johnson insisted that his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, ask de Gaulle if he also wanted the US to disinter the American dead of two world wars from cemeteries in France.

With the end of the Cold War, and the end of the USSR, there was uncertainty about Nato's purpose

Nonetheless, Nato's military role was never at issue as long as the Soviet Union and its military organisation, the Warsaw Pact, threatened the west. As détente was replaced by the Second Cold War, Nato found new cohesion. In June 1982, Ronald Reagan told the British Parliament that "today on the Nato line, our military forces face east to prevent a possible invasion. On the other side of the line, the Soviet forces also face east to prevent their people from leaving”.

The inability of the Soviet Union to sustain its empire, and ultimately itself, was partly the result of Nato's military and political power. Yet with the end of the Cold War, and the end of the USSR, there was uncertainty about Nato's purpose. Enlargement to include former Warsaw Pact states, and an agreement between Nato and Russia not "to consider each other adversaries” were elements of the attempt to sustain and strengthen the organisation as part of the post-Cold War liberal international order. Russia's acceptance of it was questioned long before Putin made his Munich speech in 2007.

Nato meeting held a Lancaster House, London, July 1990
Leaders gather for a Nato meeting held a Lancaster House, London, July 1990. (Photo by Kent Gavin/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

In 1999, at Nato's 50th anniversary summit in Washington, Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, demanded that Clinton seek a diplomatic solution to Nato's air campaign against Serbia during the Kosovo War, or otherwise push Russia into war to defend its interests in the Balkans. Yeltsin wrote to Clinton: "On what basis does Nato take it upon itself to decide the fate of peoples in sovereign states? Who gave it the right to act in the role of guardian of order?” In fact, Nato member states themselves wondered about its post-Cold War function.


Listen: Mary Sarotte reveals how US and Russian leaders squandered the opportunity to forge a lasting partnership at the dawn of the 1990s


After 20 more years of fraught international affairs, Nato was in crisis. In 2018, then US president Donald Trump questioned its basis and reiterated longstanding American concerns about European defence spending. In 2019, as America seemed to be giving up on the Atlantic Alliance, French president Emmanuel Macron said that "we are currently experiencing… the brain death of Nato”. At the age of 70, Nato seemed to have reached its end. "RIP the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, 1945-2018”, wrote respected US journalist James Traub.

Two things had begun to revive Nato before Russian forces breached Ukraine's borders. One was the widespread concern in the West about threats posed to the international order by autocracies and nationalists. The other was Joe Biden's Atlanticism. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could do much more than both to reinvigorate Nato and the Atlantic Alliance. Putin may question whether Ukraine ever had "real statehood” and, through war, seek to make it part of greater Russia. His geopolitical motives, however, have their origins in how he views the threat of democracy, his rejection of the post-Cold War order, and a long-held Soviet and then Russian perception of Nato encirclement.

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In his address to the Russian Federation on 24 February 2022, Putin told his people that "it is a fact that over the past 30 years we have been patiently trying to come to an agreement with the leading Nato countries regarding the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe”. His reference to 30 years – the end of the Cold War and of the USSR – is revealing, as is his assertion that Nato had acted against Russian proposals with "cynical deception and lies or attempts at pressure or blackmail”. In the same 30 years, Nato has been searching for its post-Cold War purpose. It may now have found it in response to Putin's war. At stake is what it sought to defend for 40 years before 1989: freedom and democracy over tyranny.
James Ellison is Reader in International History in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London. He specialises in the history of international affairs in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods
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