Territories between great powers—borderlands—have always been areas of strife. So it is with the countries caught between Russia and the West, those that were once part of the Soviet Union or firmly within its sphere of influence. Much of Europe has consolidated and, with the United States, established a lasting liberal democratic order, but Russia has been increasingly pushing back. Though most of the “borderlands” countries are now West-facing, Moscow wants to control at least the national security policies of its near neighbors.
The West should reject Moscow’s claim. It contradicts Western principles and is dangerous to our interests. The United States should lead the West in adopting an explicit strategy of promoting democracy, open markets, and the right of nations to choose their own foreign policy and alignments. This includes their right, if they meet the conditions, to join the EU and NATO.
Moscow has not hidden its objectives—to grow its sphere of influence; shift the post-Cold War security order; and weaken NATO, the EU, and transatlantic ties—and is applying a full spectrum of methods to achieve them. The combination of these tactics is sometimes called hybrid war. This includes strengthening ethnic ties abroad and utilizing religion, disinformation, economic boycotts, energy cutoffs, corruption, and the strategic use of its intelligence services.
Western powers have been slow to recognize the challenge posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belligerent foreign policy. There was little criticism of Moscow for the 2007 cyberattack on Estonia; deferring to Kremlin sensitivities, NATO did not offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan at its 2008 summit; and when Moscow’s war against Georgia followed months later, the West levied weak sanctions on Russia and lifted them quickly. The West’s sanctions on Moscow for annexing Crimea were also weak.
NATO was slow to recognize Moscow’s challenge to the alliance. While the 2014 NATO summit did make arrangements for a rapid deployment force, it spoke of the need to “reassure” its easternmost allies rather than to deter the Kremlin. Only in 2016 did NATO decide to put battalions into the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania to dissuade the Kremlin from provocations there. With the deployment of these forces, NATO has done much to secure its eastern flank. But more needs to be done.