Skip to content

On the way to emancipation, not all roads lead through NATO

Article by Dr Kevork Oskanian

May 10, 2021

On the way to emancipation, not all roads lead through NATO

‘What does Russia want?’: this perennial question of the post-Cold War era has remained left, right, and centre of policymaking and analysis towards Moscow since the end of the Cold War. At first, in the 1990s, the question depended largely on the drama of Russia’s collapse, and a tug-of-war between the various competing identities – liberal, pragmatic, red/brown – that marked both state and society during that unsettled decade.[1] The restoration of the power vertical by Vladimir Putin didn’t end the ambiguity and confusion on Russian intentions. Over time, however, one thing became abundantly clear: the Putin regime was willing to pay considerable costs to maintain a regional ‘sphere of special interest’, composed of states whose sovereign equality it had much difficulty in accepting.


Western observers like to explain Putin’s apparent inability to ‘let go’ of his neighbours in various ways: it is, some say, a ruse designed to mobilise public opinion around the flag of an autocratic regime suspicious of Western-style democracy;[2] others present it as a product of an entrenched, specifically Russian neo-imperial political culture that demands obedience from hapless neighbours stuck in its ‘near abroad’;[3] and those of a more realist persuasion tend to point at NATO’s attempts to expand Eastwards – and into that ‘near abroad’ – as the primary driver of a Russian subversion born from insecurity.[4] In the process, more or less clear dividing lines are created: between those who see NATO’s open-door policy as representing the road to emancipation from Putin’s authoritarian reflexes or Russian neo-imperial meddling, and those who see it as the primary cause of Russian pushback. It is, more often than not, either one, or the other; hawks or doves, a hard or soft – the dividing lines appear clear.


The binaries whereby Russian motives are reduced to either domestic or external factors, and the solution is presented as ‘NATO expansion or bust’ simplify both the causes of, and the solutions to the predicament confronting not just Ukraine, but all the states that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. The result has often consisted of reducing complexity to a false choice: between a continued attachment to a mechanism that was once seen as a solution to the ‘Russian problem’ by the luckier members of the former Soviet bloc – NATO membership; or the abandonment of the hapless countries on the other line of the current NATO boundary to the Russian sphere of interest.


Indeed, the latter goes against the fundamental principles of the Liberal International Order (LIO), and the West’s default position has remained offering countries like Ukraine and Georgia a – highly theoretical – chance for membership, in the absence of a clear consensus on its feasibility, let alone a concrete timeline for its realisation. This has allowed Western policies towards the former Soviet space to become stale, predictable, formulaic, leaving Putin the continued ability to surprise, thwart, and sabotage at a price he is willing to pay. In both Georgia and Ukraine, the Kremlin knows where to poke and to provoke so as to foster division and complicate this supposed roadmap towards emancipation; beyond aspiring NATO candidates – in Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan – his ability to pull rabbits out of his hat is also proven, time and again.


But is NATO the only answer? As I shall argue here, NATO membership is neither a practically sufficient, nor, in fact, a morally necessary solution to the post-imperial predicaments of Russia’s immediate neighbours. There are, in fact, other ways of ensuring the security and emancipation of these states and societies, albeit ones that require strategic patience and adaptability away from long-held, ossified assumptions on Russian motives, and an attachment to solutions based more on policy inertia than a clear-eyed view of ever-changing geopolitical realities. If NATO has been relatively successful in Central and Eastern Europe, the conditions which made this success possible do not hold in the former Soviet Union, and the ‘NATO imperative’ now presents rigidities and complications that Eastward policies could very well do without – not least, in the longer-term interest of Russia’s neighbours themselves.


This is not an argument in favour of appeasement or abandonment, far from it. Instead, it is one in favour of changing the cost/benefit environment within the former Soviet space from a logic based on unidimensional views of Russian motivations, and a short-term, outdated view of the wider strategic environment, to a finer-grained, longer-term, contextualised alternative. It is based on a cautious rejection of the idea that Russia could be coaxed to return to a golden age of the ‘Liberal International Order’ – which mainly exists in the minds of the selectively forgetful in any case – in a geopolitical great-power contest which reinforces, rather than weakens, Moscow’s association of territoriality with great-power status; and the embracing of a new world, where the West and the former Soviet states will have to dig in, adequately shield themselves, and patiently wait for more secular changes in Russia to manifest themselves, opening up possibilities for future arrangements not necessarily based on a return to an idealised, liberal past.


What does Russia Want – and Why Does it Want it?

To start with, it is simplistic to assume that Russian foreign policy is the product of the innate anti-democratic ideological propensities of one man, or group of (mostly) men. Quite apart from the fact that attributing a coherent ideology to Putin would be quite mistaken – beyond a general imperative for power – the reduction of Russia’s recent behaviour to an individual or distinct group would also only tell a very partial story. Individuals do not exist in social and institutional voids, they shape and are shaped by these environments. To ask ‘how do we solve a problem like Putin/the ‘Siloviki’ thus misses the wider structural contexts within which leaders like Putin emerge, and their imperious acts earn them popularity. It also creates the unrealistic expectation that once the ‘criminal’ Putin regime is removed, the elements for a ‘new Russia’ may somehow miraculously fall into place – based on the mistaken assumption that, in the Russian case, broader institutions and political culture would temper, rather than enhance, any moves towards more assertive, illiberal foreign policies.[5]


Waltz’ warning against overstating the case for the ‘first image’ of international relations – individuals – stands;[6] so does his admonition on placing too much faith in the second image – the domestic political system – by assuming the arc of Russian history would gravitate towards democracy were it not for Putin. Chances are that, rather than some kind of liberal enlightenment, a fall of the regime would be followed by a tug-of-war between hawks and doves, hardliners and moderates, with history – and Russia’s present realities – considerably in favour of the former. Russia’s liberals and liberalism itself have been comprehensively sidelined over the past few decades, both within government, and in society at large.[7] And while conflict over Russia’s relationship with the West has been a recurring phenomenon throughout its history, it has never been able to change its worldview in a way that denied itself an exceptional role within a hierarchically conceived neighbourhood: even the 1990s liberals envisaged a ‘normal’ Russia as having a special role in ‘its near abroad’.[8]


That is not so say that Russian society has some kind of unchangeable, self-contained imperial reflex. For, just as Putin is also a product of Russian domestic society, the Russian elite’s world-view is also a product of an International Society marked by the dominance of a Western modernity towards which it has strived, problematically, since the days of Peter the Great.[9] Against those who see Russian actions as inevitable by virtue of a circular non-argument – ‘Russia is Russia’ – the country’s state and society are inextricably entangled with the West. Russia’s centuries-old struggle with Western modernity as a model – often the goal, and always, frustratingly, out of reach – underlies many of its contradictions, including, paradoxically enough, its current challenge to the LIO.


This goes further and deeper than the old realist argument that sees NATO eastward expansion as the only or even primary cause of Russian assertiveness. Focusing on territory, and NATO expansion, alone as an explanation for the current predicament in Western-Russian relations only tells a very partial story. Beyond the realist explanations based on hard power, security dilemmas and spheres of influence, Russia and the West would likely have ended up at loggerheads even in the absence of territorial intrusion. Not because of some self-contained, innate Russian propensity towards confrontation, but because it could not attain the markers of status that make the contemporary West ‘Western’, and undergird its global hegemony. In simple terms: elite status in the Liberal World Order required a number of attributes – a liberal-democratic system, a free market, and, crucially, subordination to US ‘leadership’ – which Russian elites were not prepared, able, or willing to adopt, with or without NATO expansion.


Putin’s Failed, Feigned Quest for Status

This quest for status manifested itself in two distinct ways: first, there was an element of imitation, an approach that was predominant during, roughly, the first half of the Putin regime’s period in power. At the time, Moscow at the very least feigned conformity to the LIO’s basic precepts – through the adoption of the language on the Global War on Terror, a superficial, ‘sovereign’ application of democracy and constitutional rule, and interference in its neighbours’ affairs carefully clad in liberal or technocratic language.[10] Even during the invasion of Georgia, in 2008, it still appropriated, distorted, and deployed the – very liberal – language of R2P. But sometime in the later 2000s – from about the period of Putin’s now-infamous Munich speech – Russia started giving up on being accepted in ‘the West’ as an equal, not merely because of NATO expansion, but also because it could no longer pretend to acquire the attributes associated with membership of the Western international ‘elite’. Liberal rationalisations had worn thin, any pretence of modernisation – carried most explicitly, and mainly rhetorically – by Dmitri Medvedev had failed.


I’ll leave the specific question whether this ‘feigning’ was an instance of ‘faking it till you make it’, or simply a ruse meant to lull the West into complacency in the absence of power, and any genuine willingness to adopt liberal norms open to speculation; the fact is that, since about the beginning of Putin’s second stint as president, Russia has placed itself radically outside and against the Liberal West. The reasons for this are complex, but, again, likely go beyond any simple domestic, or geopolitical explanation. From the ‘grand sociological’ point of view suggested above, two developments could explain this transition. On the one hand, a dashed entitlement to membership of the global, liberal elite on (feigned) liberal terms, and, secondly, the crisis of liberalism itself, which made a rejection of its normative framework more feasible. Simply put, Russia would be recognised, either as a ‘respectable’ member of ‘really existing’, liberal international society, or as a challenger to it, and an accelerator of its decline. In the process, it also went from claiming a right to ordering a separate, subordinate sphere of interest in a (feigned) liberal manner, to just ordering it at will, outside its – now weakened – normative framework.


The move away from ‘feigned liberalism’ or ‘liberal performance’ thus resulted in a much more crudely formulated, civilisational legitimising discourse in Moscow.[11] Having given up on – and thoroughly discredited itself in – formulating its hierarchical interventions in the former Soviet space in liberal terms, the Putin regime now makes much more recognisably civilisational claims, separating a regional sphere of influence for itself without the desired blessing of the LIO – whereas in earlier years it would still have tended to rhetorically couch its justifications according to that order’s terms of reference. The Crimean annexation was thus defended in Russian nationalist terms; but, more broadly, the interventions in Ukraine – and, more recently, Belarus – have been incongruously justified in terms of an attempt to safeguard an ‘authentic’ – i.e. pro-Russian/Soviet – from the adulteration of Western-inspired hyper-liberalism or ‘fascism’.


But, not unlike ‘feigned liberalism’, this anti-cosmopolitan claim encompasses an element of imitation: Putin’s Russia imitates the West in determining the ‘exception’ within this claimed sphere of interest it has appropriated for itself. Just as the West – and the exceptionalist United States – functions as supreme adjudicator at a global level – determining exceptions for itself in all manner of legal regimes, and in more specific instances from Kosovo to Iraq – Russia does the same, ever so clumsily, in its own claimed sphere. Determining the exception and freely interpreting international law thus remain a marker of great power identity as performed by the United States itself; the difference is that Moscow has largely ceased to even pretend to be determining exceptions within its ‘near abroad’ within liberal terms of reference.


In that sense, Russia’s civilisational discourse retains a crucial link to Western behaviour: as a marker of great power status, the West’s ability to determine exceptions to the liberal order has transmogrified into Putin’s claimed ability to determine exceptions within his own custom-made regional ‘order’, full stop. The Russians themselves, and the states and societies within that claimed sphere of interest, are the foremost victims of this exceptionalism: they are now swept up in an increasingly nihilistic power- and status-seeking project, where history and civilisationism are employed at the expense of the self-determination of both Russian and non-Russian societies.


An Emancipatory Pivot

But is the prospect of NATO membership for Russia’s beleaguered neighbours the only answer to this predicament in light of the above? It is, in fact, neither practically effective, nor morally necessary. From a practical perspective, it puts the NATO candidate states themselves in an eternal waiting room, exposed to Russian meddling and interference without the benefits of article V; it also reinforces rather than weakens Russia’s identification of status with a sphere of influence, based on the outdated logic of a bygone age. Neither do the moral arguments withstand closer scrutiny. The claim that NATO expansion would entail a return to a past ‘rules-based order’ thus idealises an arrangement that was always marked by exceptions – albeit ones determined by the West; and the insistence on alliance membership as the only pathway to post-imperial emancipation turns it into an end-in-itself rather than just one of a number of alternative means towards a broader, and more attainable emancipatory goal. Both practically and morally, NATO expansion thus comes to represent an unnecessary encumbrance, rather than a road towards a more manageable, freer future.


It is often pointed out by the proponents of NATO membership for former Soviet states that countries like Ukraine and Georgia have already been lost to Russia: and, indeed, while Ukrainian society turned in favour of alliance membership after the 2014 Russian interventions, a consistent majority in Georgia has supported an Atlanticist course since well before the 2008 invasion.[12] Both within their elites, and in their societies, these two states now see membership of the Atlantic community as the ultimate way out from domination by an overbearing former imperial power. Both these NATO candidates have paid, and are paying, a price quite literally measured in blood and soil for their desire for self-determination.


But if these people and their lands have been lost to Russia, neither have they been gained by NATO – membership of which is as far off as it ever was. The magic of article V has not rubbed off on candidate-members, which now have to contend with the worst of both worlds: seeing Russia enraged at what it defines as a potential civilisational retrenchment, without the benefit – as in, for instance, the Baltics – of full-scale deterrence. To make things worse, there is no prospect of emerging from this purgatory any time soon, not least because of the reasonable expectation, shared by many in the West, that the current Russian regime would go to extreme lengths to keep what it has never ceased viewing as its own sphere of interest outside the Alliance. NATO membership also remains out of reach because its clear requirements provide a power- and status-seeking Russia with a spoiling advantage: Moscow knows exactly which buttons to press in order to prevent the not-so-inevitable, without necessarily having to achieve a substantive, positive alternative in an ongoing rear-guard struggle. It knows the costs some in the Western alliance are quite unwilling to pay, the commitments they are unwilling to make.


Additionally, tugs-of-war over spheres – which is exactly how the Kremlin sees the fight over NATO expansion – are a game the Kremlin is all too adept at playing. Indeed, it nurtures its obdurate search for status – after all, such contests are exactly what Great Powers are supposed to engage in – and allows it to displace any genuine calls for democratisation and self-determination into this territorialised great-power game. It is so much easier to deny the agency of Ukrainians, Georgians, Belarusians, and, indeed, the Russians themselves when it can be dismissed and subsumed into machinations of an expansionist alternative;[13] a conjoining of geopolitics and democratisation then makes any hint at revolutionary liberalisation – as most recently attempted in Belarus – doubly unacceptable to the Kremlin. In the process, Moscow is never confronted with the harsh truth that it has lost these lands and peoples not because of NATO intrigues and geopolitical circumstance, but because of a genuine will to independence of the non-Russian populations of its former empire.


Apart from these practical considerations, the equations of NATO membership with the ‘restoration of a rules-based order’ or an emancipatory imperative aren’t as morally clear-cut as would appear.  Firstly, the insistence on NATO expansion – and, more broadly, of Russian compliance to the LIO – aims for the restoration of an idealised past that arguably never was, or, at least, a past whose conditions have by now withered away.[14] One might forgive Western states for subscribing to the idea of a return to a principled ‘rules-based order’ that never existed in the first place; after all, it is easy to rationalise exceptions to that order in the face of claims to ‘principle’ when one had the privilege of determining those exceptions, be it in Kosovo, or Iraq, or Libya. Moreover, the success of previous bouts of NATO eastward expansion was always based on the illusions created by a geopolitical vacuum rather than its status as an immutable element of sound, moral statecraft.[15] In achieving its stated goals – stabilising Europe’s Centre and East, and ensuring its security – it was, undoubtedly, a great success, which even Moscow had, however begrudgingly, accepted as a fait accompli; this illusion of expediency can no longer be maintained in the former Soviet space, where Moscow is both able and willing to object, and push back. With the road to disaster often paved with good intentions, its resulting impracticality, and its condemnation of candidate states to a form of never-ending purgatory makes the project morally questionable in itself.


Secondly – and more importantly – an unquestioned and unquestionable fixation on NATO expansion appears to have made some lose track of the other ways in which the security and self-determination of post-Soviet societies can be effectively ensured. Provided, that is, that the pivot towards alternative policies is carried out in concert with the states concerned, and with a clearly stated, and enacted commitment to supporting their resilience and independence even without the prospect of membership. This more honest, realistic approach would not counter the overall aim of self-determination. After all, membership of the alliance has always remained subordinate to other aims much more immediately relevant to the populations concerned, including democratisation, the restoration of territorial integrity, the consolidation of statehood, (…). This opens to possibility of those states themselves taking the courageous decision to pivot away from aspired membership in concert with their Western allies, and move towards more realistic ways of ensuring their security, without being dependent on the unanimous good graces of others. It is, indeed, very difficult to envisage them doing this at present, but, over the longer term, independence and self-determination may come to be understood as dependent on a much broader repertoire of prudent, flexible, responsive statecraft than merely membership of an exclusive club of states, after a seemingly unending apprenticeship in a dangerous waiting room. The alternative – of a divided West throwing in the towel unilaterally would be a much worse alternative, and, while unlikely at this point, one that could not be excluded over the longer term.


Taking NATO expansion off the table in this way would neither imply giving up on the states surrounding Russia, nor would it result in appeasement: instead, it would open up the space for more flexible, adaptable, and, if necessary, assertive policies that may put Moscow on the back foot by reversing its spoiling advantage and confronting it with the idea that, even in the absence of an expanding alliance, it has lost control over the states and societies of ‘its near abroad’. It would, moreover, likely lower the threshold at which Moscow would be able to accept that fact because a perceived ‘loss’ of Ukraine or Georgia would not equal an expanding rival alliance on its boundaries, or a return to a past perceived by the vast majority of Russians as humiliating – a fact eagerly exploited by the Putin regime. If combined with the prospect of a de-territorialised form of great power status, Russia accepting the independence of its neighbours without them entering NATO, may prove more realistic – and beneficial – aim over the longer term.



Not unlike Communism in earlier times, NATO membership risks becoming a goal set somewhere in a mythical, idealised future, eternally around the corner, and always out of reach. A much more attainable approach would include tempering one’s adherence to ideal-type outcomes, while building on the resilience and will to self-determination of the societies around Russia, redefined not in terms of membership of a certain alliance, but in terms of an ability to participate in realistic, measured, flexible statecraft as sovereign states. The prudent assertiveness of the major states of Central Asia, their gradual – and relatively successful – efforts at building distinct post-imperial identities and foreign policies indicates that such an approach is not as far-fetched as it would first appear, especially if the West continued to back the same process outside the confines of NATO membership, in the former Soviet parts of Eastern Europe.[16] Such a move would take strategic foresight, and a commitment to delayed gratification on the part of the Western policymaking community, and the states concerned themselves. It would also require coordination and consent, rather than being seen as a green light for deciding ‘over their heads’.


In final analysis, taking NATO out of the equation while still remaining committed to the independence and resilience of all states would take policy from the 1990s into the 21st century. When it comes to Russia that will require correctly calibrated signalling in the beginning, and considerable patience afterwards – most probably until the replacement of the Putin regime with ‘something else’. If that ‘something else’ results from a liberal swing in Russia’s long-term ideological pendulum, this will make life easier for any government genuinely committed to reform;[17] but, even in the absence of such a Russian ‘liberal enlightenment’, without a NATO-branded sword of Damocles, it will put the threshold at which a new, post-imperial arrangement becomes acceptable to a Russian regime at a much lower level. At the very least, it should be considered as a third option, beyond the counterproductive, sterile binary confrontation between ‘Atlanticists’ and ‘Realists’, ‘Russia hawks’ and ‘Russia doves’ around the ‘NATO membership, or bust’ axis; these new times may be calling for a revision of these outdated dividing lines.


Image by NATO under (CC).


[1] Tolz, Vera. 1998. Forging the Nation: National Identity and Nation Building in Post‐Communist Russia. Europe-Asia Studies 50 (6): 993-1022,; Chafetz, Glenn. 1996. The Struggle for a National Identity in Post-Soviet Russia. Political Science Quarterly 111 (4): 661-688,

[2] McFaul, Michael. 2020. Putin, Putinism and the Domestic Determinants of Russian Foreign Policy. International Security 45 (2): 95-139,

[3] Edward Lucas, Imperial Abnormality, CEPA, December 2020,

[4] John J. Mearsheimer, Getting Ukraine Wrong, The New York Times, March 2014,; John J. Mearsheimer,

Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: the Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014,

[5] Anders Åslund and Leonid Gozman, Russia after Putin: How to Rebuild the State, Atlantic Council, February 2021,

[6] Waltz, Kenneth Neal. 1959. Man, the State and War: a Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

[7] Laruelle, Marlène. 2020. Making Sense of Russia’s Illiberalism. Journal of Democracy 31 (3): 115-129,

[8] Andrei Kozyrev, The Lagging Partnership, Foreign Affairs, May/June 1994,

[9] Zaraköl, Ayse. 2010. After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 201-239.

[10] Oskanian, Kevork. 2018. A Very Ambiguous Empire: Russia’s Hybrid Exceptionalism. Europe-Asia Studies 70 (1): 26-52 (pp. 39-41).

[11] Bettiza, Gregorio, and David Lewis. 2020. Authoritarian Powers and Norm Contestation in the Liberal International Order: Theorizing the Power Politics of Ideas and Identity. Journal of Global Security Studies 5 (4): 559-577.

[12] Oksana Grytsenko, Kyiv Post Cites New Ukraine Poll: NATO support grows in Ukraine, reaches 53 percent, IRI, July 2019,;, NDI poll: 82% of Georgians support EU, 74%- NATO membership, January 2020,

[13] TASS, CIA Working with Navalny, Kremlin Spokesman Says, October 2020,; Tom Balmforth, Russia Accuses U.S. of Promoting Revolution in Belarus, Toughens Stance, September 2020,

[14] Porter, Patrick. 2020. The False Promise of Liberal Order. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[15] Oskanian, Kevork. 2019. Carr Goes East: Reconsidering Power and Inequality in a Post-Liberal Eurasia. European Politics and Society 20 (2): 172-189.

[16] Nomerovchenko, Alina, Jaechun Kim, and William Kang. 2018. Foreign Policy Orientation of Independent Central Asian States: Looking Through the Prism of Ideas and Identities. The Korean Journal of International Studies 16 (3): 389-410.

[17] Vladislav Inozemtsev, The Pendulum Effect, Riddle Russia, April 2018,

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre