It looks like Donald Trump may be meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vienna before the NATO meeting in mid-July. If they meet, I am sure President Putin will raise his complaint about Eastern European countries joining NATO. Given that President Trump agreed with Kim Jong Un of North Korea that U.S.-South Korea military maneuvers constituted “war games” and were “very provocative,” the very terms that North Korea uses in its propaganda to criticize the maneuvers, it is entirely possible President Trump will agree with President Putin. The fact President Trump thinks NATO members are ripping off the United States perhaps makes it even more likely he will agree with President Putin.
However, if President Trump does agree with Russia on this, then he will be wrong, very wrong. The historical record is unclear as to what the United States and USSR agreed with respect to NATO expansion when Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to German unification and the right of a united Germany to stay in NATO. While the official documents didn’t contain any promises about NATO expansion, it is possible the Soviets understood NATO wouldn’t expand as it did. But regardless of what the Soviets, now Russians, understood back then, there is nothing wrong with the NATO expansion that occurred.
If Vladimir Putin thinks that this is unfair and that Russia is being surrounded, then maybe he needs to think about why Russia’s neighbors want to join NATO. What is it about Russia (and the Soviet Union before) that makes eastern European countries want to join NATO? Is it the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea? Is it President Putin’s claim that Russia has the right to protect Russian speakers wherever they live? Is it that President Putin has said that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century? Or is it just centuries of Russian and Soviet expansion and domination of other people?
Consider that even Hungary, whose president admires Vladimir Putin and calls Hungary an “illiberal democracy,” isn’t talking about getting out of NATO. He may complain about the European Union. But not NATO.
The bottom line is that Russia (f/k/a Soviet Union) doesn’t get to decide who joins NATO. If Russia doesn’t want to feel surrounded, maybe it needs to be a better neighbor. Until then, eastern European countries, who have the right to decide for themselves what alliances to join,1 are most likely going to exercise that right to join and stay in NATO.
1 As Mikhail Gorbachev did agree with respect to Germany. See, inter alia, George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (1998), p. 282-83, and Philip Zelikow and Condoleeza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed (1997), p. 277-79.