20 years under Putin: a timeline

On September 26, the Center on Global Interests held a panel discussion on NATO, its expansion over the years, and the alliance’s effect on Russian-Western relations. The panelists also touched upon Michael O’Hanlon’s Brookings paper “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe,” which considers the possibility of creating a neutral buffer zone between Russia and Europe.


NATO summit in Brussels. Photo: PA Images / TASS.


A conversation with:

Michael Purcell (Moderator), Director of Operations, Center on Global Interests 

Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution

Ian Brzezinski, Senior Fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council

Marlene Laruelle, Associate Director, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs




  • Some questions to consider today and in the future when pondering issues of Russian-Western relations and European security:
    • Is NATO expansion inevitable?
    • Does it constitute a wise security policy, or is it merely a moral imperative?



  • In the Brookings paper “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe,” I argue that NATO enlargement should no longer be pursued, and that the West should negotiate a buffer zone of “permanent neutrality” with Russia.
  • The alliance now consists of 29 members, from a much smaller total of 16 following the Cold War; Macedonia will likely be the newest member to join.
  • Negotiations with Russia need not be made apologetically or through a revisionist lens, but NATO expansion no longer makes sense from a security perspective.
  • Countries like Montenegro (and now, given its likely accession, Macedonia) provide NATO little in the way of added security.
  • Article 10 of NATO’s founding Washington Treaty allowed for open membership on the condition that new members served the security interests of pre-existing ones. In recent years, NATO has strayed from this original vision.
  • Even if NATO truly poses no military threat to Russia, it still proves menacing to Moscow on a psychological level, and fits perfectly into the Kremlin’s broader narrative of encirclement and victimization.



  • What is NATO’s purpose?
  • It began as an architecture to overcome divisions and ensure peace in Europe.
  • It reinforces transatlanticism, and countries with membership (e.g. Poland and the Czech Republic) enjoy better relations with Russia than those without it (e.g. Ukraine and Georgia).
  • NATO enlargement has actually been coupled with an overall decrease in military spending and mobilization on the part of the alliance’s members—enlargement is a policy that poses no threat to Russia.
  • Russia’s revanchist aggression is driven by internal factors, such as politics and the economy.
  • Contrary to O’Hanlon, I believe that negotiating over a neutral zone would actually embolden Russia.
  • The West needs to punish Russia for its revanchism abroad, and provide a credible, unambiguous path forward for countries hoping for accession to NATO.
  • NATO’s lukewarm overtures to Georgia and Ukraine could have very well signaled Putin that he could interfere with these countries without significant repercussion.



  • There needs to be a better-defined protocol for joining the European Union—this would make the West’s other major transnational institution, NATO, less of an issue for Western-Russian relations.
  • There are such stark differences between Russia and the U.S. on matters of foreign policy that negotiating over a neutrality zone would not be practical right now.
  • Russia is not a revanchist state—rather, the Putin regime wants to return the international order to the status quo prior to 2004, when the Baltics still lacked NATO membership.
  • Russia accepts “non-friendly” countries at its border, but draws the line at accepting overtly pro-Western countries at its doorstep (i.e. NATO members).



  • Expansion is now effectively NATO’s modus operandi.
  • NATO is fundamentally about Europe, which is why the inclusion of non-European countries such as Georgia or even Ukraine does not make sense; a new security structure is needed that includes Russia as a member.
  • Putin’s worldview certainly drives much of the conflict we see between Russia and the West, but NATO’s expansion has likely exacerbated the issue.
  • The West must not recognize Crimea as a Russian territory, but at the same time it must also realize that there is no practical way to bring the peninsula back under Ukrainian control.



  • Ultimately, Putin frames Russia’s involvement in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as a defense issue: it falls under Russia’s responsibility to protect ethnic Russians in the “near abroad.”
  • Putin would jump at the opportunity to establish a neutral buffer zone between Europe and Russia, as such a move would leave the region very vulnerable to Russian invasion and weaken the West, strategically speaking.
  • NATO expansion is primarily a function of European security—that’s what has driven NATO’s growth over the years.


Q & A:

  1. Is it plausible to have Russia join NATO?


  • If Russian democracy were to develop significantly, it could possibly join NATO—and this would defang Putin’s narrative of Western encirclement and Russian victimization.
  • We must keep in mind that a primary goal of ours is to defuse the dangerous tensions between Russia and the West; having Russia join NATO at some point in the future could be a step in that direction.


  • Democratic development is possible in Russia, but it remains a far-off goal and is unlikely to be achieved anytime soon.
  • Moreover, Russia espouses different values from the rest of NATO’s members, which could prove to be a problem from the standpoint of basic cohesion and solidarity.
  • It is also difficult to imagine sharing NATO membership with Russia, given Moscow’s invasion of Crimea, support of the insurrection in eastern Ukraine, and attacks on American proxies in Syria.
  • The West should consider arming the Ukrainians to bolster their efforts against pro-Russian rebels in the Donbass.
  • NATO must end its lukewarm overtures to future members of the alliance—this only encourages Russian adventurism in those countries.


  1. Is NATO strictly a security alliance? How does the EU define itself?


  • The EU doesn’t have a concrete idea of how it should define itself, separate and apart from NATO.
  • NATO should reconsider its stipulation of democratic development as a condition for membership.
  • The European Union should be the institution dealing with overtly political issues such as these; defining NATO and the EU separately might allow the West to negotiate more effectively with Russia.