The prospect of NATO’s eastern expansion advancing deeper into the Russian sphere of influence remains an undeniable fear for the Russian government. It continues to color the Kremlin’s decision making and forms the foundation of Russia’s defense and foreign policy to a great extent. NATO’s eastern expansion is at the heart of Russia’s growing involvement in Ukraine, Belarus and on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border. It has been, for all intents and purposes, the thorn in Moscow’s side for decades. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s warning at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Sweden made it clear his nation is reaching the point where its actions will not be constrained by Western threats and military maneuvers in close proximity to Russia’s frontiers.
Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met at the conference in Sweden. Whereas Blinken warned of “serious consequences” if Russia sought a military conflict with Ukraine. His Russian counterpart responded with a warning that Europe might be returning to the “nightmare of military confrontation.” He followed up with a proposal to establish a new security pact in Europe to prevent further NATO expansion. Essentially, Lavrov was proposing a return to the Cold War.
Yesterday in a speech, Lavrov accused NATO refusing to consider proposals to lessen tensions and prevent dangerous incidents. “The alliance’s military infrastructure is being irresponsibly brought closer to Russia’s borders in Romania and Poland, deploying an anti-missile defense system that can be used as a strike complex,” he said. “American medium-range missiles are about to appear in Europe, bringing back the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation.” Lavrov then went on to warn the alliance against transforming nations bordering Russian into “bridgeheads of confrontation.”
So, there it is. In the space of a handful of sentences, Lavrov laid out the heart of the matter for Russia: Halting NATO expansion. He also, in a less than surreptitious fashion, listed the issues Russia would be willing to negotiate on in exchange for a solution to the manufactured crisis in Ukraine. There’s no plausible scenario where Washington would agree to a withdrawal of the US military presence from Eastern Europe in exchange for a promise by Russia not to invade Ukraine. On the other side of the coin, Russia will not stand by idle and allow NATO expansion to advance unchecked forever. This crisis may pass without a military confrontation, but the problem is not going to dissolve anytime soon.