Counterfactual Thinking and NATO Expansion

31 July 2021, 0925 EDT

Fundamental questions about NATO enlargement into the former Soviet sphere of interest remain hotly contested. There are a number of very specific issues, such as whether or not U.S. officials promised Russia that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward. But most of those issues feed into the big question: did NATO enlargement drive Russia into an aggressive, revisionist foreign policy.

[Ed note: some people are reporting that they’re not seeing the correct author on the byline. In case you’re not seeing it, this is a post by Cheryl Roefer]

What’s striking about even the most systematic answers to that question is the modesty of their counterfactual reasoning. Participants in the debate often assume that if NATO had not expanded, today’s situation would differ mostly in terms of the degree of Russian hostility. Supporters of NATO expansion, at best, point in very general terms toward Russian domination of its western neighbors, or towards the possibility of security dilemmas in Eastern Europe. Opponents certainly don’t go any further than that.

Entries into the debate also tend to insufficiently consider the circumstances surrounding decisions on NATO expansion in the 1990s and 2000s. The newly independent countries were eager to escape Russian domination. They needed to build economies, government institutions, and defense forces almost from scratch.  Russian and NATO policies could easily have gone in multiple different directions. The situation was fluid, involved large unknowns, and required big decisions to be made quickly.

Thirty years’ distance from the Soviet breakup should bring context and greater historical perspective. It also makes narrow counterfactuals untenable. Three decades of concatenating changes imply a broad range of alternative outcomes. I think that more detailed, and more imaginative, counterfactuals provide ways to think harder about the wisdom of NATO expansion. Here I offer one. I consider possible actions, all of which have taken place in other contexts, that could have occurred in a world in which NATO did not expand. Much of its foundation comes from my own experience in working with Estonians and others on environmental cleanup of the Silmet site.


NATO’s expansion to the countries of central and eastern Europe encroaches on what the Soviet Union took to be its allies and even part of the Soviet Union itself. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, and East Germany were Soviet satellites, and most were members of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet alliance formed in response to NATO. The Baltic States were Soviet republics. Now those states or successor states are members of NATO: In order of accession, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.

By the end of 1991, the Soviet republics were fifteen independent states. Mikhail Gorbachev removed Soviet influence from the satellites in 1989. Albania and Yugoslavia considered themselves independent long before that but remained communist. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) attempted to maintain some aspects of the Soviet Union among Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The countries that became part of NATO stretch from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black and Adriatic Sea in the south, no longer a buffer between Russia and Europe.

Germany and Ukraine are special cases and deserve their own counterfactuals. After World War II, the victors divided Germany into French, British, American, and Soviet occupation zones. The three non-Soviet zones became West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was a part of the Warsaw Pact. Other European countries, particularly Britain and France, were hesitant to have Germany reunited.

Nuclear missiles were stationed in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia when the Soviet Union broke up. Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s status in the United Nations as nuclear weapons state; Kazakhstan and Belarus shipped their missiles to Russia, no questions asked. Ukraine balked, but eventually sent the missiles back in exchange for a promise they wouldn’t be invaded and cash payments. It’s unlikely that Ukraine ever could have used the missiles, but they were a useful bargaining chip. Additionally, Ukraine shares history with Russia that Vladimir Putin has used in his disputes with Ukraine. I assume that Ukraine remains with Russia relative to defense issues.

West Germany became a member of NATO after its postwar occupation ended in 1955. Other European states were wary of reunification because of Germany’s role in two world wars. When Gorbachev withdrew Soviet influence from the satellites, German reunification became possible and was completed in 1990.

In the more passive NATO role of this counterfactual, reunified Germany is granted provisional membership, to be reviewed in five years. Allowable German rearming would be defensive only, and no nuclear weapons would be stationed there. NATO’s other members would be frozen at the 1990 list: the US, UK, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, and Spain.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, the satellites and the former republics had governments of their own, so they were somewhat prepared for independence. Many of those governments contained nationalists from what were effectively political parties, even though parties other than the Communist Party were banned.

The new governments had to move from demonstrations to governing: unify their countries, deal with the change to a market economy and the loss of Soviet-related jobs, and deal with environmental problems left by the Soviet military-industrial complex. Experts came from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and other countries. Those countries had an interest in stabilizing the new governments and helping them, particularly the environmental problems that could pollute the Baltic Sea. Nongovernmental foundations also funded democratic development.

For example, Jan Olof Snihs, retired from the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, worked in the Balkans and Estonia on environmental issues, in the Balkans, the presence of depleted uranium bullets in soil. In Estonia, Snihs chaired the Sillamäe International Expert Reference Group (SIERG), looking at the remediation of the Silmet metals refining plant and associated waste pond, which was leaking metals and radionuclides into the Baltic Sea, and worked with the PIERG, for the Paldiski Soviet nuclear submarine reactor training site, which had held two submarine reactors.

Snihs brought with him representatives from Swedish nuclear energy companies, who hoped to win contracts for remediating the sites. SIERG also included representatives from Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Similar support was offered and accepted in the areas of finance and government.

The Counterfactual

The Soviet Union officially dissolved on December 25, 1991. NATO committed not to expand into the former Warsaw Pact nations. A weak Partnership for Peace was put forward. Some in the US called for a new Marshall Plan for the 15 new countries, but Congress was averse to funding Russia’s recovery. Russia’s privatization of its industries gave oligarchs control of the economy. Even after George H. W. Bush had most of America’s tactical nuclear weapons destroyed to indicate that the United States would not take advantage of Russia’s difficulties, there was little reason for relations to warm.

Boris Yeltsin chose hawkish advisors and foreign policy. He built back the military rapidly to aid economic recovery and brandished it more frequently to show that Russia has not disappeared from the world scene.

Russia’s limited access to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is always a sore spot. St. Petersburg and naval bases lie on the Gulf of Finland. Two chokepoints lie between the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean: the strait between Helsinki and Tallinn, and the Øresund, between Denmark and Sweden. In 1991, with an independent Estonia and   Finland no longer subject to Soviet bullying, the first of those became a concern.

Between Sweden and Finland lie thousands of islands, known as the Archipelago. Patrolling them is demanding.

In 1981, a Soviet submarine was stranded on rocks not far from the main Swedish naval base at Karlskrona, while a Swedish naval exercise was taking place. After military tension and questioning of the submarine captain by Swedish authorities, Swedish tugs pulled the sub off the rocks and handed it over to the Soviet fleet. In 2014 and 2018, probable submarines were sighted among the Swedish islands, but their national origin was not identified.

In the counterfactual, possible submarines were sighted regularly in the Finnish archipelago and from the islands along Estonia’s north and west coasts. In the Swedish archipelago, destroyers gave chase more than once and depth charges were dropped. At a Russian oligarch’s summer home on a Finnish island, Finnish government agents found two large boathouses containing equipment that could be used for a naval base.

The Conference on German Neutrality in 1995 was contentious but reauthorized a continuation of Germany’s awkward NATO status. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin announced the official Russian map of its borders. Those borders impinged on the claims of a number of its neighbors. Russian military encampments were set up near and in the disputed territories of Latvia and Ukraine, where organizations appeared to promote Latgale and Donbas independence. Additionally, some of the new nations, particularly in Central Asia and the Caucasus, disputed borders with each other.

NATO and Russia flirted with rapprochment throughout the 1990s, and a Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation was signed in Paris in 1997. A Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg became an advisor to Boris Yeltsin that year.

Through the nineties, Russian military planes increasingly violated their neighbors’ airspace or came close, daring the neighbors’ air forces to scramble. Finland ordered additional fighter-bombers from Sweden. Ukraine and the Baltic States increase their home guard, with training from elders with experience in partisan warfare.

Economic recovery was slow, and unemployment in the new nations was severe. By the late 1990s, a major Russian money laundering scandal broke across the Baltics, damaging the Swedish, Norwegian, and German banks located there. Communist parties in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria gained in elections. In Bulgaria, an opposing candidate was poisoned with polonium.

The Soviet Union had placed factories for military hardware across the republics and the satellites. With the end of the Soviet Union, Russia brought that manufacturing home. Sweden repurposed those factories into production to support their automotive and military industry. Thus, a factory in Võru, Estonia, that had made oxygen sensors for submarines began to make instruments for Gripen aircraft.

Belarus and Lithuania were at odds over Finland’s funding of a rebuild of the Ignalina RBMK reactors and a reactor installation to be built in Belarus by Rosatom. Latvian border posts with Russia were harassed, and organized crime violation of that border increased.

Environmental remediation of the Silmet plant in Sillamäe, Estonia, began in 1998. The prime contractor was the Swedish SKB, with the German Wismut playing a major part. The remediation included building a port. It was necessary to shut down production of rare earth metals and oxides to discharge of wastes that had gone into the tailings pond. The plant would be redesigned to eliminate that waste stream.

At the 2000 Conference on German Neutrality, the Russian representative made a sharp speech accusing Germany of harboring a “new Nazi party.” Outside the hall, a group of people demonstrated with “Germany into NATO” signs.

A joint project between Sweden and Norway refurbished the Krenholm Textile Mill in northeastern Estonia to produce semiconductors. The mill is located on an island in the Narva River, the border between Estonia and Russia. The mill employed both Russian and Estonian workers. In 2002, a bomb went off in one of the production areas, but most manufacturing continued as the damage was repaired.

In 2004, Sweden hosted a conference with Norway, Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Georgia on economic development. Germany and Ukraine sent observers. Sweden designed a fighter-bomber upgrade of the Saab JAS 39 Gripen, three of which did a flyover.

On June 5, 2007, seismic stations registered the distinctive double-peaked signal of an underground nuclear explosion in northern Sweden. The Prime Minister of Sweden, with the prime ministers of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria standing with him, announced the Central European Alliance, formed to counter Russia’s aggression. Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Moldova, and Albania could not send representatives but were part of the alliance.

The Central European Alliance’s purpose was defense against Russia. The alliance was open to cooperating with NATO and invited the possibility of talks. The nuclear test was of a Swedish bomb design, which owed its success to cooperation across the alliance. The device could be weaponized into a bomb that could be dropped from the new Gripen fighter-bomber. Sweden would formally withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as would other countries in the alliance.

Copies of the Alliance’s fully-signed Charter were distributed.

Open-source intelligence analysts at the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies ferreted out details. The device used plutonium supplied by the United States to the Swedish nuclear program during the 1960s and 1970s. The incomplete records (see comments here) were incorrect; 9.3 kilograms of plutonium was never returned to the United States. Some number of plutonium cores, perhaps as many as ten, were manufactured from plutonium smuggled to Sweden by Russian nuclear scientists in need of cash; the Cooperative Threat Reduction program died in 1997 after a few fruitless exchanges of scientists between the Russian and American weapons laboratories and increasing hostility from Russia.

Sweden reopened its uranium mines at Kvantorp and Ranstad. Mines in the Czech Republic and Poland also reopened. The Silmet plant at Sillamäe, Estonia, was converted from rare earths to yellow cake production, its original mission. Two large reinforced-concrete building shells left by the Soviets were easily completed for UF6 production and centrifuge enrichment. Final processing into metal was at Grindsjoen, Sweden. Norway supplied heavy water to a natural uranium reactor at Ågesta; two other reactors were being built. Sweden dusted off its nuclear weapons plans from the 1960s and rechecked them to make sure they were reliable enough that testing was not needed. The test was to make a point.

A nuclear-armed Central European Alliance provokes more counterfactual scenarios of its own, but I’ll stop here.


My goal is to provide a jumping-off place for discussion of how events might have gone without NATO expansion. Surprisingly little has been done to really work through the possibilities. Constructive contributions from critics of NATO expansion should include counterfactuals that show one or more pathways from the Soviet breakup to a stable central and eastern Europe that does not leave Russia feeling threatened or insecure.