Why Russia Won’t Join NATO

20Jun16

Obviously, Russia can’t join NATO. Russia is the biggest single reason why there is a NATO. If Russia joined NATO, who would NATO be protecting us from?

It’s a good question. But let’s consider Russia’s perspective. Let’s say you are Vladimir Putin, president of the world’s largest country — and a sprawling country at that, spanning six thousand miles. In all that vast territory, where is your greatest vulnerability? Where are you most likely to have land taken from you?

Well, the answer is not on the European frontier. Yes, the Americans have been rubbing your nose in it, using your Ukraine adventure as an excuse to introduce troops right up against your border. But nobody on Earth thinks that NATO is going to invade Russia.

Another question. Let’s suppose you are Xi Jinping, president of China. You have 1.3 billion constituents. They want jobs. They want kids. They are jammed into a relatively small space, and they have trashed it. What can you do about this?

The headlines would seem to suggest that Xi is responding to that situation by claiming the South China Sea. And yes, there are resources there. There is money to be made. But there is no space for new homes. The South China Sea does not offer Lebensraum.

If you are Xi, you want Siberia. Not only resources, but also land, fresh water, and living space. And if you are Putin, you know that’s what Xi wants. And even if you didn’t know it, you would know that, as we speak, Chinese people continue to stream across the border, steadily and illegally, into the empty spaces of Siberia.

Putin himself used that kind of minority presence, Russians in east Ukraine, as an excuse to attack. Jacobs (New York Times, 2015) points out that Chinese leaders could do likewise, arguing that their people in Siberia need protection provided by their own kind. It would just require an excuse, an event or situation arguably warranting intervention. That excuse comes nearer every day, as the Chinese minority in Siberia grows.

Yes, Putin has nukes, with which he could defend Siberia. But then, so does China. Nuclear weapons have tended to be more powerful in the threat than in the delivery. Short of that, there is not much Putin can do about the situation. If he could fix it with his army or his border patrol, he would have done so by now. Unfortunately for him, border guards are not going to change the fact that the Chinese population density south of the border is ten times that of Russians north of the border.

China does not presently enjoy the military advantage it would prefer for a forcible intervention in Siberia. So while it grows its armed forces in preparation, it needs a rationale, a focus for its buildup, a visible foe on which its generals and nationalists can concentrate their attention — an opponent worthy of the weaponry that China will need to tackle Siberia. It looked for a while like Japan might be that foe, and of course Taiwan has always been an emotional issue; but only the U.S. can supply the justification for a really large military investment.

It was not always clear how the U.S. would make itself the target of Chinese military effort. Of course, the U.S. has been a superpower, and that invites some targeting in itself. But Obama’s pivot to Asia made it more visceral. A patent effort to assemble allies encircling China has provided a compelling narrative: China needs a military capable of standing up to the United States. And yet, at times, it certainly appears that the Chinese leadership wants the U.S. to stick around and continue to serve as provocateur.

There is a price for Xi’s stretch into the South China Sea. He is driving many of his southern neighbors closer to an alignment with the U.S. But in the end, the U.S. is not going to war for Vietnam or the Philippines. China’s power and proximity will ultimately incline those neighbors toward compromise rather than confrontation.

There may be some fooling around and shooting in the Spratleys, but eventually it will be clear that this is not a sufficient rationale for a world-class ground and air force. Right now, that fact is not so visible; people are not intently asking where, exactly, China intends to use all those drones and other armaments that will surely prove irrelevant to any naval conflict in the tropics.

Not that it hurts China militarily to develop airfields and naval bases on Scarborough Shoal and elsewhere down there. And the tanks and drones can help to intimidate neighbors all ’round. But the expansionist and increasingly aggressive tone of Chinese policy and public opinion will not be satisfied with seizure of a few coral reefs. These people are demanding red meat for dinner.

In this environment, the last thing Putin wants is to paint a target on himself by signaling Russian solidarity with white America. Russia obviously will not be invited to join NATO but, more to the point, doing so (even if it could) would remind the Chinese public of their nation’s longstanding historical grievances toward Russia. Better to let Siberia rot away slowly, from a Russian demographic perspective, than to draw the issue into sharp focus through aggressive border policing.

So it behooves Putin to stick his thumb in Obama’s eye, now and then. Like Xi’s bases in the southern sea, Putin’s adventures in Syria and elsewhere have their payoffs — they keep his military in practice, for example; they burnish Putin’s credibility as a military wildcard; and they say that Russia is no collaborator in any American encirclement of China. Putin would surely hope that such encirclement would succeed, but he cannot be a participant until China makes its move. And so, for a while longer, NATO will remain a primarily anti-Russian enterprise.

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