Since the formation of NATO seventy years ago to defend Europe from a potential Soviet invasion, propagandists in Moscow have berated the Alliance as an aggressor. In the post-Soviet era, President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has continued this tradition of deception and added several new themes for Western audiences.
Moscow’s disinformation seeks to popularize false images of the West in the West. During Soviet times, Moscow’s intelligence services depicted the United States as an imperialist predator imposing its will on subservient states. NATO was berated as an expansionist pact controlled by Washington to enforce capitalist exploitation and quash the socialist aspirations of the working masses.
Under Putin, anti-Western disinformation has been updated with new heroes and villains but NATO and the United States have remained constant adversaries. Kremlin phraseology and symbolism continuous to seep into Western narratives, whether spread by Putin’s sympathizers or the result of negligence in correcting regularly repeated falsehoods.
Moscow’s anti-NATO strictures are intended for both domestic and foreign digestion. For the Russian public, NATO is assailed for isolating Russia and planning to dismember the country. For Western publics, NATO is vilified as warmongering, provoking conflicts with Russia, and limiting the sovereignty of European states. Various false claims by Moscow against NATO are chronicled and corrected by the Alliance, but at least five have deeper traction that can mislead public opinion.
The charge of aggressive NATO expansion lies at the core of Kremlin disinformation. In reality, NATO has not imposed itself on any state; countries that have liberated themselves from Moscow’s control have voluntarily petitioned to join NATO. This is the exact opposite of how Russia operates – by absorbing states through war, conquest, threat, and blackmail. In a recent example of deception, Moscow has conducted a vigorous propaganda campaign against North Macedonia’s aspirations to join NATO by claiming that the government had been pressured to accede.
A second bogus assertion that still carries resonance in the Western media is that NATO pledged to Moscow at the end of the Cold War that no former Soviet satellite would join the Alliance. In fact, the question was never raised during discussions between Soviet and Western leaders and NATO issued no pledges to refuse entry to any European state.
A third widely parroted falsehood is that the growth of NATO deepens divisions in Europe and threatens Russia. In reality, common membership of one security alliance enhances stability by reducing disputes between neighbors. And the notion that this threatens Russia is fraudulent. Moscow’s propagandists regularly invoke the specter that NATO has expanded to Russia’s borders and threatens its cities. They fail to point out that Russia also borders NATO and its threats against Warsaw, Tallinn, Vilnius, and Riga have actual historical precedents. The Central European states refuse to be buffers exposed to invasion and domination by Russia and demand independence and security within the NATO alliance.
Fourth, Moscow’s anti-NATO rhetoric charges that the Alliance is a cover for U.S. imperialism. Hence, membership allegedly stifles any sovereign foreign policy as Washington embroils small countries in new conflicts. This ignores the fact that all NATO decisions are taken by consensus, national armies remain under state control, and no capital is obliged to participate in any NATO-led operation.
And fifth, Moscow’s current deception focuses on the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) initiative along NATO’s Eastern Flank. The eFP is a response to Russia’s invasion and partition of Ukraine and its continuing threats against other Central European countries. Hypocritically, the Kremlin accuses NATO of violating the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act concerning the permanent stationing of Western forces on the territory of new members, at a time when it has violated agreements on the permanence of borders and the sovereignty of all European states.
NATO has abided by the increasingly obsolete Founding Act with Russia. Its four multinational battalions are small rotational battlegroups and total force levels across the Alliance have been substantially reduced in recent years. In stark contrast, Russia has violated the Founding Act by increasing its troop presence along NATO’s borders and breached agreements on transparency in military deployments and exercises. Moscow also broke its commitment not to threaten or use force against NATO Allies or other states. Given this litany of infractions, NATO is well within its rights to discard any agreements that Moscow has already contravened and station permanent U.S. and other forces to help protect vulnerable countries such as Poland.
Given the vortex of Kremlin accusations, attempts by Western leaders to convince Moscow that NATO poses no threat to Russia are a waste of time. Putin views the very existence of NATO as a threat to the Kremlin’s ambitions because its mission is to protect the independence of states that Russia seeks to suborn. Furthermore, a secure state within NATO becomes more capable of developing an effective political structure and a productive economy. This can inspire Russia’s restive regions to overturn the centralized and increasingly obsolete Putinist system. Hence, even without any aggressive intentions, NATO is seen as both a threat to a neo-imperial Russia and to a failing Russian Federation.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.