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In a related question on why Russia is against Ukraine joining the EU, @user4012 writes the following:

Basically, Russia has no natural defensive perimeter of its core. Thus, its permanent strategy is to surround itself with satellite states which provide defense in depth and natural defensive perimeters of their own. This is elaborated extensively on in Statfor writeups on Russia, if you want a more detailed look.

If Ukraine is integrated into the West, Russia sees it as a strategic military threat - there's very little defense should Ukraine be a base of attack as opposed to a defensive buffer.

But why would Russia fear a land-based invasion from NATO in the first place? It has plenty of nuclear warheads and ICBMs to completely annihilate most of the NATO members capitals. Likewise the core NATO members all have nuclear weapons so they would know better than to risk a nuclear war against Russia.

So to me it seems like the US could have its entire army at a base in Finland and Russia could still sleep in peace. What is wrong with my assumptions?

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    No one actually wants to use nuclear weapons.
    – user1530
    Aug 4, 2017 at 15:55
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    MAD is a thing that you can have faith in but never trust.
    – user9389
    Aug 4, 2017 at 16:50
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    Re "Stratfor": I never understood this: If Russia incoporates Ukraine (or any other territory), it just moves it's border closer to NATO territory anyway, not farther from it.
    – hitchhiker
    Mar 8 at 11:02
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    You say: So to me it seems like the US could have its entire army at a base in Finland and Russia could still sleep in peace. .Just turn it around for a moment. How would Americans react if Russia placed its entire army in Mexico? Would they accept Mr Putin's word that it was simply defensive. Would Americans "sleep in peace"?
    – WS2
    Mar 14 at 0:29
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    @JonathanReez Even so, I think the presence of Russian troops with the possibility of their being reinforced with battlefield nuclear weapons, south of the Rio Grande would create a huge focus of tension inside America. It would not be regarded as acceptable.
    – WS2
    Mar 14 at 18:17

8 Answers 8

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The story goes: Two great armies came together to talk. And while the leaders met a soldier on one side saw a venomous snake, and raised a weapon to kill it. A soldier opposite saw the weapon and not the snake and cried out a warning of a surprise attack. Battle was joined and no one won but the crows.

By putting conventional forces closer the chance of escalation is higher.

Also if both sides expect the winning move of Global Thermonuclear War, they might still try a limited war.

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    limit nuclear war was Reagan doctrine. Russian doctrine since USSR time and now is based on realistic accessibility of conventional force weakness vs NATO due to numerous factors. The major point of military planning was always of superiority of nuclear ICBM deterrence - the rest is good for local operations like chechen war and Syria deployment. Proximity of NATO to borders of Russia is just internal propaganda and international bargain argument - not a real threat. Till ICBMs are operational it is not going to change. The rest is media circus.
    – lowtech
    Aug 7, 2017 at 4:26
  • There is a lot of talk about nuclear weapons at the moment. A week ago the UK's Chief of Defense Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin was interviewed on TV. What he made clear is that they have ongoing telephone contact with their opposite numbers in Moscow. It is like being on a plane. You can worry about whether the guys on the flight deck know what they are doing. But then just remember that they want to get home safely, just as much as you do. No nuclear war is going to take place by accident.
    – WS2
    Mar 14 at 0:53
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    I disagree with this answer for two reasons: first the implication seems flawed that just because conventional forces would actually shoot at each other nuclear weapons would be launched immediately. If someone attacks you with ground forces, it actually means that he didn't plan to fire nuclear weapons, otherwise he would have done before. Second, what is the comparison for today? Just because a single soldier fires his gun, nothing will happen. These are "harmless" accidents (see e.g. the recent drone crashes in Croatia) and not an attack.
    – Mayou36
    Mar 16 at 15:48
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So to me it seems like the US could have its entire army at a base in Finland and Russia could still sleep in peace. What is wrong with my assumptions?

For the record, I think you're mostly spot on here. Russia has very little worry of a US/Nato invasion. The US/Nato has no interest in a war with Russia. It would be ugly and expensive and as a US citizen, US war fatigue is well documented. People wants us to get out of Afganistan and Iraq, not get involved in something new. Russia knows this. Russia knows that Nato doesn't want to attack.

But that's only 90% of the equation. For recent conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia, after those nations were part of the USSR for a time, there were Russian relatives on the other side of the Ukraine and Georgian borders, especially in Western Ukraine, Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and there was conflict within those nations between pro Russian and anti Russian factions. It makes a difference how a nation leans for international trade and there was some infighting within those nations that were formerly of the USSR. Russia wanting to protect their people and annex some parts of those nations could be argued as in their self interest beyond reasons of just wanting a "buffer region".

A 3rd issue is oil and shipping routes. Russia's involvement in Syria makes it harder for middle east nations to run a natural gas pipeline to Europe. This increases Russia's natural gas monopoly. They're a stones throw away from the pipeline that travels through Georgia now too and they have a stronger naval presence in the Black Sea and with Syria, the Mediterranean as well. Even if the fear of attack is low, having a stronger military presence can be appealing.

In the future, oil drilling in the arctic (and perhaps antarctic), but the Arctic border's Russia. As ice melts and shipping becomes easier and at some point, oil drilling in the arctic ocean will probably increase, Having a strong military will benefit Russia.

As far as the Moon in Russia - what I've read about it, their citizens are generally happy about the military advances. Russia is in an economic downturn with the price of oil being quite low for the last several years. Having a strong military makes them feel more significant. (I've heard experts say exactly that when being interviewed - I'll try to find a source) and unlike America, their population doesn't suffer from war fatigue. That doesn't mean they want war with Nato, only that they don't mind and even appreciate, military expansion, at least on average. You can always find individuals on either side.

So you are right, they have very little to fear from a Nato attack, but they have reasons to want to expand their borders. The "Buffer zone" isn't primary among their reasons, but it's a convenient excuse.

And while war is, I would think, unlikely, and the arctic ocean is already divided, some military posturing over who can do what in the arctic isn't out of the question and having a strong military behind them never hurts when negotiating.

There's also a small chance that war could break out, and even if Nato doesn't think they "started it", if war happens, Russia will be grateful for the buffer nations they have.

I feel that I should point out that there's two ways Russia could have gone. Working with the west, increased trade, building an economy and maintaining friendship. They tried that for a few years but their economy never took off. Russia was seeing former states that had been under their control surpassing them economically. The 2nd option was basically what Putin did. Take stuff. Taking stuff isn't out of fear of Nato, it's out of wanting stuff. I want that, lets take it. Oh, and lets build more tanks in case they try to take it back. Putin's answer is "We're defending ourselves, Nato is aggressively expanding". he's, contrary to what people may think about him, very smooth.

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    "Russia was seeing former states that had been under their control surpassing them economically" - which ones? If you count by GDP (PPP), apart from Baltic states (and not without substantial EU help), no former constituents of the USSR are doing better than Russian Federation. Only Kazakhstan has similar economic results, but I wouldn't call them surpassing.
    – Malcolm
    Oct 15, 2019 at 9:39
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    But which ones? I don't see it stated anywhere in this article. Besides, the article is old and doesn't have any precise numbers. The conclusions I'm drawing are based on the IMF data, which are recent and quite clear.
    – Malcolm
    Oct 15, 2019 at 17:22
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    So basically what I said initially: only 3 smaller states out of 14 other constituents and only with the EU help (they have a negative contribution to the EU budget).
    – Malcolm
    Oct 16, 2019 at 11:14
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    When were they under direct control of the USSR? In the sphere of influence rather, otherwise most Europe is now under the US control by that logic. Also negative contributions to the EU budget, except GDR. Just wanted to point out certain misrepresentation of the actual situation. The top-voted answer already sums up the gist succinctly.
    – Malcolm
    Oct 17, 2019 at 8:45
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    Not Russia, the Soviet Union. If you are referring to the Berlin Wall, that's actually a great example. One of the main pushing forces was Walter Ulbricht who asked the Soviet leadership to allow such measures, and was subsequently implementing them. Obviously, the Soviet government wasn't averse to that, but attributing everything to the USSR is clearly inaccurate. The point I'm making is that one should consider all the angles and sides, and not just divide the history into the USSR and everyone else. Eastern Bloc had its own politics separate from the Soviet Union itself.
    – Malcolm
    Oct 17, 2019 at 15:56
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Having nuclear weapons doesn't mean that you should use them, having them only means that rational states most likely won't use them against you. But if Russia were to use nuclear weapons against NATO troops then there would be many countries who would be willing at that point to use them against Russia in retaliatory strikes.

This is the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine. To some degree having a nuclear arsenal backed with strategic bombers, land based missiles and submarines does help protect a country, but really only from a nuclear first strike from a nuclear armed adversary. There is some fear about irrational state actors, in that they may choose to launch a nuclear strike irregardless of how they believe others will respond.

Any hypothetical military engagement where a nuclear armed country were to be in danger of being completely overrun would change the calculation on whether they would be willing to use nuclear weapons, but Russia probably would not, for example, use their nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attacks against their conventional troops in Ukraine, even if they were in danger of being forced out of Ukraine completely because the retaliation would cost much more to them than what they would be losing. Note that when the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 they did not irradiate the place before they left.

So while NATO troops nearby may not be a danger to actually toppling the Russian government, they are a check against potential Russian expansion as well as a pressure point that could be used during any diplomatic negotiations. Finally, I think it may help to look at it from the point of view of having Russian troops stationed somewhere in Mexico, which I think would make many Americans quite uneasy.

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    "Russia probably would not, for example, use their nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attacks against their conventional troops in Ukraine, even if they were in danger of being forced out of Ukraine completely" Interestingly, Russia invaded Ukraine and was in no danger of being forced out but nevertheless threatened with the use of nuclear weapons against any involvement of ground troops of other countries or larger weapons like Polish airplanes and it seemed to work. Having nuclear weapons seem indeed have a deterrent effect even on conventional warfare.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 13 at 7:18
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    @Trilarion Sure, threats are one thing. There's still only one country who has ever used nuclear weapons during wartime (fingers crossed). The point can still be argued, since from the Russian POV the involvement of other countries is an escalation that they may perceive as existential in nature. If Ukraine forces them out alone, the threat doesn't apply and the statement still stands. Mar 14 at 7:50
  • But why threat if you don't plan to use them? Doesn't make sense, just costs you credibility
    – Mayou36
    Mar 14 at 14:27
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    The involvement of other countries is important, because it plays into the Russian mindset of this being a "defensively offensive" war. If other countries start interfering, it changes the balance in their mind to one where they themselves will almost undoubtedly be attacked shortly, so the moral dilemma of using nuclear weapons becomes easier for them to solve. It does in fact get more dangerous as well the worse the Russians do, as they shift troops around to replenish those lost and their actual defense everywhere becomes weaker. Mar 18 at 13:17
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    @JeffLambert I guess we well agree then! Especially reading your second commend, that is very much on point. It's what Putin uses so much internally, to claim that "the West is attacking them"
    – Mayou36
    Mar 18 at 17:34
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Not mentioned yet: it might be possible to defend against nuclear weapons. Even if it is not possible now, it might be possible in the future.

NATO has deployed missile defense in Eastern Europe, ostensibly against Iran, but easy to interpret as a defense against Russia's nuclear deterrent (note NATO did this over Russian objections).

Now imagine a world in which NATO's missile defense is powerful enough to shield them against Russia's nuclear weapons. Do you think NATO will attack? There are already lots of people who think NATO should impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, with only the threat of WW3 (i.e. Russia's nuclear weapons) holding them back. Take away the nuclear deterrent and it's very conceivable that NATO will just decide to force a regime change in Russia similar to what they did in Libya and Afghanistan.

If this scenario sounds fanciful to you, remember that even if it's not possible now, it might be possible in the future; but if Ukraine joins NATO now, it might not be possible to remove them from the alliance in the future without a nuclear war.

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Russia historically has typically been quite paranoid about it's enemies at the gates due to reasons such as Napoleon France, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan. They prefer to use their neighbors as a wall that enemies will have to go through before ever actually invading Russia. This is what caused the Cuban Missile Crisis. America put missiles in Turkey... which is akin to putting missiles in Cuba to scare the United States... The crisis was averted because Kennedy agreed to remove his missiles and Russia agreed to this as an acceptable term to take back their own missiles. That and the USSR was dealing with the Castro and he wasn't really getting the repeated discussions as to why nuking America willy-nily and the way the weather works, would be a bad thing for Cuba even if America never retaliated at Cuba with their own nukes. They realized the US might have had other reasons for not wanting a nuclear Cuba. How much this fear is played into the decision making is not known, but given that the Soviet General in charge of the Cuba missiles had to cite non-existent law to keep the Cuban's away from firing their Nukes (only a USSR soldier could fire them) speaks volumes about how much of a bad idea this was for them.

This wasn't to say Russia didn't have their reasons to be terrified of the Nuclear US. After all, not only did the US hate communism with literal witch-hunt levels of hysteria, but they also actually used Nukes in Combat and remain the sole holder of that honor to this day. They had the capacity of not only launching nukes at people they hated, but they have done so before.

As mentioned over and over MAD is probably the safest doctrine to play with Nuclear Arms. Successfully playing this is striking a diplomatic balance between "I would never use nukes in a first strike, I am not insane" and "I'm just crazy enough to blow up the whole world a few dozen times over, Commie Pinko/Capitalist Pig!" And just so I'm fair to the USSR and Russians, they want to strike that same balance (ever here of the missile gap and bomber gap? Well, the USSR were better at mobilizing their Nukes, so they used that to convince the US they had more delivery systems (and therefor more bombs) than they actually did.).

It has been speculated for some time that a Nuclear War between Russia and the United States would not likely start with one side surprising the other with a total launch (for one thing, it takes a few hours/days to properly fuel all of Russia's ICBMs... they not only by internal policy only have second strike capability... they also actually only have it. Watch any cold war movie from the 80s and there will be mentioning somewhere in the dialog that "The Russians are fueling their Rockets" which is code to any American that diplomatic checks are going south and fast.). Rather it would be a series of saber rattling from each side that escalate into a shooting war... which would go nuclear as soon as one side found a tactical strike (I.E. a nuke attack on advancing conventional forces) would turn the tide in a strategic battle... this would be followed by limited stratigic use (Nuking a few cities with key infrastructure to disable the other's military) which would devolve to full strategic strikes and here's where you launch all the nukes before the other side hits them... and after that, the battle turns to who fields the better sticks and stones.

Suffice to say, Russia gets nervous when not so friendly people share their border and when people with nukes get nervous, everyone gets nervous.

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  • JFK: That's right, but what is the advantage of that? It's just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that'd be goddam dangerous, I would think.
    – user9389
    Mar 20, 2018 at 19:11
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    @notstoreboughtdirt: Mostly that Russia does have some legit fears with regards to the US, and are generally jumpy when the US and Pals get close to their borders... it's not all propaganda.
    – hszmv
    Mar 20, 2018 at 19:26
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Not everybody subscribes to the MAD doctrine. There are - on both sides - military and political people who believe that either a nuclear war can actually be won with limited destruction on your own side or that the enemy will not escalate to nuclear war against a limited conventional attack.

So far, reason has won out, but if you are and want to stay in power, you need to satisfy the warmongerers as well, and building up conventional forces in addition to nuclear weapons has both that effect and many actual uses - for example the option to deploy them into proxy wars or other conflicts not on your own soil.

Every nation does this. Every nuclear power also has a conventional army. And for the conventional army, people in charge are more likely to subscribe to an ideology of conventional than nuclear warfare.

So from a Russian perspective, it is understandable to see a real danger that someone in charge of those NATO forces might not believe in the nuclear escalation, and start or provoke a conventional attack. Now imagine this happens. NATO forces cross the border under some humanitarian pretense to secure a small part of Russia, maybe just one village. Now you have a decision to make - use nuclear weapons, likely escalating the conflict to a full-out nuclear war, i.e. Game Over, Earth - or allow them to take one village. And then one more, maybe?

You don't want to be in that situation. But the fact that they are there and that someone could be stupid enough, rightly makes you uncomfortable.

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  • About you last scenario: what about the option to recapture the village with conventional military?
    – lalala
    Apr 4, 2019 at 7:43
  • @lalala conventional war, equally likely to escalate into nuclear as the casualties on both sides mount.
    – Tom
    Feb 4 at 7:58
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There are actually two questions here, one broader than the other

Why would Russia care about NATO troops on its borders if it has nuclear weapons?

vs

But why would Russia fear a land-based invasion from NATO in the first place?

Russia, to my recollection, has seldom complained about the latter but a lot about the former. It's alas a lot of Western armchair strategists (journalists, youtubers, posters here) who assert by pointing to WW2 etc. that Russia fears NATO ground invasion.

To give you some concrete examples of the more common/mundane complaints that Russia did raise in the years past:

  • when Western NATO aircraft first deployed to Latvia, Russia complained that NATO AWACS could then see "deep" in its territory.

When NATO sent an AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to Rumbula Airfield in Latvia on Feb. 23 [2004] and then to Siauliai two days later on what NATO called a demonstration flight, Russian officials angrily protested that the plane's sophisticated radar equipment could peer deep into European Russia.

  • when the US deployed that "AEGIS ashore" missile base in Romania (and Poland),

The United States switched on an $800 million missile shield in Romania yesterday (12 May [2019]) that it sees as vital to defend itself and Europe from so-called rogue states but the Kremlin says is aimed at blunting its own nuclear arsenal.

In fact Putin himself addressed that one with many more words when the base was under construction (2016):

Speaking to Russian officials in Moscow, Mr Putin said: "This is not a defence system. This is part of a US nuclear strategic potential brought on to a periphery.

"In this case, Eastern Europe is such a periphery. Those people taking such decisions must know that until now they have lived calm, fairly well-off and in safety.

"Now, as these elements of ballistic missile defence are deployed, we are forced to think how to neutralise the emerging threats to the Russian Federation."

Now, I don't exclude that with the heightened rhetoric from last year, and their demand that Western NATO forces retreat to pre-1997 positions, Russia may have asserted NATO had broader aims, but I don't recall a ground invasion being mentioned specifically by official Russian sources. They do generally say that NATO bases are surrounding Russia and the like, but their specific complaints seldom (if ever) mention a ground invasion, from my recollection. I'm not too surprised since Eastern European members of NATO have armies that are qualitatively and quantitively below that of Russia, and the number of Western NATO forces in that regions was relatively limited compared to either Russian deployments on their side of the border or even with what the US e.g. mustered on some middle-eastern bases not so long ago, never mind in Western Europe. To wit, there are some 100,000 US troops in Europe but only about 16,000 Western NATO/US troops in Eastern European NATO members.

I managed to find a balance of ground forces assessment in the Baltics from 2020:

Russia keeps around 760 tanks in 25 battalions within quick striking distance of NATO's Baltic members. NATO countries together maintain 15 battalions with around 130 tanks in the same region — and around 90 of those are the American M-1s on their temporary rotation.

I (finally) managed to find a statement of Putin from December 2021, in which he explains that Russia fears the deployment of US hypersonic weapons in Ukraine, and that under their cover "extremists" will attack Crimea:

The United States and its allies need to understand that Russia simply "has nowhere to retreat" if its weapons appear in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday at an expanded meeting of the Defense Ministry board.

"They [the US] simply do what they want. But what they are doing on the territory of Ukraine now, or trying to do and going to do — this is not thousands of kilometers away from our national border. This is at the doorstep of our home. They must understand that we simply have nowhere to retreat further," Putin said.

"We have specialists here, we are in constant contact with them. There is no hypersonic weapon in the United States yet, but we know when it will appear — they cannot hide it, everything is recorded, the tests are being conducted, successfully or unsuccessfully. So we approximately understand when it will happen," the President added.

Putin also believes that if the US deploys its weapons in Ukraine, it may try under the cover of these weapons to push Kiev to attack Crimea.

"They will put hypersonic weapons in Ukraine, and then, under their cover <...> they will arm and push extremists from the neighboring state against Russia, including into certain regions of the Russian Federation, for example, Crimea, under advantageous circumstances as they believe," the head of state went on.

The scenario seems somewhat fantastical, but I guess he's afraid that hypersonic weapons in Ukraine might negate the large numerical advantage that the Russian navy has on the Black Sea.

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TL; DR: Curbing NATO expansion amounts to curbing NATO countries economic interests, which may be in conflict with the Russian ones.

Conventional wars are commonplace
Nuclear war is not the only kind of war possible. When talking about war people often think about world wars, but these are actually more rarity than commonplace. Even the world wars themselves were actually many different conflicts that were occurring simultaneously or in a quick successions - "quick" when we look from a distance of about 80 years.

Over the period of the Cold War, the USSR and the USA have confronted each other in multiple conflicts, often referred to as proxy wars, where one or both sides were not directly involved. For example:

  • Vietnam war - American army was directly involved, but USSR and China supplied weapons and training to Communist North Vietnam
  • Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - Soviet army was directly present on the place, but the US supplied weapons to Mujahideen.
  • Arab_Israeli conflict - the USSR provide weapons and training to the Arab side, while the US supported Israel.

...and so on.

The ongoing war in Ukraine is another example of a war where NATO/US is formally not involve, although they are certainly a part of the conflict, since they supply weapons to Ukraine and use their economic power to influence the outcome of the war. It could escalate into a nuclear conflict, but such an escalation is not automatic. If large US force was present in Ukraine and/or the Ukrainian army was properly equipped by tanks, artillery and airplanes, the situation in Ukraine could be very different now... or teh war might not have taken place at all.

Why do countries go to war?
Carl von Clausewitz famously said that "War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means." Wars happen when economic, social and other problems fail to be resolved by "peaceful" means. I put peaceful in quotations, since very often it actually means a threat of war or a threat of a threat or a threat of a threat of a threat - all of which are conveyed by the size and the power of the military force present in the area and the likelihood that it could be used.

Taking again Ukraine as an example, one can see the obvious economic interests at stake:

  • Natural resources (mainly minerals in the east and agricultural lands in the west)
  • Developed heavy industry
  • Control of the gas pipelines, connecting Russia and Europe
  • Preferential access to a common goods market for about 40 million people
  • Arms sales (this is the most obvious one - NATO member is pretty much bound to by NATO weapons)

Furthermore, Russian fleet base in Crimea enables Russia to project force in the Black sea and into the Mediterranean and further to Southern Atlantic and Indian Ocean, similarly assuring its economic influence elsewhere - just like US does by having its bases all over the world.

In short, curbing NATO expansion amounts to curbing NATO countries economic interests, which may be in conflict with the Russian ones.

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