Putin’s Bogus Blame-NATO Excuse
As Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine enters its second week, the trope that places at least part of the blame on the West’s alleged mistreatment of Russia remains in circulation despite compelling rebuttals, including Tomáš Klvaňa’s here in The Bulwark and Christopher Miller’s in Quillette. The claim that NATO creep toward Russian borders and the threat of “encirclement” practically forced Putin to attack is popular with right-wing Putin fanboys such as Tucker Carlson, Richard Hanania, and Sohrab Ahmari and with left-wing “anti-imperialists” such as Glenn Greenwald, Aaron Maté, and the Democratic Socialists of America. It’s peddled by foreign policy “realists” who cannot be easily pegged as right or left, such as political scientist John Mearsheimer. It’s also tempting for many libertarians who strongly oppose interventionist American foreign policy. In Reason, my friend Robby Soave makes it very clear that he holds Putin responsible and regards him as a tyrant and a killer, but also insists that “the U.S.’s failed approach to Russia for the last 30 years”—above all, the insistence on NATO enlargement in a framework that treated Russia as a potential adversary—helped bring us to the present fiasco.
It would be silly and presumptuous to argue that the West, and the United States in particular, has never made mistakes with regard to Russia. But the idea that NATO enlargement and other Western policies threatened Russia’s legitimate security interests and ultimately either baited or cornered Putin into striking out at Ukraine is wrongheaded. The claim can easily devolve into an exercise in apologetics on Putin’s behalf, even when it’s not intended as such. It also perpetuates the illiberal idea that Russia is entitled to submissive neighbors—a notion that will not bother Hanania or Mearsheimer but should bother anyone concerned with progressive, classically conservative, or libertarian values.
Much has been made of the question of whether the West deceived Russia with assurances given to Mikhail Gorbachev—then the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party—that if Germany was reunified and became a NATO country, NATO would not be enlarged further toward Russian borders. Many analysts have argued that the non-enlargement pledge was a myth; among others, this case was forcefully made by Mark Kramer, director of Harvard’s Cold War Studies Project, in a 2009 Wilson Quarterly article. Documents declassified in late 2017 and made public by the National Security Archive suggest that the answer is complicated. Stephen F. Cohen, the late historian who became infamous as a Putin apologist at the time of the Crimea annexation, saw those records as grounds to claim (as the headline put it) that “the U.S. betrayed Russia” with a promise not to enlarge NATO “one inch eastward.” Yet, writing in the American Interest, retired U.S. Foreign Service officer Kirk Bennett pointed out that the promise referred specifically to not moving NATO forces into the former East Germany after reunification and was made solely in that context. As Bennett points out, Gorbachev himself confirmed this in a 2014 interview (though he has also said that he considered eventual NATO enlargement to be a violation of the spirit of the pledge).
The declassified documents show an even more complex picture with regard to the NATO enlargement issue under Boris Yeltsin, essentially confirming the account given by Ira L. Straus, founder and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, in a 1997 paper and a lengthy 2003 article. Straus stressed that when the admission of former Eastern bloc countries to NATO first came up for serious consideration in 1993, it was with a view to more extensive engagement and partnership with Russia—including possible Russian membership in a revamped NATO at some point in the future.
Straus does not exempt either side from blame in the deterioration of relations. Due to lingering mistrust, Russia’s leadership often questioned the sincerity of NATO’s inclusive intentions when former Soviet satellites such as Poland were given priority in admission; meanwhile, the West often interpreted Russia’s opposition to fast-track admission for those countries as opposition to NATO enlargement as such. In particular, Straus is critical of NATO countries for not being more receptive to tentative overtures from both Yeltsin and Putin to seek membership in the alliance. Yet his analysis also leaves little doubt that Russian attitudes—suspicions toward the West, unwillingness to commit to NATO’s strategic agenda, resentment at being invited to join NATO’s membership plan on the same terms as smaller countries with no special treatment—were a big part of the problem.
Notably, too, the NATO enlargement that began in the 1990s did bring Russia into NATO-adjacent structures: first the Partnership for Peace program in 1994, then the NATO-Russia Council in 2002. Both not only provided a framework for military cooperation—including NATO assistance to Russia in such areas as job training for decommissioned officers—but stipulated that NATO would consult Russia about its security concerns and possible threats. NATO-Russia cooperation was only suspended in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and (first) invasion of Ukraine.
George W. Bush has been criticized for his push to get Ukraine and Georgia on a NATO membership track in 2008 (over objections from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). But it is worth noting that by then, the Kremlin had already undertaken a number of aggressive actions in response to those countries’ “color revolutions,” which ousted pro-Moscow regimes and sought more radical reform.
During Ukraine’s 2004 presidential campaign, in which Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych was aided by a team of Russian “political strategists” and repeatedly flew to Moscow for meetings with Putin, Yanukovych’s rival Viktor Yushchenko nearly died from a mysterious case of dioxin poisoning. Charges that Russia had tampered with the election, in which Yanukovych was initially declared the winner in the runoff, were exacerbated by the fact that Putin called to congratulate his man before the results were officially announced. Massive protests on the Maidan—the “Orange Revolution,” for the protesters’ orange ribbons—led to a re-vote and a Yushchenko victory. Putin, who had reportedly nudged outgoing president Leonid Kuchma to forcibly disperse the protesters, blamed Western and particularly American perfidy.
Several years later, Putin’s grievances solidified into the confrontational stance articulated in the notorious February 2007 speech at the international security conference in Munich in which he railed against U.S. dominance in global affairs, inveighing not only against NATO enlargement to the Baltics and ballistic missile defenses systems in Eastern Europe but against the alleged use of election monitoring by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for the “vulgar purpose” of installing friendly governments.
Do Russia’s complaints about NATO enlargement amount to valid security concerns? First of all, talk of “encirclement” is ludicrous. Russia currently shares less than 6 percent of its land border with NATO countries; if Ukraine joined NATO, that would go up to 16 percent, a significant increase but still very far from a steel vise closing around the country. Second, if there’s one thing the last few days have conclusively demonstrated, it’s that Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal is a virtually insurmountable deterrent to NATO military action even in response to extreme provocation—let alone to an unprovoked invasion by land. What’s more, as Miller points out in his Quillette article, there were no NATO bases and hardly any NATO troops in the alliance’s new member states until after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. (Putin’s latest round of aggression already seems likely to add new NATO members, including Finland.)
Finally, it is worth noting that while Kremlin opposition to an “anti-Russian” Ukraine has focused mainly on NATO membership, there is no evidence that the Putin regime would have looked any more kindly on Ukraine’s pursuit of European Union membership. Indeed, the 2013-14 “Euromaidan” protests that led to a new revolution in Ukraine—and to the beginning of Russia’s protracted war against its neighbor—were sparked when Putin strong-armed and cajoled Yanukovych, who succeeded Yushchenko in 2010, into abruptly abandoning an about-to-be signed EU trade agreement and ditching several bills meant to fulfill the EU’s conditions for the pact. The agreement would not have created any military cooperation, but it would have pulled Ukraine further out of Russia’s “sphere of influence” and into the West’s orbit.
Those who see the United States as guilty of double standards argue that we practice our own sphere-of-influence power politics—for instance, via the Monroe Doctrine, originally formulated as opposition to new European colonialism in the Western hemisphere but often used to justify U.S. dominance. However, the concept underwent many transformations over the past century, with attempts to reconceptualize it in a more multilateral mold; a decade ago, the Obama administration attempted to renounce it altogether. No one could, with a straight face, deny that the United States has a history of often heavy-handed and often morally dubious interventions in Central and South America. But that history has not included actual war or land annexation since 1848. As for hypotheticals like, “But what if Mexico had tried to form an alliance with Russia?,” they are fundamentally silly. The United States did not throw a hissy fit in 2009 when Brazil joined an alliance with Russia, India, and China, later joined by South Africa, or when Russia conducted military exercises (involving bombers and cruisers capable of carrying nuclear weapons) in Venezuela in 2008 and several times since then. For that matter, even during the Cold War, Mexico and Canada managed to have friendly relations with Communist Cuba without incurring anything more than tensions with the United States.
What is Putin’s real concern about NATO enlargement and about Ukraine? Both Miller and Klvaňa argue that it’s not national security as such, but the security of his power against the “threat” of neighbors committed to liberal democracy and integrated into the liberal order. Interestingly, a similar point was made in April 2008, not long after the war in Georgia, by retired Russian general and former top-level arms negotiator Vladimir Dvorkin in a column on the independent Russian website EJ.ru (“The Daily Journal”) titled, “Why NATO expansion shouldn’t worry military professionals.” While Dvorkin was critical of the Bush administration’s “frenzied push” for a NATO membership track for Ukraine and Georgia, he also pointed out that there was no reason to fear a military threat to Russia. Given Russia’s nuclear arsenal, Dvorkin wrote, “no one is insane enough to harbor thoughts of a military conflict with us, or even or threatening us with an attack”; for this and other reasons, any scenario involving a NATO war against Russia “makes no sense.” Dvorkin argued that the real danger to Russia was “civilizational isolation” if it failed to modernize its economy and liberalize its political system and found itself surrounded by neighbors integrated into the democratic capitalist West.
Blame-the-West narratives often claim that Russia was never given a real chance to integrate into the free world because the United States, drunk on Cold War triumphalism, treated it as a defeated enemy rather than a partner. But this is a highly skewed and selective account of history after the Soviet collapse.
It leaves out massive Western economic aid to Russia (totaling $55 billion just in 1992-1997 alone, not counting private charity and business investments). It leaves out the extent to which Boris Yeltsin, the first president of independent Russia, was treated as a hero in the United States early on; his cordial relationship with Bill Clinton—whose first trip abroad as president, in April 1993, included a meeting with Yeltsin in Vancouver—became a symbol of the new partnership between the two countries. In the mid-1990s, CIA reports detailing rampant corruption in the Yeltsin administration and the pocketing of aid money by high-level officials were reportedly rudely snubbed by Vice President Al Gore. And, as a show of political respect, Russia was included in the annual forum for leaders of the world’s top industrial democracies—first in an informal “G7+1” arrangement, then from 1998 onward as a full member of the G8—despite the fact that neither its economic performance nor the state of its political institutions qualified it for membership.
While the United States and the other democracies certainly made their share of mistakes, the main reasons this beautiful friendship went south lay within Russia itself. Among them were the corruption, incompetence, and robber-baron mentality that bedeviled the transition to a market economy; the failure to grapple with, and fully confront, the horrors of the country’s Soviet legacy; the profound ambivalence on whether integration into the West should be seen as liberation or occupation; and the widespread sense that the loss of empire was a humiliation and not being feared was a cause for regret. All these trends began early on, when elections for the Russian State Duma in 1993 and 1995 resulted in a parliament dominated by ultranationalist populists and Communists. Putin harnessed and used that energy in a way that, for a while, made many people in Russia and in the West praise him as a guarantor of moderation and stability. Now, the imperial chickens have come home to roost. NATO had nothing to do with it. If anything, the threat of aggression from Russia was the cause of NATO enlargement, not the other way round.