The Real Reasons Putin Feels Threatened by NATO
The most prominent pretext Vladimir Putin has used for his full-scale invasion of Ukraine is the NATO membership promised to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008. Putin has said again and again that NATO is a threat to Russia, and demanded, in December and again in his pre-war ultimatum this week, that the alliance roll back its troops to where they were in 1997, two years before NATO expanded to Central Europe. In this, he is in a way supported by some respected American foreign policy commentators—Tom Friedman, John Mearsheimer, and others—who have dusted off their mid-’90s realist arguments against enlarging NATO, and are claiming vindication today. To support his case, Friedman recently referenced the late George Kennan’s well-known opposition to accepting new members into the alliance, quoting things Kennan told him back in 1998. None of these critics, of course, approves of Russia’s aggression, but there is an I-told-you-so element to their argument.
Here is why they are wrong.
Putin is correct when he says NATO is a danger to him, but not in the way you think. Putin knows that NATO does not pose a military threat to Moscow. He has the same information about NATO tanks, armored vehicles, missiles, and troops in Europe as we all do. He knows that NATO is a defensive alliance that would never attack his country unprovoked. He opposed NATO for the same reason he opposed deploying U.S. antimissile defenses in Central Europe 15 years ago: He knew well then they were not aimed at Russia, but were to defend the continent from an attack by at most several ballistic missiles coming from the Middle East, for example from Iran or a rogue terrorist group. Nothing will protect Europe from a massive Russian missile attack. But Putin opposed the stationing of the tracking radar and kinetic missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland because he did not want to have any U.S. military installations there.
Why, then, did Putin oppose the antimissile defenses if he knew they were not a military threat? Because they were a political threat. When a country gets a U.S. military base on its territory, it will not have a Russian base there. Putin rejects NATO in Central and Eastern Europe because he himself wants to be there—in some cases directly, such as now in Ukraine, and later possibly in the Baltics; in other cases indirectly, like in the Czech Republic or Hungary, by bribing local politicians, spreading his economic influence and covert intelligence operations. These things are much harder to do in a NATO member state than in a Finlandized zone of “neutrality.”
Another well-known reason for Putin’s attack is his fear that Ukraine might have evolved into a stable, prosperous democracy and as such would be a role model for the pro-Western democratic opposition in Russia. He acts now based on what to him is a rational calculation of his own interests in his own political survival: He does not want to end up in prison, or even blindfolded standing against a brick wall.
What foreign policy realists do not understand—or do not want to understand—is that even if NATO had not been enlarged to include countries in Central and Eastern Europe, there would be a very good chance that Putin would still behave the way he does today. There would be one difference—his political playground in Central Europe would be larger than it is today. Corruption would be an order of magnitude higher, instability would deter foreign investment, and the living standard of citizens of Warsaw, Prague, Vilnius, Bratislava, and Budapest, which is now close to Western standards (the Czechs are richer than the Spaniards and the Portuguese, and are quickly catching up to the Italians), would have been significantly lower, essentially similar to today’s Ukraine, which never got the chance to integrate with Europe.
NATO and EU enlargement have been the most successful European policies in the last three decades. The lives of the hundred million people in the former Communist states now in NATO and EU have been—despite the current difficulties—immensely improved. If we heeded the “realists” and decided “not to poke the sleeping Russian bear,” as they liked to say, and had not enlarged NATO, which provides for security, stability, and therefore also prosperity, the lives of the hundred million would have been much worse. And in exchange for what exactly? For the hope that Russia would successfully transition, ditch its historically entrenched imperialist expansionism, and become more Western? Does that sound realistic to you?
Foreign policy realists have a formula that relies overly on power and interests, and neglects values, especially human rights, civic freedoms, democracy, the industriousness of a nation, and above all human dignity. They also neglect the importance of institutions that embody values. But it is precisely these values and institutions that in the long run determine a country’s success or failure and its behavior on international stage. We must look at each foreign policy situation differently and not apply a cookie-cutter formula of interest and power and little else.
I shudder when I see Russian fighter jets over Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Ukraine’s other great cities—and I imagine what might happen if my country, the Czech Republic, were not in the alliance. It is the stuff of nightmares.
I am reminded, too, of a historical hypothetical. When the fighting in Europe during the Second World War was coming to an end in early May 1945, the U.S. Army entered Czechoslovakia from the West and liberated the town of Pilsen. Prague was then in the middle of anti-Nazi uprising and was calling for help. Gen. George C. Patton wanted to forge ahead but was made to stop by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. The Americans had an agreement with Stalin that the Soviet Army, and not Western allies, would enter Prague, which indeed happened on May 9, but by then Prague had essentially liberated itself (with the help of the anti-Stalin army of General Vlasov). The fact that it was the Red Army that entered Prague sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia as a future Communist state. Who knows what would have happened if Patton had disobeyed orders and liberated Prague on May 3 or 4? Perhaps Czechoslovakia would have stayed democratic and free-market like Austria, perhaps not. But I am sure grateful that the hypothetical equation of the 1990s was solved correctly, and NATO did expand to include my homeland. To enlarge the sphere of stability and prosperity when it was possible, when Russia was weak and too self-absorbed to be a factor, as much as it was possible, that was the most realistic course of action.