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NATO expansion and the origins of Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Despite available evidence, many in Washington try to downplay the Atlantic Alliance's push eastward as a driving force for Putin's war.

Analysis | Europe

Eight months into the war in Ukraine, a consensus seems to have solidified among the U.S. commentariat: NATO expansion and years of U.S. policy had little or no role to play in Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, which was instead entirely based on imperial pathologies of Putin’s Russia.

That Russian grievances over NATO helped spark the war “makes no sense,” wrote Rutgers professor Alexander Motyl, arguing instead that “tyrants use expansion and aggression against foreigners as a means of legitimating their rule.” “NATO cannot have been the issue,” historian Timothy Snyder insists; Putin “simply wants to conquer Ukraine, and a reference to NATO was one form of rhetorical cover for his colonial venture.” Putin’s attempt “to portray the pre-invasion crisis that Moscow created with Ukraine as a NATO-Russia dispute ... does not stand up to serious scrutiny,” former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer assures us

To be sure, Putin and other Russian elites clearly do have a skeptical view of Ukraine's independence and its people's separateness from Russia. And in any war, you'll find a tapestry of different factors that have led to its outbreak. But looking at the evidence, it's hard to deny NATO and its increasing encroachment into what the Kremlin sees as its sphere of influence was central to the road to war.

We don’t need to go through the decades’ worth of public and private objections from Russian and U.S. officials alike to understand the role of NATO expansion in the war’s outbreak. Just consider what U.S. officials themselves said in the months leading up to the invasion, via the Washington Post’s report in August based on “in-depth interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.”

“On Dec. 7, Putin and Biden spoke on a video call,” the report states. “Putin claimed that the eastward expansion of the Western alliance was a major factor in his decision to send troops to Ukraine’s border.” 

This is in fact just one of at least four such instances documented in that piece. “The Russian leader recited his usual complaints about NATO expansion, the threat to Russian security, and illegitimate leadership in Ukraine,” the report recounts about CIA director William Burns’ November 2021 meeting with Putin. “He almost exactly echoed Putin’s grievances about history and NATO in his discussions with Burns,” the report states about Burns’ subsequent meeting with Putin advisor Nikolai Patrushev.

In early January, the Post tells us, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov “reiterated Moscow’s position on Ukraine ... that NATO must end its expansion plans” to his U.S. counterpart. Few likely remember that President Biden himself said in June last year after meeting with Putin that “he still, I believe, is concerned about being, quote, ‘encircled,’” referencing long-standing Russian complaints about NATO’s enlargement. 

The claim that Putin is solely motivated by imperialism is part of a pattern in Western coverage of the war. When Putin uses nationalist rhetoric that suggests a dim view of Ukrainian independence from Russia ― almost always in public-facing speeches that are meant at least as much for domestic consumption ― commentators seize on it to declare he’s driven purely by expansionist thinking. When he brings up grievances over NATO, which he has done in both public and in private with Western officials, it’s ignored or downplayed. 

In fact, it’s ignored even when he brings it up in those public speeches. Many remain convinced Putin’s pre-invasion speech is proof positive of NATO’s irrelevance to this war ― even though he mentioned it 40 times. Even his famous 7,000-word essay presenting a vision of Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” was framed around unspecified “Western powers” manipulating Ukraine’s politics as part of an “anti-Russia project” to make the country a “springboard against Russia.” One doesn’t have to agree with this interpretation to simply recognize it exists. 

But what about Finland and Sweden’s proposed accession into NATO, commentators say? “The Russian president reacted calmly” to the news, says Pifer, and “Putin says that this does not matter,” argues Snyder. Surely this is definitive proof the complaints about NATO are a mere fig leaf?

This argument leaves out three key facts: the unique position Ukraine holds in Russian thinking for cultural and strategic reasons, which sets it apart from both Nordic states; the disastrous war Moscow had mired itself in, tying its hands at the time of the announcement; and that the Russian response was far from “calm.”

When the idea was first floated, Putin ally and Security Council deputy chair Dmitry Medvedev warned Russia might deploy hypersonic missiles and nuclear weapons in the exclave of Kaliningrad. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it a threat to Russia and warned it would receive a “tit-for-tat response” that depended on “how far the military infrastructure will grow towards our borders.” The Russian Foreign Ministry threatened “retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature.” Though Putin and others subsequently tamped down this rhetoric, they continued to make threats, the Russian president warning that “if military contingents and military infrastructure were deployed there, we would be obliged to respond symmetrically and raise the same threats for those territories where threats have arisen for us.”

Finally, commentators point out that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. But Ukraine has increasingly come to host such “military infrastructure,” including a military base that frequently hosted Western troops, plans for NATO-linked naval bases, a surge in military aid ― including, as of 2017, offensive weapons ― training programs, an updated Charter on Strategic Partnership that deepened its security co-operation with Washington, as well as heightened security co-operation with NATO more generally. The U.S. presence in the region has also intensified, leading to thousands of incidents between NATO and Russian forces and “envelope-pushing missions” involving Ukraine that drew Russian objections, and which some experts feared had “become too provocative.” 

It’s not agreeing with Moscow’s invasion to imagine the bad reaction all this might spark, particularly from a militaristic state nursing a wounded national pride. American commentators well understood this when the shoe was on the other foot during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the New York Times’s James Reston chided Soviet leaders for “not understanding the limitations of political debate in America,” where most politicians were likely to react hawkishly to news of an adversary’s nuclear weapons being placed off the Florida coast. Or as one op-ed put it before the missiles were even publicly revealed: 

Let those who are leaning over backwards to find justification for Cuba ask themselves what would happen if the United States suddenly began sending great quantities of arms and “technicians” to a country like Finland right up against Russia itself and hitherto acknowledged as being within the sphere of Soviet influence as Cuba once was within the American. There would be a real parallel to Cuba. Even our most fanatic rightists … would have to admit that such a thing would be an unwarranted provocation of the Russians and a serious tampering with the precarious balance on which world peace rests.

It’s somewhat understandable that commentators would want to downplay all this. Moscow’s invasion is self-evidently criminal and appalling, so it’s natural observers don’t want to lend credence to any element of its narrative of the war. Meanwhile, in a political climate that has often resembled wartime jingoism, there are professional and personal disincentives to being viewed or accused of being “pro-Putin.” And for at least some, it’s clear the conflict plays a psychological role as a “good war” exercising the demons of past U.S. foreign policy missteps. But understandable as it may be, there are real costs to ignoring this.

After the September 11 attacks, the plainly stated grievances over U.S. foreign policy of those behind the atrocity were largely kept from the U.S. public, which was instead told the terrorists were purely motivated by hatred of freedom, Western decadence, and a desire to impose their religious order on the rest of the world. Anyone who said otherwise was likewise accused of justifying or even sympathizing with the terrorists’ crimes and silenced. As a result, the United States spent years pursuing the very same wrongheaded policies that had helped cause the problem in the first place, fueling more anti-American resentment and terrorism in a vicious cycle, with tremendous costs for the U.S. public and for the world.

If and when this war ends, we have the chance to avoid repeating the mistakes that contributed to its outbreak. But not if we’re once more determined to ignore the role that decades of U.S. foreign policy played in getting us here.

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin participate in a tete-a-tete during a U.S.-Russia Summit on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at the Villa La Grange in Geneva. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
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