A final word on NATO expansion and Ukraine

Sep 8, 2022
Flag of Nato and Ukraine
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mr Jon Richardson has written a piece commenting on some of the points that I made in my critique of an earlier piece by him, and while I think exchanges often reach the point of exhaustion, some of his comments do warrant a response.

First, what exactly is he arguing? He seems to be saying that “NATO expansion or Western policies” played NO part in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. In other words, the talk about Ukraine joining an alliance that was seen in Moscow as inherently anti-Russian had no effect on the decision to invade which, if successful, would have voided that possibility. This does not seem logical. Furthermore if, as Mr Richardson argues, it was Putin’s own view of Ukraine that was a more proximate cause, the concern over possible NATO membership would only have been heightened by Putin’s particular perspective in the sense that any Ukrainian membership of that alliance would have been seen as tearing part of the Russian patrimony away. We don’t have to accept Putin’s view of the Ukraine-Russia relationship to see that such a perception would have influenced his thinking on NATO membership. In other words, Putin’s view of Ukraine made, in his view, possible NATO membership even more objectionable.

But also we now seem to have some direct evidence of the importance of the possible NATO expansion. According to “senior US officials” in April 2022 Russian and Ukrainian negotiators agreed tentatively on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement. This involved Russia withdrawing to its pre-invasion positions (ie control of part of Donbas and all of Crimea) in exchange for a Ukrainian promise not to seek NATO membership but to instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries. This putative agreement fell through following Boris Johnson’s visit to Kyiv and the announcement of claimed Russian war crimes in Bucha. Although the agreement fell through, if NATO expansion was not a Russian concern, why would prevention of that be the only gain that the Russians stood to make over and above what they had before the invasion? It may be argued that this was a ploy on Putin’s part to gain time for his armed forces, but sometimes we have to accept at face value what the evidence seems to say. Especially if it is consistent with what has been the public position for three decades, opposition to NATO expansion.

Second, Mr Richardson argues the fact that NATO kept a promise to neither station nuclear weapons nor beef up conventional forces in the new member states is evidence of absence of hostile intent. If what is seen to be a hostile force moves up to your borders, does the fact that it does not put its most dangerous weaponry there show that it is really friendly? NATO’s failure to beef up force postures along Russia’s borders is likely to reflect strategic decisions about how best to respond to any Russian aggression, and in particular not to make such forces vulnerable to a rapid Russian land advance. It doesn’t show a lack of hostile intent; it shows strategic nouse.

Third, in any case, Russian concerns are not solely about NATO military capabilities. The influence of soft power, which is easier to project from a close location, has also been a major concern. Mr Richardson is correct that Putin has been worried by the colour revolutions and that he has tended to see these as engineered by the West. While this view that they were created by the West is wrong, that does not mean that there was not substantial outside (including Western) influence at work. Among others Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik (“Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries”) have shown how the native roots of the colour revolutions were strengthened substantially by assistance from outside, usually discussed in terms of “diffusion”. Key actors (including NGOs, activist networks and US government departments) were instrumental in the course of these revolutions. One well-studied example is Ukraine in 2004, where Mr Richardson says “US scheming [amounted to] not much more than the presence of a senior US Senator as an election observer.” This influence was even more evident in Ukraine in 2014. Since the late 1980s US policy has been to promote democratisation, and therefore regime change, in the former communist bloc, and millions of dollars have been put into that effort. This has been explicitly stated by US officials, including President Obama’s ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. This is the principal danger that an expanded NATO involves in the eyes of Moscow decision-makers, and not only Putin.

Fourth on a pan-European security system. Mr Richardson seems to say that this was rendered impossible by Russian actions beginning in the early 1990s. In fact the time to do this would have been before the Soviet Union imploded. Gorbachev was angling for this, and he had some support in Europe, but this was unacceptable to the leadership in NATO. In other words, it was the decision of Western leaders to perpetuate a security structure that made Russia a secondary player rather than replace it with a more inclusive security architecture that was the main factor behind this, not the actions of the Russians in the 1990s. But wouldn’t it have made sense once the Cold War ended to replace the Cold War security architecture, which by its nature excluded the USSR and then Russia, by a more inclusive architecture? This may even have enabled Western leaders to exercise greater influence on Moscow than they were able to do when seen as part of a hostile bloc.

Fifth the language. Mr Richardson argues that greater explanatory value for the invasion is “the USSR’s descent into Stalinist totalitarianism.” It isn’t particularly clear what this means, except that it seems to assume that there are unchanging imperatives of Russian life that structure political outcomes. This is undoubtedly true and deserves investigation, but to use terms like “Stalinist totalitarianism” is to colour the discussion from the outset. Anyone who believes today’s Russia is “Stalinist totalitarianism” doesn’t understand what the Stalinist USSR was like. It may be true that the current elite thrives on boosting external threats and sees conspiracies everywhere, but this is not unique to Russia nor to the Stalinist USSR. Examine the situation, don’t use the brush of inaccurate emotive terms.

Finally there is the question of what to believe. Mr Richardson accepts that Putin’s statements about Ukraine as an inherent part of Russia and of Ukrainians as Russians are an important indication of what he believes. This, I think, is true. But why does he then refuse to believe the statements about NATO expansion? These have actually been much more common and consistent in the public arena than the extreme views about the nature of Ukrainians. Of course we don’t have to believe everything that Vladimir Putin says, but this sort of distinction (believe on Ukrainians, not on NATO), in effect vilifies Putin/Russia and justifies NATO/ the West. It isn‘t clear that starting from that point will get us very far.

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