Jon Richardson: NATO and Ukraine: once more into the breach…

Sep 4, 2022
Chess pieces on a map of Europe and Russia
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Professor Graeme Gill has written a detailed response to my own article in P and I on NATO and the origins of war in Ukraine. I argued the latter were to be found in Russia’s post-imperial angst and domestic authoritarianism rather than in any threat presented by NATO expansion or Western policies.

My piece was itself a response to articles by Professor Gill and others who assign varying degrees of responsibility to Western/NATO actions for the Ukraine war. While hesitant myself about entering into prolonged debate with eminent scholars, several points merit further exploration.

Professor Gill disagrees that the lack of NATO boots on the ground in new members reflects an absence of hostile intentions towards Russia. However, if NATO promised not to station nuclear weapons in new states, hasn’t done so for 25 years, and has had paltry conventional forces stationed there, that is surely substantial evidence of intent. That NATO has held war games in the Baltic States and Poland premised on countering a possible Russian attack is hardly surprising, in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasions of Ukraine.

Russia’s enormous intelligence gathering machine (35 “diplomats” were expelled from little Slovakia alone in March) would also have been hard pressed to unearth evidence of hostile intent – although such judgements might well have been unwelcome, much like scepticism about Iraqi WMD in Washington in 2002-03.

As I noted, the seizure of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine gave the lie to the idea that Russia was threatened by NATO – its 6,000 nuclear weapons would inevitably make anyone thinking about invading take a cold shower. And we should recall the substantial drawdown in US forces in Europe since the Cold War – massive cuts in intermediate nuclear forces, plus reductions in US troop numbers from 315,000 in 1989 to 60-65,000 during the last decade.

However, aside from intent and military posture, Professor Gill’s main concern is that NATO’s only purpose after the fall of the USSR was to “oppose” Russia and this created an important part of the “context” in which the Ukraine war broke out.

Apart from opposing Russian aggression, this presumably means acting in ways that Russia opposes as inimical to its interests. The classic case in this regard, marking a real souring in relations with Russia, was the 1999 NATO intervention in Serbia to halt ethnic cleansing and massacres in Kosovo.

Russian opposition to intervention in Kosovo was based on little more than bloody-mindednesses to show that Russia mattered, under pressure from a “red-brown” reactionary coalition of Stalinists, military hawks and hardline nationalists who claimed to defend the dignity of their Orthodox brethren in Serbia. I’m not sure defending a regime whose senior members were later convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal, is the hill I’d want to die on to assert one’s opposition. I say this with some conviction, having visited Kosovo several times in the early 1990s and observing events unfold later.

It is nevertheless reasonable to ask whether there could have been a wiser course in dealing with Russia in the 1990s. Could wiser heads have designed a more comprehensive and effective security order?

Disbanding NATO was one path not taken. Apart from domestic obstacles to doing so (e.g. Republicans in Congress), uncertainty about the course in Russia and other former Soviet republics (some of which also still housed nukes up to 1994) made it prudent to retain it in the immediate aftermath of 1991.

Should Russia have been invited to join NATO? This is a tricky one, but those same hawks in Moscow, the Russian stance on Kosovo, its interventions in Moldova (Transdnistria) and Georgia (Abkhazia and Ossetia), and particularly the Russian army’s behaviour in Chechnya made this idea problematic.

Some 40,000 civilians, perhaps more, were killed in the first Chechen War of 1994-96, thanks to a campaign that was remarkably similar to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: flattening of cities with artillery and aerial bombardments; abductions, torture and summary execution of Chechen fighters and activists; raping and looting of civilians. (In another similarity with Ukraine, Defence Minister Grachev boasted he could topple the Chechen leadership in a couple of hours, and polish off resistance in a “bloodless blitzkrieg” lasting only a few days.)

If Western leaders found such behaviour disturbing, alarm bells rang loudly in former Eastern bloc countries. As recounted by Mary Sarotte, the Chechen war as well as Yeltsin’s use of force against conservative opponents in Moscow in 1993 (culminating in the storming of parliament), led Bill Clinton to abandon the Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative as an alternative to NATO membership for Central and East European states. However, public Western reaction was very muted, in the spirit of making life easy for Boris Yeltsin: Clinton even likened Yeltsin’s battle with secessionists to that of Abraham Lincoln!

While NATO expansion did not pose any serious threat to Russia, it became one of several points of conflict and irritation that together Putin saw as reflecting a lack of due respect for Russia and its deserved great power status. The US invasion of Iraq helped cement this mindset, described well by Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar in his portrait of Putin’s Kremlin. However, these points of difference could just as easily have arisen if NATO didn’t exist.

Moreover, Zygar’s account shows that the biggest bugbear for Putin was the “colour revolutions” in ex-Soviet states in the 2000s: popular movements forcing out governments that were more amenable to Moscow – the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and, above all, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Putin invested huge resources in trying to get his preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, elected President in Ukraine’s 2004 election – loads of money, scores of political strategists and intelligence operatives, and above all, his own prestige, making none-too-subtle appearances with Yanukovych during the campaign. He was incandescent when, after a re-run following popular protests over election fraud, Yanukovych lost to Viktor Yushchenko (who almost died after being poisoned at a dinner with a security boss, no doubt the kind of Ukrainian for whom Putin felt special affinity).

Putin claimed this was the result of US scheming – based on not much more than the presence of a senior US Senator as an election observer. No doubt the bevy of operatives who had failed to secure a Yanukovych win were telling him the same thing, a more convenient explanation than admitting their own failures. Russian state media gave a preview of the farrago of nonsense spewed out after the Maidan revolution: it’s all a US plot and the Ukrainians either have no agency or are far right extremists.

If NATO’s existence formed part of the “context” for Putin’s invasions of Ukraine, going further into the past, the USSR’s descent into Stalinist totalitarianism has more explanatory value: the security and military elite that reasserted itself under Putin thrives on boosting external threats in order to legitimise and cement domestic power, and readily assumes conspiracies where none exist.

A far more proximate cause was Putin’s own view of Ukraine, which he set out in an article a year ago “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” and in his speech on 21 February just prior to the invasion. These ideas seem close to what Professor Gill means by the special affinity between Russia and Ukraine. But those pronouncements make clear that Putin does not accept the legitimacy of a sovereign and independent Ukrainian state, and regards most of Ukraine as part of historical Russia. He has been backed up by a flood of genocidal rhetoric from senior Russians and a bevy of commentators on state media.

In a wider sense, for Putin l’etat c’est moi – the national interest and his own have become one. It’s hard to see how debates about NATO will resolve the conflict now. As Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous argues, calls for a ceasefire rather than Russia’s defeat only invite renewed Russian aggression as well as repression and human rights abuses in the occupied territories.

Jon Richardson is a former Australian diplomat who covered Eastern Europe in Moscow (in the Soviet Union and later Russia), the former Yugoslavia, London and Canberra. He also served as High Commissioner to Nigeria and Ghana. Prior to joining DFAT he was a postgraduate researcher and tutor in Soviet politics and history at the ANU.

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