Jon Richardson: No, NATO expansion didn’t cause the war in Ukraine

Aug 23, 2022
Planet Earth - with Flag and border of highlight Ukraine
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has met with opprobrium in most quarters. At the same time, commentators of diverse stripes still argue that Western policies, particularly NATO expansion, should bear part or much of the blame for these events.

Most recently on this site, Professors Graeme Gill and Joseph Camilleri took this view. From a very different part of the spectrum, right-wing TV talk show hosts like Cory Bernardi, Tucker Carlson and Nigel Farage have voiced similar arguments.

Such analysis sometimes ties in with the notion that this is really a proxy war between the West and Russia. If only Western arms supplies were halted, Ukraine could do the reasonable thing and negotiate a settlement: they might have to give up territory under coercion – something no independent UN member has been required to do since 1945 – but at least lives would be saved.

But have Western policies since the breakup of the Soviet Union really been aimed at weakening Russia the Soviet Union? Is Prof. Gill correct in asking rhetorically “How could NATO be seen as anything other than hostile when it has seemed inexorably to advance eastwards to the very edge of Russia?”

Or is the war more due to factors such as Russian angst over lost empire and great power status as well as regime anxiety – fear of the example set by democratic changes in neighbouring countries? This is certainly the view of most progressive democrats in Ukraine and Russia itself. See, for example, Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous or emigré Russian political scientist Ilya Matveev.

Policies and Posture

If we go back to the 1990s, the evidence points to the US and allies seeking to foster stability in Russia along with a successful transition to a democratic capitalist system, not to weaken it.

Initially, President George Bush Sr. was wary of the break-up of the USSR. His infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech in July 1991, cautioned аgainst “suicidal nationalism” just months before 92 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence (86 per cent voting ‘yes’ vote in the now-contested Donbas, and 54 per cent in Crimea).

The same preoccupation with stability informed the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, under which Ukraine handed to Russia ex-Soviet nuclear missiles on its territory, in return for guarantees from Russia never to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Ukrainian President Kuchma had misgivings about relinquishing those weapons, but relented in the face of inducements and browbeating from the Americans. While eminently desirable in terms of non-proliferation, Ukraine’s capacity to deter Russian aggression was greatly weakened.

While resisting Russian hints at the idea of joining NATO itself, the US and NATO did promote high-level cooperation that embraced Russia, notably Russia’s inclusion in the G8 and the establishment of the NATO-Russia Founding Act and NATO-Russia Council in 1997.

The Founding Act provided for extensive cooperation and consultation, and included a commitment not to deploy nuclear weapons in any new NATO member states. That promise has been kept ever since the addition of former Warsaw Pact countries (1999) and the Baltic States (2004).

Nor was NATO enlargement accompanied by a more aggressive conventional force posture in new member countries. Prior to Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, NATO had a negligible presence in the three Baltic States adjoining Russia. In 2017, NATO established an “enhanced forward presence” in the Baltics, consisting of just four battalion task groups. This remains a rather cosmetic exercise considering that Russia massed about 125 BTGs for its February invasion of Ukraine.

The relatively mild Western response to the annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas underlined how little threat Russia, as a nuclear superpower, faced so long as it did not attack a NATO member. This has been doubly clear since the February invasion, with the US and allies very cautious about providing weapons that could easily reach Russian territory.


While some argue that bringing Russia into NATO might have been a better course in the 90s, this would have been highly problematic given the brutality of the Russian army in Chechnya; the persistent strong influence of Stalinists and revanchist nationalists in Moscow; and Russian spoiling over preventing genocide in Kosovo.

These same factors added to East European countries’ anxieties and desire to join NATO. Past invasions from the west (Hitler and Napoleon) are often cited in calls for extra sensitivity about Russia’s security concerns. However, official Russia has shown little empathy with the memories of countries like Poland, the Baltic States or Finland, which it colonised for periods lasting between 109 and 256 years, or Czechia and Hungary, invaded more recently by the USSR.

M.E. Sarotte’s recent book on NATO enlargement, Not One Inch, points to Western missteps and Russian resentment over the breach of informal undertakings not to expand NATO. But the evidence Sarotte reveals on NATO points to the push from Eastern European leaders like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel as decisive in promoting enlargement, and that the Bush, Sr. and Clinton administrations were generally cautious.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine really began with Crimea in 2014, precipitated not by any early prospect of Ukraine joining NATO but by the issue of potential EU accession – when Putin’s ally/protégé Yanukovych fled following demonstrations provoked by his backtracking on an EU association agreement.

Putin’s stated indifference to Sweden’s and Finland’s applications to join NATO – “there is no immediate threat” – tacitly admitted that February’s invasion had little to do with NATO, even though Finland has a 1,500 km border with Russia. Moreover, by keeping Crimea and the Donbas in frozen conflict mode, Putin had already stymied short-term prospects of Ukraine joining. Nor had NATO taken concrete steps in that direction.

Russian expert views

Some of the most eminent voices in the Russian foreign policy establishment have also dismissed the idea of NATO as a growing threat, perhaps trying to inject some moderation into Kremlin thinking in the lead-up to the February invasion.

In December, Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the prestigious Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, noted:

“ NATO’s expansion over the past 25 years has done nothing to make the bloc stronger as a political or military power. In terms of military capacity, it has welcomed a number of countries that have very little to contribute to the joint force but, at the same time, enjoy equal privileges as to the assistance they can receive according to the charter.

Andrei Kortunov, Director-General of the Kremlin-sponsored Russian International Affairs Council, rejected the notion that NATO expansion resulted from NATO enticing or pressuring former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact client states to join. In fact, he argued:

“Former Soviet republics have been desperately storming the gates of the Euro-Atlantic security structures, and the West, fully aware that accepting these new member states would weaken NATO, not strengthen it, had to respond to this pressure.”

A similarly highly placed Russian commentator told a 2014 Chatham House conference in London, attended by an academic colleague: “Serious people understand that NATO doesn’t represent a real threat to Russia”.

Undoubtedly, enlargement has been a bugbear for Moscow, a perennial talking point and a symbol of lost prestige and diminished empire/sphere of influence. Over the last decade it has become part of a ruling narrative that now saturates state media: that a woke, effeminate and LGBT-loving West is out to destroy Russia.

The disastrous US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 may have undermined principles of international order and given Putin a sense of justification when violating the taboo on acquiring territory by force.

However, none of the above means that the distant prospect of Ukraine joining NATO presented any clear threat to Russia that would remotely justify the invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. Nor are there reasons of principle to demand Ukraine give up fighting to win back occupied territory, in the same way the international community as a whole never recognised or supported the annexations of Kuwait, East Timor, East Jerusalem or Western Sahara.

Jon Richardson is a former Australian diplomat who served twice in Moscow, and headed embassies in the former Yugoslavia, 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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