NATO and the origins of the Ukraine war

Aug 25, 2022
Flag of NATO and Ukraine
Image: iStock

A key question for international diplomacy is how to end the current conflict in Ukraine. History shows that for a lasting peace to be achieved, those issues at the heart of the conflict need to be addressed. Where they are ignored, resentment festers and instability is the likely result. Accordingly in thinking about a settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, we need to be clear about the causes of that conflict. Jon Richardson has argued that NATO expansion did not cause the war and that NATO has not been an organisation hostile to Russia. How accurate is this view?

Mr Richardson argues that NATO and the West have pursued a policy of trying to assist Russia in its transition from Soviet communism and, in the quest for stability, have promoted high level cooperation between NATO and Russia. He argues that the expansion of NATO eastward to the Russian border was accompanied by commitments (which were kept) not to deploy nuclear weapons in any new member states nor was there a more aggressive conventional force posture adopted in the new member states. The NATO reaction to the takeover of Crimea and conflict in the Donbas is similarly seen to have been restrained, and he cites Putin’s apparent indifference to the prospect of Sweden and Finland joining NATO as evidence of the lack of concern about NATO expansion. But is it as simple as all of this suggests?

It is certainly true that a significant amount of Western assistance was directed into Russia during the 1990s in an attempt to promote the development of capitalism and democracy. It was widely believed in Western capitals that a democratic and capitalist Russia would be a peaceful participant in the international order. However there were also voices in the West that warned about precisely the outcome that eventuated in Russia: widespread corruption, ravaging of the economy as a result of the unregulated market, and an authoritarian regime resentful of the attempts to engineer a democratic outcome. These voices were ignored and policies that fed into this outcome continued. So while it may be that Western aims were benevolent, although it is clear that not all who were involved in shaping Russian economic transformation shared such benevolent intent, that is not how they worked out and how many Russians came to see them.

What about the quest for stability and the level of cooperation that NATO offered Russia? Principally through the NATO-Russia Council, high level cooperation did occur, but from the Russian perspective this was clearly a second level priority for NATO. Having continually closed the door on full Russian membership of NATO (the only European state for which this was the case), there is no evidence that the organisation or its policies was affected in any substantive way by those discussions. Over time, the Council and its discussions looked more and more like a sop rather than a real attempt to engage with Russia and its concerns. Once the decision had been made to exclude Russia from NATO, the stability that was sought could only be premised on Russia as an outsider; it could only be a secondary actor, not a primary one in Western eyes.

What about NATO expansion? This has continually been stated by Russian leaders as something that they opposed, and that opposition has continually been ignored. The undertaking not to expand eastwards given to Gorbachev was ignored, with the alliance moving right up to the Russian border. Mr Richardson argues that nuclear weapons have not been deployed to the new states and there has been no aggressive conventional force posture, which is presumably meant to show that the expansion was not hostile to Russia. But not all NATO member states have nuclear weapons deployed on their territory and therefore their absence from the new frontline states is not necessarily a concession to Russia, and while conventional force posture in the new member states may not have been aggressive, NATO membership does mean that the national armed forces of the frontline member states are now effectively reinforced by NATO troops based elsewhere. This is a substantial change from the pre-expansion status quo. Feet on the ground is not an accurate measure of either capacity or intent. Furthermore NATO military exercises – that is the projection of NATO military power – seem to have taken place close to Russian borders far more frequently since expansion than before.

The Western reaction to the takeover of Crimea and the outbreak of the Donbas conflict may have been militarily restrained (although the imposition of sanctions may be regarded as a hostile act), but this was not because of sensitivity to Russian feelings, but the judgement that these regions were not worth the risk of nuclear conflict. Restraint was a result of caution, not consideration. Furthermore the claim that evidence for NATO’s lack of hostility toward Russia is to be found in the fact that NATO has been careful not to supply the Ukrainians with weapons that could reach Russian soil is spurious. The simple fact of supplying weapons to those fighting the Russians (even if morally acceptable) automatically puts NATO into an anti-Russian posture. In any event, the ability of those weapons to strike Russian soil depends upon where they are shot from. Moved closer to the border, they could of course reach Russian territory.

But what of the point that Putin seemingly expressed indifference to Swedish and Finnish aspirations to join NATO? In one sense, what Putin was saying here was simply reaffirming the principle that Russia has continually invoked in the international arena: the right of states to make their own choices (this has not been applied to Ukraine because of the particular way in which Putin sees that country discussed below). But it is important to see what else Putin said: if on joining NATO there was any bolstering of military infrastructure in those states, Russia would see this as a threat. In other words, you can join (because of the principle of national sovereignty), but if that brought about substantive military change it would be seen as threatening. Given that membership of NATO would be likely to involve such change, this does not seem to be indifference to real NATO expansion on Putin’s part.

But in any case from the Russian perspective, Ukraine is a completely different case to Sweden and Finland. Even those millions of Russians who would not agree with Putin’s view that Ukraine is not a real state would agree that there is a special and close affinity between Russians and Ukrainians. Until February, most Ukrainians would have agreed. The view from Moscow was always that there should be a close and continuing relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Such a relationship was seen in Moscow to be threatened by the Maidan revolution of 2014 (officially seen in Moscow as instigated by the West, a view that substantially exaggerates the actual Western role) and the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU, which was seen as a first step to joining NATO; is it really credible to assume that a member of the EU that wanted to join NATO would be excluded?

In the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin put on the table what he wanted to negotiate in the context of averting the military operation. One of the points was a guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO. Even though Ukrainian President Zelensky at times talked about the possibility of Ukrainian neutrality, the leaders of NATO rejected Putin’s request and said there would be no limits placed on NATO expansion. If the actual likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO was small, as most in the West and elsewhere accepted was the case, why not acknowledge this if it met Russian fears and may have helped avoid conflict? Hardly a step likely to promote stability.

The problem is that since the end of the Cold War NATO has no purpose except to oppose Russia. The alliance has been unable to articulate a rationale for its existence apart from defence against Russia. This attitude has been strengthened by the newer members of NATO who, as Mr Richardson points out, clamoured (understandably) to get into NATO as a defence against Russia. While NATO is unable to explain why it should exist apart from opposing Russia, and while it continues to act consistent with that position, it will be seen as a hostile challenger by Moscow. That is a view that doesn’t seem irrational.

Clearly NATO expansion was not the only factor in the outbreak of the war. Post-imperial hangover, concern about democratic developments in neighbours and domestic pressures may all have been instrumental. But unless we accept that NATO has some responsibility for creating the context in which the Russian decision to invade was made, we are unlikely to open any peace process from a realistic starting point.

Graeme Gill is the Professor Emeritus, Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney

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