Don't Blame NATO Expansion for Russian Aggression

Some very smart Sovietologists believe NATO expansion is responsible for Russia aggression today. Why they are wrong.
Pro-Russian activists who seized the main administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk hold the Russian flag and the flag of the so-called Donetsk Republic on April 7. Photographer: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

Tom Friedman wrote a good column this week, arguing that the U.S. and Europe need to take a long look at whether they are ready to make the sacrifices involved in saving Ukraine from Vladimir Putin and, if not, let the Ukrainians cut the best deal they can.

Friedman quoted the legendary Sovietologist and architect of U.S. Cold War policy George Kennan in his support. Kennan opposed the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999. He told Friedman at the time that this was a "tragic mistake," because it wasn't Russia but the Soviet Communist Party that had been the enemy. There was no need to expand NATO and doing so would force Russia back into the role of hostile party, creating a new Cold War. Besides, he said, we had no intention of going to war for these countries.

Kennan certainly looks prescient now, and the idea that NATO is reaping the fruits of needless post-Cold War expansionism is held by other very smart people, too (Kennan, sadly, died in 2005). So at the risk of great hubris, I think they are wrong.

The enlargement Kennan talked was for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The more potentially provocative expansion came in 2004, when NATO was joined by the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, plus Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Russian leaders went along with both NATO expansions at the time and Putin, on taking power, even talked about Russia joining NATO.

NATO's later attempt to draw in Georgia and Ukraine was indeed a mistake. It was evident that Russia saw this as a hostile act and neither country was, in any case, a feasible candidate. By the time the Ukraine crisis broke, though, NATO membership had been off the agenda for years.

If the West failed Russia, it was not by expanding NATO but through negligence. The U.S. and the EU failed to mobilize the enormous vision and resources that would have been required to include Russia in a new Europe. Far from being aggressive, the West was too timid and distracted, trading lazy hopes and assumptions for effort.

That, however, is spilled milk. The question for those who see NATO expansion as the root of the Ukraine crisis is this: Had NATO not expanded, would we still be living with a freshly assertive Russia? I'm pretty sure the answer would be "yes."

Kennan was right, of course, that the enemy during the Cold War was the Soviet leadership, not the Russian people. But that approach underestimates the degree of continuity between the Russian Empire and the Soviet one (something Kennan didn't do in his famous Long Telegram in 1946). Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1991 dissolved an empire, built and fought for over centuries, overnight. This left millions of Russians (and military bases) suddenly stranded in newly foreign countries.

When Serbs faced the same predicament in former Yugoslavia, they started a war. It is a minor miracle that Russia didn't, and one that is often undervalued in the West.

The signs have long been present that Russia would struggle to come to terms with the soft, administrative borders that were made hard after 1991. The first Russian military attacks on a neighbor were in Moldova and Georgia in 1992. Yeltsin's vice-president in those early years, Alexander Rutskoy, called for granting independence to both Crimea from Ukraine, and Transnistria from Moldova. And then as now, most Russians shared Putin's belief that Ukraine is not a truly separate country.

These were just the seeds of a nationalist revival, though. Putin's domestic needs made it happen. He has created a top-down system of centralized power and intolerance of dissent that required a new ideology to legitimize it. For that, he has fallen back on deep pre-Soviet ideas of what Russia is, based on the strength of the state, the Orthodox Church and cultural conservatism. Having rejected Western values, he set up the Eurasian Union to build up an alternative Russian-dominated sphere. No part of this project is compatible with allowing individuals, or neighboring states, to freely shape their own destinies.

The leaders of the tiny Baltic states pushed and cajoled their way into NATO and the EU after the Soviet collapse because as much as a quarter of their populations consisted of ethnic Russians, and they could not predict what future, stronger, Russian regimes might do. Given centuries of experience, they were pessimistic. I'd say they look prescient, too.

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