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Putin’s Biggest Lie: Blaming NATO for His War

Putin’s Biggest Lie: Blaming NATO for His War

Tuesday, 15 March, 2022 - 05:45
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

The great NATO enlargement debate never ends. In the 1990s, US officials and academics argued about whether pushing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe was likely to sustain the post-Cold War peace or prematurely end it. More recently, critics have charged that Russia’s war in Ukraine is a natural response to the aggressive expansion of America’s most powerful alliance.

Now Russian officials, and even President Vladimir Putin himself, have echoed — and sometimes directly cited — American scholars such as political scientist John Mearsheimer, who argues that the current crisis “is the West’s fault.”

The “blame NATO” argument tells a story of hubris, arrogance and tragedy. It holds that there was a golden chance for lasting peace in Europe, but the US threw it all away. Rather than conciliating a defeated rival, Washington repeatedly humiliated it by expanding a vast military alliance up to Russia’s borders and even into the former Soviet Union. This pursuit of American hegemony in a liberal-democratic guise eventually provoked a violent rebuke.

In this telling, Putin’s wars against Georgia and Ukraine are just the natural response of one great power whose vital interests are being heedlessly threatened by another.

The argument isn’t wholly wrong. Putin’s wars are indeed meant, in part, to push Western influence back from Russia’s frontiers. But the idea that NATO expansion is the root of today’s problems is morally and geopolitically bizarre.

Far from being a historic blunder, NATO expansion was one of the great American successes of the post-Cold War era. Far from being the act of a domineering superpower, it was part of a long tradition of vulnerable states begging to join America’s liberal empire. And far from posing a mortal threat to Moscow, NATO enlargement actually provided Russia with far greater security than it could have provided itself.

NATO was founded in 1949 with 12 members in Western Europe and North America. It gradually added additional states — Turkey, Greece, West Germany, Spain — over the course of the Cold War. But the big bang of enlargement came once the superpower conflict ended. NATO incorporated the former East Germany into the alliance in 1990; it then added three Eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic) in 1999; then seven more, including the Baltic states, in 2004.

To understand why NATO grew so rapidly, we have to remember something that nearly everyone has now forgotten: There was no guarantee that Europe would be mostly stable, peaceful and democratic after the Cold War. In fact, many of the analysts who now view NATO expansion as a catastrophe once warned that a post-Cold War Europe could become a violent hellscape.

It wasn’t an outlandish scenario. A reunified Germany might once again try to dominate its neighbors; the old enmity between Moscow and Berlin could reignite. The collapse of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe could liberate those states to pursue long-suppressed territorial claims and nationalist agendas. Ethnic tensions and nuclear proliferation might explode as the Cold War order crumbled.

If the US pulled back once the Soviet threat was gone, there would be no extra-European superpower to put out fires on a continent with lots of geopolitical kindling. “The prospect of major crises, even wars, in Europe is likely to increase dramatically,” Mearsheimer predicted in 1990.

NATO enlargement was the logical answer to these fears. Expansion was a way of binding a reunified Germany to the West and surrounding it with democratic allies. Joining NATO required new members to lay aside any revanchist designs, while allowing them to pursue economic and political reforms rather than investing heavily in military capabilities to defend their newly won autonomy.

NATO’s move to the east also ensured that Poland and other states that easily could have built nuclear weapons didn’t need to, because they had American protection. Most important, enlargement kept the US firmly planted in Europe, by preventing the centerpiece of the transatlantic relationship from becoming obsolete.

No other initiative could have accomplished these objectives. Partnership for Peace — a series of loose security cooperation agreements with former Soviet-bloc states — didn’t offer the ironclad guarantees that came with NATO membership. (If you want to understand the difference between “security partner” and “NATO ally,” just look at what is happening today to Ukraine, one of the former.)

The idea of creating a pan-European security architecture (one that included Russia) had the same defect; plus, it would have given Moscow veto power over the security arrangements of the countries the Soviet Union had so recently dominated.

Only American power and promises could provide stability in Europe, and NATO was the continent’s critical link to the US Since 1949, Washington had tamped down rivalries between old enemies such as France and Germany, while also protecting them from external threats. After 1991, NATO expansion took this zone of peace, prosperity and cooperation that had emerged in Western Europe and moved it into Eastern Europe as well.

The revolutionary nature of this achievement seemed obvious not so long ago. “Why has Europe been so peaceful since 1989?” Mearsheimer asked in 2010. The answer, he acknowledged, was because “America has continued to serve as Europe’s pacifier,” protecting the continent from dangers within and without.

Today, of course, the critics don’t buy this account. They argue that NATO expansion represented crude power politics, as the US exploited the Soviet collapse to engorge its own empire. What resulted, pundits such as Thomas Friedman contend, was a sort of Weimar Russia — a country whose dignity was affronted, security imperiled and democracy undermined by a harsh, humiliating peace.

There is a kernel of truth here, too. Once Russian democracy began to wobble in 1993-94, officials in the Bill Clinton administration saw NATO expansion — in part — as a way of preventing a potentially resurgent, aggressive Russia from rebuilding the Soviet sphere of influence. Russian leaders of all stripes griped about NATO expansion from the early 1990s onward, warning that it could jeopardize the peace of the continent.

In hindsight, NATO expansion was one of several issues — including disputes over the Balkans and the collapse of the Russian economy in the late 1990s — that gradually soured Russia’s relationship with the West. Yet this story omits three vital facts.

First, all policies have costs. The price of NATO expansion was a certain alienation of Russian elites — although we often forget that Clinton softened the blow by continually courting Russian President Boris Yeltsin, bringing Russia into elite Western institutions such as the Group of Seven, and making Moscow a partner in the intervention in Bosnia in 1995-96. Yet the cost of not expanding NATO might have been forfeiting much of the stability that initiative provided. Trade-offs are inevitable in foreign policy: There was no magic middle path that would have provided all the benefits with none of the costs.

Second, if NATO expansion was a manifestation of American empire, it was a remarkably benign and consensual form of empire. When Clinton decided to pursue enlargement, he did so at the urging of the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians. The Baltic countries and others were soon banging at the door. The states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were desperate to join America’s sphere of influence, because they were desperate to leave Moscow’s.

This, too, was part of an older pattern: The US has often extended its influence by “invitation” rather than imposition. The creation of NATO in 1949 was mostly a European idea: Countries that were terrified of Moscow sought protection from Washington. One reason Putin’s wars to keep countries from escaping Moscow’s empire are so abhorrent to Americans is that the US empire has trouble keeping members out.

Putin may not see it that way. All that matters to him is that the mightiest peacetime alliance in history has crept closer to Russian soil. But here a third fact becomes relevant: Russia was one of the biggest beneficiaries of NATO’s move east.

Open terrain has often left Russia vulnerable to invasion and instability emanating from Europe. Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany and Nazi Germany all swept through Eastern Europe to wreak havoc on Russian or Soviet territory. This is one reason why the great strategist George Kennan opposed NATO expansion — because it would surely re-activate this fear of encroachment from the west.

Yet this was a red herring, because NATO posed no military threat. The alliance committed, in 1997, not to permanently station foreign troops in Eastern Europe. After the Cold War, America steadily withdrew most of its troops and all of its heavy armor from the continent. US allies engaged in a veritable race to disarm.

The prospect that NATO could invade Russia, even had it wanted to, was laughable. What the alliance could do was tame the perils that might otherwise have menaced the Russian state.

Germany could hardly threaten Russia: It was nestled snugly into an alliance that also served as a strategic straitjacket. NATO, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had candidly said in 1990, could “play a containing role” vis-à-vis Berlin. Moscow didn’t have to worry about a nuclear Poland — Warsaw didn’t need nukes because it had the protection of the United States. Aside from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Eastern Europe was comparatively free of the geopolitical intrigues and military quarrels that might have made Russia jumpy.

NATO expansion hadn’t just alleviated Europe’s security problems; it had protected Russia’s vital interests as well. Moscow might have lost an empire, but it had gained remarkable safety from external attack.

Part of the answer is that NATO expansion wasn’t really the problem, in the sense that Russia didn’t need that pretext to seek renewed hegemony in its near-abroad. The Soviet Union, and the Russian empire before it, had traditionally sought to control countries along their frontiers and used brutal means to do it. To say that NATO expansion caused Russian belligerence is thus to make an extremely dubious assertion: that absent NATO expansion, Moscow would have been a satisfied, status quo power.

And this is exactly why a bigger NATO has posed a real problem for Putin. After all, safety from external attack isn’t the only thing that states and rulers want. They want glory, greatness and the privileges of empire. For 20 years, Putin has been publicly lusting after the sphere of influence that the Soviet Union once enjoyed. NATO expansion stood athwart that ambition, by giving Moscow’s former vassals the ability to resist its pressure.

NATO also threatened a certain type of Russian government — an autocracy that was never secure in its own rule. A democratic Russia wouldn’t so much have minded being neighbors with Western-leaning democracies, because political liberty in those countries wouldn’t have threatened to set a subversive example for anti-Putin Russians.

Yet, as Russia became more autocratic in the early 2000s, and as Putin’s popularity declined with the Russian economy after 2008, the imperative of preventing ideological spillover from a US-backed democratic community loomed large.

So Putin began pushing back against NATO’s eastward march. In 2008, he invaded Georgia, a country that was moving — too slowly for its own safety — toward the West. Since 2014, he has been waging war against Ukraine, in hopes of rebuilding the Russian empire and halting Kiev’s westward drift. America’s vision of Europe has now run into Putin’s program of violent coercion.

To be sure, US officials made mistakes along the way. Because Russia was prostrate, militarily and economically, during the 1990s, Washington acquired a bad habit of issuing security guarantees without really considering how it would fulfill them in a crisis. The Pentagon has thus been scrambling, since 2014, to devise a credible defense of NATO’s eastern flank.

As Russia regained its strength, US officials also failed to grasp the danger of provoking Putin without adequately deterring him. When, in 2008, NATO declined to endorse membership for Georgia and Ukraine but issued a vague statement saying that they would someday join the alliance, it created the worst of all worlds — giving Putin both the pretext and the time to pre-empt future expansion by tearing those two countries apart.

Yet there is a curious morality in accounts that blame the West, which sought to protect vulnerable states in Eastern Europe, for the current carnage, rather than blaming Putin, who has worked to dismember and intimidate those countries. It is sloppy thinking to tally up the costs of NATO expansion without considering the historic achievements of a policy that served American, European and even certain Russian interests remarkably well.

And if nothing else, NATO expansion pushed the dividing line between Moscow and the democratic world to the east after one Cold War — a factor of great significance now that a second cold war is underway.

The legacy of NATO expansion isn’t simply a matter of historical interest. Americans’ understanding of the past has always influenced their view of what policies to pursue in the future. During the 1920s and 1930s, the widespread, if inaccurate, belief that America had entered World War I to serve the interests of banks and arms manufacturers had a paralyzing effect on US policy amid the totalitarian aggression that set off World War II.

Today, the US faces a long, nasty struggle to contain Putin’s imperial project and protect an endangered world order. Introspection is an admirable quality, but the last thing America needs is another bout of self-flagellation rooted in another misapprehension of the past.


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