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Two dark green tanks, as seen from behind, moving along a snowy road.
On Feb. 24, Russian tanks moving into Ukraine. Sergei Malgavko\TASS via Getty Images)

Ukraine war follows decades of warnings that NATO expansion into Eastern Europe could provoke Russia

As fighting rages across Ukraine, two versions of reality that underlie the conflict stare across a deep divide, neither conceding any truth to the other.

The more widespread and familiar view in the West, particularly in the United States, is that Russia is and has always been an expansionist state, and its current president, Vladimir Putin, is the embodiment of that essential Russian ambition: to build a new Russian empire.

“This was … always about naked aggression, about Putin’s desire for empire by any means necessary,” President Joe Biden said on Feb. 24, 2022.

The opposing view argues that Russia’s security concerns are in fact genuine, and that NATO expansion eastward is seen by Russians as directed against their country. Putin has been clear for many years that if continued, the expansion would likely be met with serious resistance by the Russians, even with military action.

That perspective isn’t held just by Russians; some influential American foreign policy experts have subscribed to it as well.

Among others, Biden’s CIA director, William J. Burns, has been warning about the provocative effect of NATO expansion on Russia since 1995. That’s when Burns, then a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, reported to Washington that “hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.”

NATO edging toward Russia

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is a military alliance that was formed by the U.S., Canada and several European nations in 1949 to contain the USSR and the spread of communism.

Now, the view in the West is that it is no longer an anti-Russian alliance but is instead a kind of collective security agreement aimed at protecting its members from outside aggression and promoting peaceful mediation of conflicts within the alliance.

Recognizing the sovereignty of all states and their right to ally with whatever state they wish, NATO acceded over time to the requests of European democracies to join the alliance. Former members of the Soviet-established Warsaw Pact, which was a Soviet version of NATO, were also brought into NATO in the 1990s, along with three former Soviet republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – in 2004.

The Western view is that the Kremlin is supposed to understand and accept that the alliance’s activities, among them war games replete with American tanks staged in nearby Baltic states and rockets stationed in Poland and Romania – which the U.S. says are aimed at Iran – in no way present a threat to Russian security.

Three military members in camouflage and wearing helmets move through turf holding guns
Georgian troops joined large-scale joint military exercises with NATO forces outside Tbilisi, Georgia, on Aug. 1, 2018, on the 10th anniversary of its war with Russia, which strongly opposes Tbilisi’s NATO membership bid. Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images

Many warnings about Russia’s reaction

Russian elite and broad public opinion have both long been opposed to such expansion, the placement of American rockets in Poland and Romania and the arming of Ukraine with Western weaponry.

When President Bill Clinton’s administration moved to bring Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO, Burns wrote that the decision was “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.”

He continued, “As Russians stewed in their grievance and sense of disadvantage, a gathering storm of ‘stab in the back’ theories slowly swirled, leaving a mark on Russia’s relations with the West that would linger for decades.”

In June 1997, 50 prominent foreign policy experts signed an open letter to Clinton, saying, “We believe that the current U.S. led effort to expand NATO … is a policy error of historic proportions” that would “unsettle European stability.”

In 2008, Burns, then the American ambassador to Moscow, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

Vladimir Putin in a dark jacket and white shirt speaking into a microphone while gesturing with his hands.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in Moscow on Feb. 14, 2008, sparking NATO’s anger by threatening to target missiles at former Soviet bloc countries that host bases from the military alliance or a U.S. missile defense shield. Alexander Memenov/AFP via Getty Images

Responding to Russia’s insecurity

There are different outcomes to the current crisis depending on whether you see its cause as Russian imperialism or NATO expansionism.

If you think the war in Ukraine is the work of a determined imperialist, any actions short of defeating the Russians will look like 1938 Munich-style appeasement and Joe Biden becomes the reviled Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who acceded to Hitler’s demands for territory in Czechoslovakia only to find himself deceived as the Nazis steadily marched to war.

If, however, you believe that Russia has legitimate concerns about NATO expansion, then the door is open to discussion, negotiation, compromise and concessions.

Having spent decades studying Russian history and politics, I believe that in foreign policy, Putin has usually acted as a realist, unsentimentally and amorally taking stock of the power dynamics among states. He looks for possible allies ready to consider Russia’s interests – recently he found such an ally in China – and is willing to resort to armed force when he believes Russia is threatened.

But at times he has also acted on the basis of his ideological predilections, which include his fabricated histories of Russia. Occasionally, he’s acted impulsively, as in seizing Crimea in 2014, and rashly, as in his disastrous decision to invade Ukraine. Annexing Crimea after Ukraine’s pro-democracy Maidan revolution in 2014 combined both a strategic imperative to hold onto the Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol and a nationalist justification, after the fact, to bring the imagined cradle of Russian Christianity and a historic conquest of the czars back into the fold of the “motherland.”

Putin’s sense of Russia’s insecurity vis-à-vis a much more powerful NATO is genuine, but during the current impasse over Ukraine, his recent statements have become more fevered and even paranoid.

Usually a rationalist, Putin now appears to have lost patience and is driven by his emotions.

Putin knows enough history to recognize that Russia did not expand in the 20th centurylosing parts of Poland, Ukraine, Finland and eastern Turkey after the 1917 revolution – except for a brief period before and after World War II when Stalin annexed the Baltic republics and pieces of Finland, and united lands from interwar Poland with Soviet Ukraine.

Putin himself was traumatized by the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the loss of one-third of its former territory and half of its population. In an instant, the USSR disappeared, and Russia found itself much weaker and more vulnerable to rival great powers.

Many Russians agree with Putin and feel resentment and humiliation, along with anxiety about the future. But overwhelmingly they do not want war, Russian pollsters and political analysts say.

Leaders like Putin who feel cornered and ignored may strike out. He has already threatened “military and political consequences” if the currently neutral Finland and Sweden attempt to join NATO. Paradoxically, NATO has endangered small countries on the border of Russia, as Georgia learned in 2008, that aspire to join the alliance.

One wonders – as did the American diplomat George F. Kennan, the father of the Cold War containment doctrine who warned against NATO expansion in 1998 – whether the advancement of NATO eastward has increased the security of European states or made them more vulnerable.

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