by Jonah Shepp
My assertion yesterday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might have had something to do with the eastward expansion of NATO is drawing some fire from the inbox. One reader writes:
I think that you and John Mearsheimer may think yourselves very clever for understanding that the US and NATO’s hubristic expansion is at fault in the Ukrainian crisis. You claim, that without this expansion there would be no Ukraine crisis, a totally ludicrous statement, for which you give no justification. What you fail to appreciate is that the countries in Eastern Europe who clamored to join NATO are also rational independent actors totally capable of acting independently the US or other Western Powers. Poland, the Baltics, Czech Republic, etc.. all know what it is like to be dominated by an imperial power from the east and they certainly wanted protection again such a thing happening again. They chose NATO, not the other way around. In the 90s, most people in the west didn’t think that NATO was even necessary anymore. I think it is completely preposterous to claim that NATO expansion was borne out of some desire for conquest.
Another reader argues that the eternal Cold War mentality belongs to Putin, not the West:
I kept expecting [you] to acknowledge that this only ‘bears out’ anything if one already views NATO’s expansion from a Cold War perspective. I’ll certainly admit that there’s significant tension between the West’s interests and the Russian government’s and that this is not all Russia’s doing, but until this year I’d never though Ukraine joining NATO was even plausible, and even then until this week I’d never thought it was *likely* that Ukraine would join NATO. Now Putin has made it clear to everyone that regardless of anyone else *he* is waging a cold war, so he will keep creating more Cold War responses in those he’s made his foes. I think it’s a real stretch to say that the failure of the world to dance around this world-view counts as confirmation of it.
And a third points out that the link between Russian aggression and NATO expansion can also go the other way:
I think you have causality the wrong way around when you say that Russia has attacked Ukraine (and, earlier, Georgia) in response to the threat of NATO expanding to include those countries. But there had been no NATO expansion in Russia’s immediate neighborhood in a decade. And neither Ukraine nor Georgia were going to join NATO . . . until Russia attacked them. Then they acquired an enormous motivation to try to join an alliance which could defend them against further Russian attacks. Georgia wasn’t getting anywhere with its request to join either — until the attack on Ukraine, which has caused NATO to reconsider whether “trying not to provoke Putin” was an impossible quest. I can see why Russia would be upset at the prospect of Georgia or Ukraine in NATO. But if it happens, the overwhelming reason will be Russia’s actions towards those two countries. In short, Russia will have nobody to blame but themselves. (Not that this will prevent them from blaming everybody else in sight, of course.)
Well, the causality is a little more complicated. The effort to bring Georgia into NATO started in 2005 and was a major item on Mikheil Saakashvili’s to-do list long before the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. One can easily argue, as Saakashvili himself did, that this effort was in response to fears of Russian bellicosity, but one can also see it the other way around, as Putin and his cohort clearly do, and argue that Russian assertiveness (they probably wouldn’t say “aggression”) was necessary to check NATO’s nefarious plan to weaken Russian influence in its former imperial holdings. It’s not hard to see how they arrived at that conclusion; that is different, however, from saying that the conclusion is correct.
I don’t actually share Mearsheimer’s conclusion that this mess is all the West’s fault. I think it’s useful to remember, though, how the West has condescended to Russia since the end of the Cold War, and to consider how that treatment might have influenced the mentality that drives Putin to adopt such an aggressive posture. Remember how Germany was demonized, humiliated, and driven hopelessly into debt by the victors of World War I? Well, how did that turn out? When Alexander Motyl compares Putin to Hitler, he focuses primarily on their dictatorial ways, but their countries also have some salient similarities:
Both Germany and Russia lost empires and desired to rebuild them. Both Germany and Russia suffered economic collapse. Both Germany and Russia experienced national humiliation and retained imperial political cultures. Both Germany and Russia blamed their ills on the democrats. Both Germany and Russia elected strong men who promised to make them grand and glorious again.
In other words, Hitler had others to thank for the conditions that enabled his rise to power, and one can say the same of Putin. I don’t mean to engage in some wishy-washy, “it’s all society’s fault” leftish apologetics. Putin clearly believes in restoring the Russian Empire by any means necessary, including force, and has committed many misdeeds in pursuit of that belief. But if the question at had is what the West ought to do about it, it’s worth thinking about our past policy choices and how they might have contributed to the problem. If instead we attribute the crisis solely to Putin’s grandiosity, that implies that there’s not much we can do to change his behavior, and that’s scarier to me than admitting we made some missteps.