"Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking..." George F. Kennan, former Director of (Foreign) Policy Planning for the United States
One can't help but feel sorry for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for now still the president of Ukraine. Despite his nation once again being at the centre of what is really, in the grand span of history, a fairly minor dispute that keeps escalating far beyond its natural boundaries, Zelenskyy has spent most of 2022 being ignored by the leaders of the 'big boys' who would rather talk directly to each other (or at each other on Twitter without engaging in actual dialogue, as seems to be the done thing nowadays).
The months he's spent as the piggy-in-the-middle, trying and failing to wrest the initiative from his neghbours, may have something to do with the fact that this dispute has little to do with Ukraine itself, and much more to do with what the country represents in a relationship that has turned increasingly sour after a brief period of cooperation. Some people, it seems, just can't let go of the Cold War - and those people may not be the ones you expect.
Now Adding Territory, Obviously
The roots of this bad blood centre around the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. NATO, as it's commonly known, was founded in 1949 to implement the treaty signed between the United States and its western European allies from the Second World War. As a military pact, its purpose was to protect European signatories from the Soviet Union.
But the Soviet Union hasn't existed for some three decades now, and their response to NATO, the Warsaw Pact, dissolved along with the USSR in 1991. So why does NATO still exist?
Officially, NATO's purpose today is, as it was from the beginning, purely a defensive pact against foreign military incursions. There are, however, a number of problems with this claim.
For one thing, none of the wars NATO has been involved with since the end of the Soviet Union have been purely defensive. They acted as the enforcement arm of the United Nations' no-fly-zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina during the break-up of Yugoslavia, even though Yugoslavia had been a neutral country during the Cold War, and later attacked the Yugoslavian capital over military action in Kosovo.
The United States invoked the "defensive action" clause of the Treaty to justify their invasion of Afghanistan, but this was only after the US had already been preparing to change their regime by force if necessary. The September 11 attacks provided the means through which the US could invade Afghanistan, with support from NATO.
Most recently, they allied with insurgent forces in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, a decision which proved controversial within NATO itself, with a number of member-states stating publicly that they had overstepped their own mandate by participating in nearly 10,000 bombing runs.
Secondly, as the countries targeted by NATO demonstrate, there are no serious threats to the countries that have historically been part of NATO. As long as a nation is allied to the United States, there is currently only one nation that could really be a threat to them, and they are nowhere near the North Atlantic. Therefore, it seems rather odd to say that the purpose of NATO is to defend the nations of the west from serious military threats, when none exist.
Thirdly, the direction of NATO expansion (and indeed the fact that it has expanded at all) tells a much different story to that of being purely defensive. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, every Warsaw Pact member that was not part of the USSR has become a member of NATO, as have a number of former Soviet Republics, namely the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
A quick look at any map of Europe makes it fairly clear which nation this expansion is meant to be "defending" against. It is probably also no coincidence that the European Union, which has considerable overlap with NATO, has expanded in the same direction since the 1990s.
For all that we are told that Russia under Putin has always been an expansionist threat, they are not the ones that have kept gaining territory in central and eastern Europe over the last 30 years, a region which has been historically understood by successive Russian governments as their only bulwark against invasion, and in the east, part of their national identity. If it had been the other way around, we would be hearing non-stop about the threat of invasion from Russian forces. Yet in the real world, we see that it is the west that is advancing towards Russian territory, but also meant to believe that Russia are a threat to the world order, while the EU and NATO are not.
Perhaps one doesn't blame the European Union for seeking to expand its territory after the Soviet Union ended, though one could certainly ask why, exactly, Russia is not considered part of Europe yet its nearest neighbours to the west are (or at least could be). But the expansion of NATO is more peculiar, as the purpose for which it was created - defending against invasion from the Soviet Union - has ceased to be relevant.
Why, then, the eastwards expansion of NATO in an attempt to surround Russia? It's almost as though western nations have been trying to make an enemy of the Russian Federation.
In fact, I'd suggest that is exactly what they have spent the last 30 years doing. Making an enemy out of a country that has no desire to be an enemy can be very profitable for those who benefit from it. This 1998 article from the New York Times points out that the arms industry in the US had lost out from the end of the Cold War, and were now spending tens of millions of dollars lobbying various Washington power-brokers to expand NATO. That may sound like a lot of money, but it stood to be a drop in the ocean compared to what Boeing and Lockheed Martin, among many other members of the military-industrial complex, would gain from NATO making an enemy out of Russia.
As the article explains, NATO members "are required to upgrade their militaries and make them compatible with those of the Western military alliance, which oversees the most sophisticated -- and expensive -- weapons and communication systems in the world. The companies that win the contracts to provide that ''inter-operability'' to the aging Soviet-made systems in Eastern Europe will benefit enormously from NATO's eastward expansion."
This alone, of course, would not be enough to justify expanding NATO. But the US government also stood to benefit much more from NATO expansion than it would have from letting the European Union be the main vehicle of liberalisation in Europe. After all, the US isn't a part of the EU, but it is the driver of NATO. Expanding NATO, therefore, isn't just a boon to America's industrial economy, it's also a boon to the power of its government, staking its flag on more and more nations. Giving power over the liberalisation of Europe to the EU, by contrast, would have meant the United States losing its grip over the continent, for the first time since the Second World War, a possibility most foul to those in Washington who had built their careers during the Cold War.
The great outrages
You're welcome to claim that this is a cynical position to hold to, but international relations is generally a cynical business. Even when countries agree to act in multilateral best interests at a given time, that is usually short-lived. Indeed, this is the basis of Russia's current grievance towards the west. It is not just that they believe that the west has reneged on promises made not to move NATO towards Moscow, it is that they believe they have been deliberately shut out of the Europe, made into a pariah and taken advantage of.
They have good reason to feel this way. It is clear that, during the German reunification process, it was widely understood among the leaders and diplomats of both NATO and the USSR that there would be no thought given to expanding NATO beyond East Germany. That this was not put into writing can be considered a fault of Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership, but Gorbachev did not believe the USSR would disintegrate a year after the end of the German Democratic Republic, and nor did the west. There was, as such, no reason to guarantee in writing something that was not expected to matter in the first place - and even if they had asked, there is little reason to think the west would have been willing to bind itself without wiggle room. Despite this, Russia placed their trust in assurances given to them at the time.
It should be said that his failure to hold the USSR together is much of the reason public opinion of Gorbachev in Russia is mixed, at least compared to the semi-heroic status he has in the west. Yet his faults pale into insignificance compared to his successor and attempted overthrower, Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin, of course, remained popular in the west as well, though for completely different reasons.
His extraordinarily corrupt reign as the first president of the Russian Federation, even compared to the high (or low) standards set in the Soviet Union, was overlooked by western nations whose general public were amused by his slovenly, vodka-fuelled antics, and by governments whose favoured corporations saw a grand opportunity for the free market to run wild in a previously closed nation.
And run wild, it did. Russia's corporate oligarchy, a small group of businessmen who own a huge proportion of the Russian economy, was formed during the Yeltsin years. The whole country was essentially for sale - provided you would give Yeltsin the support he needed to win re-election. As a result, the west happily backed him, and in return Yeltsin signed whatever was put in front of him, while his shelling of Russia's parliament was praised by the US President and his Secretary of State, and his wars in Chechnya, which saw death tolls reach six figures (and were largely civilian casualties), were treated with a mild frown by the west at worst.
In 2012, filmaker Stanislav Govorukhin served as Putin's election campaign chief. Among the films he directed was 1990's We Can't Live Like This, the first Soviet documentary to appear in cinemas across the USSR that showed the squalid conditions that many Soviets saw in their day-to-day lives. This, then, was a man who knew what bad government looked like, and how the corruption and incompetence of government could wreck the lives of the average family.
When asked during the election campaign of accusations of government corruption under Putin, Govorukhin replied:
"Putin didn’t give birth to it. Corruption existed in tsarist Russia...[but] in the 1990s, there was no corruption. Instead it was a thieving outrage, open plunder. Billions were stolen, factories and whole sectors. They destroyed and stole, they ground Russia into dust. Today we have returned to ‘normal’, ‘civilised’ corruption which, alas, there is in China (though they shoot them there), and in Italy and in America...we are dragging ourselves out of the thieving outrage.”
Put simply, Yeltsin was the last president Russia needed as it emerged like a battered moth from its Soviet cocoon, and yet he was openly backed by the west who laughed and cheered at his drunken gyrations, all the while his own people lost their incomes, savings, properties and futures to various groups of gangsters and wannabe feudal lords. Even then, though, Yeltsin was concerned with the expansion of NATO and berated Clinton more than once for it - but ultimately it was not as important to him as being re-elected in 1996, for which he needed western support.
One might expect that upon his taking up the presidency in 2000, Vladimir Putin might have immediately decided to turn Russia into the nation it is characterised as today. The facts, however, do not bear this out. Putin's first interview with an international journalist was with the well-renowned David Frost, on the eve of his election. Reading the transcipt of that interview is enlightening. At one point, the conversation turns to NATO, and Putin says the following:
"Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world. So it is hard for me to visualise NATO as an enemy...We believe we can talk about more profound integration with NATO but only if Russia is regarded an equal partner. You are aware we have been constantly voicing our opposition to NATO's eastward expansion."
"DF: Is it possible Russia could join NATO?"
"I don't see why not. I would not rule out such a possibility - but I repeat - if and when Russia's views are taken into account as those of an equal partner...Its attempts to exclude us from the process is what causes opposition and concern on our part."
That is to say, Putin saw Russia's treatment under Yeltsin as an outrage to both Russia's standing as a nation, and to its people. But the way back for Russia was not to, as he states earlier in the interview, be in the "grip of old notions [with] Russia as a potential aggressor." Instead, it would require being treated as an equal partner with valid concerns, which the members of NATO could co-operate with.
That has not happened. We'll look more closely at the situations in 2008 and 2014 next time, and how they led to today, but NATO's leadership - which is to say, the United States and the United Kingdom - has regularly treated Russia with disdain, painted them as a threat and promoted the further expansion of NATO towards Russia's borders, and has not at any time sought to treat them as an equal partner.
One could reasonably argue that Russia should not take the eastwards expansion as a provocation, and in fact should welcome NATO to move through Europe towards their borders. However, this was never a realistic option. From the beginning, Russia's history and geopolitical worldview has been driven by great powers invading them from every side, whether it be the Norsemen, Poland-Lithuania, the Mongolian Hordes, the Ottomans, France, Britain, Austria, or Germany.
To expect Russia to forget their history in order to appease a military alliance that appears directed towards them, and led by those who allowed them to be sold up the river at their weakest moment, is an absurdity, even though it would, perversely, have been a way of preventing war. This is doubly the case when the country involved is Ukraine which, like Belarus, has a history that is tied to Russia's very identity. Both Yeltsin and Putin also make it clear that the problem is not so much the geostrategic threat that has come from NATO's movement - though that cannot be discounted - so much as it is what that represents: Russia being ignored, not taken seriously and ultimately cast out of the liberal international order its people and leaders chose to join by ending the Evil Empire.
In 1991, the USSR decided not to keep its territory by force, and in the 1990s the leader of its successor state allowed Russia to become greatly diminished, to the consternation of many domestically, but also to the pleasure of those abroad. Its current president, while wanting to renew Russia domestically and internationally, has spent most of his presidency avoiding armed conflict, but has become increasingly aggressive in response to foreign powers moving closer to his country and continuing to ignore his concerns, and has now drawn a line in the sand. It's certainly true that no-one should be applauding any nation for being an aggressor in war, whatever the circumstances, but that truth has little bearing on the question of why such an event is happening. There are many things we can understand without approving of them happening.
The scramble for Europe
In contrast to NATO, the European Union has been generally more neutral towards Russia, but this owes little to any particular sympathy their leaders have to their large eastern neighbours, and more to do with the lack of consistent foreign policy of its member states. The EU is also not founded on being a military alliance (though its leaders would like to see it become a federation with an army in future), which means that it cannot be seen as a direct threat to Russia in the same way that NATO can, and it is more willing to treat Russia as an equal partner, affording them more of the respect they desire.
But at this present moment it can still be perceived as a threat economically, and the disagreements between the EU and Russia over the past 15 years have largely been over the expansion of trade and association agreements by the EU into what Russia perceives as its sphere of influence, and above all in Ukraine. The addition of political and military clauses into these agreements, as happened with Ukraine in 2014, is particularly alarming to Russia, who take such things as a deliberate provocation from a competing world power.
It should also be said that former Soviet bloc members have been keener on joining NATO than they have on joining the EU, even though they appear on the surface to have freely joined both. For them, NATO is exactly what it we have said it to be - an aggressively expanding alliance aimed against Russia. As many of these nations were recently under the Soviet Union's thumb, they too fear invasion (from the east). Many of their post-Soviet leaders have also been fiercely nationalist. The nature of this nationalism can often take on an anti-Russian flavour, and so a military alliance of a similar bent is a no-brainer to join if they can.
The European Union, on the other hand, asks much more of its members. Namely, they must forego national sovereignty, and instead place their legal systems, economies, trade agreements, currencies, migration and borders under the control of Brussels. Having finally escaped from the Soviet Union and taken these things back from Moscow, they are asked to give them up once more. Why, then, would they join?
The EU distributes money according to the wealth of its members. Former members of the Soviet bloc have hugely benefited from such redistributions, though even then, we should not assume that this wealth is entirely for the benefit of the people at large. The people are, for the most part, not the ones who decide whether their country will join the EU. Their leaders decide that, and some of them will have personally benefited from getting their countries into the Union to a far greater extent than their people will have.
And even in the case of those countries not corruptly led, let it not be thought that this is a fabulously generous action towards them on behalf of the leading nations in the European Union. The price exacted is not merely a loss of sovereignty, it is a gifting of sovereignty to the great, leading powers if the Union, the ones who decide policies in these areas, and who benefit the most from having a single currency, from protecting their manufacturing and agriculture through limiting trade, and who see themselves as enlightened liberals that can teach these nations how to act properly.
Well, I say leading powers, but there is really only one winner in the EU: Germany. France gets to play at being an equal partner (like Britain in NATO), but it is Germany who decides policy, it is Germany whose economy the whole thing is built around, and it is Germany who benefits most from having more countries join to push down the Euro, giving them greater return from their manufacturing exports. Geopolitically, it is even Germany that is surrounded on all sides by many former enemies that now depend on it for their continuing flow of cash, without having the threat of future invasion hang over their heads.
Just as the eastern bloc sees NATO for what it is, Russia sees the EU for what it is: the continuation of a German Empire, without the need for them to fire a shot. This, then, makes the EU's diplomatic excursions into Ukraine little different to their military excursions a century ago, in geopolitical terms, even if it looks different to us on the surface. It is, in fact, just the latest battle between Germany and Russia for supremacy over the European continent.
Thus, we have a three-way conflict for European supremacy, between the United States (via NATO), Germany (via the European Union), and Russia. It was always theoretically possible for any combination of these two to work together at the expense of the third; it may have even been possible for all three to work together had they felt there was a greater existential threat to them collectively (namely, on the other side of Russia's borders).
But as it stands, the United States and Germany have banded together to make Russia the pariah state - and it is now Ukraine that is eating the consequences of that decision, Next time, we'll examine some specific moments over the past 20 years that led us to this point, and consider what could have been done differently.