Opinion |

Forget NATO: Ukraine's Problem Is Russian Imperialism

Don’t be like the pundits blaming NATO expansion, or the West’s post-Cold War hubris, for the pointless, terrifying crisis around Ukraine. Just listen to Putin, and his decades of crude imperial coercion

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson
Putin, who described the USSR's collapse as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the twentieth century, and says Ukraine 'is not a country,' is obsessed with resurrecting the Russian empire
Putin, who described the USSR's collapse as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the twentieth century, and says Ukraine 'is not a country,' is obsessed with resurrecting the Russian empireCredit: Illustration
Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson

A week before Christmas, The Economist published an essay titled "Why Russia has never accepted Ukrainian independence." Despite its headline, the essay explains that Russia was forced to accept a sovereign Ukraine when the Soviet Union dissolved – Boris Yeltsin even recalled a feeling of liberation after signing the agreement which made this outcome official:

"Russia was choosing a different path, a path of internal development rather than an imperial one…She was throwing off the traditional image of ‘potentate of half the world’, of armed conflict with Western civilisation, and the role of policeman in the resolution of ethnic conflicts. The last hour of the Soviet empire was chiming."

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As a glimpse at today’s headlines will attest, the idea that Russia could transcend its imperial history and self-image turned out to be premature. Moscow refuses to accept Ukrainian independence today for a simple reason: because Vladimir Putin believes the two countries should be one.

This is why Russia has positioned more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and demanded that NATO formally declare it will never allow Kyiv to join the alliance – the most brazen act of imperial coercion this century.

Don’t blame NATO expansion for this pointless and terrifying crisis. Don’t blame the post-Cold War hubris of the West. Blame Russian imperialism and the monumental sense of historical grievance that animates every decision the Kremlin makes.

A view from the cockpit of a Russian Su-30 fighter jet as it takes part in a training mission in Krasnodar Region, Russia earlier this monthCredit: AP Photo/Vitaliy Timkiv

Many American academics, pundits, and politicians vehemently disagree with this assessment. Harvard professor Stephen Walt argues that the "great tragedy is this entire affair was avoidable." Avoidable because Putin manufactured a military threat from Ukraine to justify his imperial ambitions? Of course not.

Like so many realist scholars, Walt blames the West: "Had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism and relied instead on realism’s core insights, the present crisis would not have occurred." This has been Walt’s position for years – whether it’s the Russian invasion of Georgia or Crimea or Ukraine itself, the expansion of NATO is always the trigger for Moscow’s aggression. Walt’s fellow realist John Mearsheimer makes the same argument.

But for all its pretensions of hardheadedness, realism fails to account for the most significant determinant of Russia’s behavior over the past two decades: Putin’s imperialism. After the invasion and annexation of Crimea, Putin delivered a speech about the grievous historic injustice of Ukrainian independence.

At the end of the Cold War, he said, "Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered." He celebrated the “culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus." He argued that "Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia." He observed that Crimea was originally "transferred within the boundaries of a single state. Back then, it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia may split up and become two separate states. However, this has happened."

Putin still finds it impossible to imagine that Ukraine is an autonomous state – a democracy, no less, which poses a direct ideological challenge to his own sputtering oligarchy. As he explained to President George W. Bush during a NATO summit in April 2008: "George, you have to understand that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us."

A brief glimpse at the historical record gives the lie to this empty revanchist claim – the Ukrainian parliament supported independence by a vast margin in 1991. In fact, Russia was one of the first states to recognize Ukrainian sovereignty – as the Economist essay notes, Ukrainian independence and cohesion "set a precedent for Russia to define itself the same way, and refuse independence to restive territories such as Chechnya." Granted, Moscow still expected to have strong ties with Ukraine, but Putin’s insistence that it’s "not even a country" is as absurd and ahistorical as it is nakedly self-serving.

Fireworks explode as over 100,000 Ukrainians supporting integration with Europe celebrate the New Year in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv's Maidan square on Jan. 1, 2014Credit: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

It’s possible to read a whole lot of commentary about Russia and Ukraine today without confronting any of this history – or considering the lens through which Putin views that history. The view that NATO expansion was a catastrophic mistake assumes that Russian aggression is a ‘natural’ reaction to the perceived threat of Western encroachment. In other words, massing 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border is what any great power would do in similar circumstances.

Those who make this argument present NATO expansion as the primary culprit because they evidently haven’t considered the possibility that Putin would have found some other pretext for the expansion of Russia’s sphere of influence at gunpoint. Nor do they seem interested in discussing the likelihood that Putin would have taken advantage of NATO’s absence in Eastern Europe. Nor do they seem to care about the democratic aspirations or self-determination of the countries in the region.

In a recent edition of his Nonzero Newsletter, Robert Wright – author of several books, including "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny" – blames the Ukraine crisis on a lack of "cognitive empathy" among successive U.S. administrations. If only NATO hadn’t "rubbed salt in the wound" after the fall of the Soviet Union by inviting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join the alliance. Wright cites George Kennan, who thought NATO expansion was a "tragic mistake" and argued that it "shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history." Wright took issue with Kennan’s claim about history:

"You wouldn’t have to be a student of Russian history to know that, after victory, humiliating the vanquished is usually a bad idea. You’d just have to spend some time observing human affairs. Treating a vanquished Germany with some respect after World War II had worked out a lot better than the opposite approach worked out after World War I."

Georgian activists gather in support of Ukraine in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia last weekCredit: AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov

Beyond the bizarre comparison between NATO expansion and the Treaty of Versailles (the growth of a defensive alliance is hardly comparable to the imposition of a devastating series of putative political, military, and economic restrictions), it’s no surprise that Wright isn’t interested in discussing the relevant history between Ukraine and Russia. This is because doing so would undermine his argument that Putin is merely a rational actor who’s doing what he feels is necessary to defend his country.

Wright’s demand for "cognitive empathy" encompasses Putin’s paranoia about Western encirclement and his crazed insinuation that Ukraine or NATO could launch a military assault on Russia at any time. He’s also full of empathy for Putin’s fear that the Maidan Revolution was a coup or 'color revolution' orchestrated by the United States. But for some reason, he can’t seem to think or feel his way into Putin’s position on the resurrection of the Russian empire – the obsession he has been broadcasting to the world from the Kremlin for the past couple of decades.

Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the twentieth century. In July 2021, he published a 7,000-word treatise titled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians." After discussing the cultural, linguistic, and literary overlap between the two countries, he demanded to know: "How can this heritage be divided between Russia and Ukraine? And why do it?"

No man's land seen through a periscope held by an Ukrainian serviceman on the front line against Russian forces in the Luhansk area, eastern Ukraine last weekCredit: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

Putin again repeated the charge that "Russia was robbed." He observed that "Ukraine and Russia have developed as a single economic system over decades and centuries." He explained that "modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era. We know and remember well that it was shaped – for a significant part – on the lands of historical Russia." He argued that the "leaders of modern Ukraine and their external ‘patrons’ prefer to overlook these facts."

You don’t have to be capable of summoning much cognitive empathy to see that Putin means it when he says Russians and Ukrainians are "one people – a single whole." Does anyone really believe Putin’s grand historical theory about the political, economic, cultural, and spiritual unification of Russia and Ukraine would have remained buried somewhere in the back of his psyche if only NATO hadn’t expanded?

In a recent essay published in American Purpose – a magazine which focuses on cultural and political analysis through the lens of emerging threats to liberal democracy around the world – Michael Mandelbaum, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, describes NATO expansion as "one of the greatest blunders in the history of American foreign policy."

He surveys the dismal situation with Russia and asks readers to consider a "different global political configuration, with Russia aligned with rather than opposed to the United States." He believes Moscow’s "aggressive, anti-Western foreign policy" is a direct consequence of NATO expansion, which means the West missed an opportunity to radically alter Russia’s external behavior – and push it toward democratization at the same time.

This is conceivable, but very unlikely. Consider this comment from Vladislav Surkov, one of the intellectual architects of Putinism: "The Russian state, with its severe and inflexible interior, survived exclusively because of its tireless expansion beyond its borders. It has long lost the knowledge [of] how to survive otherwise."

Mandelbaum observes that Putin uses the "threat from NATO as a pretext for consolidating his power at home and for launching military adventures against Russia’s neighbors."

An Ukrainian serviceman directs an armored personnel carrier near front line positions in the Luhansk area, eastern Ukraine last week Credit: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

This is true, but Putin would have cynically manipulated Russian public opinion with dark conspiracy theories about foreign plots and betrayal whether NATO expanded or not – if you read "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians," you’ll see that he has no shortage of grievances to exploit.

Putin has defined his presidency in opposition to the West, and it’s extremely difficult to imagine him working with the United States and other Western powers to keep Europe safe and prosperous, contain China and Iran, etc. (all possibilities Mandelbaum cites in his alternative history).

But there’s a more fundamental problem with Mandelbaum’s argument. He acknowledges that "NATO expansion had legitimate purposes," such as the reassurance to Eastern European countries that they weren’t "fated to exist in a strategic vacuum, at the mercy of a reduced but still powerful Russia if that country should adopt a revanchist foreign policy."

Considering everything we know about Putinism, the chances of Russia adopting a revanchist foreign policy in one form or another have always been very high. Even if NATO had never expanded, the West would have been forced to decide whether it would antagonize Russia by supporting democratic countries in Eastern Europe – or whether those countries would be left at Putin’s mercy.

A pro-Europe, pro-sovereignty activist waves an Ukrainian flag as he stands on a barricade in central Kyiv during the Maidan protestsCredit: AFP

The Ukrainian Parliament voted overwhelmingly to remove Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych from office in the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests in 2014. After that vote, Russian forces moved into Crimea within weeks. The Ukraine-EU Association Agreement was the proximate cause of the invasion – when Yanukovych suspended the agreement in favor of a counter offer from Moscow, furious Ukrainians filled the streets.

This massive, organic expression of democratic discontent was humiliating to Putin, as it exposed the fact that Ukrainians were sick of being trapped in Russia’s "orbit" or "sphere of influence" – they wanted closer relations with Europe instead.

Pew’s 2020 Global Attitudes Survey found that 78 percent of Ukrainians express no confidence that Putin will "do the right thing regarding world affairs," while only 11 percent say otherwise – the lowest proportion of all the 33 countries surveyed. Putin often insists that the Euromaidan movement was infiltrated by western stooges – as well as "radicals and neo-Nazis" – because he can’t accept the fact that most Ukrainians are disgusted with Moscow and eager to get on with the business of running their own country.

By all indications, they’re also willing to wage what would certainly be a grisly and protracted war for their right to self-determination. How about some cognitive empathy for our democratic friends in Ukraine?

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting via videoconference at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia last weekCredit: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

In a recent article, left-of-center writer Peter Beinart joined the growing number of commentators who believe NATO expansion was a disaster.

His basic argument is that members of today’s foreign policy elite came of age in the era of American unipolarity, so they accept NATO expansion as an axiomatic good. The diplomats and intellectuals who were active during the Cold War, on the other hand, had a more realistic view of what the West could accomplish in Eastern Europe.

When NATO expansion was first proposed in the 1990s, Beinart observes, the "titans of American foreign policy" – he cites Kennan, Thomas Friedman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and John Lewis Gaddis – "cried out in opposition." On the question of Ukrainian membership in the alliance, he cites other "foreign policy greybeards" who were opposed, such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

This group of intellectuals and policymakers "aren’t members of [far left] Code Pink," Beinart informs us, "Yet if you espouse their views today you’ll instantly be accused of appeasement."

But there are plenty of prominent academics, politicians, and commentators who’ve argued that NATO expansion was a disaster in recent weeks. After all, can anyone really envision an American president or Congress pushing for Ukraine’s incorporation into NATO within the next decade?

No matter what happens on the Ukrainian border in the next few weeks, Putin has effectively exercised his veto over what sovereign democracies in his "backyard" are allowed to do. Now let’s see if his imperial ambitions recede accordingly – an outcome all these foreign policy titans and greybeards told us to patiently expect.

Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Quillette, The Bulwark, RealClearDefense, and many other outlets. Twitter: @mattjj89

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