Is NATO enlargement partly responsible for the Russia-Ukraine war? Zofia Stemplowska argues that rather than blaming countries in eastern Europe for their desire to join NATO, we would be better served by examining the role Russian energy exports to western Europe have played in propping up Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Many voices in the UK and US press – in the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Guardian, and others – suggest that NATO is partly to blame for the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. The argument is that by accepting NATO enlargement up to Russia’s borders, and by failing to decisively rule out Ukrainian membership, NATO holds some responsibility for Russia’s invasion.
Does it matter whether NATO is partly to blame now that the war is underway, and all reasonable people condemn the aggression? I would argue that it does. First, we owe those who are defending themselves the correct moral evaluation of the causes of the war. Second, our views about who is to blame for a war influence our views on what is permissible as part of it, what is to be done after it has ended, and – crucially – how to behave in similar situations in future, when, for instance, Finland and Sweden apply for NATO membership.
However, blaming someone does not merely mean attributing to them causal responsibility for an outcome. It involves suggesting that things should have been done differently and that there are things to answer for. The reality is that western states do hold some blame for making the invasion possible, but not because of NATO enlargement. By buying Russian energy on Russian terms, western states have effectively facilitated corruption and authoritarianism inside Russia, strengthening Vladimir Putin’s regime despite its treatment of its neighbours.
Supporters of the ‘blame NATO’ argument offer the following rationale. Russia saw the enlargement of NATO as a threat to its security. Nonetheless, NATO proceeded to admit new members right up to Russia’s borders and refused to rule out further enlargement. The resulting war is unjustified since it is an act of aggression. But this act of aggression is in part an expression of Russia’s legitimate fear for its interests which it views as threatened by NATO.
When talking about Russia, I have in mind the Russian ruling group – chiefly Vladimir Putin – whose world view may be inaccurate but whose access to information is not restricted. Ordinary Russian citizens, in contrast, now find it increasingly difficult to learn what the world is like as opposed to what Putin would like them to believe.
When it comes to Russian officials, there can be no doubt that they have repeatedly expressed fears concerning NATO enlargement. It is worth noting that Russia has talked of NATO ‘expansion’, but that language carries connotations of territorial annexation. The Russian Federation ‘expanded’ when it annexed Crimea. NATO was enlarged, just as the EU was, when the new member states willingly joined.
Boris Yeltsin is quoted as saying that NATO enlargement would be ‘nothing but humiliation for Russia.’ He suggested a pan-European peace force. Regarding Ukraine in particular, the head of the CIA, William Burns, wrote in 2008 that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO ‘is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players…I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.’
In light of the present-day expressions of fear from Russia about the allegedly genocidal government in Ukraine, we know that Russia’s assertions about its fears can be entirely made up. But even if we credit the past and present statements about NATO enlargement as genuine, we can ask ourselves how legitimate or reasonable they were or are. If the fears express a desire to dominate Russia’s neighbours then those who indulge in them are to blame when those neighbours seek protection.
Russia’s fears express expectations of domination of the region
So how reasonable was Russia’s fear of NATO enlargement in the 1990s and since? NATO invaded Afghanistan and a US-led coalition of states invaded Iraq. But these wars were not against Russia. What of the fact that Russia was previously invaded from its western borders? Napoleon tried to conquer it. Hitler invaded it two years after both him and Stalin together invaded Poland (an act of long-planned aggression that the Soviet Union presented at the time as a defensive move). The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth captured the throne in Moscow in the early 17th century.
But it is not reasonable to assume that the past and disavowed conduct of a country is bound to be repeated no matter how the country has changed. NATO members do not celebrate the past Polish, French and German aggressions on Russia. They cannot be reasonably seen as indicative of any current aspirations. If we thought countries could not change, we would have to conclude that France currently poses a threat to the UK and Germany to Poland. Instead, Poland rejoiced when in the first week of the Russian war against Ukraine, on 27 February 2022, Germany announced its rearmament.
It is difficult to understand why Russia would fear its neighbours joining NATO if it cared about its own safety rather than its control of the region where it once had an empire. Why is it a ‘humiliation’ for Russia, as Yeltsin suggested, to have NATO members as its neighbours? A humiliation, moreover, that has to be dealt with, by Putin, with military attacks.
Why was there not a single voice in Russia in 2008, as Burns reported, that argued it would be acceptable for Ukraine to join NATO? If the fear in Russia is, as sometimes stated, that Ukraine’s nationalist policies threaten a civil war in Ukraine, which in turn threatens Russia’ border security, then we should expect at least some voices arguing for Ukraine to join NATO and the EU. Russia’s borders are the most stable where its neighbours have managed to join NATO and the EU.
So how does the Russian government portray NATO as a threat to itself? It falsely claims that its own aggressions towards its neighbours are defensive. In effect, Russia attacks with lethal force and claims to be defending itself. It is the equivalent of an abuser justifying the murder of their victim on the grounds that they both have a right to defend themselves. The ‘blame NATO’ argument obscures this asymmetry in NATO-Russia relations. It does so when it credits Russia’s fear as legitimate.
Blaming the victims
The ‘blame NATO’ argument also fails to credit the claims of the new, and aspiring, NATO members that Russia’s threat fully justifies NATO’s enlargement. Ukraine’s sovereign and democratic aspirations to join NATO, though unsuccessful, were purely defensive. Ukraine was occupied by Russia up to 1991 and for centuries beforehand.
It suffered the Holodomor in the 1930s: the deaths of millions as a result of Soviet policies that created a famine in Ukraine. The occupation and the brutal treatment of Ukrainians has not been disavowed by the current government of Russia, which sees itself as the inheritor of the Soviet Union and the Tsarist imperial vision beforehand. Ukraine has also suffered malicious interventions from Russia in its politics and ongoing attacks and coercive controlling of some of its territory – all within the last decade.
Russia’s insistence that Ukraine is not allowed, on pain of invasion, to democratically decide to join NATO and the EU amounts to insisting that countries that share a border with Russia are not entitled to be sovereign. For the same reason, those who mention what Russia allegedly was or was not ‘promised’ about Ukraine by the US or NATO miss the fundamental point that Russia is not entitled to decide what that future will be.
Some countries that had been dominated or controlled by the Soviet Union have succeeded in joining NATO. The narrative of NATO ‘expansionism’, which presents it as a negligent or even offensive strategy, obscures how difficult it was for those new member states to join. The fact that Russia continued to be feared by those states despite the demise of the Soviet bloc reflected Russia’s insistence that it would not accept their democratic decisions; that there was either going to be a new world order approved by Russia or no order at all.
This unwillingness to grant agency to the new member states is visible in much of the media coverage of the war in Ukraine. Questions such as ‘should NATO fear Putin?’ are sometimes posed and answered in the negative. It is true that Putin does not threaten the sovereignty of the old NATO members through the conventional method of territorial war. But if we see NATO as composed of all its current members, including those that have good reason to fear Putin, then blaming NATO enlargement for Russia’s aggression – and blaming Ukraine for aspiring to be in NATO – means blaming the victims.
Partial blame does fall on those outside of Russia
Blaming NATO also averts our gaze from where it should be fixed. There are tangible things that NATO member countries did that are worthy of criticism. The most important is the role of non-Russian states and capitalist structures in facilitating corruption in Russia. As Leif Wenar has argued in Blood Oil, countries that buy goods from corrupt and abusive regimes are buying goods that are stolen from the populations suffering under those regimes. Those who trade with corrupt dictators are partly to blame for encouraging this stealing. Using Wenar’s analogy, what would happen in New Jersey if Manhattan were to announce that any car from New Jersey could be legally sold in Manhattan with no questions asked? We would see a boom in car theft in New Jersey.
The Russian ruling group and its associates steal natural resources present on Russian territory by disproportionately capturing the revenue for themselves as private individuals. The stratospheric wealth of Putin is estimated by some at over 100 billion US dollars. But countries and corporations buy Russia’s natural resources, and build pipe networks to ease their delivery, even though they know that they are thereby sustaining this theft. They also know that Russia uses its wealth to attack people in other states such as Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine.
We should applaud the desire to criticise one’s own actions first. But since there is much to criticise in how ‘the West’ accommodated Russia, such self-criticism can be easily accomplished without the need to blame the victims of Russia’s imperial nightmare. The descriptor of ‘Eastern Europe’ has long served those in the West to signal that the region is to be excluded from the normal expectations of what is acceptable for people there to endure. Blaming the war in part on NATO’s enlargement, as if the new members did not need protection or did not need to be able to act on their sovereign decisions, resurrects this way of thinking about the region.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A frankly incredible and biased anti-Russian manifesto. The wars in Afghanistan, Irak, Syria, Libya were not conducted against Russia’s interests? Has Russia no historical, cultural and diplomatic legacy or presence in those countries? Russia totally prevented all eastern European countries from jointing NATO and the EU? Clearly and patently not so! Is there in fact an instance of a global player that has peacefully let go so much of its past sphere of influence? I can’t frankly think of any single example, certainly not in the West. Russia is a regime set on determining an area of influence or neutrality in its surroundings? How is that unlike any other western country, and maximally so the US that enjoys complete and undisputed dominion over the entire (North and South) American hemisphere? The Monroe doctrine means no South or Central American country can ever enter an alliance with any competitor to the US, and has exerted that right with military might constantly over the last 150 years. I’m sorry but how is this article in anyway an exercise in global distributive justice? It’s rather quite incredibly unjust from the perspective of global justice. It makes me think that the author of this blog post lives in some sort of privileged anglo-saxon dreamland.
Comrade “Mauricio” aka Putin bot does not like facts. Zofia makes the exact points that we should be focusing on. Anyone that allowed the phrase “Russian Security Concerns” leave their lips should be hiding under a rock right now. There can be no greater proof that NATO is too cowardly to pose a threat to Russia than NATO’s complete lack of will to clear the brutal Russian army from Ukrainian territory. Putin is winning because he has exposed the west. He has shown that NATO and the west are weak and cowardly. Senator Ben Sasse, without criticism said on CNN that ‘we should arm every Ukrainian grandmother. The “greatest” super power, the United States, wants grandmothers to fight for democracy. Merkel incompetently sat by for years as her energy policy was to hand the keys of Germany to an evil dictator. Yet I don’t hear any criticism of her complete incompetence that not only failed her nation but built up Putin and still provides nearly a $1B to Putin daily. That is her legacy, incompetence and her only skill was to stay in power. Nice work!
Your English is undoubtedly better than my Spanish, so I am being constructive, not critical. You appear to have some well developed thoughts, but your effort to weave unnecessary sarcasm and rhetoric into your writing make it unintelligible, for the most part.
Prof. Zofia Stemplowska possesses a deep, real knowledge of Russia and why she is not naive. Many people in the West are naive and do not understand Russian politics.
I will never cease to marvel at the naivete of some Western intellectuals about what Russia can and knows how to do. I have met university professors and former UN dignitaries who are crazy about learning about Russia’s “rights” who are nostalgic for the old communist elite in these states, although they have never lived here to see what communism meant to Eastern Europeans. which meant Russia’s domination over these states. I admit, I was most surprised when the son of anti-communist dissidents, who emigrated to the West after a brutal beating at the Securitate, is now on the side of Russia, which is anti-NATO and anti-EU. SI is a university professor as well. I know that the great fear of Westerners is fascism, because they knew it directly. I hope, however, that Westerners will not leave the Central and Eastern European states in Russia’s hands for the second time. And for those who talk about the need for states like Ukraine to be kept as buffer zones: what would you say if this were the case for the state of which you are a citizen? What would it be like for France, for example, to no longer be able to decide what it wants to do internationally, but to be a buffer zone between and between, it doesn’t matter … Western policies toward Russia have raised many questions for many Eastern Europeanists and even for many Eastern politicians. After a few questions to which we received answers that suggested the need for Russia to return as a leading player in the system of international relations, we always swallowed our perplexities. Why? Because we didn’t want to upset our new partners, because we, the easterners, were in an inferior position, we could barely see what democracy meant, we thought the westerners knew better what they were doing, that they had more experience, that they have more financial, material, negotiation resources, etc …. in fact, they only had their own interests). Personally, I remember how, at a conference in France in 2013, a professor in Nice, if I’m not mistaken, praised Putin … I asked him what he thought of the Politkovskaya case … shoulders, without giving an answer. He was quite old then, but I hope he lives to see what his idol does. I also remember the Italian communist freelancer in Brussels, anti-European, anti-UN (although he worked for the UN), anti-NATO and who was invited to do analysis for Russia Today. To live in the heart of Brussels, to enjoy all the possible freedoms, to live a bourgeois life (in principle do not buy from the supermarket), but to believe that you are the defender of the oppressed … that’s right, freedom of expression! I would like to see him live in Russia at least, not in a communist state!
Would love to see you debate the great Mearsheimer, I suspect you’ll have a hard time.
Mearsheimer is a good speaker but he and the University of Chicago are way left. He supported Bernie Sanders. How smart can he be? Waiting……
Imagine Russia or China-led group of nations (let’s call it Asian Treaty of Nations) begin to encroach towards the west, taking in the latins, and then Mexico and Cuba. What will the Americans do?
Kenny, look at Latin America. Both China and Russia have been very active here in our hemishpere. You locked into to the Mearsheimer “Cuba 62” example, a poor example because Russia has a history of taking over countries. We and NATO do not. Don’t be so easily led.