‘Poking the bear’: NATO expansion and the invasion of Ukraine

R.W. JOHNSON / Vladimir Putin’s rationale for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that the latter is ruled by pro-Western Nazis, and that they are the tip of a Western spear pointed at Russia. This refers to the extension of NATO membership to the former Warsaw Pact states of Eastern Europe and the three Baltic states.

Although NATO is a purely defensive alliance, the Russians – understandably — see it as having huge offensive capabilities and are thus alarmed by its expansion all the way to Ukraine’s border and, a fortiori, by Ukraine’s wish to join NATO as well. Putin accuses the West of having broken its promise not to expand into this former Soviet sphere, and thus of aggressive intent.

This is the core rationale for Russia’s present war, and those states which have sided with Russia – like South Africa – have effectively accepted this argument. This is reflected in statements by the ANC and SACP in which NATO is depicted as an imperialist aggressor. The notion that the Zelensky government is Nazi or neo-Nazi is, of course, preposterous, but is it correct to see NATO’s expansion all the way to the Ukrainian and Russian borders as an implicit Western aggression?

When the Berlin Wall went down and German reunification loomed, the then US Secretary of State, Jim Baker, told Mikhail Gorbachev that a united Germany wanted to stay in NATO – but promised that NATO would not expand any further East, something which Gorbachev warned him would be unacceptable. This (purely verbal) promise to Gorbachev was the only time that any Western leader made this commitment to the Kremlin. (And even so, it was a commitment made to the USSR, not to Russia.)

At that stage, Gorbachev was proposing that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact should be dismantled, but the fact was that throughout Eastern Europe the Soviet position was collapsing, and the Warsaw Pact with it. Seeing this, Thomas Friedman warned in the New York Times that Russia would find the notion of NATO as the sole surviving military alliance in Europe very hard to accept. President George (H.W.) Bush, conscious of this Russian sensitivity, insisted that the Kremlin be allowed to open a liaison mission at NATO headquarters.

Already the East European states were making it clear that they wanted to join both NATO and the European Community, but both NATO and the EC, conscious that this was a sensitive issue, decided to put off any decision about new membership until the mid-1990s. But in early 1991 delegations from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria all visited NATO HQ and made it clear that they wanted to join. They were soon followed by Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland. The US insisted that the time was not ripe, but instead they all joined the newly set up NATO Co-operation Council.

Boris Yeltsin (who had displaced Gorbachev, becoming president of Russia when the USSR split up) sent a message raising the possibility of Russia ultimately joining NATO too – but by this time the USSR was breaking up. 84% of Ukrainians had just voted for independence, including over 80% of the Russian-speaking Donbas and Luhansk, and even 54% in Crimea.

The East Europeans, all with recent experience of Russian occupation and repression, and desperately keen to avoid any recurrence of this nightmare, exerted growing pressure, but the US remained anything but keen. The Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas Niles, explained that the problem with NATO expansion was “We see no politically sustainable way to stop it once we start”.

By now, however, the Poles were warning that if they were not admitted to NATO, they would have to develop their own nuclear weapons. President Lech Walesa warned that “If Russia again adopts an aggressive foreign policy, that aggression will be directed against Ukraine and Poland.” President Bill Clinton, who had grown up with an alcoholic stepfather, tried to reassure the Poles that whatever Yeltsin’s prodigious alcohol consumption, “at least he’s not a mean drunk”.

Clinton was sympathetic to the East Europeans, but Secretary of State Warren Christopher insisted that NATO expansion was “not yet appropriate”, while General Colin Powell was “personally reluctant to cross the bridge of Eastern European membership of NATO”. In every case the objection was that Russia was adamantly opposed, and the West, having at last established good relations with Moscow, did not want to poke the bear.

The Poles ultimately decided to force the issue. Walesa invited Yeltsin for dinner with alcohol a-plenty, and somehow persuaded (the no doubt inebriated) Yeltsin to sign a statement saying that Russia had no objection to Polish NATO membership. The next day, Walesa triumphantly released the statement. Yeltsin, alarmed by what he had done, tried desperately to back-track, but Poland now announced that it was joining NATO. The other East Europeans expressed frustration at their slow progress: Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic (Slovakia having become independent on 31 December 1992) complained that NATO had a “Do Not Disturb” notice on its door.

Yeltsin was still trying to retract his blunder over Poland, and sent a secret letter to Bill Clinton, John Major, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand stating that if any East European states were allowed to join NATO before Russia did, the effect on Russian opinion would be very serious: it would be seen as a humiliating isolation of Russia. But most Western countries were at best ambivalent about Russian membership of NATO. If, as the East Europeans kept insisting, a future Russian leadership reverted to an anti-Western stance, Russia could then paralyse NATO by vetoing any or all NATO actions.

The Clinton administration then launched its “Partnership for Peace” – which Clinton told the Russians was a way of avoiding NATO expansion – while simultaneously giving the Eastern Europeans the impression that it was a step towards NATO expansion. But by January 1994 Clinton was saying that there was no longer any doubt about NATO expansion: now it was just a matter of when and how.

This was greeted in Moscow as a betrayal, and mutual distrust between Russia and the West rapidly increased. US and British intelligence both reported that Russia had never carried out its promise to close down its research into chemical and biological weapons. The German defence minister, Volker Ruhe, laid down what was clearly the new Western line: Poland, Hungary, the Czechs and Slovaks should all join NATO “because they belong to the European system and were artificially separated from it”, while Russian membership of NATO was unthinkable, for it had until recently occupied those countries and denied them freedom.

In fact Clinton was far more focused on persuading Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons. In December 1994 this was agreed by the Treaty of Bucharest, with the US, Russia, Britain and France and Germany all guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereign independence. When Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Clinton admitted that he felt “terrible” for having persuaded Ukraine to give up the weapons which would have truly guaranteed its independence.

NATO had continually demanded that applicants for membership should carry out various reforms, but in September 1996 Warren Christopher announced that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic would join NATO in 1999. This immediately brought protests from the Baltic states and Ukraine, all of them keen to join. Yeltsin, by now seriously ill, tried to forbid membership for the Baltics, but the US was adamant, pointing out that the USSR had only acquired these territories as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact which the US had never recognised.

To sweeten the pill, Russia was to be admitted to the G7, making it the G8. It attended G7 discussions right away, and became a full member in 1999. Moreover a NATO-Russia Council was set up, meeting monthly and allowing Russia full information about NATO activities. In addition, NATO formally pledged that it would not base permanent combat forces in any of its new Eastern member states. There was a last-ditch attempt to defeat NATO expansion by conservative American isolationists who didn’t want America to have to go to war to defend borders in Eastern Europe – but in the end the Senate approved expansion by 80-19.

France argued for the immediate admission to NATO of Romania and Slovenia, but the US vetoed this. The Polish President said that accession to NATO was “the most important moment in our history”, while Vaclav Havel said the same was true of the Czechs.

Clinton gave way to George W. Bush, and Yeltsin was replaced by Vladimir Putin. Whereas both Gorbachev and Yeltsin had seen Russia’s future as part of “our common European home”, Putin was at first unsure. At their first meeting Putin firmly warned against further NATO expansion or changes in missile defence – for Bush was much enamoured of ABM developments, and was keen to push ahead with anti-missile defence.

Then came 9/11. NATO invoked Article 5, which guaranteed NATO support for any member under attack. The US was puzzled by and not entirely welcoming of this move – it felt well able to defend itself. But the rest of NATO felt pleased that for the first time ever Article 5 had been invoked, and thereafter enjoyed reminding the Americans – thus emphasising that they would expect reciprocal US help if any European state was attacked. A number of NATO states sent troops to Afghanistan, and Russia also supported the US war effort, though warning the latter that it would get “hell kicked out of it” there. In return, the West recognised Russia’s right to protect its territorial integrity through its war against Chechnya.

In 2002 NATO agreed to the accession of the Baltic trio, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Putin called NATO expansion “a problem”, but nonetheless expressed his wish for good Russian relations with all NATO countries.

In January 2003 all three Baltic countries found that they had been cut off from Russian supplies of oil and gas – a clear sign that Russia was determined to maintain its East European sphere of influence. Nonetheless, when George Robertson retired as NATO secretary-general at the end of 2003, he boasted that “not even the most imaginative Hollywood screenwriter can daydream up a scenario which would plausibly pit NATO and Russia at one another’s throats in the old-fashioned Cold War style”.

The Baltic three (who had no warplanes) were alarmed that Russian planes kept entering their airspace, and requested NATO help. NATO carefully informed the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, that they were sending planes to the Baltic purely as a “policing” mission, and invited Lavrov to the flag-raising ceremony for its new members at NATO HQ. Western countries were relieved when Lavrov attended, seeing this as a sign of Russian acceptance.

Ukraine had been left out of the picture so as not to antagonise Russia. In July 2004 President Kuchma, under strong Russian pressure, announced that Ukraine was no  longer seeking membership of NATO or the EU, causing a fierce outburst of protest in Ukraine. The Opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, fell ill with dioxin poisoning – a deed widely blamed on Russia. This helped Yushchenko win the presidential election. Even so, polls showed that 50% of Ukrainians remained opposed to joining NATO.

The Munich Security Conference of February 2007 was seen as an occasion on which NATO membership might be granted to Ukraine and Georgia, but also as a celebration of the growing partnership with the Kremlin. Putin disrupted these plans by bitterly attacking NATO expansion and ABM missile defence, accusing the West of undermining Russia. In effect he had decided that the only way to hold the Russian empire together was by having a common enemy – the West.

President Bush’s determination to include Ukraine and Georgia was now blocked by most West European nations, which argued that Ukraine and Georgia were too unstable, and thought it too provocative of Russia. Putin said that for NATO to admit either state would be “a direct threat” to Russia. He also told Bush that Ukraine was not “a real nation state”, and that many Ukrainians were actually Russians.

This was followed by the Russian war with Georgia, which panicked many of the new NATO members: the aggressive Russia they feared had re-emerged. Bush continued to press for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, but France and Germany were adamantly opposed. Merkel, Sarkozy and NATO secretary-general Rasmussen all insisted that Russia was a friend, and that the Cold War was over. The Baltics, Poland and other East Europeans remained highly dubious.

However, Russia now announced a large increase in military spending. Moscow had realised that the EU (more than NATO) was exerting an ineluctable attraction for parts of the “near abroad” – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia — and that they were likely to be peeled away, one by one. So Russia began to exert pressure to prevent this. Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine all backed down, though the resulting tumult in Kyiv saw the pro-Moscow President Yanukovych flee to Russia in February 2014. Putin saw this as a major threat: Ukraine was now in the hands of determined pro-Western forces, and this might threaten the Russian naval base in Crimea. The Russian military takeover of Crimea occurred within days.

This was a major crisis. US and British forces were moved into Eastern Europe, but NATO was not going to war over Crimea. Russia was expelled from the G8, but the NATO-Russia Council remained. France was prevailed upon to cancel the two warships it had been building for Russia.

By 2021, Putin was massing troops on the Ukrainian border. Moreover, Putin increasingly questioned Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state, and said that “Western military expansion” in Ukraine was a direct threat to Russia. Russia, he said, would never allow neighbouring countries to be used against Russia. In February 2022 the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.

George Kennan, the father of “containment”, claimed that many Westerners did not realise how provocative NATO expansion would seem to Russia. This was doubtless true, and George W. Bush was quite wilful in pressing the case for NATO expansion, However, there is no doubt at all that the key to the whole process was the utterly insistent pressure of the East European states, desperate for protection against Russia. At many stages, some or all of NATO resisted expansion, and there was no doubt that the West desperately wanted to keep Russian friendship — so much so that the Obama administration was willing to “re-set” its relations with Russia from zero in the hope of preventing a descent into a new Cold War. Nothing worked.

For several years it seemed that Putin had accepted the reality of Western goodwill, so what made him turn so decisively towards confrontation? It seems clear that what changed his mind was, first, the sight of headlong economic growth in Poland, the Baltics and the other East European states; second, the realisation that they were all bitterly fearful and distrusting of Russia; and third, the realisation that a whole new layer of states – Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and even Azerbaijan – was being attracted by the magnetic pull of EU prosperity and NATO security.

Unless decisive action was taken to halt the process, the Russian empire risked being peeled like an onion. And if Ukraine should join NATO and grow as prosperously within the EU as Poland already had, the magnetic pull of liberal capitalism and democracy would be felt by Russia itself. In effect the spread of globalisation would encourage both democratisation, embourgeoisement and, ultimately, the fragmentation of Russia into a whole series of sovereign states. If nothing were done to stop it, the whole Russian empire might be gradually dismantled.

For Putin, a man of the Soviet empire through and through, this was unthinkable. He already terms the break-up of the USSR the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century. But the Russian empire was always a way of binding together the biggest country in the world.  This could never be done naturally, let alone democratically. The only way this huge land mass could be held together as a single unit was by means of a ruthless autocracy, the form of government under the Tsars, under Communism and now again under Putin. In Russia’s case, both decolonisation and democratisation equally mean national fragmentation.

Putin senses this danger, and is playing the role of Canute, trying to stop the incoming tide. He accuses the West of deliberately wanting to break Russia up into its many constituent parts. In fact, it is doubtful if Western leaders even understand the process which Putin fears, let alone have any ambition to advance it. From their point of view they are merely extending a protective umbrella over states which were desperately pleading for it – and welcoming them to share the European good life. In their own eyes their actions are purely beneficent, and for Putin to accuse them of aggression simply means that they are dealing with a madman.

FEATURED IMAGE: Then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg address reporters after a meeting in Kiev, Ukraine in July 2017, aimed at revising plans for Ukraine to join the Alliance. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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