Capstones: Blame Game
As Vladimir Putin continues his war of war crimes against Ukraine, there are arguments swirling around—some more serious than others—that this war is, somehow, NATO’s fault. That’s certainly what Putin believes, but the blame-NATO crowd is wrong.
The thumbnail version of the blame-NATO argument goes something like this: by first “expanding” into Eastern Europe (in the late 1990s and early 2000s) and then offering deferred membership to Ukraine and Georgia (in 2008), NATO trespassed into Russia’s “sphere” and invited Russia’s violent response. This is akin to blaming me for offering my neighbor tools to protect his home—a garden-hose in case of fire, deadbolts to harden entry points—rather than blaming the arsonist who is setting fires and the thug who is breaking and entering. NATO is not the villain or problem.
First, NATO didn’t “expand” into Eastern Europe. Rather, sovereign nations located in Eastern Europe sought to enter into NATO. The reason these sovereign nations sought NATO membership is obvious: they deeply distrust Moscow—and they recognize that NATO is the only source of security in Europe. From the Baltics and Poland during World War II, to Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, to Georgia and Ukraine today, these fears have been borne out repeatedly. Indeed, history explains why seven of the Warsaw Pact’s eight members chose to join NATO; why three former Soviet republics chose to join NATO and two others (Georgia and Ukraine) desperately want to join NATO; and why two longtime neutrals (Sweden and Finland) will likely soon join NATO.
NATO’s growth has always been about countries seeking security by pushing their way into NATO—not NATO pushing its way out and seeking new countries to conquer. Putin, an imperialist at his core, cannot grasp this.
Second, the idea of a Russian “sphere” was rejected as the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Soviet Empire receded. “Let Europe be whole and free,” President George H.W. Bush declared. “To the founders of the alliance, this aspiration was a distant dream, and now it’s the new mission of NATO.” Noting that “the Cold War began with the division of Europe,” he said, “it can only end when Europe is whole.”
Jacques Delors, father of the effort to transform Europe into a political union, compared the European Community (forerunner to the European Union) to a bicyclist needing to keep pedaling and keep moving—and specifically to keep moving eastward. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl envisioned former Warsaw Pact states joining the EU. Pointing to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Yalta Conference, Czech leader Vaclav Havel concluded, “Enlargement of NATO carries an unequivocal message that the era of such divisions is over… Europe is no longer, and must never again be, divided over the heads of its people and against their will into any spheres of interest or influence.”
To their credit, key Soviet and Russian leaders accepted this idea. The Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, joined Bush in conceding that European nations had the right to determine their security posture, whether in NATO or as neutrals. “The time will come when a united Germany will be in NATO,” Gorbachev shrugged, “if that is its choice.” Similarly, the Russian Federation’s first leader, Boris Yeltsin, endorsed Poland’s desire to join NATO and even saw NATO membership as Russia’s “long-term political objective.” Andrei Kozyrev, Yeltsin’s foreign minister, concluded after he left his Kremlin post that “the United States and NATO were on the right side of history by admitting new democracies to the alliance… It was Moscow that returned to its antagonism toward NATO.”
In short, the common-ground view was that post-Cold War Europe should be “whole and free.” The very premise of this vision was the recognition that there was a need to mend the unnatural divide created at the end of World War II. “Neither the EU nor NATO,” President Bill Clinton observes, “could stay within the borders Stalin had imposed in 1945.”
Hugging and Hoping
Those who blame NATO for Putin’s wars (Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014, Ukraine 2022) believe that Putin invaded Ukraine and Georgia because Ukraine and Georgia wanted to join NATO. But they have it precisely backward: Ukraine and Georgia wanted to join NATO because Putin wanted to invade Ukraine and Georgia.
Ukraine’s very existence as a sovereign nation is threatening to Putin—and indeed rejected by Putin. Thus, we are told to accept that Ukraine and Georgia (and earlier, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) fall into a special category because they were part of the USSR. But why stop at Soviet borders and Soviet history? Poland, Finland, and even Alaska and part of California were—like Ukraine—once part of the Russian Empire. By the blame-NATO crowd’s logic, shouldn’t Russia have final say over the disposition of all these chunks of earth—Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Alaska, northern California—since all these chunks of earth once upon a time fell within Russia’s sphere of influence and even within Russia’s borders?
Of course, that’s not how a world of sovereign nations works. If we accept the premise the builders of post-Cold War Europe embraced—that Europe should be whole and free, that European nations have the right to pursue neutrality or NATO membership or Russian vassalage—then a nation’s past imperial masters are irrelevant.
Putin has never accepted that premise. This is a man who calls the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century.” By this, Putin laments the loss of Moscow’s control over Soviet territories (Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltics), the loss of Moscow’s Eastern European buffer zone (embodied by the Warsaw Pact), the loss of Moscow’s international stature. Putin wants to reacquire those trappings of the Russian Empire. Ukraine and NATO stand in the way. So Putin demanded in December that NATO not admit new members, cease military activities in Eastern Europe, pull back its defenses to where they were in 1997 (before Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic sought shelter inside NATO), and grant him veto authority over the decisions of Ukraine and other sovereign democracies.
There’s the crux of Putin’s problem with Ukraine and NATO: Ukraine’s real sin against Putin is daring to be sovereign and trying to build a liberal democracy. Putin’s Russia, as Toomas Hendrik Ilves (former president of Estonia) explains, “has bad relations with all the democratic countries on its borders…That should make one think.”
Indeed, Putin’s war against Ukraine serves as the coda to more than a decade of aggression against NATO’s democracies and the orphan democracies clambering to join NATO. Prior to February 2022, Putin attacked and occupied swaths of NATO aspirants Georgia and Ukraine; threatened nuclear strikes against NATO members Poland and Norway; conducted cyberattacks against America’s energy infrastructure and food-supply infrastructure; waged cyberwar against NATO member Estonia; shut off natural-gas flows to Ukraine and NATO members Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Turkey; and attempted a violent coup aimed at preventing Montenegro from joining NATO.
Putin justifies all of this because he believes NATO’s growth spurts violated “assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.” The problem with Putin’s version of history is that it doesn’t correspond with reality.
The blame-NATO crowd often cites a comment made by Secretary of State James Baker, who told Gorbachev NATO’s military structures “will not move one inch further east.” But none other than Gorbachev says that was in reference to NATO standing up military bases in East Germany—and that the “one inch further east” phrase has been taken out of context.
“There was no promise not to enlarge NATO,” adds Robert Zoellick, who, as undersecretary of State, was in the room with Gorbachev, Bush and Baker. He notes that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, like Gorbachev, never claimed such a promise was made. According to Steven Pifer, who served as ambassador to Ukraine, in the State Department, and on the National Security Council in the 1990s and 2000s, “Western leaders never pledged not to enlarge NATO.” Gorbachev himself concedes, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all” as the Cold War thawed.
In short, NATO didn’t double-cross its way to the Russian border. NATO grew through a transparent process that allowed Eastern European states to pursue or decline membership on their own volition—and encouraged the sort of political, institutional, military, and economic reforms that diminished tensions across democratic Europe.
Nor should we forget that even as Putin accused NATO of “aggressive actions,” the historical record shows that in the 1990s and early 2000s, NATO deemphasized its military mission and “hugged the bear,” in the words of former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove. NATO didn’t even begin drawing up contingency plans for defending Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (which joined the alliance in 2004) until after Russia’s 2008 assault on Georgia. Moreover, before Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the alliance had carved out a special place for Russia within NATO, downgraded defense spending, scaled back exercises, and shelved deterrent military assets. For instance, the US Navy’s North Atlantic-focused 2nd Fleet was deactivated in 2011. The US Army’s Germany-based V Corps was deactivated in 2012. Washington withdrew every American main battle tank from Europe in 2013. That same year, Britain announced it would close its garrison in Germany, pulling thousands of combat troops out of Europe. By 2014, Germany fielded fewer than 300 tanks, down from the 2,125 West Germany deployed in the 1980s. None of this was enough for Putin.
Unlike Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Putin views NATO’s very existence as the problem—and understandably so: NATO is the only thing blocking his plans to reconstitute the Russian Empire.
A living, breathing organism, NATO was born in 1949, in response to a series of aggressive actions on Moscow’s part—the blockade of West Berlin, a coup in Czechoslovakia, efforts to take over Greece, and military demands against Turkey. NATO has been growing ever since—not by conquest but by consent, not by the force of arms of its members but by the desire for security of its aspirants. It’s all there in Article X of the North Atlantic Treaty: the allies may “by unanimous agreement invite any other European state in a position to further the principles of this treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this treaty.”
For NATO to declare that certain European countries are off limits—West Germany, Greece, Turkey in the 1950s; Spain in the 1980s; Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary in the 1990s; the Balts, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia in the 2000s; Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia the past decade; Ukraine and Georgia now—would be to erode its own independence and to undermine the sovereignty and security of aspirant nations.
When Georgia and Ukraine knocked on NATO’s door in the early 2000s, there were no easy answers for NATO. The alliance expects aspirants to embrace the rule of law, practice democratic governance, control corruption, and settle territorial disputes. Ukraine and Georgia didn’t check all those boxes—and didn’t have the support of every NATO member—in 2008. So, NATO faced a dilemma. If NATO closed its doors to new members, that would have been a green light for Putin, and it would have diluted the North Atlantic Treaty. If NATO accepted the corruption-hobbled, Moscow-compromised Ukraine of the early 2000s, that could have weakened the alliance. If NATO cajoled Ukraine into taking the Finland route, that would have violated what those builders of post-Cold War Europe envisioned. Moreover, while neutrality was embraced by the Finns, it wasn’t by the Ukrainians. The reason why is on display in Bucha and Mariupol. Indeed, the fact that Finland is abandoning Finlandization and galloping toward NATO membership speaks volumes—about NATO and Moscow.
NATO did not cause the war in Ukraine—Vladimir Putin did—but NATO is helping Ukraine wage a just war of self-defense; NATO is shielding 946 million people from Ukraine’s fate; and NATO is doing everything it can to prevent Putin’s war and reach from spreading.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.