By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
Some truly bad ideas have remarkably long shelf lives. One such idea is the claim that NATO enlargement somehow caused Russia to unleash a full-scale genocidal war against Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, underlying this belief is an openly apologetic tone bordering on moral indifference: The poor Russians and their strongman president, Vladimir Putin, are merely responding to perceived Western threats, so don’t blame them for starting a war or engaging in atrocities.
The key word is perceived. It is surely possible that the Kremlin genuinely believes Russia is under Western assault. After all, Adolf Hitler truly believed Jews constituted a threat to Aryan civilization. But there is no accounting for unhinged and paranoid worldviews, especially when the measurable reality is radically different, and neither NATO nor Ukraine can be held responsible for Moscow inhabiting an alternative universe.
The facts speak for themselves. The armed forces of most NATO countries are in miserable shape, the result of several decades of underspending for security. Russia’s armed forces were touted as the second best in the world. Russia possesses a huge nuclear arsenal. Ukraine’s chances of joining NATO were, as everyone knew, nil for at least two decades. And Ukraine posed no conceivable threat to Russia’s security. And yet, according to many American policymakers and analysts, NATO is to blame for Putin’s craziness.
The latest example of such poor analysis is a full-page advertisement in the New York Times (paid for by the Eisenhower Media Network). Most of the 14 signatories are retired military officers or analysts, though two names stand out: former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock and Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs.
The opening paragraphs set the unapologetically relativist tone. The signatories claim that “The Russia-Ukraine War has been an unmitigated disaster” and state that they “deplore the violence, war crimes, indiscriminate missile strikes, terrorism, and other atrocities that are part of this war.” True, but why don’t they identify the aggressor and the victim? It’s as if the war and all the attendant atrocities just happened, like acts of God.
The advertisement then states: “The immediate cause of this disastrous war in Ukraine is Russia’s invasion. Yet the plans and actions to expand NATO to Russia’s borders served to provoke Russian fears. And Russian leaders made this point for 30 years. A failure of diplomacy led to war. Now diplomacy is urgently needed.”
Let’s take a closer look at this paragraph.
The very first sentence is misleading, suggesting that the war began with Russia’s invasion in 2022. In fact, Russia ignited the war in 2014 when it seized Crimea and the Donbas. At that time, the West suffered from “Ukraine fatigue” and had no interest in the country joining NATO. Putin, meanwhile, appears to have considered invading all of Ukraine but was dissuaded by his advisors.
The next two sentences betray an ignorance of cause-effect relationships. Grant for the sake of argument that Russian fears were provoked by NATO enlargement. But what exactly is the causal connection between fears about NATO and the invasion of Ukraine?
As the ad says, Russians have been fearful for 30 years. So why invade in 2014 or 2022? And why invade Ukraine at all? Any semi-competent analyst in Russia, Ukraine or the West could have told Putin that the invasion would only galvanize NATO, spur Finland and Sweden to seek membership and produce disaster in both Ukraine and Russia. Which is exactly what happened.
Did a failure of diplomacy lead to war? The claim is either trivial (one could argue that diplomatic failures lead to all wars by definition) or dead wrong. Russia and its strongman president never expressed an interest in negotiations with Ukraine, that were premised on Ukraine’s continuation as a sovereign, democratic, friendly state. Instead, the Putin regime has never concealed its hostility to Ukraine’s very existence.
Perhaps it was Western diplomacy that failed? Clearly, the West bears some responsibility for the deterioration of its relations with post-Soviet Russia. But, again, just how that overall deterioration and Russia’s enhanced fears caused Putin to invade and perpetrate genocide isn’t clear. Hitler was also fearful — of democracy, capitalism, Jews and Bolshevism — but did any of them cause him to seize Austria and the Sudetenland and attack Poland and the USSR?
The signatories fail to see the obvious: that their obsession with Russia, the United States and the West misses that the decision to launch the war was made by Putin. As former President Bill Clinton recently revealed, Putin hinted at his aggressive designs in 2011.
Putin has also made no secret of his profound distaste for the Ukrainian state and nation. And, as a Russian investigative report has shown, Putin decided to invade the second time in early 2021, long before the Kremlin made a variety of non-negotiable diplomatic demands about NATO’s non-enlargement and security guarantees at the end of the year. It wasn’t diplomacy that failed then, it was the Russians who purposely made it fail to have a convenient excuse for going to war.
The Russia-Ukraine war is, as the signatories fail to understand, about Russia and Ukraine, and not about NATO and the West. Ukraine’s very existence is a challenge to the Russian historical narrative that claims Kyiv as the “mother of Russian cities.”
Ukraine’s identity as a separate nation therefore challenges Russian identity, which matters greatly to hyper-nationalists and imperial revivalists of Putin’s ilk. Since 1991 and before the war, Ukrainians never harbored ill feelings toward Russians — as public opinion surveys consistently demonstrated — and their governments never adopted anti-Russian foreign policies.
But what grated on Putin’s nerves was Ukraine’s commitment to democracy, a tangible threat to his claims to be Russia’s authoritarian savior.
Seen in this light, the advertisement’s call for “a meaningful and genuine commitment to diplomacy, specifically an immediate ceasefire and negotiations without any disqualifying or prohibitive preconditions” sounds hopelessly naïve, even dangerous.
Just how should the United States negotiate with an autocrat who’s invaded Georgia and Ukraine, formally annexed four Ukrainian provinces and Crimea, and committed genocide in Chechnya and Ukraine? How should it talk to a man who is obsessed with power, routinely kills his opponents, irresponsibly threatens to use nuclear weapons and has no qualms about sending hundreds of thousands of his own citizens to their deaths?
It would be wonderful if deliberate diplomacy could end the Russia-Ukraine war as quickly and easily as the signatories imply. It would also be wonderful if Putin abandoned his commitment to empire, genocide, and dictatorship and took a slow boat to China. Both scenarios are, alas, equally likely.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”