Russia Reacts to NATO…and History

In mid-December 2021, the Russian government publicly announced that it would “seek legally formulated guarantees of security” from the United States and its allies that would end NATO military activity in eastern Europe as well as military support for the Ukraine.

U.S. media reporting on this event, characterized by the New York Times, framed it as a Russian attempt to “wind back the clock 30 years to just before the collapse of the Soviet Union,” and thus Russian demands were “echoes of the Cold War.” Little media credence has been given to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated insistence that his country is “threatened” by NATO activities close to its borders.

In the meantime, “NATO officials emphasized that NATO countries will not rule out future membership for any Eastern European countries, including those bordering the Russian Republic, such as Ukraine.” U.S. President Biden has responded Russian demands with contradictory policies. On the one hand, Washington insisted that what was necessary was a “context of de-escalation,” and on the other, declared that the American “flow of arms to Ukraine would continue.”

It would seem that while Washington and its allies, to say nothing of the media, heard the Russian demands, they displayed no evidence of understanding them within an accurate historical context—a history that goes back considerably further than the dissolution of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.

Historical Background

For those readers who are interested in understanding what historically motivates the Russian leadership to behave as they now do, and make their current demands, here is a rundown of relevant past events.

— In modern times, Russia was first invaded from Western Europe in 1812. In that year, Napoleon Bonaparte’s multinational Grande Armée attacked Russia. The invasion failed and ultimately helped lead to Napoleon’s fall from power. For the Russians this was not so much a victory as a national tragedy. An estimated 200,000 Russians died, and soon after Napoleon occupied Moscow, then the “spiritual capital” of the country, the Russians burned the city down around him.

— Between 1812 and 1914, Russia maintained one of Europe’s huge multiethnic empires alongside those of Austria-Hungary, Germany, France and Great Britain. On its European side, the Russian Empire held sway over Poles, Finns, Ukrainians, and various other Slavic and Baltic people—that is, Russia established a sphere of influence that encompassed a good part of eastern Europe. Operating as an absolute monarchy, it did not readily respond to the needs of its subject peoples. By the early twentieth century, the Russian Empire’s centralized government was growing weak and was roiled by challenges to its dictatorial ways.

— In 1914 World War I broke out with Russia, Britain, France and the United States on one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. After a brief Russian incursion into East Prussia, the Germans went on the offensive and moved deep into western Russia, inflicting heavy casualties. This marked the second time Russia was invaded from the West. Successive defeats led to the collapse of Russia’s imperial government and eventually the founding of the Soviet state in 1917. Overall, Russia lost approximately two million soldiers and over a half million civilians in this war. Russia also lost most of its Eastern European lands.

— The next twenty years marked the so-called interwar period, the time between World War I and World War II. For our purposes, the most important consequence of this period was the creation of independent states such as Poland, Hungary, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and others out of what, until the end of World War I, had been the imperial territories of the German, Austrian and Russian empires. Unfortunately, the initial lifespan of this independent status was short.

— It was World War II that brought an end to this initial period of East European national revival. The war began on 1 September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Nazi Germany soon conquered most of continental Europe. Then on 22 June 1941 Germany launched a massive invasion of Soviet Russia. This marked the third invasion of Russia from the West in a little over one hundred years. Initially, Germany occupied much of Soviet Russia west of the Ural Mountains. However, the situation changed in 1942, particularly after the German troops failed to capture the city of Stalingrad. After that failure the Soviet forces began a long slow process of pushing the Germans back—a long German retreat that would go on till the end of the war in 1945.

—Those new East European nations mentioned above were free of German control by early 1945. However, they never did regain full independence. German control was now exchanged for Soviet Russian control. The Western interpretation of Soviet post-war occupation was that it was the product of an inherent drive for world conquest by the communists. However, there are other explanations that flow more logically from the history given above.

— Communism as an ideology might predict the eventual victory of the working classes and the withering away of the state, but in every case where communists have come to power, they have eventually settled down and ruled as nationalists. It might have been different if Trotsky had gained power in Soviet Russia instead of Stalin, but we will never know for sure. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Stalin ordered the permanent occupation of Eastern Europe for communist ideological reasons. He had at least two nationalistic reasons motivating him. One was that Russia was traditionally a great imperial power and holding vast territory was the part of the definition of a great power. That was a status the Russians hoped to recapture. The second reason was perhaps more immediately important. Given that Russia had been repeatedly invaded from the West, what the Soviets wanted from their war-won occupied territories was the creation of a large and deep buffer zone. That is, a security zone between the historical sources of their pain—countries such as France and Germany—and the Russian border. Nonetheless, the Western leaders interpreted Soviet behavior as communist-inspired aggression and created NATO, a military alliance, to forestall further Russian advances. The Russians, in turn, interpreted NATO as yet one more reason why they needed a buffer zone. They may have been right.

— Soviet Russia’s buffer zone lasted as long as the Soviet Union lasted—that is, until 26 December 1991. After that, Russian troops were pulled back to the new Russian Republic. At that point, the Eastern European countries founded after World War I, and other non-Russian territories such as Ukraine, moved to assert their independence. The other side of this coin is that the collapse of Soviet Russia left millions of ethnic Russians who had migrated within the Soviet empire prior to 1991 stranded in new political entities, such as the Ukraine, with which they had no strong identification.

— The leaders of these new nations knew their history and assumed that Russia would someday seek to recreate its lost empire qua buffer zone. So, they sought to protect themselves by sheltering under the NATO umbrella. NATO embraced most of them, and thus a military organization that was designed, ostensibly, to prevent Russia from expanding westward, now rapidly expanded eastward. Sooner or later Russia, motivated by its own history, was bound to react.

The Situation Today

NATO’s expansion eastward has set up the confrontation we witness today. The Russians had to accept NATO’s early move to the east because the new Russian Republic was initially in political and economic disarray. Nonetheless, as President Putin put it, “Russia feels threatened by an encroaching Nato.” Today, the disarray has passed, separatist movements within the Russian Republic, such as in Chechnya, have been brutally crushed, and the Russians have decided to draw a “red line” to forestall further NATO expansion into what remains of the non-Russian areas between themselves and a historically hostile West. That red line encompasses Ukraine. Thus, that country’s recent turn toward the West and its expressed desire to eventually join the NATO alliance has triggered historically embedded alarms in Moscow. To emphasize this point to the Ukrainian leadership, Russia has amassed troops on their mutual border in a manner that suggests the possibility of invasion. Russia has also increased aid to the separatist pro-Russian part of eastern Ukraine—the Donetsk People’s Republic.

A singular problem here is that none of the Western media coverage and very few of the Western politicians demonstrate an understanding of the situation within an appropriate historical background. Essentially, few of these otherwise influential people know any of the relevant history before 1991, and that is why you get this from the Los Angeles Times: “Thirty years ago this month, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Ukraine broke away from Moscow’s control. Russian President Vladimir Putin has never gotten over it.”

For a while now the United States and its NATO allies have had the Russian Republic surrounded with long- and intermediate-range missiles. There are plans to place these weapons in NATO’s Eastern European member states. These weapons are described as “defensive,” but most of them have offensive capabilities. For the Russian Republic this seems too much like a replay of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. If the Americans were alarmed by such missiles on their doorstep at that time, why should they now be surprised that Moscow is alarmed? The Biden administration, looking to switch subjects from the Russian demands for comprehensive security agreements to particular agreements on missile placement and the nature of NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe, has offered to enter negotiations on these specific topics. This is certainly a good first step, but it’s probably not sufficient.

The United States and its NATO allies may well have to swallow some of their pride and go further. They may have to give up any further eastern expansion of the Western military alliance. The Russian Republic, motivated by three tragic invasions and convinced of the need for a security buffer zone, seems very serious about their “red line.” I don’t think they are bluffing, and therefore the West should realize this is not just Putin playing from a “tough guy” script. History speaks here as well.


Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.