The Backstory of NATO, Ukraine and Putin’s Fears

Photograph Source: Sergei F – CC BY 2.0

A widespread misconception of NATO’s relation to Ukraine has been sustained by silence in news sources and falsehoods by pundits. According to this myth, the NATO-Ukraine connection, prior to Russia’s current horrific invasion, was a matter of Ukraine’s asking to join and NATO’s not saying “No.” In fact, over the last fourteen years, NATO’s conduct has gone far beyond openness to eventual admission, in engagements that have included extensive and expanding joint military operations in Ukraine. This involvement, which was accompanied by US efforts to shape Ukrainian politics, does not in the least affect Putin’s moral responsibility for the carnage he is inflicting. But awareness of this history should affect vitally important assessments of the proper response.

In 2008, William Burns, then U.S. ambassador to Russia and now CIA director, cabled from Moscow, “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin) …I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.” As Burns’ cable suggests, Ukraine has distinctive geopolitical significance for Russia. It is the next-largest country in Europe, after Russia, dominates the northern border of the Black Sea, and has a 1,227-mile land border with Russia. Nonetheless, at the end of the 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit, when expansion to Russia’s borders was virtually complete, NATO, led by the US, declared agreement on its completion: “We agreed today that these two countries [Ukraine along with Georgia] will become members of NATO.” In 2011, a NATO report noted, “The Alliance assists Ukraine … in preparing defence policy reviews and other documents, in training personnel, … modernising armed forces and making them more interoperable and more capable of participating in international missions” — international cooperation that had already included a joint Black Sea naval exercise with the US.

On February 22, 2014, large, increasingly militant months-long protests centered in Independence Square in Kyiv led to the deposition and flight to Russia of a president who had depended on strong electoral support from autonomous Russophone regions in the east and had sought to balance cooperation with NATO with positive relations with Russia, opposing integration with the EU. A strongly pro-Western government came to power, with the composition hoped-for in vigorous US efforts to “midwife” it, as the US ambassador put it in a Russian-intercepted phone conversation. Russia occupied Crimea and sent military support to secessionist forces in the east.

One response was the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the separatist regions. They aimed for autonomy compatible with Ukraine’s sovereignty in the eastern regions and Ukrainian neutrality, with international guarantees, including the “pullout of all foreign armed formations … [and] military equipment from the territory of Ukraine”  and the permanent monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian border. NATO’s response was very different: an extensive increase in joint military activity in Ukraine,  including Operation Fearless Guardian in 2015, in which the 173rd Airborne trained three Ukraine brigades over the course of six months. The Brussels NATO Summit in June 2021 declared, “We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance ….  We welcome the cooperation between NATO and Ukraine with regard to security in the Black Sea region.  The Enhanced Opportunities Partner status granted last year provides further impetus to our already ambitious cooperation …  with the option of more joint exercises ….  Military cooperation and capacity building initiatives between Allies and Ukraine, including the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade, further reinforce this effort. We highly value Ukraine’s significant contributions to Allied operations, the NATO Response Force, and NATO exercises.” In March 2021, Putin had begun the shift of military forces toward Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, he announced his horrific invasion, denouncing “the eastward expansion of NATO, which is moving its military infrastructure ever closer to the Russian border.”

This history provides evidence for a hypothesis about a crucial motivation for Putin’s aggression: the crucial impetus was a desire to push back at the extension of active NATO military engagement across Burns’ “red line.” This does not remotely justify his aggression and the carnage that he has inflicted, any more than my leaving my wallet on a seat in my unlocked car affects a wallet-snatcher’s moral responsibility for his thievery. But one’s account of the causes of Putin’s aggression should make a great deal of difference to one’s assessment of the proper response.

For one thing, if this was the impetus, Ukraine-Russia negotiations aiming at Ukrainian neutrality could have provided an off-ramp from carnage. On March 16, the chief Ukrainian negotiator and the chief Russian negotiator separately declared openness to such a settlement, openness affirmed by Zelensky on March 21. Progress was impeded by Biden’s naming Putin “a war criminal” on March 16,  his declaration the next day that Putin is “a pure thug,” and the March 20 assertion by the US ambassador to the UN, “the Russians have not leaned into any possibility for a negotiated and diplomatic solution.” Suppose, on the other hand, that entrenched Great Russian ethnonationalism is what drives Putin, leading him to aggressively unite Russians and Ukrainians in one sovereign nation, or that he is driven by an irrepressible urge to restore the grandeur of the Russian Empire. These hypotheses, which make it harder to explain the timing of Russia’s incursions, support impeding those negotiations as doomed endeavors when counterforce was needed, despite the continued carnage it guaranteed.

The choice among these hypotheses has further, momentous global importance in judging current arguments for a more confrontational, miliitarized American foreign policy. Eminent advocates such as Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under G.W. Bush and Obama and CIA Director under G.H.W. Bush, have claimed that Russia’s invasion expresses an irrepressible urge, paralleling an aspiration that drives China, to “recover past glory” and “restore the Russian empire” and have called for an end of “Americans’ 30-year holiday from history,” “a dramatic change” including “a larger, more advanced military in every branch” and more assertive rivalry with Russia and China which greatly expands the use of “instruments of power … that played a significant role in winning the Cold War.” Robert Kagan argues for the same surge in order to confront Russia’s drive to “reclaim its traditional influence” out of a “centuries-long habit of imperialism,” an impetus paralleled by Chinese longings to return to traditional domination of East Asia. Stephen Kotkin bases his calls to arms on the need to resist Russia’s “perpetual geopolitics” based on the view of Russia as “a providential power” and similar imperatives in China.

Awareness of the role of NATO expansion in Ukraine should deepen fears of the suffering the revival of the Cold War could cause worldwide. Of course, the larger history of the carnage that the US has inflicted to sustain its geopolitical preeminence in power is a vital basis for organizing resistance to these appeals. But concealing the history of US-led involvement in Ukraine aids the exploitation of widespread justified revulsion at Putin’s brutality in Ukraine to weaken resistance. The myth should be busted, as well.

Richard Miller is Hutchinson Professor in Ethics and Public Life Emeritus at Cornell University. His writings on US foreign policy include “Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power” (Oxford University Press, 2010).