His History and Ours
Vladimir Putin’s dark and distorted historical narratives justifying his war with Ukraine keep finding fertile ground in the West.
Recently, some American commentators have taken to blaming the West for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Ross Douthat has written in the New York Times that a graceful “retreat” for NATO in the current situation would be to table the issue of membership for Ukraine and Georgia. This might satisfy Putin, the columnist suggested. Douthat echoed the 2014 essay in Foreign Affairs by realist scholar John Mearsheimer, who placed blame for the 2014 Ukraine crisis squarely on the West. If NATO had disbanded rather than expanded, Putin would be quietly enjoying his dacha in Sochi rather than supervising his military in its encirclement of Ukraine this winter.
These sorts of arguments are based on a confused narrative. As Russia sends troops into eastern Ukraine and threatens invasion of the rest, the record needs to be set straight about who is the predator and who is the victim.
First, although Putin has presented the membership of Ukraine in NATO as imminent and threatening to Russian security and, therefore, as a rationale for invading Ukraine (again), recall that in fact there has been no discussion within NATO of Ukraine’s joining the organization anytime soon. There was no such discussion in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula and then supported a civil war in the Donbas region; there is no current talk of even a Membership Accession Plan (MAP) for Ukraine’s joining NATO. President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that Ukraine is not currently being considered for membership in NATO. In 2014, what ignited the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity was the retraction of a promise by Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s corrupt, Russian-backed former president, to sign an accession agreement with the European Union—an economic trading bloc, not a military alliance.
Second, yes, it is true that in the Bucharest NATO Summit Declaration of 2008, a statement was inserted, on the insistence of President George W. Bush, declaring that one day Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO. But no action has been taken on this statement; indeed, in 2014, when Russia used Ukraine’s possible NATO membership—someday—as a pretext to invade Crimea, there was no popular sentiment in Ukraine in favor of joining. Again, there is still no plan for Ukraine’s joining NATO. What spooked Putin in 2014 was a popular uprising in Ukraine against a kleptocratic, autocratic leader and the possibility of contagion—of something similar starting in Russia that would threaten his own regime.
Third, as he explained in his aggrieved address on Russian television yesterday, Putin blames the West for both the 2014 and current crises in Ukraine—due, in his view, to NATO’s continuing expansion despite a promise that Putin alleges was made by the United States to Gorbachev that it wouldn’t expand eastward in exchange for his acceptance of German reunification after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But, as clearly laid out in the outstanding new history of U.S.-Russia relations in the 1990s, Not One Inch: America, Russia and the Making of the Post-Cold War Stalemate by Johns Hopkins historian Mary Sarotte, no such promise by the United States or NATO was made. As Putin likes to say, “We have the documents.” Putin is simply twisting historical facts into a convenient narrative that paints Russia as a victim of an aggressive West that is intent on containing a resurgent Russia. Indeed, even Gorbachev himself, as Sarotte notes, admits that there was no such promise regarding NATO expansion: It was a hypothetical suggestion by Baker in exchange for Gorbachev’s moving Soviet troops out of East Germany more quickly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Fourth, too often forgotten, it is true that in 1994 Boris Yeltsin (Putin’s predecessor as president of Russia) signed the Budapest Memorandum indicating that Russia would respect Ukrainian sovereignty if Ukraine permanently surrendered and allowed the removal to Russia of the thousands of nuclear weapons left on its territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine complied with the memorandum, but Putin broke the agreement in annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and fomenting and supplying an insurrection in Ukraine’s east for the last eight years.
Fifth, finally, the latest member of NATO is North Macedonia, which joined in 2020. It is a country of 2.1 million, slightly less than the population of the city of Houston, Texas, and among the poorest countries of Europe. It has no border with Russia. The North Macedonian accession process began in 1999, twenty-one years before this tiny republic in the heart of Europe joined the alliance. Before North Macedonia’s accession, membership came in 2017 to another tiny former Yugoslav republic, Montenegro, also a country without a Russian border: Its MAP process started about ten years prior. Again, Ukraine has not even started the MAP process—nor, as noted above, has it been invited by NATO to do so. Even if the MAP process had started, recent history demonstrates that it takes, on average, at least a decade to get to membership, given the requirements. Prior to Montenegro, NATO had not added a new member since 2009, when Albania and Croatia joined. That was a full five years before Putin used the prospect of NATO expansion into Ukraine as the pretext for his initial invasion of Crimea.
All of these facts are important—as is the timeline, which sometimes gets lost among the talking heads, who last week were consumed by voting rights in America and this week have retooled to become armchair experts on Ukraine, Russia, and NATO. Minimizing these important facts and chronology, however, has produced dangerous yet potentially influential analyses. For example, Douthat, in particular, comes perilously close to simply conceding (as Mearsheimer and Senator Bernie Sanders actually do) that Putin is right and that Russia is justified in feeling threatened by NATO. Douthat recommends, therefore, that NATO back off its Open Door policy, Article 10 of NATO’s founding treaty since 1949, and give Putin what he wants. Not surprisingly, Douthat was quoted admiringly in an article in Izvestia a few days ago.
But what might happen if NATO made such a promise and effectively appeased Vladimir Putin? Would Putin really back off Ukraine—or Georgia or Moldova or any other former republic of the Soviet Union in which Russia has seized territory in the last fifteen years and which he views as within Russia’s historical sphere of influence? How far back in history should the United States and NATO allow Putin to go in reformulating a security architecture that would make him “comfortable?”
Putin has demanded that, as a condition of a Russian drawdown from the current encirclement of Ukraine, NATO should withdraw to its pre-1997 borders and troop levels (ironically, the latter demand would actually increase the number of U.S. forces currently in Europe, likely not what Putin is after at the moment). But once he gets that, why not go farther? After all, Poland and Lithuania were not only once members of the Cold War-era Warsaw Pact; they were also once part of the Russian Empire and, before that, the Grand Duchy of Rus and Lithuania, as renowned historian Vladimir Putin explained in his historical opus on the region, published last summer, and again in his televised rant to the Russian people last night. Once the Ukraine matter is settled, then why not move a few more troops onto these other borders, as well, and insist that these countries also be removed from NATO? Why stop at Ukraine?
Let’s remember what Europe looked like before NATO, as opposed to the way it looks now. It was a region pockmarked by clashes between empires claiming spheres of influence; and when these God-given imperial borders were perforated, there followed decades of war. The post-World War II and post-Cold War orders were systems built in reaction to this horrific history and, therefore, grounded not on the idea of empire but on respect for state sovereignty. Evidently, Putin wants to protect Russian sovereignty from a phantom enemy; and he has manufactured a crisis to do so. But Ukraine is also a sovereign state, and Russia itself signed on to that idea in 1994. Putin’s view of the world is that of a 19th-century monarch. This kind of thinking produced a Europe fragmented and in a perpetual state of conflict, not the Europe whole and free that we have enjoyed for the last thirty years.
That is what is at stake in Ukraine today. Armchair experts take note: This isn’t a mental exercise to be conducted in the comfort of one’s home in Brooklyn or one’s study in the Chicago suburbs. Ukrainian (and Russian) lives are at stake, as are, potentially, those of Lithuanians, Poles, Moldovans, Georgians, and perhaps others. There is no ambiguity about right and wrong here. Putin is simply wrong. Appeasing him on Ukraine and promising never to allow its accession to NATO means conceding that we are in an alternate universe, where might is always right and right is somehow always wrong.
Kathryn Stoner is Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and professor of political science, both at Stanford University. Her latest book is Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order (2021). Twitter: @kath_stoner
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe