In the swirling discussions of the current Ukraine crisis, we have seen the return of a number of arguments that subtly shift the blame for the current crisis from Putin and Russia to the United States and NATO. This kind of revisionist history was made in American Purpose in an article entitled “Anatomy of a Blunder” by our editorial board member Mike Mandelbaum, my former colleague at Johns Hopkins SAIS (and, indeed, a former teacher of mine at Harvard). It is a serious argument made by a serious scholar, and deserves to be answered.
Unlike Tucker Carlson, almost no knowledgeable participant in the current debate has taken at face value Putin’s claim that NATO in its current configuration poses an ongoing security threat to Russia. The claim made by Mandelbaum, Tom Friedman, and others is historical: that the expansion of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s violated commitments made by Western officials that this wouldn’t happen, and exploited a moment of Russian weakness and vulnerability, which engendered intense resentment. Enlargement turned Russia into a long-term strategic competitor. There was a vivid debate on this subject at the time of the first enlargement in 1999 that brought in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, which resumed with the second round in 2004 that included Bulgaria, the Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Since then the Balkan countries Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia have joined.
There is no question that these enlargements enraged the Russians and were opposed across the political spectrum by politicians of different stripes, including Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Critics of enlargement argue that there is a natural sphere of influence surrounding Russia that is particularly characteristic of its so-called “near abroad,” that is, the former Union republics that were part of the USSR but are now independent countries. The question is whether, absent this provocation by the West, Russia would not have turned in the authoritarian and aggressive direction it has assumed since Putin became president in 2000. Mandelbaum suggests that it would have been content to exist peacefully in a new status quo, buffered by a series of unaligned states.
This historical counterfactual cannot be answered definitively, of course. But there are several reasons for disbelieving it.
The first has to do with Russian national identity. To a much greater extent than is the case for most modern liberal democracies, Russian identity has been built around the country’s ability to dominate its near neighbors. While there were debates among Russian nationalists in the early 1990s between a small and large visions of Russia’s territorial extent, the latter ultimately won out. The Russophile and Slavophile currents in 19th-century Russian thought have grown stronger and were a component of Moscow’s support for Serbia in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. These feelings remain a component of Putin’s present-day assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” (This is, by the way, the view held by some of the former heroes of Western liberals like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.)
Critics of NATO expansion assume that Russian national identity would have taken a more liberal turn absent Western actions, as if Russia were just another European country reacting to real security threats. This was not the interpretation of Russian intentions held by any successor state of the former USSR or member of the Warsaw Pact that had actually lived under Russian domination. They were desperate to get into NATO because they understood that Russia would seek to dominate them again, regardless of Western actions. It was just a matter of the “correlation of forces”; once that swung in Moscow’s direction, they would be under threat.
This brings us to the second big problem with the critics of NATO expansion, which is the way they ignore the agency of those countries that had formerly been part of the Russian and Soviet empires. The notion that great powers should have spheres of influence is a 19th-century idea that the United States once embraced under the banner of the Monroe Doctrine. It died, however, with the rise of 20th-century principles of national sovereignty and democracy. In any event, there was nothing “natural” about Soviet control over the countries of the former Warsaw Pact; they had been conquered by the USSR in 1945 and ruled by Soviet puppet governments. This is why they were once described as “captive nations.” These countries all frantically sought to enter NATO because they saw that times might change. They were not pawns on a global chessboard that could be traded by Washington and Moscow. Bringing them into the Western alliance simply restored the independence they had enjoyed prior to 1945.
This doesn’t mean that NATO could or should have been expanded indiscriminately. As I argued in an earlier post, NATO is fundamentally a security treaty built around its Article V guarantee that an attack on one member would be considered as an attack on all. Countries that cannot actually be defended by the alliance should face a very high barrier to entry. This is not a matter of principle, but one of physical geography and military logistics. This is why I was opposed to offering eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia back at the time of the Bucharest Declaration in 2008; there was no realistic way for the Article V commitment to be met if those countries faced a determined Russian attack.
This understanding of NATO raises a particular problem with the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. A number of studies, including a recent one by the Rand Corporation, have made clear that NATO could not defend them against a Russian invasion, and by the criterion I just articulated, they should not have been admitted to the alliance in 2004. This would be a particularly hard position to take, given that they are all vibrant democracies with few of the problems of corruption and bad governance faced by other NATO members like Romania and Bulgaria. All I can say is that it’s a good thing that they are in rather than out right now. They have become a bit like West Berlin during the Cold War, an indefensible outpost that NATO protected by stationing tripwire forces there. This is exactly what we should be doing with the Baltics today.
I cannot of course prove that Russia’s current aggression would have occurred regardless of NATO expansion, any more than the expansion’s critics can prove that it would be a more liberal and unaggressive state had NATO acted otherwise. But everything we know about Russia today suggests that the counterfactual history is very implausible. Putin’s life story and utterances have made clear that he has always believed that the entire sequence of events from the fall of the Berlin Wall on were an enormous disaster for Russia. Moscow’s demands on NATO, made in the past few weeks, make clear his objective of reversing the entire outcome of the end of the Cold War. If Washington, Berlin, and London had followed Mike Mandelbaum’s advice and resisted the entreaties of the countries of Eastern Europe to join NATO, Russian forces would be banging at the doors of Poland and the Baltic states today rather than Ukraine.
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