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If I could turn back time

Was the West lulled into a false sense of security by the expansion of NATO and the EU in Europe post the fall of the Soviet Union?

“A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways” - Niccolo Machiavelli

It goes without saying that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is an unjustified travesty, a breach of human rights and that Putin is a mad dictator. But this article isn’t about how bad/unjustified/reprehensible the war on Ukraine is - it's an analysis of the situation, and what may have prevented it, by looking through a lens of realpolitik.

To start, let's go back in time. On the evening of Christmas Day 1991, the guards lowered the Soviet “hammer and sickle” flag in Red Square and replaced it with Russian tricolour. As the sun set, both literally and figuratively on the Russian Empire, so too was Russia’s global pre-eminence extinguished. Prior to its dissolution, the Soviet Union was the second or third-largest economy in the world. Its military was second only to the United States and it wielded significant political influence, from Communist Cuba, to North Korea.

In 1999 at the Washington Summit, several months before Vladimir Putin became acting President of Russia (on 31 December); Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO, despite Russian opposition. The Baltics and several other Eastern European countries would follow in 2004, bringing the world’s most powerful military alliance right to Russia’s doorstep. All this occurred while Russia was at its weakest, its GDP (PPP) about half that of Germany’s (today they are broadly similar), its economy restructured from the Soviet system, and the military was underfunded as a result of the economic crisis. Leading this weakened nation, was a man who in 2005 described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared” - Niccolo Machiavelli

From a realpolitik perspective - the period post-1990 was the opportune time to expand NATO. Russia was at its weakest and could do relatively little to prevent the expansion - it had too many internal problems to worry about.

This notwithstanding, it is worthwhile observing that even at this time, certain elements within Russia appeared, on balance, to perceive the expansion of NATO as a threat. There is some evidence to suggest that the West may have provided Russia assurance that NATO wouldn’t expand as much as it ultimately did. US Secretary of State James Baker was famously said to have assured Gorbachev that NATO would expand “not one inch eastward”.

This argument is a bit theoretical, however. From a realpolitik perspective, it was the right time to expand and ensure that Russia, an inherently powerful country due to its population and resources, would find it much more difficult to ever become a threat again. Threads of realpolitik and self-interest can be found in the policies of US Administrations of the time. Officials of the Bush Administration (1989-1993) appeared keen to expand US influence.Under the Clinton Administration, Secretary of State Madeline Albright appears to recognise the future threat that Russia could pose, and the role NATO could play in reducing that threat, noting in testimony before the US Senate that the United States:

“could not ‘dismiss the possibility that Russia could return to the patterns of the past. Hence, enlarging NATO assisted in ‘closing the avenue to more destructive alternatives in Russia’s future”

If this was the plan, it worked. The prospect of Russia ever turning into a country approximating the military and economic power of the Soviet Union is fairly dim; given the degree of political and economic integration between most of the countries in Russia’s former sphere of influence and NATO/the EU.

What do Georgia and Ukraine have in common?

Four things,

  1. Aspirations to join NATO (engaged in ongoing dialogue)

  2. Borders with Russia

  3. Failure to join NATO prior to 2004

  4. Ongoing territorial disputes with Russia

It is evident that these factors are all correlated, with one contributing to the other. Ukraine and Georgia both attempted to join the party late, so to speak, as regards to NATO. Georgia “turned Westward” following the Rose Revolution in 2003, pursuing a pro-Western foreign policy and NATO membership. Russia invaded five years later in 2008, and credits the war with eliminating the prospect of Georgia joining NATO. The situation in Ukraine (Euromaidan Uprising, 2013-2014), followed by seizure of Crimea, can be seen in the same context.

Post the early 2000’s, Russia was in a considerably different place than the 1990’s - when Poland, the Baltics and other key Eastern European nations commenced discussions to join NATO. By 2008, Russia had largely won a long, bloody war/insurgency in Chechnya and its economy and defence spending had increased circa five-fold from 2000. Russian trade with Europe had also expanded, with critical fuel exports increasing almost seven-times between 2000 & 2008, and increasing further since then. Suffice to say that Russia was in a much stronger position to assert its national interests (justified or not), and it's clear that the Kremlin didn’t see the pro-Western orientation of Georgian, and then Ukrainian Governments as in Russia’s national interest.

It's worthwhile observing that Russia acting to “protect its interests” (rightly or wrongly) in nearby countries is not an anathema to a country such as the US. US foreign policy has often veered towards counting the Americas as part of the US “sphere of influence”. A notion underpinned by long-standing, and frequently reinterpreted tenets such as the Monroe Doctrine. Nor has the US been a stranger to overthrowing democratically elected Governments to protect its interests - during the Cold War the United States acted to overthrow a number of democratically elected Marxist Governments in South America, appearing to prefer right-wing dictators to left-wing democratically elected leaders. The point is - the US should have recognised the danger posed by Russia given its own historic behaviour.

“Wisdom consists of knowing how to distinguish the nature of the trouble, and in choosing the lesser evil” - Niccolo Machiavelli

Focussing specifically on the current Russo-Ukrainian War, the discussion above suggests that perhaps NATO (and the EU for that matter) could, or should, have managed the situation differently following Russia’s re-emergence as a powerful country in the early 2000’s. Rebutting the prospect of NATO/EU membership for Ukraine at any point prior to 17 February 2022 could have compelled Ukrainian political elites to adopt a balanced approach of enhancing ties to the West, to the extent possible, while also placating Moscow. With the prospect of NATO or EU membership taken off the table, Ukraine may have become a sort of buffer state and war could have been averted.

We may go one step further and suggest that NATO did a disservice to Ukraine (and Georgia) by holding out the prospect of membership in the manner it did. In NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit, a Summit attended by Putin, NATO welcomed the prospect of membership for Georgia and Ukraine and agreed “these countries will become members of NATO”. In the 2021 Brussel’s summit NATO’s leaders reiterated that Ukraine would ultimately become a member of the alliance.

To be clear once again - on no level does the author agree with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from a moral or geopolitical perspective. All countries have the right to self-determination and the efforts of Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people deserve the highest respect.

However… to use yet another Machiavelli quote in this article - “Politics have no relation to morals.” Especially after the Georgian War in 2008, perhaps NATO should have seen that further expansion of the alliance would serve to antagonise Russia and increase the prospect of war in Europe. In this context, publically holding out the prospect of membership to Ukraine, in the absence of a membership solution that would keep Russia happy, is arguably irresponsible. After all, NATO would never have put boots on the ground to defend Ukraine in the absence of it obtaining membership, and it seems clear that Russia was always going to invade prior to membership being obtained. Perhaps in the geopolitical context of the times, Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO were always for nought and served to make war inevitable.


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