Imagined Enemies: Putin’s Obsession with NATO
A certain discourse can be heard floating around these days. Namely, that the situation in Ukraine is to blame on NATO. That it expanded to close to Russia, threatening its security. Such a theory would be plausible if one refers to Cold War politics. Hence, we should accept that Russia has the right to a sphere of influence. That this would go above and beyond the sovereignty of other nations.
Such an idea plays directly into the discourse of Russian propaganda. It presents them as peaceful actors of the international scene. In this scenario others threaten their security and existence. The purpose of this article will be to explain why this rhetoric is divorced from reality.
Self-Determination and the Ukrainian Nation
After the First World War the right to self-determination came to play an important role in international relations. This is mostly still a valid operating point. Ukrainians are a distinct people. Although they share many similarities with Russians they are not the same. Differences can be found both culturally and linguistically.
After the fall of the Russian Empire the Ukrainian people attempted to gain independence. The rise of the Soviet Union quickly put an end to it. However, Lenin organised his new state into a sort of federation. Thus, Ukraine became a Soviet republic. It meant little in terms of freedom or autonomy, but it meant their recognition as a distinct people and entity. In fact, Vladimir Putin criticises this policy. He argues that it went against the historic right of Russia over Ukraine.
Stalin had a plan to eliminate any possibility of national dissent among the soviet republics. He would try to destroy the essence of their identity through outright genocide. In the case of Ukraine it was the Holodomor. This was the worst man-made famine in history, killing around 3 million people.
After the Cold War
The dissolution of the Soviet Union gave Ukrainians the chance to win independence. It inherited a considerable nuclear arsenal. However, they gave it up and in return, through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia would agree to respect its borders. Also, Russia was leased the use of the naval base in Sevastopol.
Until 2004 Ukraine was in the Russian sphere of influence. However, the Orange Revolution and the election of Viktor Yushchenko as president were the first cracks. The 2010 elections saw Russian favourite Viktor Yanukovich win. His main opponent, former prime-minister Yulia Timoshenko was quickly accused of corruption and sent to jail.
Yet, the Kremlin’s plans were foiled by the 2013 protests known as Euromaidan. They were a reaction to Yanukovich’s refusal to sign a treaty with the European Union. Attempts to violently disperse the people escalated into a full-blown revolution. In the East, Russian-backed separatists began a civil war in Donbas and Luhansk. Simultaneously, Russia unilaterally annexed Crimea, securing their naval base in Sevastopol.
Prelude to War
The events of 2014 put Ukraine on a path towards the West. While this was by no means a straight or perfect path it was an obvious choice. The European Union holds the prospects of economic growth and more prosperity. NATO offers security, especially as Russia loomed ever more unfriendly to the East.
For Vladimir Putin this was a threat to his idea of empire and jewel of his crown, Ukraine. His discourse in recent years was focused on the idea of the former Russian Empire. Consequently, his idea of national security is inherently based in antagonism with the West. An enemy he must conquer in order to become a historical figure.
The election of Volodymyr Zelensky would make the gap between the two countries wider and deeper. Negotiations barely brought an uneasy ceasefire in Donbas and Luhansk after the second round of Minsk Accords. This encouraged Kiev to seek military aid from the West. President Obama was not too eager to offer it as he feared escalation. However, in the past two years more and more equipment came in to strengthen the Ukrainian Army.
NATOs expansion Eastwards was not an aggressive military campaign. Former communist countries independently sought integration. The reasons for this are relatively simple to explain. Firstly, historic experience with Russia is mostly negative, especially the five decades behind the Iron Curtain. Secondly, collective security from another such similar experience. Thirdly, the West offers more and better economic opportunities. Putin’s promises of Eastern integration are more akin to imperial ambitions than authentic political cooperation.
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- Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, London — 2017.
- Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, 2015.
- Paul Kirby, Why is Russia invading Ukraine and what does Putin want?, BBC, March 1, 2022.
- Alasdair Sandford, Ukraine crisis: What is Russia’s problem with NATO?, Euronews, February 10, 2022.
- Dan Bilefsky, Richard Perez-Pena, Eric Nagourney, The Roots of the Ukraine War: How the Crisis Developed, The New York Times, February 28, 2022.
Originally published at https://www.theworldbriefly.com on March 2, 2022.