The World

Putin’s War Was Never Actually About NATO

Blurry action shot of two police officers dragging away an older woman at a demonstration
War protesters in Moscow on Thursday, shortly after Russia’s invasion. These people are whom Putin is actually afraid of. Alexander Nemenov/Getty Images

In his Feb. 15 Just Security article “Ukraine: Unleashing the Rhetorical Dogs of War,” Barry Posen argued that NATO and Ukraine should have cut a deal with Russia because the Ukrainian military would surely be defeated by Russia without direct U.S./Western military participation, and U.S. offers of equipment were only encouraging a potential Ukrainian insurgency against Russian occupation that would be as bloody as it would be futile. The prescription depends entirely on Posen’s assumption that to satisfy Russia, all Ukraine would have had to do would be “to swallow the bitter pill of accepting armed neutrality between NATO and Russia, rather than NATO membership.”

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This assumption contradicts events of recent months and the historical record. While Vladimir Putin has claimed that his goal is keeping Ukraine out of NATO, he also insisted that he was just conducting military exercises. Instead, he is invading Ukraine again. He likewise insisted in 2014 that he wasn’t capturing Crimea, despite the presence of his unidentified “Little Green Men” and his subsequent annexation of the peninsula, or that he was not fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas area in the east all these years, despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no reason to take Putin at his word. His Feb. 21 diatribe conferring Russian recognition of independence for the two eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and his order for Russian troops to move in as ostensible “peacekeepers” shows clearly his disdain for diplomatic resolutions.

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Moreover, this is not even primarily about NATO.

NATO’s eastward expansion may have played a role in straining the relationship between Russia and the West, but mainly because, for Russia, seeing former satellites eagerly abandon it for the greener pastures of Euro-Atlantic integration stung. However, Putin’s rhetoric and actions over almost two decades reveal that his goals extend beyond imposing neutrality on Ukraine or even staving off further NATO expansion. The larger objective is to reestablish Russian political and cultural dominance over a nation that Putin sees as one with Russia, and then follow up by undoing the European rules-based order and security architecture established in the aftermath of World War II. Given these goals, Ukrainian neutrality is a woefully insufficient concession for Putin.

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If Russia’s main concern had been NATO enlargement, it would have reacted with rhetoric and/or hostile actions in its neighborhood after each step in the NATO expansion process. The largest wave of NATO’s eastward expansion took place in March 2004, when seven Eastern European countries joined, including the formerly Soviet Baltic states. Russia “grumbled,” as the New York Times put it then, by adopting a Duma resolution criticizing the expansion, but no hostile and sustained rhetoric followed about NATO enlargement as a Western plot against Russian interests.

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In 1997, Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, signed the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between NATO and Ukraine, and in 2002, he publicly declared Ukraine’s interest in NATO membership, to little opposition from Russia. The NATO membership issue has ebbed and flowed within Ukraine, as presidents alternated in power who were either more pro-Western or more pro-Russian. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko advocated during his 2005–10 tenure for Ukraine to be granted a NATO membership action plan, a program of preparation for entry into the alliance, while successor President Viktor Yanukovych backed away from the idea after 2010. Russia did not respond to any of these pro-NATO moves by Ukrainian presidents with military threats and aggression.

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Russia knows further NATO expansion to the east is highly improbable because certain alliance members have long balked at the prospect, making the required consensus impossible to attain. Russia also has an authoritarian ally within NATO, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who can help stave off any future consensus, and other NATO members such as Germany and France do not support membership for Ukraine, Georgia, or other post-Soviet states. The security guarantee that Russia demands now goes much further than membership issues. Putin’s Feb. 21 speech shows he perceives any security cooperation between Ukraine and NATO, from modernization of airports to training exercises, as a “knife to [Russia’s] throat.”

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Even after a new pro-Western government in Ukraine that followed the 2014 incursions again embraced the goal of NATO membership, and Ukrainian public support for such a move rose, Ukraine’s accession was that much more unlikely because of the alliance’s reluctance to embrace new members embroiled in territorial disputes. If Putin’s main concern now was to keep Ukraine out of NATO, he had nothing to fear in 2014, when he first invaded Ukraine, and had even less to fear in 2021, when he embarked on the current escalation.

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A longer look at Putin’s two decades in power shows that, above all, he fears political competition in the neighborhood. When mass protests over rigged elections swept across the post-Soviet space in 2003–05, toppling the Georgian and Kyrgyz incumbents and preventing the pro-Russian candidate from taking office in Ukraine, the Kremlin exploded with fiery rhetoric about Western-backed anti-Russian plots. A recent book on conspiracy theories in the Russian media since 1995 shows that the 2003–05 “color revolutions” were the top source of conspiratorial, anti-Western narratives. All 1997–2002 NATO enlargement summits are lower in the ranking of analyzed events. American realists have long argued that Russia was too weak to strike back with actions, but evidence shows that the Kremlin did not react with strong rhetoric either. Instead of decrying NATO expansion, Russia prioritized complaints about Western political “meddling” in its neighboring countries, by which Russia meant U.S. and European support for domestic democratization drives.

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In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and instigated an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, NATO membership for Ukraine hadn’t even been on the agenda. Rather, the spark for Russia was the ouster of the increasingly authoritarian pro-Russian president, Yanukovych, following months of street protests. Those “Euromaidan” protests had erupted after Yanukovych backpedaled, following pressure and bribery from Russia, from signing a trade agreement with the European Union.

So why was 2014 so concerning to Russia that it chose to invade? Given Putin’s rhetoric about Euromaidan as a Western-backed plot, the most obvious conclusion is that he was afraid that regime change and democratization in Ukraine might reach—or at least set an example for—Russian society and destabilize Putin’s increasingly consolidated authoritarianism. Research on the color revolutions and on the third wave of democratization in the region shows that this neighborhood effect was real. In other words, it’s not NATO at its doorsteps that’s so concerning to the Kremlin, but political competition, because it threatens authoritarian stability and introduces prospects of democratization.

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There is ample evidence, most strikingly laid out in Putin’s Feb. 21 speech, that his problem with a sovereign Ukraine goes deeper than a document formalizing the obvious status quo of Ukraine’s NATO ineligibility. Realist legitimation of Russia’s demands could be used endlessly to justify more demands. By such rationales, a democratic, sovereign Ukraine is, by default, an “unfriendly power” in Russia’s “backyard.” Realist theory can neither guarantee that further demands would not be made, nor predict when they might be made. Would an international agreement not to Russia’s liking be threatening enough to its power? Modernization of Ukraine’s military? An effective anti-corruption reform that holds Ukraine’s oligarchs accountable while their Russian counterparts continue to plunder national wealth as Russia’s top anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny, sits in prison? Putin’s 2014 aggression dramatically reduced the already dim prospects of Ukraine’s entry into NATO, but clearly this has not been sufficient for Russia. Why would the formalization of the status quo suffice now?

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Ukraine aside, there is another danger of trying to satisfy Putin’s demands for Western democracies. Conceding the underlying principles of the rules-based international order under armed threat from an autocratic government carries profound long-term dangers for global democracy and post-WWII security. As Larry Diamond warned in a recent essay, Putin has broad contempt for the West and is determined to upend the international order. Rolling over now would only allow Putin to move on to bigger wants.

Instead of taking at face value Putin’s claim of being threatened by the nonexistent prospect of Ukrainian membership in NATO, Western leaders and theorists of realism ought to take at face value Putin’s disdain for democracy that he has expressed on multiple occasions—from his 2007 Munich speech to the recent joint statement with Chinese President Xi Jinping on “international relations entering a new era.”

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A written promise from NATO has the allure of a quick fix to achieve security. But it is too good to be true and the West should not fall for it. Instead, the current crisis that Putin keeps escalating should serve as a wake-up call for the West that we are indeed facing, to quote Diamond, “the darkest moment for freedom in half a century.” Only collective resolve to deter Putin could both prevent an even wider war in Ukraine and preserve the rules-based democratic order in Europe and beyond.

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