The Kremlin actually claims to be fighting NATO in Ukraine, which would like to destroy Russia. NATO countries provide military support to Ukraine, but do not send soldiers themselves and say they want to prevent a direct conflict with Russia. How did the relationship between Russia and the Western alliance become so disturbed?
“What is happening in Ukraine is not really a clash between Moscow and Kyiv. It is a military confrontation between Russia and NATO, above all the United States and the United Kingdom,” Nikolai Patrushev told the Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty on Tuesday. He is chairman of the Russian National Security Council and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.
“The plans of the Westerners are to keep tearing Russia apart and eventually erase it from the political map of the world,” Patrushev said.
Russia and NATO have always had a complicated relationship, says historian Hidde Bouwmeester, who specializes in post-Soviet Russia.
From ‘brain dead’ to very much alive
NATO was created to counterbalance the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, the alliance grew through the unification of Germany and the gradual accession of former Eastern Bloc countries. Militarily, NATO asserted itself with bombings in the Yugoslavia and Kosovo wars, the invasion of Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 and an intervention in Libya.
NATO expansion from 1990
Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland
Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia
The past decade has not fared well for the Western alliance. The US found it hard to accept that European countries contributed relatively little to the military power. The focus of the Americans has already turned away from Europe and towards China.
Then-US President Donald Trump toyed aloud with the idea of leaving NATO. His French counterpart Emmanuel Macron warned in 2019 that the alliance had become “brain dead”.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was the lightning strike that rekindled NATO’s brain. Member States provide Ukraine with arms and other support. The NATO presence in Eastern Europe is being stepped up and Sweden and Finland have suddenly decided that joining the alliance is a good idea after all. NATO has not been as relevant as it is now since the end of the Cold War.
Attract and repel
After the Cold War, NATO and its Soviet counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, seemed to have become obsolete. The Warsaw Pact fell apart in 1991. Bouwmeester: “Initially there was the idea in Russia that NATO would also be wound up and a pan-European security organization would be set up.”
When that did not happen, Russia itself wanted to join. Bouwmeester: “The then Russian president Boris Yeltsin said in February 1993: ‘We want to become a member of NATO. Other former Soviet states can also become members, but Russia has to join first.'”
Plans were made for close cooperation and Russia, the US and the UK signed security guarantees for Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan in exchange for their Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
It wasn’t all cake and egg: Moscow condemned the NATO bombings in the Kosovo war in 1999 and did not agree with the structure of the peacekeeping operation that followed. The accession of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary also did not go down well with Russia, but the criticism from the Kremlin was ignored by the alliance.
Putin first took office as Russian president in 1999. He also said he wants NATO membership for his country. Bouwmeester: “Whether that was very sincere is another question.” After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Russia allowed the Americans access to air bases and provided them with valuable intelligence about Afghanistan.
Rainbow of color revolutions
So where did things really go wrong between Russia and NATO? “The color revolutions,” says Bouwmeester. “That was the breakup.” Beginning in 2004, mass protests toppled pro-Russian governments in several former Soviet countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine. That trend was a threat to Putin’s regime. What could happen in Kyiv, could also happen in Moscow.
The Russian president did not think they were really popular movements, says Bouwmeester. “He always believed the West was behind it.”
It didn’t help that the new governments in Georgia and Ukraine showed interest in NATO and the EU. The US pushed strongly for NATO membership for the two, much to the fury of Moscow. At a summit in Bucharest it was decided that Georgia and Ukraine were not yet ready, but NATO stated that both countries would one day become members.
In the end, the politicians who had emerged during the color revolutions failed to deliver on many of their promises. This seemed to remove the danger that the democratic and anti-corruption movement would spread to Russia. The fact that there were major political protests there between 2011 and 2013 came as a nasty surprise to the Kremlin. Bouwmeester: “Putin thinks they were organized by the CIA. He has come to believe more and more in his own propaganda.”
Stabbed in the back and surrounded
Russian NATO membership faded further out of the picture and Moscow felt increasingly surrounded by NATO’s expansion to the east. A ‘stab-butt legend’ emerged, like the one in Germany after the end of the First World War. Many Russians feel that their country was stabbed in the back after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cold War ended for them in an unpalatable humiliating peace.
During a new color revolution in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted after refusing to sign an association agreement (that of the referendum in the Netherlands).
Russia responded by annexing Crimea and instigating a “civil war” in eastern Ukraine to destabilize the neighboring country. Yet Ukraine continued to move westward. NATO countries started to supply weapons and let Ukraine participate in military exercises.
Ukraine was not the only difficult file in the relationship between Russia and NATO. For example, there were arguments about the placement of missiles in other places in Europe. Russia’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad and Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime at home drew widespread criticism from US and European capitals.
Thin excuse or existential threat?
Russian rhetoric about threats from NATO is often dismissed in Western countries as a flimsy excuse to justify the invasion of Ukraine. The prevailing image is that Putin is bent on conquest and dreams of a Greater Russian Empire.
But not everyone agrees. Prominent American political scientist John Mearsheimer, for example, says that NATO is primarily responsible because Russia’s fear of encirclement has long been ignored. It is not important whether NATO is really a threat to Russia, but that it is perceived that way in Moscow, he says.
For others, it’s like swearing in church. There can be no excuse for invading a sovereign foreign country, they say. Certainly not because it makes choices about its own future. Mearsheimer’s somewhat cold analysis of the behavior of great powers clashes with their moral outrage at war and the horrors that accompany it.
However the historians of the future chronicle the run-up to the war, it is certain that Russia and NATO do face each other in Ukraine, whether they fight directly or not. Even if peace comes to Ukraine, it will not end the rivalry between the two power blocs.
And we haven’t even mentioned China yet.
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