Unpopular Opinion: NATO is Responsible for the Conflict in Ukraine
When news broke, “Putin is Invading Ukraine,” my initial reaction was that the international community must band together against Russian aggression. I also questioned whether the US and NATO should have taken a harder line with Russia. Or if the United States could have upheld its agreement to protect Ukraine against the threat or use of force under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances signed in 1994. They did not because, as Obama said, Ukraine is not a core interest to the United States like it is for Moscow, and “we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.”
Like most things in life, it often isn’t black or white; especially when it comes to politics, it’s almost always grey. After reflecting over the last few days on the context in which the conflict arose. I can only conclude that NATO and its allies are responsible for the current conflict in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian people are defending their own country, rightfully so. And Russia is protecting its strategic core interest and national security, as any country would. To understand this better, let’s take a moment to look at it from Russia’s perspective.
Ukraine is Russia’s Monroe Doctrine
What Putin ultimately wants is a halt to NATO / EU expansion in eastern Europe, which includes:
- Halt to the eastward expansion of NATO / EU membership, the signing of defense treaties & political meddling of its neighboring states.
- Stop to the routine military exercises and deployment of missile defense systems & WMDs by its borders.
- End to the funding and support of anti-Russian neo-Nazi extremist
To Russia, the issue on Ukraine is of national security and core strategic interest, or by definition, “The bottom line… what a nation wants and what its citizens are willing to go to war over and to die for.”
Here’s what the current Director of the CIA, William Burns, had to say about Ukraine and NATO back in 2008.
“Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
He also goes on to say that It’s “hard to overstate the strategic consequences” of offering Ukraine NATO membership, predicting that it would “create a fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
How Russia feels about NATO expansion isn’t a secret; Putin has explicitly expressed his views on more than one occasion. While the public may largely be unaware, it’s well understood in Washington.
Here’s a map of NATO expansion from 1998 to 2022; NATO has moved practically to Russia’s borders.
NATO’s incremental expansion of NATO / EU membership eastward, routine military exercises, and deployment of missile weapons systems by Russia’s borders are undeniably provocative and hostile from the Russian perspective.
Putin & the Kremlin see the incremental encroachment of Russia’s national security and strategic interest simply unacceptable, and Ukraine is where they draw the line. Pressure within the Kremlin has also mounted for Putin to act and defend Russia’s interest.
Review of NATO’s Actions
If peace and stability in Europe were the objectives, the pragmatic approach is to explicitly state that Ukraine will not be a part of NATO / EU and allow for Ukraine to be a neutral state. In other words, a neutral buffer zone between NATO and Russia. Professor John Mearsheimer, who predicted the Ukrainian predicament today in 2015, has advocated for an economically strong but neutral Ukraine approach.
Instead, what NATO has done over the past decade is string Ukraine along with the hope of joining NATO / EU. Provided Ukrainians with military weapons. Trained and supported anti-Russia extremists in Ukraine that have shelled a predominately Russian population in eastern Ukraine for the last eight years. Last month, Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken again stated that NATO membership was open to Ukraine.
NATO’s approach thus far has made little sense if peace was the objective. Assuming good intentions, it’s bad policy that views geopolitics from a narrow, one-dimensional perspective.
Despite this, some argue from an ideological point of view that Ukraine has the right to choose who it wants to align itself with as a sovereign nation. And NATO / EU has the right to allow whoever it wants to be part of its alliance. (Putting aside political meddling considerations. AKA the current government resulted from a takeover supported by the West to overthrow the previously corrupt and elected pro-Russian government). Essentially, the argument boils down to the “right of a nation to choose” trumps other considerations.
To that end, I would ask how we expect the United States to react if Russia/China built a missile system in Cuba or Venezuela and talked about forming a security defense alliance. Or if Mexico harbored and trained ISIS. It’s happened before in the 1960s, the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” And if you recall, we responded by threatening nuclear war. In those circumstances, there’s no question the United States would invade with the use of force, a self-sovereign nation or not. And Cuban/ Venezuelan citizens will die defending their country against the US invaders
But will the world rally against the United States and stand up for Cuba’s freedom to choose, like Ukraine? I think it unlikely. Then the question we should ask is why because it feels awfully hypocritical.
But I digress because the focus of this post isn’t about ideological beliefs of right and wrong. It’s about a pragmatic approach to peace and stability in Europe.
Where to go from here?
The immediate goal should be to de-escalate the situation while providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainian civilians. Resuming talks to settle the conflict diplomatically with concessions should be the utmost priority. Escalating the situation is extremely dangerous because Russia has few options but to raise the Ante. And as the saying goes, “Corner a dog in a dead-end street, and it will turn and bite.”
A policy approach that looks to create a neutral Ukraine will go a long way in maintaining peace and stability in Europe. Ukraine should also disassociate and purge neo-Nazis from its government. And an effort to normalize relationships with Russia, understanding that it will take time, is also strategically prudent for the West.
Unlike China, Russia is economically weak and a declining superpower. They have nukes and oil, but not much else. There is little reason for the West not to pursue a more cooperative posture. It isn’t the cold war anymore. The primary cause of the hostility between NATO & Russia is rooted in mistrust rather than conflicting core interests.
But a pragmatic and logical approach to foreign policy will take political courage. Because sadly, American politics and policy is often driven by opinion polls rather than sense. And Russia isn’t very popular these days.