Don’t be Duped by Putin’s Grievances against NATO

By Yasmin Samrai, Stanford ’22

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

Vladimir Putin broke his months-long silence over the Ukrainian crisis during a press conference on February 1 and accused the United States of “drawing” Russia into an armed conflict with its western neighbor. The Russian President is following a familiar script: deflect blame onto the West to create a pretext for aggression abroad. This victimhood act is helping to conceal Moscow’s offensive foreign policy behind a defensive façade that some observers find plausible or even sympathetic.

The idea that the West is goading Russia into a war with Ukraine is not only popular in Russia, where 50% of the population believes the West is responsible for rising tensions, but also here in the United States. The New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline “Is Biden’s Strategy with Putin Working, or Goading Moscow to War?” Harvard professor Stephen Walt blamed the military buildup at the Ukrainian border on the “hubris, wishful thinking, and liberalism” of the U.S. and its European allies. Meanwhile, Republicans dropped their historic hard line on Russia and accused President Joe Biden of fomenting the crisis; Senator Josh Hawley even called for abandoning America’s longstanding commitment to Ukrainian membership in NATO. Taking the argument several steps further, Fox News host Tucker Carlson described the brewing conflict as a “manufactured crisis” devised by “restless, power-hungry neocons in Washington” and mused, “Why is it disloyal to side with Russia but loyal to side with Ukraine?”

It is deeply concerning that influential voices in the West are faulting the U.S. for the escalation of tensions in Ukraine. These commentators ignore Russia’s agency in fomenting the crisis and lend credence to Putin’s justification for war. Putin — it is worth remembering — annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed a violent rebellion in the Donbas region that has led to over 13,000 deaths. Putin (not Biden) has amassed over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and drawn up elaborate plans to fabricate a Ukrainian attack on Russia. These are inconvenient truths for Kremlin leaders who prefer to perpetuate the myth of Russian innocence.

In response to Russia’s campaign of intimidation, the Biden administration is sending military aid to Ukraine, fortifying NATO allies in Eastern Europe with additional troops, and threatening major sanctions. These standard actions of coercive diplomacy are designed to deter, not provoke, Russia. However much Putin wants to portray a future invasion of Ukraine as a legitimate act of retaliation against the West, his actions would betray a calculated effort to wage a war of aggression.

Before calling on Biden to concede to Russia’s security demands, policymakers and analysts need to understand the true drivers of Putin’s military buildup. The evidence available suggests that Putin resents NATO expansion not so much as a military security threat, but more so as a symbol of Russia’s geopolitical decline and ideological encirclement. The prospect of “Little Russia” — as Putin calls Ukraine — integrating successfully into an alliance of democracies would be a blow to his expansionist fantasies and to his illiberal regime. It would not, as he claimed in a 2014 speech to the Russian legislature after the annexation of Crimea, create a “perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.” NATO is a mutual defense alliance that has not — and will never — attack Russia first. Nevertheless, Putin prefers to exploit and exaggerate the threat in his public rhetoric to legitimize his authoritarian rule at home and aggressive behavior abroad.

Seeing through Smoke and Mirrors

Russian military officers have admitted upon retirement that NATO does not present a credible national security threat, a belief the current political elite likely shares. Russia not only has a strategic advantage over NATO in conventional weapons, but also a massive nuclear deterrent to protect its territory. The positioning of NATO infrastructure near Russian borders should also matter less given that Russia can launch conventionally and nuclear equipped cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away.

Likewise, as political scientist Kimberly Marten argues, the historical record should make clear to the Russian leadership that NATO armed forces in Eastern Europe are meant for deterrence. NATO has never attacked Russia, annexed Russian territory, nor carried out assassination attempts on Russian soil. (The same cannot be said about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Georgia, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, and Germany). Developments in the post-Cold War era — such as the reduction of conventional weapons far below the limits of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty — should have also signaled to the Russian defense establishment that NATO exists to deter, not wage, war.

Though Putin portrays the alliance as a menacing security threat, Russian troops and artillery actually declined sharply along the country’s western and southern borders from 2000 until 2014 amid two waves of NATO enlargement. Perhaps the more recent enlargements, in 2017 and 2020 respectively, alarmed Putin? This seems unlikely: the addition of Montenegro and North Macedonia, whose military forces are too small to contribute meaningfully to allied operations, were not major strategic events. No NATO missiles were even moved to their territories to threaten Russia or any other state. Armed force deployments in Central and Eastern Europe’s largest NATO members — countries which lie close to the Russian borders and could hypothetically unnerve Russia — have also remained low and level or declined significantly since their accession.

Still, there remains the possibility that a paranoid Putin mistakes NATO expansion for offensive aggression. Distinctions between offense and defense — which exist in theory — can admittedly become blurred in reality. However, major inconsistencies in Putin’s anti-NATO narrative undermine this possibility. During his first two presidential terms, Putin cooperated closely with the alliance through the NATO-Russia Council and reacted to the incorporation of the Baltic States in 2004 in a relatively calm and restrained manner. He even entertained the idea of Russia someday joining NATO. More recently, between 2012 and 2015, Putin granted NATO access to its military airport in Ulyanovsk for the transit of military cargo to Afghanistan. Had the Russian President regarded the alliance as a grave security threat, he would not have allowed NATO equipment to transit through the Russian heartland. Instead, Putin has inflated and deflated the military security threat from NATO as it suits his agenda.

For all the complaining Putin does about Russia’s encirclement by NATO, he has not taken the most logical approach to reducing the alleged security threat. He could avert future enlargements of the alliance by addressing Eastern Europe’s legitimate fears of a Russian invasion and by offering their heads of state security guarantees. Instead, he has surrounded Ukraine with Russian forces on three sides, making real the threat of war, and relegated Eastern European countries to mere spectators in negotiations between Russia and the West.

Putin’s True Fear

Putin’s chief grievance regarding NATO is about power: his own power and the power of Russia in the post-Soviet space. The geographic and operational expansion of NATO has sent a painful message that Russia no longer operates at parity with the United States as the Soviet Union once did. Draft security agreements published by the Russian Foreign Ministry in December resurfaced these lingering grievances and imagined a new European security architecture in which Russia enjoys a prominent, privileged role.

The post-Cold War enlargement of NATO first developed into a grievance under Russian President Boris Yeltsin. In 1996, once NATO’s vision for enlargement had become public, the foreign affairs columnist Flora Lewis conducted a series of interviews with senior Russian analysts, politicians, and officials to gauge the source of their resentment. To her surprise, “none [of the responses] included military, strategic, or geopolitical analysis, though many of the speakers were lifelong experts in those fields.” Instead, the interview participants highlighted “feelings, perceptions of Russia’s role as a great power, its need for the respect that it is due.” Lewis concluded that Moscow’s attempts to halt NATO expansion stemmed from “Russia’s unwillingness to perceive itself as anything other than one of the world’s two superpowers.”

Resentment about the impact of NATO enlargement on Russia’s sense of prestige and identity have continued to take precedence over military and security concerns. NATO’s military operation in Libya in 2011 might not have threatened Russian national security, but its symbolism hardened Putin’s attitudes. NATO launched airstrikes to create safe zones for civilians fleeing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. With the West’s support, Libyan rebel forces overthrew the regime and executed Gaddafi. In Putin’s words, NATO’s Libyan adventure turned “the Arab Spring” into “the Arab Winter.” From his perspective, a pattern had emerged: the West was conducting an imperialist policy and its attempt to shape the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East through military force had fomented instability across the globe. Russian diplomats reportedly used a high-stakes meeting at NATO diplomatic headquarters in January to revive grievances over the alliance’s history of bombing campaigns. These discontents are revealing because complaints uttered in private offer a more reliable indicator of foreign policy drivers than public displays of outrage.

Since his return to the presidency in 2012, Putin has inflated slights by NATO to justify, excuse, and deflect many instances of foul play — chief among them, the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In his grievance-laden address to the Russian legislature in March of that year, President Putin incited horror at the prospect of NATO forces arriving in Sevastopol (“the city of Russia’s military glory”). He claimed that NATO had provoked Russia, casting the invasion of Ukraine as a desperate act of defense against an impending military threat rather than an act of aggression against a far weaker neighbor and non-member state.

However, the events leading up to the annexation tell another story. In 2010, Putin and his proxies had celebrated President Viktor Yanukovych’s electoral victory — aided by Russian financial and media resources — as a repudiation of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. Illiberalism seemed ascendant in Ukraine following the return of a Kremlin loyalist to power. But when Yanukovych canceled preparations for signing a historic pact with the European Union in late 2013, massive demonstrations erupted throughout Ukraine. Yanukovych fled to Russia, and Putin decided to strike back against what he denounced as a “coup d’état” and the “growth of extreme nationalism.” In Putin’s eyes, the 2014 Maidan Revolution was another Western attempt at regime change following the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia in the early 2000s and in Libya in 2011. Since Ukrainians and Russians are, in his view, “fundamentally a single people,” the consolidation of Ukraine into a liberal democracy right on Russia’s borders would undermine Putin’s argument for strong, autocratic rule in Russia. He was more than willing to use extraordinary measures — annexation and military intervention — to achieve this ideologically-driven aim.

Realists may still insist that security concerns triggered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, Putin’s actions in 2014 belie this argument. If Putin truly saw NATO as an offensive pact — and therefore a security concern — then he would have never risked grabbing Crimea, fearing that such a move would provoke the alliance members and endanger national security. Instead, a risk-benefit calculation in which the Russian leadership deemed NATO not to pose a serious military threat led Putin to take a historic gamble and annex Crimea.

Ironically for adherents to Russia’s official grievance narrative, Putin’s annexation of Crimea made Russia less, not more, secure. It jolted NATO alliance members back into action after years of slashing their military budgets and triggered new spending and deployments within Eastern Europe. Russia was kicked out of the G7 and suffered severe economic contraction following Western sanctions. The absence of millions of Crimean and Donbass voters from Ukrainian elections has shifted Ukraine in a decidedly pro-European direction, increasing anti-Russia sentiment and support for NATO membership. Another Russian invasion of Ukraine would almost certainly spur even larger NATO deployments in Eastern Europe and turn neighboring countries against Russia.

Putin regards NATO expansion as not only a threat to Russia’s sphere of influence, but also to his regime, which seeks to create a buffer of failed democracies that will shield its illiberal, autocratic ideology from the West. For Central and Eastern European countries that were closed off from the West by the Iron Curtain, membership in NATO was a way for their leaders to assert a new, non-communist identity and to enhance their countries’ prospects of joining the European Union. Ukraine and Georgia aspire to join NATO for these very ideological reasons in addition to their security needs. Consequently, Russian state-controlled media disseminates an increasing amount of propaganda discrediting the alliance while Putin stokes divisions by bolstering nationalist political movements within NATO countries that align with his illiberal ideology.

Grieving and Deceiving

Putin’s grievances against the NATO military security “threat” are tactical. They are designed to deflect attention from Russia’s imperial intentions in Ukraine, present Russia’s military buildup as a legitimate response to historical wrongs, and shift responsibility onto Washington for the breakdown in bilateral relations. This rhetorical strategy recalls the Cold War technique of “treasuring of grievances,” a phenomenon identified by Philip Mosely in his 1961 compendium Negotiating with the Russians.

“The Soviet official covers up his own aggressive behavior and lack of substantive proposals by piling on grievances, real or imaginary, against the negotiating adversary usually amid disconcerting ripostes and accusations of bad faith.”

The West’s diplomats and analysts should pay close attention to Putin’s rhetoric, but be careful not to interpret his grievance narrative at face value. What Putin describes as a legitimate pursuit for the security of the Russian homeland is, in fact, an illegitimate excuse to extend Russia’s territorial reach and illiberal influence into Ukraine. If power and ideological conquest are his aims, then ruling out Ukrainian membership in NATO will not appease Putin. Such a concession would not only amount to a betrayal of Ukraine but would allow Putin to go unpunished for his aggression and embolden him to create and inflate more grievances. The West must recognize the tactical nature of Russia’s grievance narrative or risk letting Putin upend the post-Cold War European order in the name of security.

Yasmin Samrai, Stanford ‘22
Author Yasmin Samrai, Stanford ‘22

Yasmin Samrai ’22 is a senior at Stanford University studying History and Economics. Last year, she wrote an honors thesis at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) on “The Geopolitical Blame Game: Russia’s Strategy of Weaponizing Grievances against the West.”

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