Alexei Bayer: Should NATO admit Ukraine?
Vladimir Putin has proven time and again that he is an enemy of the West and, in particular, of the United States. In his latest announcement, he put America at the top of the list of Russia’s “Unfriendly Countries” and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, declared that relations between the two countries are now worse than during the Cold War.
Putin is also dead set against Ukraine joining NATO. Wouldn’t that alone be reason enough for the Western military alliance to contemplate welcoming Ukraine in? In fact, NATO should hurry up before the window of opportunity closes, which may happen fairly soon.
Remarkably, aside from Putin’s appeasers, there is a strong body of opinion in Europe and the United States that is opposed to further eastward enlargement of NATO. Worse, there are plenty of people who decry the 1999 admission of former Warsaw Pact members in Eastern Europe and certainly the 2004 expansion which brought in three former Soviet republics.
Apparently, that expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia was to blame for Russia not being today if not a liberal democracy, then a friend of the United States.
Just last week Thomas L Friedman, known as a mainstream American internationalist, wrote in his New York Times column on April 28, 2021:
“Our foolish decision to expand NATO into Russia’s face — after the fall of the Soviet Union — hardened post-Communist Russia into an enemy instead of a potential partner, creating the ideal conditions for an anti-Western autocrat like Putin to emerge. (Imagine if Russia, a country with which we have zero trade or border disputes, were OUR ally today vis-à-vis China and Iran and not THEIR ally in disputes with us.)”
This is, of course, complete nonsense.
Putin was handpicked by Boris Yeltsin to succeed him not because Putin was a nationalist able to stand up to America but because Putin could hold power in the dog-eat-dog Kremlin world while also guaranteeing that Yeltsin’s family would be allowed to keep their freedom and the money they had stolen.
And Putin and the Russia he leads were never going to be a friend or even a reliable partner of the United States.
This is where the fallacy lies. Friedman and his friends suppose that after the fall of communism Russia was somehow on the path toward becoming a European liberal democracy until perfidious Washington stupidly took advantage of its weakness and rubbed its face into its defeat in the Cold War. And thus instead of opening up and choosing to become modern and prosperous, Russia became a nationalistic, illiberal commodities exporter without an economic future.
It is true that Yeltsin was popularly elected in 1992, becoming the only leader to win a free and open election. It is also true that, in the 1990s, Russians got the kind of freedoms they could previously only dream of, including the freedom to earn money, to travel, and to criticize the government. For the first time in Russia’s history, it had no political prisoners or political exiles who feared to return to their native country.
But despite its newly minted liberal constitution, in real life very little had changed in the way it was actually constituted. There was no civil society, no independent institutions, and no system of checks and balances. The proof of the pudding is in the fact that Putin has become an autocratic ruler without changing anything in the system which he inherited from Yeltsin. For all the turmoil and the high hopes of 1991, there is a direct, unbroken line between Joseph Stalin and Putin.
Nor was Russia’s imperialist orientation changed by the collapse of its empire. Even as Yeltsin mooted the possibility of joining NATO and the European Union, Russian troops supported the breakaway Transnistria republic, preventing Moldova from adopting a European course. And of course, Yeltsin waged a brutal war against Chechnya when it attempted to become independent. Putin also mentioned the possibility of joining NATO to Bill Clinton — while fighting another brutal war against Chechnya.
So if not antagonizing Russia is a silly objection to enlarging NATO, is there another one?
Indeed, small-government conservatives and America Firsters in the Donald Trump camp don’t want the United States to take on more responsibility to police the globe. Trump even hinted during his 2016 campaign that he would not defend the Baltic states if they were attacked by Russia.
However, this view is shared by many on the left, too. I had a discussion once with an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration who declared that Washington shouldn’t risk a global nuclear war to defend piddling states like Estonia.
The point is that with their membership in NATO, the West doesn’t have to defend them and the world is, therefore, a far safer place. If in the early post-Communist era Washington and its allies had not shown strategic genius by taking advantage of the opportunity to enlarge NATO, we would have had by now a few more terrorist-run people’s republics in Eastern Europe where Russian tanks would have been defending the use of the Russian language.
But you don’t need to discuss the putative scenarios. Look at what happened between the two world wars. A handful of nations were able to gain independence from Russia by taking advantage of the Bolshevik takeover. There was no NATO back then, and the newly independent states had only bilateral agreements with France which considered them a cordon sanitaire between the Bolsheviks and civilization.
The result was a disaster. The Bolsheviks, through their agents, fomented trouble in the newly independent countries, and the need to defend themselves drove them into the arms of anti-democratic, authoritarian rulers, which is what happened in Poland, Lithuania, and elsewhere.
Finland became a victim of outright aggression by the Soviet Union, and by 1941 Stalin and Hitler invaded and divided up all the countries between the Soviet Union and Germany.
If Ukraine is not admitted to NATO the possible scenarios look bleak. They include a likely attack on Ukraine by Putin. His regime at home is getting progressively more brutal and more isolated, while Putin’s own grasp on reality has been growing ever more tenuous. Once a shooting war starts there is no telling where and how it will end, which other players will be drawn in and how it will escalate.
From Washington’s perspective, a war between Russia and Ukraine means the same risk of a direct military confrontation with Moscow as if Ukraine were a NATO member — without any of the deterrents that it’s NATO membership would have entailed.
Even if Putin doesn’t attack, the constant threat of Russian aggression and the need to defend itself will eventually — and perhaps quite soon — push Ukraine in the same direction as Eastern European countries in the interwar period, bringing about an authoritarian government and even a military coup. This will not be good either for Ukraine or for the rest of Europe.