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"Nato is to blame."
Or so they say.
By far, the most common sentiment that I’ve seen at the heart of online discourse about the war in Ukraine is that, ‘NATO is actually to blame because it provoked Russia by expanding further east’. And full disclosure, I find this line of thinking to be equal parts patronizing and absurdist. The implication is of course, that the Ukrainian people shouldn’t get to have a say in their own destiny and that smaller, less powerful countries should just naturally be subject to the whims of their larger, more powerful neighbors.
The thing is, Putin is being earnest when he says "The security of the Russian Federation is threatened by NATO expansion." But to understand the true sentiment he's expressing, we must read between the lines of its usage within Russian propaganda. "NATO" is often used as an ambiguous catch-all for "The West", "The United States", "Europe" and even Western-allied nations that aren't a part of NATO, such as parts of East Asia. It's a term that serves as a versatile boogeyman to the people within Russia.
There are other acronyms that Russian propaganda utilizes in this way—“Nazi” was initially used by the Russian government to describe Ukrainians who didn’t want to speak Russian or live in the Russian Federation, but at various points since 2014, different signifiers have been attached to tweak the meaning based on who the target audience was. Sometimes they were Gay Nazis, at other points they were Drug-Addicted Nazis, and nowadays, they’re Genocidal Nazis who want to wipe out Russians. (More on this tomorrow—there is of course, much more to discuss when it comes to far-right extremism and nationalism in both Ukraine and Russia.)
When Putin says he wants to “Denazify Ukraine”, what he’s actually saying is:
Ukraine is not, and should never have been, considered a separate country; by extension, “Ukrainian” is not a valid identity. They are actually Malorussians (translation: Little Russians) and it is a great tragedy that the collapse of the Soviet Union fractured what should actually be one unified group of people into different countries
Ukrainians are simply dealing with a case of mistaken identity: it is a great privilege to be Russian; therefore, sharing Russian history, language, and culture with them is actually restoring their true heritage and liberating them from a 30-year experiment imposed on them by fascist separatists
Any Ukrainian who rejects our “offer” to be reintegrated as a single people is siding with the fascists and committing cultural genocide against Russians
Here’s the thing. I grew up in Seoul, roughly 30 miles from the de-militarized zone separating North and South Korea (more on that later.) I can tell you from personally witnessing the dynamic shifts that happened in Asia during the 90’s and 2000’s: the biggest threat to a dictator is when neighboring countries start doing too much democracy and participating in too much global trade, because if said countries prosper and improve the average quality of life of their own citizens, it magnifies the failings of the dictator’s regime. Even worse, it becomes near-impossible to hide that success, even in an information black hole like the Hermit Kingdom. And that greatly complicates the methods dictators have to use in order to keep their own countries under their rule.
Putin wasn’t lying when he said that NATO expansion (along with Ukraine’s aspirations to join the EU) were a threat to
Russian Putin’s security. These two things would absolutely lead to Ukraine, resource-rich as it is, becoming a thriving member of European society. And if that were to happen, Russians living on $300 a month might start questioning why it is that the “Little Russians” are doing better than they are. That potential questioning of leadership within Russia is the actual threat to Putin, which is why, from his perspective, NATO expansion is a real problem.
And ultimately, this is why Putin cannot simply let Ukraine join The West.
But Ukraine is a country whose citizens have painstakingly spent the better part of 30 years building an independent civil society, and who have been committed to democracy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ideals like liberty, anti-corruption, and opportunity for future generations have driven a steady cultural shift—first noticed by the rest of the world during the Orange Revolution in 2004 and then again during the Maidan Revolution in the winter of 2013-2014. The Russian media machine responded to the first event by coining the term, “Orange Virus”, and the latter by ramping up a propaganda campaign that framed the protests on the Maidan as an “Ultra-nationalist coup backed by the United States and The West”.
Now, Putin is one thing. Obviously he’s gonna do everything he can to point the finger at Western countries. But when westerners claim that Russia felt threatened by Ukraine wanting to join NATO and/or by NATO expansionism in general, what tends to conveniently get left out is the timeline of events—I imagine deliberately, in the hopes that you don’t actually know them. Let’s consider:
Ukraine did not amend its constitution with a requirement for future commitment towards full NATO membership until February of 2019; 5 full years after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas region with secret military troops (aka “Little Green Men”) which began an undeclared war that followed a near-identical playbook to the one used in Moldova in the 1990’s and Georgia in 2008 . It was a direct result of Russian aggression that Ukraine moved ideologically further toward the West, which is exactly what happened with other former USSR territories like Finland in 1917, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980, and what we can now see being fully cemented in Ukrainian public sentiment today.
In addition to covertly sending in ground forces and funding separatist militias, a major Russian strategy was, you guessed it, to flood Ukrainian citizens with targeted disinformation campaigns. Propaganda ran 24/7 on 3 Russian-language Ukrainian TV channels widely believed to be owned by Viktor Medvedchuk, who is a Ukrainian politician and one of Putin’s closest allies. (Well, maybe not anymore.) In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament banned Russian propaganda from airing on Ukrainian television, but it wasn’t until 2 years after being elected as the president of Ukraine—in February of 2021, that Zelensky was able to officially shut down these 3 channels in an effort to plug the steady stream of disinformation.
At the time, the EU responded with alarm, stating concerns about Ukraine encroaching on free speech rights. A year later, just 4 days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all EU member states announced that they would be following suit by banning “Russia’s Toxic Media Machine”. Those of us who live in the United States can attest to the devastating effects of Russia’s information war—in partnership with FOX News and other comparable outlets, it’s been successfully driving wedges between family members, friends, and colleagues for over 6 years now. We watched as this formula permanently damaged many personal relationships and successfully broke down lines of communication—just like we’ve seen happen between Ukrainians and Russians now. It’s not a surprise to me that EU Nations had to witness it up-close or even personally experience it in order to take it seriously.
Ok, so. Post-2014 Russia-Ukraine relations matter most of course, but in order to really get a full understanding of what’s currently happening and why NATO has been such a point of contention for Russia, we actually need to go all the way back to its founding in 1949, when the organization was just 12 countries and Ukraine was still a territory of the Soviet Union. This idea that NATO is an aggressive imperialist force that poses an existential threat to Russia is objectively false (every time it expanded, it’s because countries asked to join, not because NATO conquered new territories and forced them to be a part of it) but like most disputes between these 2 countries, once you start unpacking all of the details, it never actually turns out to be that simple.
After 2 World Wars, virtually all of the individual economies that made up the European Continent were devastated, and the United States quickly filled the power vacuum. The US had made it through both world wars relatively unscathed and with a significantly stronger industrial economy than the one it entered with, thanks to its optimal geographical location (sandwiched between 2 giant oceans and with friendly neighbors on either side by this point) and arguably, the deliberate calculations of FDR—who took advantage of WWII to bypass his own New Deal restrictions in order to set a precedent of offering government-contract partnerships to domestic industrial titans, effectively creating the Military-Industrial Complex 2 full decades before Eisenhower formally coined the term in his farewell address.
Despite the fact that the Soviet Union had fought alongside the Allied Powers during WWII, it must be acknowledged that this realignment only occurred after Hitler broke his 8-year alliance with Stalin and sent the German army in to attack the USSR. In an effort to reshape history and prevent the Russian public from acknowledging this inconvenient truth, Putin’s regime officially banned any form of admission that the Soviet Union did in fact partner with Nazi Germany in its Memory Law of 2014, better known as the ‘Law Against Rehabilitation of Nazism’, aka Yarovaya Law.
A lot of what we see happening today in the United States regarding CRT (and what we’ve seen from Lost Cause/Civil War revisionists, Holocaust deniers, Japanese denial of war crimes, etc) follows this model of first cutting down on public outcry through legal measures and then gradually filtering out evidence within textbooks and public education systems. Russia threatening up to 15 years of jail time for calling the war in Ukraine anything other than a “special military operation” is just another iteration of Yarovaya Law.
So, back to 1949: Tensions between Western Europe and the USSR led to NATO signing Article 5, which officially guaranteed that an attack on one member state would be treated as an attack on all. This pact was specifically intended to act as the main deterrent to any potential future Soviet aggression, and first serving Secretary General Ismay would popularize the unofficial NATO mission statement: “Keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” (Yikes 😬)
Leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, then-American Secretary of State, James Baker, informally said to Gorbachev, “How about you let your half of Germany go, and we say that NATO will move not one inch eastward?” Over the years, this one single anecdote evolved into full on Kremlin-fueled mythology, despite the fact that declassified CIA documents along with a direct quote from Gorbachev reveal that there was never any ambiguity about what was agreed to. Ultimately, he gave up all of East Germany for financial incentives and an official treaty that allowed NATO to extend Article 5 eastward was signed to this effect by all parties.
By the end of the Cold War, NATO had grown to 16 nation members, but when the Berlin Wall came down, there were significant disagreements between members on what their next steps should be. Several Eastern European countries proposed dissolving all military blocs, including both the USSR and NATO. At the time, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia had all played an integral role in overthrowing the Soviet Union and they wanted to pursue a path of pacifism—they proposed a plan to turn all of Central and Eastern Europe into a perpetual neutral zone, to actually dissolve all their borders and completely demilitarize + denuclearize the area and make it a “Bridge of Peace between East and West forever”.
The United States and West Germany opposed. Then-President George H. W. Bush insisted that the West needed to not only retain NATO, but needed to ensure its right to enlarge. As a result, the Eastern European countries that had originally pitched the idea of the Bridge of Peace realized that their vision would simply not be accepted by the Americans or Germany, so they ended up pivoting 180° on their strategy and began actively pursuing NATO membership.
Flash forward to 1994, 3 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then-President Bill Clinton had just guaranteed $1.6 billion to President Yeltsin to bring his soldiers back from the Baltic states and provide them housing. The West shared a tentative optimism that in the post-Cold War era, the Russian Federation would become a modern 21st century democracy that would build its economy on the talent of its scientists, artists, and visionaries rather than fall back into the established authoritarian model of exporting of natural resources and prioritizing its military over the needs of its citizens.
Contrary to his predecessor, President Clinton was originally against any additional expansion due to military leaders and intelligence agencies within his administration opposing the idea, so as a compromise, a different initiative was created: The Partnership for Peace. Russia became the first country to join the program, which included joint training exercises between NATO and non-NATO European countries and was designed to support the initiative of Eastern European countries to join NATO if they desired. Shortly after, Ukraine finalized their own framework agreement under Partnership for Peace, making it the 2nd country to join the program, right after Russia.
Later that year, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum—an agreement that guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in return for giving up its entire nuclear arsenal. It’s important to remember that at that time, Ukraine had the 3rd largest nuclear arsenal in the world. And less than 2 decades after giving up this arsenal, every country that individually made security guarantees to Ukraine failed on that promise in one way or another.
Like many decisions American presidents make about international politics, Clinton’s stance on NATO expansion eventually shifted because of electoral politics at home. The Republicans had won the 1994 midterms on the platform of NATO expansion, and in an effort to appear more palatable to moderate voters ahead of the 1996 presidential election, Clinton ended up changing his tune on membership for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, effectively leaving Ukraine to fend for itself.
In ‘95, NATO agreed to add Russian troops to official Peacekeeping Forces that they had in Bosnia, and in ‘97, the NATO-Russia Founding Act led to Russia’s entry into the G7, transforming it into the G8. Finally in 1999, both the United States and the Russian Federation agreed to destroy 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium each, and both nations along with European NATO countries agreed to pull back conventional military forces from borders—however, Putin declined to move forward with this agreement once he assumed the presidency in 2000.
In 2002, Ukraine’s relationship with NATO came to a screeching halt in the wake of the Cassette Scandal (aka Tapegate) in which the then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was caught on tape ordering the kidnapping of a journalist, whose corpse had recently been discovered. This scandal served as a pivotal moment in Ukraine’s history, resulting in a dramatic shift in political orientation from Russia to the West, leading to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and subsequent constitutional changes, which shifted primary powers from the President to the Parliament.
Over the next decade, Ukraine continued its domestic political struggle amid continued interference from the Kremlin, including targeted cyber attacks that actually compromised the Central Election Commission network in 2014. Evidence of continued election meddling through the 2019 Presidential election was shared by the Ukrainian Election Task Force. American officials described the Kremlin’s information aggression as “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg ever seen in the history of information warfare.” Shortly after, another official called that assessment, “something of an underestimation.” Despite this, Ukraine continued to defy Putin by holding democratic elections and remaining committed to the rule of law.
In summary, the NATO thing is… really kind of a Rorschach test, as in: how you feel about it really boils down to your world view. The Soviet Union and the USA have always been highly suspicious of each other, and the only real opportunity for meaningful diplomacy The West might have had was in the brief period where Gorbachev and then Yeltsin were in power—as the USSR dissolved and Russia became a solitary country again. But we blew it. And then they blew it. Regardless, none of this is acceptable as a valid reason for Putin to invade Ukraine and raze its cities to dust.
Russia’s hold on Ukraine is sort of comparable to that of a possessive, jealous, abusive ex-boyfriend who refuses to let go and would rather harm it than see it date someone else, and from Ukraine’s perspective, NATO is the only institution that can give it a restraining order.