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Putin’s War—Russia, Ukraine, and NATO

When a group of academics interested in national security visited the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) some years ago, our guide, a British officer, said that its acronym stood for “No Action, Talk Only.”

It was a joke of course, but it had some point. And it relates more broadly to the quite limited achievements of the storied alliance over the decades in which it was likely unnecessary to prevent international war—its primary purpose—yet played a mainly inadvertent, and perhaps even innocent, role in creating the current conflict in Ukraine, the first substantial international war in Europe—once the most warlike of continents—in over three-quarters of a century.

The NATO Experience

At the time the officer was speaking, NATO’s main, and perhaps only, apparent accomplishment had been to deter the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe. That had been its central formative mission, and it was pushed into high gear at the time of the Korean War when, as defense analyst Bernard Brodie recalls, many, particularly in the Pentagon, were “utterly convinced” that the Soviets “were using Korea as a feint to cause us to deploy our forces there,” while preparing to launch “a major attack on Europe.”

However, later analysis and information indicates that this was hysterical nonsense. The invasion of South Korea by the North was not part of a global scheme of military expansion, but an opportunistic foray in a distant and then-minor area, one that was expected to be quick and easy.

More generally, there is not much evidence to support the notion that … NATO had much to do with its most highly-touted achievement: deterring the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe. Evidence from Soviet archives and elsewhere indicates that the Soviets, from top commissar to street drunk, never had the slightest interest in fighting anything that might remotely resemble World War II. That is, there was nothing to deter.

In later years, NATO moved a couple of times from its “no action” position by bombing Serbia in 1999 in support of the secession of its province of Kosovo, and by joining the United States in its costly post-9/11 failure in Afghanistan.

NATO’s greatest accomplishment likely came in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Cold War, when the enemy it was designed to counter had ceased to exist. At the time, countries in Eastern Europe, suddenly freed from Soviet control, were looking for desirable clubs to join and were willing to jump through hoops about developing domestic democracy and capitalism if that was required. There was lot of skepticism at the time that those countries, after a half-century of communism, would be able to “make it,” but for the most part they did.

NATO surely deserves some credit for husbanding this remarkably successful development, but other Western European institutions, or coalitions, particularly the European Union, were likely more significant in the process. And of course, for the most part, NATO did not have to do anything to be influential except to exist and to continue talking.

The Russia Conundrum

But there was trouble as well: NATO’s expansion to the east had the unintended consequence of alarming Russians—not only nationalists and Communists, but Western-oriented elites as well. NATO did urge that its expansion should not be seen as threatening, and it created a sort of ancillary club called the “partnership for peace,” which included such proto-members as Russia. Indeed, Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, says he once discussed the idea that Russia might join the alliance with President Bill Clinton, who said he had “no objection.”

Since then, things have gotten worse. Russian perceptions of threat from NATO expansion may be misguided, even absurd, like those of the Pentagon about Soviet global designs in Korea. But they should be taken seriously. In particular, they are not simply a temporary whim of Putin; they are widely held in Russia: polls there find that people overwhelmingly blame NATO for the current crisis over Ukraine. As Virginia Tech’s Gerard Toal puts it, “NATO does not get to define Russia’s security perception.”

Putin sought to halt NATO’s expansion by obtaining guarantees that Ukraine and other former Soviet republics will not be admitted to the alliance, and by having NATO cut back or eliminate seemingly-threatening military exercises and deployments in its neighborhood.

That demand was central to his current posturing that seemed to be designed, in particular, not to conquer Ukraine, but to get the US and others to pay some attention to Russia and its security concerns. Putin felt he had been dissed: his repeated requests to discuss what he considers Russia’s security had been ignored, and he responded by threateningly moving troops around to get attention. As he reportedly put it last year, a degree of tension would force the West to take Russia, and its security concerns, seriously.

Two Prospective Solutions

Since developed countries have pretty much given up on wars with each other for over 75 years, this looked for a while to be something of a teapot crisis that might be ameliorated by a few simple, and fundamentally trivial, adjustments.

One approach would have been to guarantee that Ukraine would be kept out of NATO, not forever as Putin demanded, but for, say, 25 years (when Putin would be 95). In the end, this moratorium would be a gesture without much immediate practical significance. Many NATO members oppose membership for Ukraine, and it may not be formally eligible for membership anyway because it is plagued by border disputes, as well as decades of corruption and systematic looting by its elected politicians and their cronies; ill-led, faction-ridden, and deeply corrupt, it has managed to become the poorest country in Europe. When Ukraine attained independence in 1991 its per capita wealth was about the same as Poland’s; today is less than one-third of Poland’s. It would likely take decades, or a generation of reform, for it to become a plausible applicant for NATO membership in any case. Accordingly, giving some sort of guarantee that Ukraine will not enter NATO for a long time, if ever, would only formalize reality. As Alexander Dykin and Thomas Graham put it hopefully before the current conflict, “it should prove possible to find a mutually acceptable way to make it clear that Ukraine is not going to join NATO for years, if not decades, to come—something American and NATO officials will readily admit in private.”

Another approach would have been for Ukraine to adopt a form of neutrality, as was done with Austria after World War II. Like Austria, Ukraine could continue to develop economic and political ties with the West and continue to embrace democracy and capitalism. Interestingly, last summer Putin put forward the example of Germany and Austria as a model for what the relationship between Russia and Ukraine might be.

As part of a deal, there could also have been some reassessment of military deployments and exercises that dismay Russia, and there might also have been a relaxation of economic sanctions on Russia—a politically popular exercise that, as usual, had inflicted pain without impelling consequential policy change. For its part, Russia might have agreed to a non-aggression guarantee. The government of Ukraine had suggested an openness to neutrality, and its president had called its quest for NATO membership a “dream.”

Resolving the War

Astonishingly, these proposals seem never to have been put forward by the West during the runup to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, presumably because it might look like it was giving in. In practice, these seemingly-simple solutions might have been complicated to work out, and other issues and concerns might have gotten in the way. But it seems that neither was ever even floated as a basis for discussion. Instead, diplomats walked, or sleepwalked, into war.

Now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that wariness about giving in has likely been heightened. However, a few days into the war, Putin contended that a settlement was possible if Ukraine was neutral, demilitarized, and “denazified”, and if Russian control over annexed Crimea was formally recognized. If this is the extent of his demands, both of the proposed solutions here deal with the first and potentially the second. Since rightwing extremist parties have been unable to obtain even a single seat in Ukraine’s parliament, and since the country’s president is Jewish, the third has already been substantially embraced, while the fourth could probably be decoupled for the time being: Crimea will go back to Ukraine about the same time Texas goes back to Mexico.

Thus, although there is no guarantee it will be possible to sell them to both sides, the two proposed solutions still, at least in principle, remain viable. In the current situation, they could facilitate a cease fire in the war and then a Russian withdrawal. However, although there are two perfectly sensible ways of substantially solving the problem, it seems that many in the West would prefer a war with all of its death, destruction, and misery, because pursuing the alternatives might seem to be giving in somewhat, or even appeasing, which since the time of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler has become anathema in the West.

Putin might gain some bragging rights in such a settlement, but the long-term prospects for him and for Russia are pretty grim. If his goal is to establish some sort of consequential “sphere of influence” over Ukraine and other areas, as many analysts darkly contend, his moves have proved to be spectacularly counterproductive. In particular, his efforts over the last decade have driven Ukrainians to look ever more to the West. In 2012, 14 percent of Ukrainians said they wanted to join NATO; by the eve of the current war, this figure had risen to 54 percent.

The Russian economy has been on the skids for most of the decade before the current crisis, and, even before the crisis, economists were finding the prospect for economic growth over the next decade in Putin’s economically-declining kleptocracy to be grim. And his war, even if it is settled without additional bloodshed and material destruction, is likely to have alienated prospective buyers and investors for at least as long as he is in charge.

Pulling back to take a bigger perspective, historian Stephen Kotkin points to a common theme over Russia’s last 500 years: “weakness and grandeur combine to produce an autocrat who tries to leap forward by concentrating power, which results in a worsening of the very strategic dilemma he is supposed to be solving.” Putin’s invasion of Ukraine seems likely to be a modern case in point.

However, while it provides a severe test, the war is unlikely to halt or shatter the remarkable post-World War II trend in which international war has greatly declined. Putin’s war seems almost entirely to have inspired outraged condemnation, not desires for imitation. END

Listen to the conversation between Michael Shermer and John Mueller on the topic of Putin’s War: Russia, Ukraine, and NATO in episode 252 of The Michael Shermer Show that accompanies this op-ed.
About the Author

Dr. John Mueller is a political scientist at Ohio State University and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. His most recent book is The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency.

 
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