Illusion on all sides paved the way for Russia-NATO deadlock

It is difficult to be objective about the Ukrainian crisis. Russia is massing tanks and troops alongside Ukraine. US intelligence reports that Russia is planning a multi-front invasion involving 175,000 troops early in the new year.

Russia’s wartime stance is accompanied by feverish rhetoric about Ukraine as an aggressor state. Russia denounces NATO’s infrastructure, weapons, training and military exercises in Ukraine.

At the end of last week, Russia released a draft treaty on what it sees as a desirable new security order for Europe. Seeing this as a sharp demand for a gun for a Russian sphere of influence, Western and Ukrainian officials immediately rejected the proposals.

The tragedy of the current crisis in Ukraine is how Russia and NATO seemed trapped in doomed policies

Russia behaves like a bully towards Ukraine. But why? What happened to the dream of a whole, free and peaceful Europe at the end of the cold war? How did we go from this hopeful new dawn to the sobering prospect of a military invasion into 21st century Europe? The short answer is: Illusions of safety on all sides have paved the way, illusions that are now on a dangerous collision course.

Russia’s security illusions are the easiest to grasp. To think that military force can create real security and real influence in neighboring states is an illusion. Recovering under Russian President Vladimir Putin after a decade of crisis, Russia has begun to rebuild its power capacities in the post-Soviet space.

In August 2008, the Russian army invaded Georgia after a reckless maneuver by its pro-NATO leader Mikheil Saakashvili to crush Russian-backed separatists. In March 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine as violent protests toppled Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Kremlin leader. Russian forces annexed Crimea, but Russian-backed proxy forces failed to create a large secessionist territory (Novorossiya) in southeastern Ukraine. It was only in part of Donbass that the Russian-backed separatists succeeded.

The Minsk accords that followed were designed to ensure that Russia’s proxies would influence Ukraine’s geopolitical direction. It didn’t work that way. Indeed, in any case, Russia’s military actions polarized the states it hoped to influence, prompting them to deepen their ties with NATO. Part of what plagues Moscow today about Ukraine’s creeping NATOization is its own initiative.

Gerard Toal is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech

The security illusions of NATO West are more difficult to recognize. After the Cold War, the alliance decided to expand, not to dissolve. NATO’s “open door” policy allowed former Soviet republics such as the Baltic states to join the alliance. Soviet security veterans like the conspiratorial Putin were forced to accept that their Cold War enemy was now on the border. NATO, of course, did not see it that way. He argued that all states have the sovereign right to choose their own defense orientation. Moreover, they asserted, NATO is not a threat to any power. Rather, it is a civilizational alliance advancing security and freedom.

Critics, especially aging US diplomat George Kennan, saw NATO’s expansion as a fatal mistake and predicted it would strengthen the hand of extremists in Russia. He was right. The insecurity that NATO’s expansion was designed to address only increased insecurity as Russia rebuilt its power and responded.

A self-fulfilling safety dilemma has set in. NATO’s expansion was justified by the very insecurity it produced. In 2008, Russia publicly asserted that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine was its defensive red lines. NATO radicalized things by declaring, in April 2008, in defiance of Russia, that these two countries would one day become members of the alliance.

To pretend that NATO is not a threat to anyone is an illusion. NATO fails to define the perception of Russia’s security. It is unrealistic to assume that extending a military alliance to the border of an insecure major power advances security. The unilateral exit from arms control agreements with Russia – like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty the United States left in August 2019 – is reckless behavior.

Admitting Ukraine into the NATO supply system, training its troops, building infrastructure up to NATO standards and supplying advanced weapons to its forces without realizing that this can exacerbate Russian insecurity is also an illusory thought. It is living only in a benevolent view of oneself.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg greets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a press conference.  Photograph: John Thys / AFP via Getty

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right) greets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a press conference last week. Photograph: John Thys / AFP / Getty

The tragedy of the current crisis in Ukraine is how Russia and NATO seemed trapped in doomed policies. In seeking greater territorial security, Russia pursued a policy aimed at undermining the territorial integrity of neighboring states. Its imperialist habits and attitudes continue.

While the big picture looks grim, let’s hope this crisis is an incentive for serious negotiations and, among them, a pretty good compromise.

In the past, it has used separatists to advance its geopolitical goals. He now appears ready to pursue a more radical policy of direct military intervention to change the facts on the ground. This can only further fuel Ukrainian sentiment against him. In no region will the Russian army be welcome. Many Ukrainians may not actively resist, but some will undoubtedly lead an insurgency against the Russian occupation if so.

The West seems trapped by its fixation on the principle that all states have the sovereign right to choose their own military orientation. They cite articles from previous security agreements. But they ignore other articles claiming that security is indivisible. Security demands responsibility and that begins with the recognition of collective sources of insecurity. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of qualifying individual free choice: we all have responsibilities towards the collective good.

Many in the West are also obsessed with Munich and appeasement, Yalta and spheres of influence. This desire for historically selective moralizing analogies betrays a desire to purify the present into single-minded categories of good and evil. More disturbingly, it also stimulates the desire for righteous action. Violence is soon easily justified.

While the big picture looks bleak, let’s hope this crisis is an incentive for serious negotiations and, from there, a pretty good compromise. Ukraine is a desperately poor country whose people are victims of corruption and an oligopoly entrenched since the Soviet collapse. They deserve better than to be a sandbox for a proxy war between Russia and the West. As we express our solidarity and support to them in this hour of anxiety, let us also recognize the prevailing illusions of security that have brought us here.

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