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27 December, 2021

Ukraine crisis: how Putin feeds off anger over Nato’s eastward expansion

Russian president’s attention-seeking diplomatic demands speak to long-held grievances

It is more than 13 years since Nato’s Bucharest summit, the meeting that agreed that the western alliance wanted the former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia to become members. But in many respects the legacy of that April 2008 meeting – the last attended by Vladimir Putin– hangs over the Ukraine crisis today.

George W Bush arrived in an expansionist, post-cold war mindset pushing for Ukraine and Georgia to be given a roadmap to Nato membership. Granting them a so-called membership action plan would allow the two countries to follow a string of former eastern bloc states that had been allowed to join since 1999.

 

Putin, however, addressed the assembled leaders at the start of the meeting, describing such a move as a “direct threat” to Russian security. “I remember him clearly saying to Angela Merkel and Bush: ‘For me Ukraine is not a real country’,” said Jamie Shea, who spent 38 years inside Nato.

Putin’s language helped produce a partial retreat – and a problematic compromise.

“There was furious haggling with Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy [the then French president] and the result was that Ukraine would be offered membership in the future, but there would be no membership action plan, no firm date to join Nato,” Shea said.

As a result the issue was allowed to linger, with Nato and its members not fully committed to Ukraine. “I was actually present,” said Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary general, at a press appearance with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, last week. “We stand by that decision.”

But the half-promise remains an open sore to Russia’s long-serving leader, obsessed by the two nations’ long, pre-1991 history as one country. “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” Putin wrote in a historical essay released by the Kremlin in July. “For we are one people.”

During this winter’s crisis Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops to the north, east and south of Ukraine, prompting fears among Nato allies of an invasion and a conflict “on a scale not seen since world war two”, according to Britain’s new head of the armed forces, Adm Sir Tony Radakin. But in the past week the attention-seeking Kremlin has pivoted to a series of diplomatic demands.

Russia presented a draft security treaty to the US before making it public. Its provisions say the US should prevent Ukraine and Georgia and other former Soviet states from joining Nato. It also insists the US should not establish military bases or even engage in “bilateral military cooperation” with Ukraine or any other non-Nato, former Soviet state – an attempt to carve out a clearly defined Russian sphere of influence.

Such an idea is clearly controversial, particularly in eastern Europe, where memories of communist domination linger. “Russia’s proposed two draft treaties on 17 December outline the establishment of a two-tier Europe – one with the right to defend itself from Russian encroachment while the other must accept Russian supremacy as a new geopolitical reality,” wrote Orysia Lutsevych, an analyst with the Chatham House thinktank, in a recent paper.

Other experts argue that Nato has become overconfident. Joshua Shifrinson, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University, said the US and the west “in the grand sweep of post-cold war relationships have become less sensitive to Russian concerns”, losing sight of the idea that the Kremlin too has vital interests.

He added: “Russia does not want other political groupings present near their homeland. That’s not a hard thing to understand. Imagine if China were to form an alliance with Canada. Powerful states don’t want other powers forming alliances near their borders.”

Shifrinson, a historian, said that at the end of the cold war, US and German strategists had given “very clear signals” that Nato would not expand farther eastward if Germany were allowed to reunite. But this sphere of influence commitment was quickly dropped in the 1990s and early part of the 2000s as Russia struggled as an independent country and a string of eastern bloc countries joined Nato and the EU.

Critics of this thinking argue that if anything, Nato’s recent support for Ukraine has been too slight. “It’s a lack of resolute action in the past that has taught Russia that it [can] upmarket and descale a crisis whenever they want it,” said William Alberque, an American former Nato official and now the director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies thinktank. “Russia has all the momentum in the current crisis,” he added, as the US and Nato have agreed to hold talks with Kremlin diplomats in the new year.

Ukraine has already had to endure the war of 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and helped create a crisis leading to separatists holding the eastern Donbas region, where an unresolved, low-intensity conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 14,000. Nato allies have responded with a steady but modest level of military support since 2014.

A hundred or so US military trainers are based in the west of the country, a long way from the frontline. Washington has provided $2.5bn in military aid, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, since Russia’s seizure of Crimea, part of a gradual strategy to modernise Kyiv’s forces and officially a precursor to Ukraine being given a path to Nato membership.

More irritating to the Kremlin has been Kyiv’s purchase of at least six TB2 drones from Turkey, whose effectiveness against Russian-made armour was demonstrated in last year’s short Nagorno-Karabakh war when used by Azerbaijan against Armenia. Deploying the drones, Putin told his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in an early December phone call, was “provocative”.

Nato repeatedly stresses it represents no military threat to Russia. Earlier this month, for example, the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said it was “highly unlikely” that western troops would be sent to defend Ukraine if attacked.

But Shifrinson said that even if the west believed it was treading mildly, it had to better understand how its actions were perceived. “Moscow understands that Ukraine is not being armed to the teeth or anchored in the west tomorrow, but at the same time it is asking where Ukraine will go in the future.”

The Guardian

 

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