Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, Nato’s first Secretary General, famously said that the organisation was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. Given the demise of the Soviet Union, and the reunification of Germany, Nato has long outlived this raison d’etre. Even committed Atlanticists, such as Senator Richard Lugar, concluded as early as 1993 that Nato must go “out of area or out of business”.
But rather than go out of business, Nato has ramped up its operations. And as a result, what was once a major contributor to global security has increasingly become an instrument of global instability.
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Nato’s mission creep started almost immediately in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union with its decision to expand into the newly configured Russian Federation’s borders in the early Nineties. This was followed by repeated bombing campaigns in the former Federation of Yugoslavia (a Russian ally), and the 2011 military intervention in Libya. It is worth noting that, with Libya, Putin’s stance was not one of unremitting hostility to the West. Russia did not exercise its UN Security Council veto, despite opposing the bombing. Moscow also initially supported the United States’ War on Terror, going as far as providing logistic support for the US forces in Afghanistan.
Yet Nato’s activities have become increasingly adversarial. Largely through Washington’s control, Nato has heightened tensions on Russia’s doorstep in Ukraine, a slowly percolating war threat that could well lead to destruction of Nato itself in the process.
To read Western commentary, one would be led to believe that the root cause of today’s current tension in Ukraine comes from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ominously, there appears to be a mounting bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill on how we must defend Ukraine, rather than tamping down the inexorable march to war. As one would expect from the New York Times and Washington Post, the prevailing consensus is that only the political, economic, and military strength of the United States can facilitate a diplomatic solution to a crisis engineered by an increasingly corrupt and autocratic Putin regime.
But as is so typical of most American commentary on Russia, the charges against Moscow lack historic context and continue to mix up cause and effect. As the Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently indicated to Russia’s TV Channel One in advance of last week’s video meeting between Presidents Putin and Biden: “The Augean stables in our bilateral relations can hardly be cleaned out over several hours of negotiations”.
The reference to the labours of Hercules should not be dismissed as Moscow’s fanciful indulgence in Greek mythology. Rather, it reflects legitimate longstanding Russian grievances pertaining to Nato’s broken promises about not expanding eastwardly. These assertions have been vigorously contested by various American government officials, who firmly denied that the topic of extending Nato membership to former Warsaw Pact countries was raised during the negotiations with Moscow on German reunification, much less that the United States made a “pledge” not to pursue eastward expansion.
Declassified US, Soviet, German, British and French documents from the national security archives, however, provide conclusive evidence of breached promises made to President Mikhail Gorbachev by President George H. W. Bush, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, President Francois Mitterrand, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and their foreign ministers in 1990: not to expand NATO eastward, and not to extend membership in the Nato alliance to former member states of the Warsaw Pact. As Professor Melvin Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, recently argued, absent these pledges, the reunification of Germany could well have marked a dangerous new escalation of the Cold War between the West and Moscow, rather than bringing about its cessation.
The end of the Cold War could well have ushered in a new partnership between Washington, the EU and Moscow. Instead, the expansion of activities into areas where the West has had no compelling strategic interest has brought forth renewed conflict. Of particular note was the mooted promise to extend Nato membership to Ukraine in 2013, along with the European Union’s offer of a formal economic association to then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych hesitated to sign when he saw that the exorbitant terms resembled less a partnership, more an attempt at economic colonisation. In the wake of Yanukovych’s prevarication, protests erupted in Kyiv, centered on Maidan Square, which in turn led to the overthrow of the Ukraine government. The Ukrainian president was then replaced by a pro-Western coalition government made up of his political opponents.
Supporters of the uprising argue that the protests, and the corresponding offer of associate membership in the EU, offered a way out of the corruption and kleptocracy allegedly brought about by the Yanukovych administration. Of course, this version of events conveniently ignores the role played by US government officials in shaping the ultimate outcome, as well as ignoring the fact that Viktor Yanukovych himself had become Ukraine’s democratically elected president in response to the corruption of previous administrations (even if he did little himself to alleviate the same problem, sadly a longstanding feature of post-independence Ukrainian politics). In any event, what has since been termed the “Maidan coup” almost certainly induced Putin to annex Crimea, which in turn has led to today’s low intensity civil war between Russian and Ukrainian nationalists, backed by Moscow and Washington respectively.
The Western media has rendered judgment: their accounts warn that Putin is laying the groundwork for an imminent Russian military invasion. The tabloid-like reporting of the Sunday Times confidently asserts that Putin’s ultimate goal is no less than the reclamation of the old Soviet empire, conveniently ignoring Nato’s ongoing attempts to expand its own force projection to Russia’s borders. Meanwhile in the US press, there has been much approving commentary for the Biden administration’s tough talk with Moscow last Tuesday, even from his traditional media opponents.
In response, Putin has demanded explicit guarantees that Nato will not continue to expand further eastward or put missiles in Ukraine that could target Russia. The Western press seems shocked that Moscow isn’t simply passively accepting what it perceives to be existential threats to its own national security. Given the conflicting claims surrounding previous Nato pledges, Putin understandably wishes to avoid any future ambiguity regarding the West’s future intentions toward Russia and the Ukraine, which seems like a reasonable means of de-escalating the conflict, as well as addressing Moscow’s legitimate security concerns.
The counterargument to Putin’s demand is that a genuinely sovereign and independent Ukraine should be able to establish its own defence and national security arrangements; in any case, goes the argument, responding in the affirmative to such a request in the face of a major troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders would be tantamount to acquiescing to extortion, thereby encouraging further aggression on the part of Moscow.
But these arguments are somewhat undermined by the actions of the Biden Administration, which has reportedly told the Ukrainian government that a Nato membership is unlikely to be approved within the next decade. This concession implicitly concedes legitimacy to Putin’s demands, but does beget the question: why restrict the pledge to ten years, given that this encroachment represents an ongoing existential threat to Russia? Do we seriously believe that Washington would have accepted a time-limited constraint by Moscow on putting offensive missiles in Cuba to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962?
Looming over all these considerations stands one crucial fact: that Nato is a collective defence pact, and membership carries with it reciprocal obligations that go well beyond the aspirations of the Ukrainian government. Being drawn into a Russo-Ukrainian conflict has implications for all Nato members. This is not merely a decision for Kyiv to make on its own.
Article 5 of Nato’s founding treaty states that an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all its members. Is the US (or Nato’s European members) seriously prepared to risk thousands of lives to defend Ukraine as a newly enshrined member of this club? If the answer is no, then why perpetuate this unnecessarily provocative situation with Moscow?
It is also worth noting that Ukraine is far more profoundly divided than any of its Nato counterparts. It has a substantial Russian population, especially in the east, many of whom wish to retain close ties to Russia. Accession to Nato, therefore, could well create the conditions for civil war, as the recent conflict in the Donetsk Region of eastern Ukraine has illustrated.
And then there’s the problem of Crimea. According to every Nato member, as well as the current government of Ukraine, Crimea is still part of Ukraine. Therefore, if Ukraine joins Nato, one of three possibilities must follow: Nato goes to war with Russia over Crimea; or Nato recognises the Russian annexation of Crimea; or Article 5 is a dead letter.
Which will it be? No other alternatives exist. Given that an activation of all-out warfare versus Russia would certainly create the conditions for World War Three (featuring several nuclear armed powers), it is most probably that Article 5 would not be invoked. In which case, Nato as a collective defence treaty would be dead. In effect, those who are arguing to bring Ukraine into Nato are arguing for its destruction.
Senator Lugar’s old observation about Nato has never seemed so prescient. For Nato to remain true to its goal of promoting peace and international security, it is time to put it out of business once and for all.