by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 24
February 2022
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09:58

Don’t blame the Ukraine crisis on NATO enlargement

Historically, Russia has provoked European countries into joining
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

The tanks rolling across Ukraine’s sovereign territory are Russian, but according to a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry it’s all our fault. A comment tweeted out by the Xinhua news agency, claims that Putin was provoked by “five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep”:

The Chinese foreign ministry should look at a map. Of the 15 countries that have joined NATO since the fall of the Berlin Wall, only two have a border with Russia — Estonia and Latvia. (That rises to four if you count Kaliningrad — a detached piece of Russian territory wedged between Poland and Lithuania.)

More to the point, it was Russia that provoked NATO enlargement, not the other way round. 

In the post-war period, the USSR’s neighbours were given every reason to fear Moscow’s military might. Most of central and eastern Europe was subjected to communist rule — while the independence of the Baltic states was snuffed out completely. When the Hungarians dared to hope for freedom in 1956, and the Czechs in 1968, Moscow sent the tanks in. The threat of Soviet invasion also led to the declaration of martial law in Poland in 1981.

The collapse of the USSR was a chance for a fresh start. Perhaps the new Russian Federation would be less of a nightmare neighbour than either the Soviets or the Tsars. But it soon became clear that Moscow was still to be feared. The first sign was the Transnistria War (1990-92) — in which ethnic Russian rebels, supported by elements of the Russian military, established a breakaway republic on the sovereign territory of Moldova.  

The Russians weren’t so keen on self-determination when the Chechens tried to establish a breakaway republic on Russian sovereign territory. The separatist forces were defeated in the First Chechen War (1994-96), but at the cost of tens of thousands of civilian lives. Given what the Russian government was prepared to do its own citizens in the siege and storming of Grozny, the rest of Europe could be forgiven for shoring-up its defences.

It’s also worth mentioning the fate of post-soviet Georgia — which has had two chunks ripped from its sovereign territory. The first was Abkhazia, which broke away during the 1992-93 war. The extent of Russia’s involvement in that conflict is still murky. But there’s no doubt about Moscow’s involvement in the 2008 war in which Russian military forces intervened to help South Ossetia breakaway and Abkhazia to expand.   

Years before the 2013 Euromaidan protests in Kyiv — and the subsequent events in Crimea and the Donbas, Russia had a track record of military intervention and territorial violation. 

So the Chinese are exactly wrong. This isn’t about NATO pushing “a big country to the wall”, but about what Russia does to its smaller neighbours.

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James Joyce
James Joyce
2 months ago

With respect, I completely disagree with this article, and I write this from a Baltic capital.
Allowing some former Soviet Republics to join NATO–with a wink and a nod to Ukraine joining “eventually” –was a needless provocation to Russia. Why poke the bear? Does anyone think that the US–which recently surrendered to some 8th Century goat herders–will risk nuclear war with Russia if Russia invades Latvia?
Western arrogance, Western disrespect for Russia and it’s desire for a sphere of influence, has created this, and it’s not a surprise. Have we forgotten that this was going on, on some level, since 2014?
Anyone remember George F. Kennan, the “father of containment?” Kennan was a wise and revered figure, a true statesman who came out of retirement at 93 to try to convince the West not to do this, not to poke the bear, allow RU to have a certain buffer zone. Given Russia’s history, it’s not irrational for Russians to be a bit paranoid.
The so-called “leader of the free world” is a glad-handing, senile, demented doddering dotard. In addition, he is stupid, and utterly without substance. The senility is more recent, the stupidity was constant.
Finally, when the brave Belarussian people took to the streets at great risk, and seemed on the brink of removing Europe’s last dictator, the West essentially did nothing. Putin was watching.
Sanctions. Really? Sanctions do nothing but create a criminal class–does Russia really need a larger criminal class? Point me to an example where sanctions have “worked.”

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Indeed. Ukraine was in a weak position to begin with. In a weak position all you can do is stall for time. Wouldn’t it have been wiser to shelve NATO ambitions indefinitely? At least, say it out loud like that. Quietly, it would be a case of “never say never”. After all, Vladimir Putin will not be around forever, and his mental capacity is now just as questionable as that of his opposite number in the USA.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 months ago

Exactly.
China will be next. Perhaps HK, perhaps Taiwan, but this is all but certain. I may be early, but I’m not wrong, and I’m not even early any more.
If “the West” looks to Biden and the US, it is fooling itself!

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Has Alzheimers patient Biden declared war on Vietnam yet?

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Coming soon.
Let’s Go Brandon!

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 months ago

I understand that Russia has requested (possibly three times) to join NATO over the past 20-25 years. On each occasion it has been snubbed and demeaned by being told to to join the application queue behind other much lesser Eastern European countries, including Ukraine – a calculated insult to a world power.
Russia is substantially western orientated in terms of its literature, music, science, technology, medicine, architecture and religion. Why have the leaders of western democracies not welcomed Russia into their fold instead of antagonising, belittling and isolating it at every turn – and by weakly tolerating Russian aggression consistently? No wonder Putin is not fazed by the prospect of the West’s reaction! It is our leaders who have created and enabled this situation to a large degree – and pushed two of the worlds’s greatest nuclear powers into a closer relationship at a time when when both are either poised to commit or have committed to acts of aggression.
For the past twenty or so year leaders in western democracies have focused on democratic imperialism abroad and the imposition of woke ideologies at home. We have been very poorly led and badly let down.

Last edited 2 months ago by Julian Pellatt
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

You’re wrong. Russians don’t see themselves as Europeans. Check every Russian writer since when. They would have failed a number of NATO criteria everytime including security of data.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

Only a fool would welcome the fox into the henhouse.

David Bell
David Bell
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

But why did Russia want to join? NATO is a defensive organisation, created as a bulwark against Russia. Did Russia want defense against itself? More likely, it just wanted to cause mischief.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

For a start Russia is not part of European tradition in any meaningful sense.
Neither politically nor religiously (they are Orthodox).
Your answer to why Russia was not allowed to join NATO is in your own post:
“leaders of Western DEMOCRACIES etc”.
Russia newer was and is not democracy.

David Yetter
David Yetter
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Under Yeltsin and even the first (and maybe second) time Putin was elected it was. Treating Russia as the foe of NATO, which had been created to contain the Soviet Union — not the same thing as Russia: Stalin was a Georgian, Khrushchev a Ukrainian, Lenin, though Russian used Latvians as shock-troops against Russians — un-surprisingly had the effect of making post-Soviet Russia the foe of NATO.

Last edited 2 months ago by David Yetter
Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

People here seem to be bending over backwards to see things from Russia’s perspective. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joined NATO fully 18 years ago, so that hardly counts as “provocation” now. By the same logic they should not have been allowed in the EU either. These are independent states with internationally recognised borders. They are not Russian playthings.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Quite. How the hell is this spun as poor little Russia backed into a corner protecting itself?
It has repeatedly over the past 100+ years invaded and oppressed its smaller, weaker neighbours to the west of it.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

As for Imperialism, what became of numerous tribal groups as the Russians exterminated them on their expansion eastward? Try and call up a few tribal names. That’s it- no. Gone. Genocide, especially in the 17th to 18th centuries.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

There is great book by Oliver Bullough “Let our fame be great” about exactly these events.
But Russian stooges in various forums will never admit that historical fact.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

One correction.
For much longer than just 100+ years.
They partition Poland together with Prussia at the end of 18th century and then again with Hitler in 1939.
But for so many people it is Russia which is a victim.

Last edited 2 months ago by Andrew F
Dominic A
Dominic A
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Indeed – a little odd. Too much uncritical reading of RT perhaps. A pose of prideful obstreperousness, with just enough valid points to seem plausible. Has much in common with Corbynism and wokery.

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Yes, there are a few commenters who haven’t spent their childhood and adulthood in communist Poland or the Baltic states and who seem to think the alternative reality presented by Putin and his yes-nodding cronies is understandable. Ask how the Czechs in Prague in 1967 felt? On holiday in 1981 my wife decided not to go back home to Southern Poland for fear of the tanks rolling in again following the Gdansk/Solidarity uprising. The peoples of Eastern Europe have been liberated from decades of oppression, substandard living and employment conditions, not to mention zero quality of life compared to W European standards. 75 years later, Poland is still coming to terms with WW2 since during the Soviet-dictated regime all focus was directed elsewhere, at least that’s my take on it. Does one really believe they have no right to self determination in avoiding the clock being turned back 70 years? Those here who understand delusional Putin and his best pal delusional Trump might consider following Snowden in applying for residence in wonderful Moscow.
It’s true that the USA is not a lot better in terms of invading other countries, but their reasons in some cases have been understandable. Putin is fast beginning to resemble another despot who came to power in the 30’s.

Last edited 2 months ago by stephen archer
Andrew F
Andrew F
2 months ago
Reply to  stephen archer

Great post.
Those who defend Putin and Russian aggression on this and other forums should really move there.
For some strange reason they prefer West to Russian Paradise.
I remember all this lefty South American students in 80s London all spouting pro Moscow propaganda.
When I asked them why they study in London and not in Havana or Moscow, they could not answer, usually called me f****t and walk away…

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Its quite funny as you’ll see these same commentators banging on about the decline of the west whilst they support the right of Putin. It rather shows their governance preferences – though if they lived under their preferences they’d soon try to escape.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

The population of Estonia and Latvia are roughly 1/4 ethnic Russian and Russian speaking. In big cities like Riga, it is probably closer to 1/2.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

No sorry I like a lot of your comments but this is appeasement claptrap. People need to stop this.
Joining NATO is not the same as invading another country.
Invoking some floral notions about Russian paranoia and ‘poking the bear” – just because Russia has been invaded before is ludicrous, as if Russia has a monopoly on suffering*. By that justification, virtually any European country could legitimise invading another.
Furthermore it’s insulting to the numerous countries that Russia invaded, occupied and enforced communism upon, all under the guise of ‘self protection’.
There is one country that Eastern European nations fear and it’s the one to the East which invaded them numerous times in the past, and is currently invading one of their neighbours.
*Russia demonstrably enforced as much suffering on its own people and its neighbours than it did at the hands of Germany
p.s. – agree with you calling out Western leaders weakness. They shouldn’t have coyly teased Ukraine with mealy support if they weren’t prepared to back it up. But this is not an equivalent wrong as invading another country

Last edited 2 months ago by A Spetzari
James Joyce
James Joyce
2 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Fair play. With respect, I disagree, and stand by George F. Kennan’s views, which I have adopted. I never said or suggested that joining NATO is the equivalent of invading another country. What I did say was that this is a consequence–even 18 years after the Baltic states joined NATO–of an exceptionally poor foreign policy.
My post should not be read as appeasement, not be read as approving of this invasion on a neighboring country, and I’m not celebrating. Ironically or not, today is Estonia’s Independence Day.
RealPolitik should not be seen as appeasement. I simply acknowledge Russia’s location, Russia’s past, and the somewhat paranoid nature of the Russian people.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Fair enough – agree to disagree.
Don’t disagree with the gist of your points – but disagree on the amount and location of blame here
Versailles might have created the conditions for WW2 – but it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) detract from the sheer evil of Nazism. Similar applies here

Last edited 2 months ago by A Spetzari
James Joyce
James Joyce
2 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I’m continuing to upvote you because I value debate. Keep it coming. I would like someone with more expertise than me to shed more light on Kennan’s views, which I know a bit, but not all the nuances.
Kennan expert, if you’re out there….
But to be clear–No apologies for invasion, for Naziism, for evil!

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

‘Allowing them to join’. What? Didn’t they have any free will as sovereign nations?

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Are you kidding, mate? Of course the Baltic states and other states have free will as sovereign nations. I get it.
BUT, what you conveniently miss, is that this goes both ways. YES, NATO has to “allow” other states to join and there are certain conditions, such as spending 2% of GDP on defense. Oops, bad example, but you get the idea.
Hundreds of million of people in the world would like to join the US (individually). Shouldn’t the American people have some say in who is “allowed” to join?
Really, mate, you can do better!

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

2014? I thought Georgia in 2008 was the clearest start to this.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

A couple of weeks ago I’d have had some sympathy for this analysis. Putin had a case for jerking us about a bit. Now the bullets are flying, you have to pick a side.

Whatever the provocation, Russia’s actions today are a wholly unacceptable response.

Time to swing behind our side … with all it’s faults.

Last edited 2 months ago by Martin Bollis
JP Martin
JP Martin
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Yes, many mistakes have been made. To your list, we can add other wrongheaded policies (Kosovo, China, energy, military spending/readiness, and many more). But, with all that said, it is possible to do everything right and still end up in a crisis.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

While I think there’s something in what you say I respectfully disagree that everything that happens in the world is because of some mess up or mistake by us..ie USA/UK basically/
Others do have agency in the world and I feel it is both slightly patronising , and an error, to keep viewing things through the lens of *what the West (UK/USA) did wrong was….*
I think The Soviet Union was a horrible and horribly dysfunctional society that imploded under the weight of it’s ideology.
The west on the other hand was so relieved when the USSR did disintegrate that it seems to have swallowed hook, line and sinker that woeful idea that we had reached the end of history and from here on in it would be mercantilism, trade and the West’s version of liberal democracy.
The tragic war now underway seems to spring from those two very simple facts…a Russia pining for old glories and a West forgetful of them.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 months ago
Reply to  Ted Ditchburn

It is hard and depressing work to be constantly trying to contain evil – which is why it reasserts itself like a cancer. Most folk find it hard to believe that there are powerful people with motivations towards evil (ie that which actively diminishes human wellbeing) – and tend to comprehend those psychopaths from their own relatively sane perspectives – and thereby give the cancer time to grow again. There does not seem to be a functional answer except permanent armed readiness as in the case of Israel which has to live in a state of constant potential conflict. I guess humans are just primitive creatures with a long way to go……and maybe no answers…

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 months ago

Frankly the admiration for the ex KGB weasel Putin in here over the past few weeks because some grumpy commenter doesn’t like that there Macron is partly hilarious and partly shamefully disgusting.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago

Jeez a lot of Putin champions commenting that the slaughter of Ukrainians is the fault of the west.
I suppose, using a parallel form of behaviour, that they also think children should be seen and not heard; and women shouldn’t wear sexually provocative clothes. Don’t poke the bear (the man), don’t antagonise him – and if you do, it’s your fault for whatever happens to you.
Its like stepping back into imperial times.

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
2 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Indeed. Surprisingly so. I suspect we have quite a few ‘middle-Englanders’ who are working out of ISPs in St. Petersberg at play.

I remember them well from 2013-14, when they went by the name Jock McDonaldski, came from Govan on the Volga, and were very much in favour of an Aye vote.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 months ago

The issue is not about who did what and when. It is not even about right and wrong. It is only about the rest of the world looking up to the United States, hoping that John Wayne will come riding out of the sunset to save the day.
The USA is defunct. Once upon a time, everyone in Europe saw the US as a role model, a way forward, something to aspire to. Today the US is rotten to the core – and we are still trying to copy it.

Dominic A
Dominic A
2 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Some Europeans, and fewer non-Europeans are starry eyed about the US – a minority I think, declining since a peak in the 1950’s. Your John Wayne inadvertently points to the seriousness & depth of much of that admiration – based in film, music rather than politics & economics.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
2 months ago

I see the problem in this way: As Kennan, Kissinger, Schmidt proposed, the only solution for Ukraine is some form of neutrality underpinned by the powers along the lines of cold war Finland and Austria (still). Yet Russia’s behaviour since the grab of the Crimea means that prior business has to be settled before getting down to brass tacks on neutrality. Also it would be good if the Kremlin agreed to stop poking people in the UK with nuclear-tipped umbrellas.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 months ago

The most sensible article I’ve read on the conflict so far. There’s a reason those Eastern European countries have been desperate to get themselves under the umbrella of NATO, and it’s exactly for the reasons outlined in the article of Russia acting with impunity to carve off large sections of other nations territory. Individually those nations simply aren’t strong enough to repel Russia as Ukraine is now unfortunately finding out, but Putin isn’t going to risk an attack on a nation backed by the collective defence of NATO.
It amazes me how people believe that Russia has the right to dictate the foreign policy and defensive alliances of other sovereign nations.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 months ago

So the Chinese are exactly wrong. This isn’t about NATO pushing “a big country to the wall”, but about what Russia does to its smaller neighbours.

And why is that country so big in the first place?

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 months ago

Most of it is uninhabited.

Mark Cole
Mark Cole
2 months ago

I dont think nato expansion is the cause but I do have sympathy with the Russian perspective (not their military action) in the Ukraine, which is clearly a much more pivotal and important country with a long Russian border
The recent history of the Ukraine, post nuclear disarmament , from the 1994 Budapest agreement to the 2010 election, the coup, the separatists in the East, the 2014 Minsk agreements seems to have been lost on our media
Putin is clearly a bully and his actions in Salisbury and elsewhere put him as an enemy. However I fear he is emboldened in this instance because he actually has a cause founded on some reasonable issues; the geographic split in 2010 puts a line clear across Ukraine from NE to SW splitting the pro – Russian and Ukrainian nationalists into 2 clear halves. It is not unreasonable to recognise this ” democratic split” and to insist on Ukraine remaining neutral.
This would have been a peaceful diplomatic solution and its the Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK even brought it up as an idea before he was shot down. I fear the US knew that by emboldening the Ukrainian President whom Biden and his family made money out of and supported, they would draw Putin into this action because he cant control his anger.
We the west have been complicit and could have done better encouraging Russia to the table by using empathy with the Russian people (not Putin)
Military action is a step too far – the west needs to bring national service and invest in defence

Last edited 2 months ago by Mark Cole
Andrew F
Andrew F
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark Cole

You might mean well, but where does it stop?
Putin’s demands are like Hitler demands over Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Latvia and Estonia have substantial Russian minorities of about 25% with some big cities closer to 50%.
Should we indulge Putin when he demands protection for them under some pretext?

Last edited 2 months ago by Andrew F
6zib836tiq
6zib836tiq
2 months ago

Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal, no nation will ever again do this, ever.
N Korea, Pakistan and Iran will see this as money extremely well spent.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago
Reply to  6zib836tiq

Yeah this wouldn’t have happened if they’d kept it.

David Bell
David Bell
2 months ago

I was disappointed to hear Nigel Farrage on GB News the other day spout the “what did the West expect, NATO’s ever-expansion eastwards provoked the Russian bear” argument. He’s lost the plot on this one.

David Yetter
David Yetter
2 months ago

On NATO enlargement qua NATO enlargement, no. The fact we have come to this pass with Russia being again implacably hostile to the West even though it is no longer leading an empire intent on exporting an unworkable and inhumane social and economic system by force or arms, is not due to NATO expansion, but to the pattern of continuing to treat Russia as definitionally the enemy all through the Yeltsin and early Putin years: ignoring Russia’s interests in the Balkans in the 1990’s, including singling out Russia’s “little brother” Serbia as the only villain in the wars of the Yugoslav dissolution to the point of invading Serbia’s sovereign territory to forcibly detach a province Serbs regard as their spiritual heartland (sound like a precedent for some more recent events?), not offering meaningful security guarantees to Russia at any point, the CIA-backed “Color Revolutions” overthrowing pro-Russian governments all around Russia’s periphery, some of which, including that overthrown in the Maidan uprising were actually, legitimately elected, and yes, NATO expansion.
Treat a country as an enemy, earn their emnity. Had we post-Soviet Russia with similar solicitude to that offered other defeated enemies (cf. (West) Germany and Japan), had we invited them to help us keep the peace in the former Yugoslavia in an even-handed way, rather than intervening against their traditional allies, Ukrainians would not now be suffering for Vladimir Putins’ neo-Soviet (or is it neo-Tsarist? It seems to change from day to day) ambitions.