Historically, Russia has provoked European countries into joining
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”:
"When the U.S. drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia's doorstep…, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?" — spokesperson pic.twitter.com/UvGUtc2vAJ
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) February 24, 2022
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.