Incredibly, some blame the West for war in Ukraine. They’ve got things exactly backwards

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If any more proof were needed that Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has led to the exact opposite of what he was seeking, look no further than Finland and Sweden.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/04/2022 (295 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If any more proof were needed that Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has led to the exact opposite of what he was seeking, look no further than Finland and Sweden.

Both countries, for different reasons, stayed resolutely neutral throughout the Cold War. Both kept that posture even after the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago.

But now they’re moving toward joining NATO, and quickly. Why? Because, their prime ministers said this past week, “everything had changed” when Russia invaded a neighbouring country. The only security, they now believe, lies in allying with the other 30 NATO members, whose cornerstone pledge is that an attack on one is an attack on all.

Mikhail Klimentyev - AP Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow.

So Putin has managed, in a few short weeks, to drive two countries, one of which (Finland) has a 1,300-km border with Russia, into the arms of a military alliance that he claims is a dagger pointed at his country’s heart.

The fact that Sweden and Finland would even entertain joining NATO is remarkable in itself. It also gives the lie to a pernicious narrative that took hold on both the right and the left when Putin invaded on Feb. 24: that this is essentially the fault of the West.

According to that version of events, western countries (really, the United States) made a fatal error by expanding NATO eastward after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Western leaders promised Russia as early as 1990 that they wouldn’t expand the alliance, so the story goes. Then they violated that pledge by admitting Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in 1999, and seven more countries in 2004, including the Baltic states that were actually part of the Soviet empire.

The problem with this version of events is that, first, it’s fundamentally wrong, and second, it erases the will of eastern European countries themselves. The assumption is that the U.S. and western Europe should have continued the imperial conceit that the eastern half of the continent should be content to remain in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence and accept the limits that go along with that.

Right-leaning foreign policy “realists” endorse this view on the grounds that it’s just the way the world works. Small countries get shoved around by big ones. Left-leaning critics like it because they’ve always been suspicious of NATO and see the manipulative hand of Washington driving all events.

In fact, the idea that the West promised Russia early on that NATO would not expand has been thoroughly debunked. Indeed, there were even discussions in the 1990s of a democratic Russia joining some kind of Europe-wide security alliance, perhaps even NATO itself.

Of course, none of that came about. Instead, Putin took charge in 2000 and has imposed his nationalist, Great Russia vision. He has used the spectre of an expanding NATO as a useful way of ginning up support at home, but who seriously thinks he would have embarked on a peaceful, co-operative course if the alliance had refused membership to new states?

Indeed, in 2014 Putin annexed Crimea and effectively invaded the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine not because of any imaginary NATO threat, but because it fits his belief that Ukraine is a fake country that should never have been allowed to escape the domination of Russia.

The key point in all this is that eastern countries were not drafted by an aggressive NATO; they actively sought membership as a way of securing their hard-won democracies and independence. Even more to the point, all had bitter recent experience with Russian/Soviet domination.

Poland, for one, was actually partioned and erased from the map by Hitler and Stalin in 1939 and then thoroughly brutalized. The Baltic states saw their brief independence snuffed out soon after, at enormous human cost. Other eastern countries were Sovietized after 1945. After such a dark history, who can blame them for seeking security by expanding both political and military ties to the West?

The “blame NATO” narrative, in fact, gets things exactly backwards. Expanding the alliance did not provoke Putin into becoming more aggressive than he would otherwise have been. It’s the aggressive actions of Russia under both its current and previous regimes that led eastern European countries to take shelter under NATO’s umbrella.

Some argue that Ukraine is fundamentally different, that it really is part of the traditional Russian heartland and should not be allowed to join a western alliance that would put troops at Russia’s border. In fact, there’s no realistic possibility of that happening. All NATO members would have to agree, and many would veto membership for Ukraine. Putin knows that perfectly well, though it serves his purpose to present it as an imminent threat.

In the real world, his invasion has accomplished everything he says he opposes. It’s given NATO new purpose and new resolve. And, if Sweden and Finland do go ahead with seeking membership, exposed Russia as never before to western power. A lose-lose proposition if ever there was one.

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