As Finland and Sweden begin the process of applying for NATO membership, misleading narratives about the role of NATO’s so-called eastward expansion in “provoking” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to hold sway. These narratives obscure the basic fact that Russia’s war against Ukraine is imperialistic: Russia admitted that the goal of the “second phase” of the offensive is to occupy as much territory as possible. Despite these flagrant admissions, Russia continues to try to disguise its aims, and has come up with a number of excuses. Blaming NATO is a primary one, and for Russia, it serves three purposes. First, it seeks to dissuade Ukraine’s Western partners from supplying means of self‐defense to Ukraine. Second, it contributes to the “rally-round‐the‐flag” effect in Russia in the face of an external enemy. Third, it serves to excuse and justify the setbacks and losses that the Russian military has experienced in Ukraine: the Russian government can claim that they are fighting against “the entire NATO.”
The idea that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is somehow “NATO’s fault” resonates beyond Russia’s borders. Two types of arguments are widespread: “whataboutism” and neocolonialism disguised as “realism.” “Whataboutism” whitewashes Russia’s actions because the United States (US) has done terrible things in the past. However, “whataboutism” is a logical fallacy: it is possible to critique both American and Russian foreign policies.
The second line of reasoning assumes that Ukraine has to submit to Russia because Russia is stronger, and this is just “how the world works.” International Relations scholars who subscribe to this tradition argue that great powers—whether they are the US, Russia, or China—seek to influence domestic and foreign policies of countries in their neighborhood. Russia perceived Ukraine’s transformation into “a pro-American liberal democracy” and its aspirations to join the European Union (EU) and NATO as a threat, therefore it attacked it. (91 percent of Ukrainians support EU membership and 68 percent support joining NATO.) Ukraine was imprudent in failing to accommodate its neighbor’s wishes, such commentators argue.
Yet this thinking is colonial: in a world where might makes right, while international law and human rights do not matter, powerful countries could grab land and abuse foreign populations as they please. Victims of aggression, their partners, and countries committed to upholding international law should not resist, according to this logic.
Others, while recognizing the unjust nature of Russia’s claims to a “sphere of influence,” oppose weapons deliveries to Ukraine out of a professed desire to save Ukrainian lives and prevent a world war—an argument made in a controversial open letter by German intellectuals, which called upon the German government to stop sending arms to Ukraine and focus on a ceasefire. Estonian and Latvian politicians criticized such calls for pushing Ukraine to accept “peace and any price” if it entails occupation of more Ukrainian territory (invariably accompanied by human rights abuses) and a constant threat of Russia’s regrouping and attacking again.
During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, both great powers and regional actors had initially misdiagnosed the situation as another episode in the civil war, so all efforts were pinned on achieving a ceasefire. The Czech representative to the UN caused a stir at a closed-door Security Council meeting when he compared attempts at a peace deal between Hutus and Tutsis to “wanting Hitler to reach a ceasefire with the Jews.” Today, an understanding of Russia’s murderous intent toward Ukrainians is also lacking in many capitals, although Central and Eastern European countries are an exception. Latvian and Estonian parliaments were the first to pass declarations on Russia’s behavior in Ukraine amounting to acts of genocide. Other countries in the region also offered political as well as practical support to Ukraine in what has been termed “neo-idealist” foreign policy. Central and Eastern European countries know that Russia “will respect international obligations and agreements only when it is in its own interests to do so” as well as that NATO is an essential bulwark against Russian aggression for those who are alliance members.
Did NATO “Provoke” Russia?
(Neo)realist International Relations scholars assume that NATO “provoked” Russia by accommodating the wishes of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European countries to join the alliance. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 by Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, and the US. During the Cold War, four members joined: Greece, Turkey, Spain, and West Germany. The alliance played a key role during that era as a counterweight to the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined NATO.
NATO is a collective defense organization: its Article 5 stipulates that an armed attack against one NATO member will be considered an attack against them all. A major function of Article 5 is deterrence: any hostile power contemplating an attack against a NATO member should be prepared for a collective response. The strength of NATO security guarantees is a source of anxiety for some member states, considering that public support for the idea that one’s country must come to the rescue of a fellow NATO ally varied in 2020 between 64 percent in the Netherlands and 60 percent in the US to 25 percent in Greece and Italy as well as just 12 percent in Bulgaria. Yet NATO is not solely a security pact.
The NATO Charter expresses its members’ commitment to a peaceful settlement of disputes, economic collaboration, consultations, and the strengthening of democratic institutions. The Charter specifies that any European country, upon a unanimous invitation of all members, can join NATO. In line with this principle, NATO in 2008 welcomed the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to pursue alliance membership. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also working toward it. Kosovo has expressed similar desires, although its non-recognition by several European countries is an insurmountable hurdle at the moment.
Russia claims that as the Soviet Union was dissolving, NATO promised not to “expand” eastward. (The very language of expansionism, as opposed to positively connoted enlargement, is part of the Russian narrative, which also obscures the lengthy process of applying for and meeting the requirements of NATO membership.) The enlargement of NATO, Putin claims, threatens Russia’s “legitimate interests” in its neighborhood, leaving Russia no choice but to act on its “legitimate security concerns”—a narrative debunked by the EU Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations as disinformation. As for the promises of NATO non-enlargement, even the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that they were made only in the context of the former German Democratic Republic’s unification with West Germany. In 1993, US officials informed Russian President Boris Yeltsin of their plans to pursue partnerships with all Central and Eastern European countries instead of NATO membership (a plan, not a promise) but did not rule out admitting new members into the alliance in the long term. Back then, there was no serious intention to enlarge NATO, although Czechia’s Vaclav Havel and Poland’s Lech Walesa pleaded to join.
Central and Eastern European countries managed to join NATO sooner than planned. Poland’s desire to become “safe, secure, and free” meant that it persisted in its quest to become part of the alliance and succeeded in 1999, together with Czechia and Hungary. Congratulating the three new members, Latvia expressed hopes that one day, Baltic countries would also “fully return to the Euro-Atlantic community”—language used by Central and Eastern European countries to stress that they had been separated from their European family by the Soviet occupation. Latvia also expressed satisfaction at how closely NATO and Russia cooperated at the time. This cooperation would not last, however, as Russia turned more and more authoritarian after Putin came to power in 2000. In 2004, the Baltic countries joined NATO as well as the EU.
Multilateral organizations change over time, and this is true of NATO. Some of its original goals are no longer relevant. An oft-quoted quip by NATO’s first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, was that NATO was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” After Germany firmly renounced its Hitler-era militarism and totalitarianism, few in Germany could see NATO as “anti-German.”
The two other parts of the quip remain relevant. Despite the “mutual assistance clause” in the Lisbon Treaty, the applications to join NATO by Sweden and Finland (as well as Switzerland’s consideration of closer ties with the alliance) demonstrate that NATO remains the most important collective security architecture for Europe. Unlike similar declarations by Ukraine, Sweden’s and Finland’s membership bid did not trigger opposition by Putin. Commenting on Sweden’s and Finland’s bid at a summit of the leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—the Russia-led military alliance consisting of pro-Russian post-Soviet states—Putin announced that “expansion on account of these countries does not pose a direct threat to Russia,” further proof that NATO enlargement was not the reason but part of the pretext for the invasion of Ukraine.
As for “keeping the Soviet Union out” element of Lord Ismay’s quip, this concerned preventing Soviet control over European countries: the USSR had to be “kept out” of territories that did not belong to it. This objective remains relevant in the 21st century. Russia undermined the security of its non-NATO neighbors: it occupied Transnistria in Moldova, invaded Georgia, and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, driving away or abusing the peninsula’s indigenous Muslim population. Stopping short of an open military confrontation with NATO countries, Russia staged cyberattacks and violated airspace in countries like Estonia.
Russian propaganda insists that NATO has always been “anti-Russian.” However, NATO is not “anti-Russian” so much as anti-Russian imperialism. It is not surprising that Central and Eastern European NATO members whom Russia regularly threatens—through rhetoric and subversive activities—are the strongest supporters of NATO membership: 82 percent of Poles and 77 percent of Lithuanians held favorable views of the alliance in 2020, and support has probably increased since then.
Another argument advanced by Russia is that NATO should have been disbanded and replaced by a “pan-European security architecture.” Yet Russia already cooperates (or at least used to) with European countries through multiple organizations. Furthermore, it is unclear whether a pan-European organization with Putin’s Russia as a member could have worked. Its behavior in other international institutions does not offer grounds for optimism. All countries pursue national interests through international organizations. But many of them, at least sometimes, use international organizations to seek collective benefits, yet this rarely applies to Putin’s Russia.
Russia and International Organizations
Putin’s formative experiences and admiration of all things Soviet merit going back to the Soviet doctrine towards international organizations. Whatever one thinks of the analysis of Soviet internal and foreign policies in the 1946 Long Telegram, it did warn that “Russians will participate officially in international organizations where they see opportunity of extending Soviet power or of inhibiting or diluting power of others.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US and Western Europe expected Russia to renounce its imperialist, zero-sum worldview, even though independent Russia showed little readiness for a serious reckoning with its totalitarian Soviet past (and now actively prevents such a reckoning). The so-called “spirit of 1989” created undue optimism. While Russia accused the West of “gloating” at its Cold War victory, what existed at the time was genuine excitement at the arrival of “Europe whole and free.” The lingering concerns that Central and Eastern European countries had about the depth and permanence of Russia’s transformation were dismissed as alarmism.
Those concerns, unfortunately, proved to be warranted, judging by Russia’s behavior in international organizations in the 21st century. For years, Russia had opposed inviting civil society actors to brief the United Nations (UN) Security Council through the so-called “Arria formula.” Yet in the late 2010s, Russia embraced it as soon as it became useful for its disinformation campaigns, inviting atrocity-deniers and anyone willing to repeat Russia’s talking points. In December 2021, Russia used the “Arria formula” to accuse Ukraine and the Baltic states of “glorification of Nazism.” Thirty-six countries and the EU expressed regret at Russia’s misuse of the issue and format “to promote a false narrative and disinformation on neighboring countries.” After escalating its war against Ukraine in February 2022, Russia at a Security Council meeting accused Ukraine of developing weapons of mass destruction, which, in the words of Albania’s Ambassador Ferit Hoxha, was “information warfare, false, unsubstantiated…[c]onspiracy theories that are not worth our time.” Yet these conspiracy theories became popular in Russia and among a segment of the US population.
Putin’s regime also sought to undermine the UN’s administrative functioning to protect its commercial interests. A Russian diplomat who had chaired the UN’s Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions and a Russian procurement official were jailed for money laundering linked to their UN positions.
Russian troops in Mali allegedly massacred civilians whom the UN mission there, MINUSMA, is mandated to protect (Russia had approved that mandate). A similar concern lingers in the Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group operates. The Wagner Group is a Russian government’s tool for seeking global influence in a manner reminiscent of pre-1989 proxy wars. Wagner soldiers have fought against Ukraine since 2014 and continue to do so in their usual fashion that involves atrocities. In the Central African Republic, the Wagner Group might have committed “mass summary executions, arbitrary detentions, torture during interrogations [and] forced disappearances.” The UN mission there, MINUSCA, also has a mandate to protect civilians. MINUSCA provided medical evacuations to “Russian trainers,” which stretched the mission’s resources, although Russian troops and mercenaries did not always coordinate with the UN before launching operations that would leave them in need of medical evacuation.
Not only the UN got vilified and undercut by Russia. The Kremlin sought to discredit the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to protect the Assad regime in Syria from accountability. Russia “systematically undermined public confidence in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) through disinformation and obstructionism,” questioning the organization’s “competence when it cannot be manipulated to serve Moscow’s aims.” Russian proxies in occupied Eastern Ukraine kidnapped national staff of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission as it was drawing down following Russia’s refusal of an extension. The Council of Europe (CoE) expelled Russia three weeks after the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This is how Ronny Patz, Adjunct Professor at the Hertie School in Berlin and an expert on global politics, international organizations, and human rights, describes Russia’s policies toward the CoE:
“Russia’s repeated call for a ‘Europe without dividing lines’ was frequently undermined by its own attempts to create divisions within the CoE. The list of Russia’s repeated and continued acts of disrespect to the CoE’s core values is long: From its suspension from the CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly in 2000 due to human rights violations in Chechnya to its continued non-implementation of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights—including for cases in Transnistria—Russia has long been seen as an actor using the CoE stage to question and undermine human rights across Europe. In recent years, Russia refused for some time to pay its assessed contributions to the CoE budget after losing its voting rights in the CoE Parliamentary Assembly again. Thus, while the Russian Federation’s expulsion from the CoE is an important loss to human rights defenders in Russia, there were probably some sighs of relief in the CoE hallways in Strasbourg as diplomats and CoE officials will now be spared from spending valuable diplomatic time with a member whose mission turned out to undermine the CoE’s core values from within more than promoting those values.”
Despite all of the above, Russia continued presenting itself as a misunderstood stakeholder for peace and stability in Europe, whose overtures “the West” had rejected. While the narrative of Russia as an “innocent victim of outside powers” is an essential element of Russian propaganda, the reality is different. In the mid-1990s, the US invited Russia to join the G8, a club of major “Western” economies to which China or Brazil had a stronger claim than Russia at the time based solely on GDP. (Russia was excluded from the G8 after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.) Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 1994. To highlight Russia’s special status and distinguish it from other Partnership for Peace countries—a nod to Russia’s self-perceived “greatness”—the Permanent NATO-Russia Joint Council was created in 1997 and upgraded to the NATO-Russia Council in 2002. Many politicians in “the West” tried to see the best in Putin. Germany’s center-left, for example, continued “to hope Putin might turn out to be a reasonable chap after all.” By contrast, Eastern European experts observed back in 2015 that despite Russia claiming that all it wants is to be treated “as an equal” by other European countries, “for Moscow, being ‘equal’ means having the right to set and tweak the rules, not just to advance its own interests within the post-Cold War European system with its common set of rules.”
So a “pan-European security architecture” replacing NATO would have been destabilizing as long as Putin’s regime ruled in Russia. One can hope that one day, Russia will cease to be militaristic and imperialist, start upholding human rights at home, and stop violating them abroad. But NATO would not be a perceived threat to a free Russia.
Kseniya Oksamytna is Lecturer in International Politics (Foreign Policy/Security) at City, University of London and Visiting Research Fellow in the Conflict, Security & Development Research Group at King’s College London. Her latest book is United Nations Peace Operations and International Relations Theory (Manchester University Press, 2020, co-edited with John Karlsrud). She tweets at @Kseniya_Oksamyt.
She gratefully acknowledges the useful feedback of Jill Stoddard and Eimer Curtin from the Global Observatory during the preparation of this piece.