It is now quite clear, as I have stated for decades, that NATO expansion is the main cause of U.S.-Russian and WesternRussian tensions, and the Russian angst over said expansion is the cause of the Ukrainian crisis sparked in winter 2013-2014. It appears that Putin is escalating the stakes in the Ukrainian crisis in an effort to solve it and the overall problem of NATO expansion and European security. The positioning of Russian troops closer to the Ukrainian border – not on the border as is being reported – is an attempt to concentrate the minds of the West and bring the main driver of the Ukrainian crisis on the Western side – the U.S. – into the Minsk 2 process directly or otherwise. His highlighting the issue has the important side benefit of putting the issue in a central place before Western publics and unmask what is often the stealthy nature of NATO expansion processes.
It was the American policy of NATO expansion – America drives NATO policy – that brought us the crisis in Ukraine. The crisis is the inevitable outcome of the first round of expansion to the Czeck republic and Ukraine’s neighbors Hungary and Poland pushed by the Clinton administration and ensuing rounds of NATO expansion pushed by George Bush Jr administration. It is not just the authoritarian Putin who resists NATO expansion. Almost all Russia does, and this is because of several centuries of Russian history that has seen Western powers repeatedly meddle, interfere, and intervene in and invade, shaping a security culture that values highly vigilance against external threats, internal divisions, and any connection — collusion — between the two. Pro-democratic and pro-Western Russian president Boris Yeltsin therefore was also adamantly opposed to NATO expansion. He literally blew up at Clinton during the 1994 Budapest summit, well before the decision to expand had even been made. Still two years before the decision, Clinton went to Moscow in May 1995 for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the victory over Hitler, and Yeltsin regaled Clinton in no uncertain terms about NATO expansion, seeing “nothing but humiliation” for Russia, he declared: “For me to agree to the borders of NATO expanding towards those of Russia – that would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people” (https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2021-11-24/nato-expansion-budapest-blow-1994). Putin alluded to this last week when he issued his call for a treaty codifying a ban on NATO expansion any further east—a violation of explicit promises to the last Soviet leader would not expand “one inch” beyond East Germany: “Why was it necessary to expand NATO to our borders? Who can answer this question? There is no good answer, it does not exist. We had almost idyllic picture of relations, especially in the mid-1990s. We were almost allies.” As is well known, Putin and Yeltsin before him suggested the possibility of Russia’s entry into NATO but they were rebuffed and ignored, respectively.
The fact that Putin has raised the NATO issue directly to the West now is a function of several factors. The Minsk 2 process has collapsed and Ukraine continues to fail in fulfilling key elements of the agreement, for example, by directly negotiating with the Donbass rebel regimes on a special autonomous status with Ukraine for them. As the peace process stalled, in part because Zelenskiy cannot withstand ultranationalist/neofascist pressures to cease negotiating with hated Russia, Zelenskiy’s popularity has nosedived. The ratings fall has little to no connection to the ongoing war in Donbass but is a result of economic, Russian language, corruption and other purely domestic issues. With Zelenskiy’s ratings collapsed and a broad opposition coalition arrayed against him, the Ukrainian president has abandoned his attempt to disarm and contain illegally armed fascist groups and instead has courted them. The founder of the neofascist Right Sector and Volunteer Ukrainian Corps, Dmitro Yarosh, was appointed advisor to the chief of staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and Zelenskiy recently awarded the ‘Hero of Ukraine’ award to on of their members, who has repeatedly violated the ceaefire agreement on the front. It is on this background that Putin has Russian troops leaning forward.
In short, neither the Donbass nor Putin has a partner with which to talk. Putin has turned to Washington now because the crisis is deepening and is only set to get worse. Completelyn without domestic allies and the precipitous fall of Zelenskiy’s own and his party’s now disastrously popularity ratings, there is likely to be a major political crisis in Ukraine next year. Moreover, at next year’s NATO summit Ukraine is poised to gain a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) that will begin the process of Kiev’s accession to the alliance and the transformation of one of the two main traditional invasion routes into Russia into NATO territory. This on a background where already the West is sending weapons to Ukriane, training the Ukrainian army, including its neofascist units.
The possibility of NATO in Crimea and Russia’s loss of a base for its Black Sea Fleet was key in Putin’s decision to seize the peninsula after Maidan. Without the senseless Maidan revolt – leaving aside here the brutal terrorist culmination of sniper fire targeting both police and demonstrators carried out by the Maidan’s neofascist wing – or without a Russian naval base and tens of thusands of Russian troops based in Sevastopol, there would have been no annexation of Crimea. Full stop. Now the possibility emerges that NATO could incorporate Ukraine, despite its territorial stateness problem in Donbass, bringing NATO into the civil war’s calculus by boosting the Ukrainian army’s prospects for defeating the Donbass rebels. Thus, Putin will have little choice but to intervene militarily in Donbass, seizing and annexing it and daring the Ukraine-enhanced West to challenge the Russian army.
The alternative to this near-doomsady scenario, with asymmetrical and other forms, inckuding nuclear escalation waiting in the wings is obvious and imperative to choose. As I have repeatedly argued, the West should agree to militarily non-aligned, neutral status – no NATO, CSTO, or SCO membership – for Ukraine. EU membership would remain an open option for Kiev, and Donbass would be fully reintegrated into Ukraine, with a degree of autonomoy to be negotiated directly between Kiev and Donbass with Western, including more active American, mediation in accordance with Minsk 2 or a Minsk 3, revised to take into account American participation. If this is not done, Putin might use a real or fake a neofascist or official Kieavan provocation or mistake in order to seize Donbass in order to preempt an further Kievan move there. He then might try to use Donbass’s return to full Ukrainian control as a bargaining chip for a deal on Ukraine’s neutral status. This would be dangerous enough, and, unfortunately, NATO and Ukraine view the struggle on the eastern front as a zero-sum game. If Ukraine receives a MAP, it is a victory for the ‘free world.’ If not, Putin wins. The prospect of Putin ‘winning’ is becoming more objectionable in the West and Kiev than the prospect of war, a formula for precisely that—war.
And Ukraine is just one of three problems on the eastern front. Belarus and Moldova are each almost as intractable. This week’s inconclusive virtual Biden-Putin summit keeps the clock ticking and the tension ratcheting up. All this risk to the national security of all Europe for what precisely? For the sake of NATO expansion. For a NATO that could not prevail in Afghanistan, despite all the expenditure in blood and treasure, will not stand to defend Ukraine even if Russia was to invade. We will not respond militarily to any Russian intervention into Ukraine, because it is not in America’s interests. So why I we trying to expand NATO Ukraine, if it is not in our interests to defend Ukraine militarily? And if NATO did move to fight Russia over Ukraine, what would that entail? Nothing other than the potential for a third world war and a first nuclear one.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.