Apologists for the Russian invasion of Ukraine lay the blame on NATO’s eastward expansion. But Russian discomfort over the expansion cannot justify its brutal invasion of Ukraine.
It should not surprise anyone that the 31-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has an unsavoury reputation in Russia and China. But it is a bit surprising that this is also so among significant numbers of people in Southeast Asia. There are different reasons for this, but a common theme is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was precipitated by NATO’s eastward expansion towards Russia after the Cold War. This exacerbated Russia’s feeling of insecurity. However, skeptics of NATO’s expansion need to be reminded that President Vladimir Putin has claimed that for historical and cultural reasons Ukraine was and should be part of Russia. Thus, the NATO expansion argument could just be a useful figleaf for a more sinister design, especially ominous for small states (that is, “You have always been part of my country.”) Still, if one looks into the claim that NATO is to blame at face value, it does not hold water.
It is well documented that NATO’s eastward expansion was (and remains) a sore point with Russia. And that it was discussions within NATO, initiated by the United States under President George W. Bush, on the possible inclusion of Ukraine in the alliance that greatly alarmed Russia. Academic and policy luminaries in the West have cited the strong advice of Nicholas Burns, the then U.S. ambassador to Moscow, the current Central Intelligence Agency chief, against such a move. Also, some of America’s European allies opposed the idea.
However, while we can understand Russia’s angst over NATO expansion and discussions to bring Ukraine into NATO, it should not be forgotten that it is the sovereign right of any state to choose arrangements that would best safeguard its security from potential external threats. Further, there was no imminent prospect of Ukraine joining NATO at the time of the Russian invasion. Ukraine then, in fact, had not formally applied for NATO membership, nor did the alliance say it would support such membership anytime soon. Any Russian discomfort about NATO expansion cannot justify its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Understanding the psychological disposition of a criminal does not white-wash his crime. The invasion is a blow to the rules-based international order and must be seen to fail. This is especially important to the security of small states that will be at the mercy of stronger powers if the law of the jungle prevails.
Such a principle has an older provenance. The experiences of unprovoked aggression by two powerful countries, Germany and Japan, against their neighbours in the 1930s culminated in the Second World War. This led the architects of the United Nations Charter to make the prohibition of military aggression by one country against another one of its key principles. The success of such aggression would weaken this cardinal canon of the Charter. On this ground alone, the Russian invasion of Ukraine should be roundly condemned. It is particularly egregious because in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Russia, together with the U.S. and the United Kingdom, had provided security assurances to Ukraine in return for the latter surrendering its nuclear weapons.
In portraying NATO as an offensive vehicle expanding inexorably towards and threatening Russia, the apologists for Russia mischaracterise the alliance and ignore the insecurities of East European countries in relation to Russia. NATO is primarily a defensive military alliance, even though it used military force in the civil wars of Yugoslavia in the 1990s to end and deter ethnic violence that threatened European stability. According to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, an attack by an external power on any one of the treaty members would result in a collective military response by all NATO members. This deterrent effect of the alliance kept the peace in Europe until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Without NATO and the Marshall Plan, Europe could have come under Soviet dominance, and we would have been living in a different world today.
In portraying NATO as an offensive vehicle expanding inexorably towards and threatening Russia, the apologists for Russia mischaracterise the alliance and ignore the insecurities of East European countries in relation to Russia.
The expansion of NATO eastwards in the post-Cold War era was possible because of the deep insecurities of the Eastern European countries due to the history of expansion and aggression by Russia and the Soviet Union. In 1939 a large chunk of Eastern Poland was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union following the notorious Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact. In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. The three Baltic Republics — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — were invaded and occupied in June 1940. After World War Two, Communist governments under Soviet control were imposed on Poland and much of Eastern Europe. Hungary was invaded in 1956 when it resisted Soviet control and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
With such a dark history, it is unsurprising that when Soviet controls were removed with the end of the Cold War and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the East European countries joined NATO to ensure that their new-found freedom and independence would not be threatened again by a resurgent Russia in the future. NATO could not have expanded without their ready willingness to embrace it. Soviet and Russian actions created NATO and its recent expansion. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reminds us why this military alliance is needed.
Daljit Singh is Visiting Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic & Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.