In the weeks and months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, commentators who like to think of themselves as outside of the mainstream have embraced the idea that NATO, rather than Putin, is responsible for Russia’s aggression.
And in what is a particularly divisive age, this has been a strangely bipartisan phenomenon. Tucker Carlson, a demagogue of right-wing American infotainment, said that NATO expansion was an “obvious” incitement towards war with Russia whilst Diane Abbott, a labour MP and the former Shadow Home Secretary, declared that the destabilisation of Eastern Europe “comes from a continued Eastward expansion of NATO.”
These are not fringe voices. Peter Hitchens wrote in the Daily Mail – one of Britain’s most popular newspapers – that Western foreign policy has precipitated this conflict by antagonising Russian leaders. And Nigel Farage, perhaps the UK’s most prominent Brexiter, described Russia’s invasion as a “consequence of EU and NATO expansion”. These are people with a massive audience, who just happen to have the same opinions as a Russian bot.
Oft portrayed as an original and novel contrarianism, the reality is that this “blame NATO” logic stems from a banal neorealism – the simplest and most mainstream theory of international relations.
John Mearsheimer, a renowned academic and the father of this school of thought, has long made the argument that NATO expansionism in Eastern Europe is destined to trigger an aggressive response from Mr Putin. Mearsheimer’s claim is that that Russia has long viewed Western influence in Eastern Europe, and particularly in Ukraine, as a direct threat to its interests, if not its very existence. As such, the realities of power politics dictate that Russia do everything in its power to halt Western expansion – embodied most clearly by extension of the NATO alliance. And from this perspective, the West’s aggressive push into Eastern Europe has left Putin little choice but to respond in kind.
Plausible as this account can seem – it is true, for example, that NATO has expanded more than 1,000km to the East of the old dividing line between US and Soviet spheres of influence – it simply does not hold up under closer consideration. Quite simply, NATO has not expanded its presence in Eastern Europe in any significant way since 2004. And until Putin amassed the majority of Europe’s largest army on the border with Ukraine, the number of NATO troops stationed in Baltic states had been falling dramatically since the end of the Cold War.
Moreover, whilst the Bucharest Summit in 2008 did make clear that NATO intended to welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance, no substantial progress has been made towards this end, and Ukrainian membership remains a long way off. It is, in fact, impossible – seeing as NATO’s charter prevents countries from joining the alliance if part of their territory is occupied by another state, and that Russia has occupied the Crimean Peninsula since 2014.
Perhaps most telling is that Putin himself barely paid lip service to this narrative in his declaration of war. Which, alongside his essay on the “Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, choose instead to paint Ukraine as a Russian territory mistakenly granted independence by the Russian empire. This train of thought is a popular thread in genocidal Russian propaganda, which rejects the existence of a Ukrainian national identity itself.
If Ukraine, a country that shares so many historical and cultural ties with Russia, can operate as a liberal democracy, there is no reason to believe that Russia is any different.Sonny Loughran
For some reason, these facts fail to register in the minds of Western populists. And one of the most disturbing aspects of this conflict has been the way in which left- and right-wing grifters have prostituted themselves to the Kremlin. I’ve come to expect this from modern conservatives, after all, Putin is the ideological godfather (and, in many cases, financial benefactor) of the illiberal European and American far-right. But the tendency to spout Putin’s propaganda is especially depressing on the supposedly anti-imperialist left.
This is because the main issue with the focus on NATO expansionism is that it treats states like Ukraine (and the 44 million human beings that inhabit it) as the playthings of more powerful countries – as mere chess pieces in the game of empire. But the fact is that NATO does not expand on its own. Rather, countries like Ukraine apply for membership because they perceive it as being in their interests. Mearsheimer and his fans may not realise it, but even “small” countries like Ukraine have some agency.
This does not mean that there is no hypocrisy in Western foreign policy. Support for Saudi and Israeli crimes is an ongoing affront to liberal, democratic ideals. And people like Henry Kissinger have long excused aggressive US intervention in South America, and American war crimes, using the same strategic logic that is now deployed by the Stop the War Coalition – whose deputy president is the former labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – to blame NATO for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The searing irony of this is that the Western anti-war movement sprung up in opposition to America’s imperial ambitions. The United States’ violent interference in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua, to name just a few, were rejected by student revolutionaries precisely on the logic that nations should be able to choose their own path, independent of what their more powerful neighbours might think.
And today, the reality is that Putin fears exactly the kind of domino effect that so irked Cold War-era capitalists. If Ukraine, a country that shares so many historical and cultural ties with Russia, can operate as a liberal democracy, there is no reason to believe that Russia is any different. Such an example would pose a direct threat to Putin and his billionaire enablers, whose lavish lifestyles depend on the system of mafia capitalism that allows them to steal the wealth of the Russian people. This is why Putin’s initial annexation of Crimea came after the Maidan revolution, which saw thousands of Ukrainians take to the streets to reject their country’s slide towards Putinesque authoritarianism. It is why his goons drag 80-year-old anti-war protesters into riot vans. And it is why he now, in the face of popular dissent, seeks to push Russia over the thin line that separates authoritarianism from totalitarianism.
There is nothing wrong with considering the Russian perspective. But to do so without considering that of Ukraine is worse than meaningless – it is imperial.