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Ukraine war follows decades of warnings that NATO expansion into Eastern Europe could provoke Russia

The Conversation Ronald Suny, Professor of History and Political Science, University of Michigan, 1 March 2022,

As fighting rages across Ukraine, two versions of reality that underlie the conflict stare across a deep divide, neither conceding any truth to the other.

The more widespread and familiar view in the West, particularly in the United States, is that Russia is and has always been an expansionist state, and its current president, Vladimir Putin, is the embodiment of that essential Russian ambition: to build a new Russian empire.

“This was … always about naked aggression, about Putin’s desire for empire by any means necessary,” President Joe Biden said on Feb. 24, 2022.

The opposing view argues that Russia’s security concerns are in fact genuine, and that NATO expansion eastward is seen by Russians as directed against their country. Putin has been clear for many years that if continued, the expansion would likely be met with serious resistance by the Russians, even with military action.

That perspective isn’t held just by Russians; some influential American foreign policy experts have subscribed to it as well.

Among others, Biden’s CIA director, William J. Burns, has been warning about the provocative effect of NATO expansion on Russia since 1995. That’s when Burns, then a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, reported to Washington that “hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.”

NATO edging toward Russia

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is a military alliance that was formed by the U.S., Canada and several European nations in 1949 to contain the USSR and the spread of communism.

Now, the view in the West is that it is no longer an anti-Russian alliance but is instead a kind of collective security agreement aimed at protecting its members from outside aggression and promoting peaceful mediation of conflicts within the alliance.

Recognizing the sovereignty of all states and their right to ally with whatever state they wish, NATO acceded over time to the requests of European democracies to join the alliance. Former members of the Soviet-established Warsaw Pact, which was a Soviet version of NATO, were also brought into NATO in the 1990s, along with three former Soviet republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – in 2004.

The Western view is that the Kremlin is supposed to understand and accept that the alliance’s activities, among them war games replete with American tanks staged in nearby Baltic states and rockets stationed in Poland and Romania – which the U.S. says are aimed at Iran – in no way present a threat to Russian security.

Many warnings about Russia’s reaction

Russian elite and broad public opinion have both long been opposed to such expansion, the placement of American rockets in Poland and Romania and the arming of Ukraine with Western weaponry.

When President Bill Clinton’s administration moved to bring Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO, Burns wrote that the decision was “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.”……………………..

Responding to Russia’s insecurity

There are different outcomes to the current crisis depending on whether you see its cause as Russian imperialism or NATO expansionism.

If you think the war in Ukraine is the work of a determined imperialist, any actions short of defeating the Russians will look like 1938 Munich-style appeasement and Joe Biden becomes the reviled Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who acceded to Hitler’s demands for territory in Czechoslovakia only to find himself deceived as the Nazis steadily marched to war.

If, however, you believe that Russia has legitimate concerns about NATO expansion, then the door is open to discussion, negotiation, compromise and concessions.

Having spent decades studying Russian history and politics, I believe that in foreign policy, Putin has usually acted as a realist, unsentimentally and amorally taking stock of the power dynamics among states. He looks for possible allies ready to consider Russia’s interests – recently he found such an ally in China – and is willing to resort to armed force when he believes Russia is threatened………………………………..

Leaders like Putin who feel cornered and ignored may strike out. He has already threatened “military and political consequences” if the currently neutral Finland and Sweden attempt to join NATO. Paradoxically, NATO has endangered small countries on the border of Russia, as Georgia learned in 2008, that aspire to join the alliance.

One wonders – as did the American diplomat George F. Kennan, the father of the Cold War containment doctrine who warned against NATO expansion in 1998 – whether the advancement of NATO eastward has increased the security of European states or made them more vulnerable.  https://theconversation.com/ukraine-war-follows-decades-of-warnings-that-nato-expansion-into-eastern-europe-could-provoke-russia-177999

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January 12, 2023 - Posted by | EUROPE, politics international

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