The possibility of further eastward NATO expansion and the reality of NATO military involvement in Ukraine are major causes of the current Ukraine crisis, but there is a stubborn refusal in the West to acknowledge the alliance’s role in creating the standoff with Russia. Not only are Western governments unwilling to take Russian security concerns seriously, but many in the West also seem determined to ratchet up tensions with Moscow no matter the consequences for European security. The Biden Administration has agreed to discuss relevant issues with the Russian government, but US and allied officials have already ruled out several of the most important concessions as impossible. If Western governments don’t change course soon, they will bear a large part of the responsibility for any escalation that follows.
Neutrality for Ukraine remains the obvious way out of the immediate crisis and closing the door on NATO expansion is in the best interests of all concerned, but this is a path that Western governments have already rejected out of hand. It is a measure of how disconnected US and NATO policies have become from real security interests that Western governments are risking peace in Europe in the name of destabilizing alliance expansion. Instead of asking whether the alliance needs new members, the US and its allies are exposing Ukraine to great danger to vindicate their "right" to join.
Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the latest to argue that NATO should blow off Russian complaints and proceed with plans to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance: "We promised both Georgia and Ukraine seats at the NATO table in 2008, and it’s time we set out an action plan to realize our promise." The alliance has already demonstrated its unwillingness and inability to defend these countries twice before, so it is perverse to suggest Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for them as some sort of solution. We have already seen how far the Russian government is prepared to go in response to the possibility of further NATO expansion. Attempting to follow through on that ill-advised promise from 2008 would be akin to throwing a lit match on a lake of gasoline.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, has spelled out Russia’s objections and demands very clearly, and he delivered a warning: "The situation is extremely dangerous. No one should doubt our determination to defend our security. Everything has its limits. If our partners keep constructing military-strategic realities imperiling the existence of our country, we will be forced to create similar vulnerabilities for them. We have come to the point when we have no room to retreat." While some of the ambassador’s rhetoric may be hyperbolic, there can be no mistaking how seriously the Russian government takes these issues. Russia’s feeling of insecurity didn’t come out of nowhere. It was created in large part by the choices that the US and its allies have made over the last 25 years to expand an anti-Russian military bloc to Russia’s doorstep. If that weren’t enough, Western governments have proceeded to to pour weapons and training personnel into the countries that haven’t yet joined.
Western governments have dismissed and belittled Russian security concerns for the last thirty years, and the only time that they pay attention to Russian complaints is when Russia rattles and sometimes uses its saber. If the US and its allies had been willing to take Russian concerns into account decades ago, it is probable that there would have been no conflicts between Russia and its neighbors in the first part of this century. If they would acknowledge and act on these concerns now, they might still avert an unnecessary conflict.
Opponents of NATO expansion have been sounding the alarm for decades about how dangerous and destabilizing the continued growth of the alliance was. When hawks began touting Ukraine and Georgia as possible members of the alliance as long ago as 2004, we understood that this would provoke Russia and lead to bad outcomes for the aspirant states. When NATO extended its foolish promise that they would one day become members, we warned that it would put these countries in serious jeopardy. Just a few months after the Bucharest summit, the August 2008 war broke out when the Georgian government escalated the conflict in South Ossetia with the expectation that the US and its allies would bail them out if the fight went badly. That completely vindicated the critics, and it should have been the end of the debate over further NATO expansion, but incredibly this zombie idea has shuffled along for almost 14 more years.
The promise of further NATO expansion has been poison for European peace and stability. It angers and alarms Russia, and because of that it puts Russia’s non-NATO neighbors at much greater risk than they would otherwise be. It increases tensions in Europe for the sake of a reckless promise made at George W. Bush’s insistence. Far from discouraging military adventurism in Europe, it all but invites it. Shutting the door to further expansion is a relatively easy and cheap remedy that would help to de-escalate the current crisis without giving up anything important.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.