Shared from the 2/23/2022 The Sydney Morning Herald eEdition

US not blameless in Putin’s war


The decision to push NATO in Russia’s face when it was weak now looks like a careless error.

When a major conflict like Ukraine breaks out, journalists always ask themselves: ‘‘Where should I station myself?’’ Kyiv? Moscow? Munich? Washington? In this case, my answer is none of these. The only place to be for understanding this war is inside Russian President Vladimir Putin’s head. Putin is the most powerful, unchecked Russian leader since Stalin, and the timing of this war is a product of his ambitions, strategies and grievances.

But, with all of that said, America is not entirely innocent of fuelling his fires.

How so? Putin views Ukraine’s ambition to leave his sphere of influence as both a strategic loss and a personal and national humiliation. In his speech on Monday, Putin literally said Ukraine has no claim to independence, but is instead an integral part of Russia – its people are ‘‘connected with us by blood, family ties’’.

Which is why Putin’s onslaught against Ukraine’s freely elected government feels like the geopolitical equivalent of an honour killing.

Putin is basically saying to Ukrainians (more of whom want to join the European Union than NATO): ‘‘You fell in love with the wrong guy. You will not run off with either NATO or the EU. And if I have to club your government to death and drag you back home, I will.’’

This is ugly, visceral stuff. Nevertheless, there is a backstory here that is relevant. Putin’s attachment to Ukraine is not just mystical nationalism.

In my view, there are two huge logs fuelling this fire. The first was the illconsidered decision by the US in the 1990s to expand NATO after – indeed, despite – the collapse of the Soviet Union. The second, and far bigger log, is how Putin cynically exploited NATO’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders to rally Russians to his side to cover for his huge failure of leadership. Putin has utterly failed to build Russia into an economic model that would actually attract its neighbours, not repel them.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, NATO expanded to include countries in eastern and central Europe such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all of which had been part of the former Soviet Union or its sphere of influence. It was no mystery why these nations would want to be part of an alliance that obligated the US to come to their defence in the event of an attack by Russia.

The mystery was why the US – which throughout the Cold War dreamed that Russia might one day have a democratic revolution – would choose to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak. A very small group of policy wonks at that time, myself included, asked that same question, but we were drowned out.

On May 2, 1998, immediately after the Senate ratified NATO expansion, I called George Kennan, the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union. Having joined the State Department in 1926 and served as US ambassador to Moscow in 1952, Kennan was arguably America’s greatest expert on Russia. Though 94 at the time, he was sharp of mind when I asked for his opinion of NATO expansion.

‘‘I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War,’’ he said. ‘‘I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely, and it will affect their policies. It is a tragic mistake.

‘‘We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill-informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

‘‘Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.’’

It’s exactly what has happened.

To be sure, post-Cold War Russia evolving into a liberal system – the way post-World War II Germany and Japan did – was hardly a sure thing. Indeed, given Russia’s scant experience with democracy, it was a long shot. But some of us then thought it was a long shot worth trying, because even a less-thandemocratic Russia – if it had been included rather than excluded from a new European security order – might have had much less interest or incentive in menacing its neighbours.

Yes, it’s all more complicated than that, but my point is this: This is Putin’s war. He’s a bad leader for Russia and its neighbours. But America and NATO are not just innocent bystanders in his evolution.

Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist.

The New York Times

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