The West’s bid to expand NATO eastwards was a mistake - The Centre for Independent Studies
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The West’s bid to expand NATO eastwards was a mistake

For the people of Ukraine, the failure of Western nations to help them defeat Russia and end their suffering is tragic. For the West itself, however, that failure may ultimately have a beneficial effect. For the crisis has shattered two post-Cold War illusions that help explain why we are in this mess.

The first of these illusions was the belief that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago was unprovoked and therefore a violation of the rules-based liberal international order.

For the West, this was an entirely understandable judgment. Three decades earlier, America had won the Cold War and liberal democracy had triumphed, was on the march, as was national self-determination.

In the face of the Russian bully’s aggression in February 2022, we wanted to declare solidarity with the underdog, stand up for what’s right and condemn what’s wrong. Which is why the US and the West has provided so much aid and military support to the Ukrainians, who are just defending their sovereign territory.

However, the Russians see things differently (as have, incidentally, a large plurality of the non-western world). In international affairs, as Henry Kissinger argued, it helps to try to look at the world from our opponent’s perspective and put contemporary events in a broader historical context.

That does not justify Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine. But understanding its thinking will help ameliorate the marked tensions that have defined the West’s relations with Russia for much of the post-Cold War era. And if we understand the Kremlin’s motivations, its conduct is easier to understand, which is not to say we must like it, much less endorse it.

Simply put, from Moscow’s standpoint, the West’s effort to expand NATO and the EU eastwards and to promote democracy on Russia’s doorstep was a provocative and threatening act. The West was moving into a region that Russian leaders had seen as a vital sphere of influence long before Lenin and Stalin arrived on the scene.

With the collapse of Communism, the Soviet Union voluntarily, if grudgingly, jettisoned its empire in Eastern Europe, and eventually fell apart itself. Although the main successor state, Russia, was relatively weak and chastened, it continued to believe its near abroad deserved protection. Russia, after all, was still a great power on account of its vast arsenal of nuclear weapons.

So it was hardly surprising that when the Americans began pushing NATO enlargement in the 1990s, Russian leaders across the board — to include Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin — made it very clear this would be unacceptable.

When American leaders dismissed the Kremlin’s loud and persistent complaints, Russian leaders pointed out that US leaders would not tolerate Moscow forming a military alliance with Cuba and Mexico and then planting Russian missiles in those countries. So, why should Russia accept the US doing the equivalent in Ukraine? In effect, the spectre of October 1962 was haunting the Russians, although the roles of the two powers were reversed.

The point was not lost on William Burns, the present CIA director, who was the US ambassador to Russia at the time of the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit, when the alliance announced that Ukraine would become a member. Back then, he wrote a memo to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice: “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite, not just Putin”.

Burns elaborated: “In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests. [NATO] would be seen … as throwing down the strategic gauntlet. Today’s Russia will respond. Russian-Ukrainian relations will go into a deep freeze… It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine”.

It was inevitable that the Russians, with an improving economy under Putin, would eventually push back at the West efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO and make it a pro-Western democracy. The Western-backed coup in Kyiv in February 2014, which toppled a Ukrainian president who was a Russian ally, provided the Russians with a powerful incentive to challenge the West directly. It did just that by taking Crimea and getting involved in the civil war that broke out that year in the Donbas.

And then in 2021-22, Washington refused to negotiate seriously with Moscow over its concern that Ukraine was becoming a de facto NATO member, and thus an existential threat to Russia. Putin felt that he had no choice but to invade and make sure Ukraine did not join NATO.

To say again: Russia’s conduct in 2014 regarding Crimea, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and in 2022 regarding Ukraine, where Napoleon and Hitler had crossed to invade the motherland, was a reaction to NATO’s open-door policy. It’s worth pointing out that as long as Ukrainian membership is on the table, Russia has strong incentives to continue fighting.

The conventional wisdom in the West, though, insists that Putin wants to recreate the Russian Empire. “If Putin takes Ukraine,” President Biden warned in December, “he won’t stop there. He’s going to keep going”.

But while it is true that Putin controls Russia’s tyranny with an iron fist, he lacks the capacity to draw a new Iron Curtain across Europe. The Russian armed forces simply lack the military and economic power to conquer all of Ukraine, much less countries in the erstwhile Warsaw Pact. Russia is not the Soviet Union in its heyday. Its sluggish battlefield performance in Donbas attests to that.

Putin’s strategic objectives are more limited. He wants to wreck Ukraine so it is in no position to join NATO and become what professor John Mearsheimer has called “a western bulwark on Russia’s doorstep”.

Many analysts remain in denial about Putin’s motives, but if he was hell bent on incorporating all of Ukraine into Russia two years ago, why did he invade with a force of 190,000 troops at the very most? By way of contrast, Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, a country nearly half the size of Ukraine, with 1.4 million troops.

Far from incorporating Ukraine into a Greater Russia, Putin wanted to impose a settlement on Kyiv that required it to declare its neutrality, renounce NATO membership once and for all and accept a special status for Crimea and the Donbas.

Indeed, in March-April 2022, Putin and Zelensky came close to reaching such a peace deal via Israeli and Turkish go-betweens, which was provisionally entitled “A Treaty of Permanent Neutrality and Security Guarantees for Ukraine”. But the Ukrainian leader was strongly encouraged to break off negotiations by President Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who persuaded him that Ukraine would receive western support for “as long as it takes” to defeat Russia.

In essence, the US, along with the Brits, the Europeans and indeed Australians, have led Ukraine down the primrose path, proving Kissinger’s quip that to be America’s enemy is dangerous while to be its friend is fatal.

The result is that Ukraine has been treated by Russia to a brutal lesson in power politics.

Whereas a year ago it was widely believed, as US national-security adviser Jake Sullivan declared, “Russia has already lost the war”; today it’s the Ukrainians who are outgunned, outmanned and slowly collapsing on the battlefield.

Since the invasion, Ukraine has lost about a third of its population. Much of the country’s infrastructure and industries have been devastated. The average age of the Ukrainian front-line troops is now 43. Today there is huge political turmoil in Kyiv, trust in its civilian government is sinking and corruption remains rampant.

Meanwhile, Russia’s economy has withstood western sanctions and the US appears to have lost interest in funding the war indefinitely.

Worse yet, there are no serious signs of a meaningful peace deal, mainly because the objectives of the protagonists are fundamentally incompatible. Ukraine wants western security guarantees, which Russia won’t allow because Kyiv’s NATO membership is a deal breaker. At the same time, Kyiv wants back the territory Russia has already annexed – to include Donbas and Crimea — but Moscow has made it clear it will not give back an inch of that land.

So here we are, facing the prospect of a frozen conflict, one that was entirely avoidable if Washington and the West had properly understood Russian strategic sensibilities going back to the 1990s.

The second illusion that has been badly damaged by Ukraine holds that the US, more than three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, should continue pursuing a robust policy of global leadership and that adopting a policy of restraint – that emphasises the limits of power, the pursuit of more modest goals, and the need to prioritise — is at odds with the American tradition and temperament.

When US policymakers raised the idea of NATO expansion in the 1990s, it was widely believed that the US, as the sole remaining superpower, could impose its will and leadership across the globe.

An “American Century”, “indispensable nation”, “the unipolar moment”, “benign hegemony” — these became the new buzzwords of the US foreign policy establishment.

The rhetoric became bellicose after 9/11, when American outrage over the terrorist attacks, taken together with the mental habits of global hegemony and American exceptionalism, gave US leaders a clear, overriding sense of mission and purpose.

Hillary Clinton reflected these sentiments as secretary of state in 2010 when she declared “it is in our DNA” to believe “there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved”.

However, the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan — not to mention Libya, Syria and now Ukraine and Gaza — is that, as powerful as the US is, international politics imposes very real limits on its power and influence, that aspirations should match resources, and that commitments and power should be brought into balance in foreign-policy deliberations.

All the more so at a time when the US now pays more to service its astronomical debt than it spends on defence. A time when the country is still haunted by the misbegotten ventures in the Middle East that cost the US dearly in blood and treasure as well as prestige and credibility.

A time when Americans increasingly recognise the folly of squandering billions and billions of tax dollars on a fight to the last Ukrainian that could become World War III or a nuclear war.

Call it the Walter Lippmann rule after the distinguished 20th century American intellectual, who emphasised the need to make sure that ends and means are in balance, a point that is often lost on US policymakers, who are inclined to focus on ends and neglect how the means fit with the ends.

It is (of all people) Donald Trump, supported by many congressional Republicans, who understands this banal truth.

They want America to play a negligible role in Europe where no peer-competitor threatens to dominate the region, but place more emphasis on Asia where China, a peer competitor, threatens the regional status quo. Such a stance hardly qualifies as isolationist: it’s a prudent recognition of the limits to power in a multipolar world that does not accommodate the US dominating the globe the way it did during unipolarity.

Trump, to be sure, is anything but predictable, and many commentators fret that Putin is holding out for a Trump victory in November’s US presidential election.

But it’s not clear it matters whether Trump moves into the White House or whether the Kremlin really cares if he does. For all the talk that Trump was a Putin puppet, the former president was even more hardline on Ukraine than his predecessor Barack Obama.

It was Trump, not Obama, who agreed to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons, expanded NATO to include Montenegro and North Macedonia, strengthened sanctions on Moscow, boosted aid to the Baltic countries and launched missiles against Syria’s Assad regime, a key Russian ally.

These decisions outraged the Kremlin, increased East-West tensions and foolishly helped push Russia into long-time rival China’s arms, which is hardly in the American national interest.

Still, several Australian and European pundits are now in deep panic mode over Trump’s comments that if he returns to power he would not defend NATO members that don’t meet the alliance’s defence-spending targets.

But an American withdrawal from Asia is highly unlikely, simply because the US faces a peer competitor in East Asia that threatens to dominate the region. Whereas Ukraine has exposed Russia’s strategic limits, China is bent on upsetting the Asian status quo, challenging and eventually replacing US military power in the region.

Europe is another matter, as there is no peer competitor located there and there are sound strategic reasons for Washington to put an end to the 75-year-old alliance.

The former “captive nations” of Eastern and Central Europe might want US protection. But why should American taxpayers continue to bail out those states if the result is worse relations with a nuclear-armed Russia and difficulty fully pivoting to Asia to deal with China, the real threat to US interests?

Moreover, it would be to Canberra’s advantage if the US pulled out of Europe or at least reduced its military commitment to the continent so it could concentrate more forces and more attention on Asia.

The champions of American global leadership, which include many Australian pundits and policymakers, assume the US must be involved everywhere and that Uncle Sam can never retreat or admit defeat.

Why? Because the world is deeply interconnected and highly interdependent and if the US shows weakness anywhere, it will have huge negative consequences for Australia.

For people with that worldview, restraint is a dirty word. But again, restraint in today’s multipolar world works to Australia’s advantage.

We want America to be more engaged in Asia, not distracted by self-defeating ventures in Europe and the Middle East.

The critics say that if we don’t continue to support the Ukrainians against Russia, we will embolden other dictators, most notably Xi Jinping.

But the Americans, including the so-called Republican isolationists, have made it perfectly clear that China is a much more serious threat than Russia and that the Americans are committed to defending Taiwan if China attacks it. Biden has said so on four separate occasions.

The Chinese surely have little doubt that the US will defend Taiwan, as it is of great strategic importance to America. Ukraine is not.

The US also has a limited amount of bandwidth. There is only so much time a president and his advisers can spend dealing with foreign policy, and the problem is even more acute when there are multiple foreign-policy problems.

The fact that the Biden administration has been so focused on Ukraine for the past two years and on the Middle East as well since October 7 means that it has less attention to pay to East Asia and getting its allies coordinated on how to deal with the more-important Chinese threat.

In short, being overly focused on Ukraine does not help the US deter China in East Asia, which is of the utmost importance to both Australia and the US.

We can only hope that the US, regardless of who is in the White House, does what Barack Obama sought to do earlier last decade: pivot away from Europe and the Middle East and towards Asia. Because if the US remains distracted by more peripheral disputes, Australia and our region will be worse off.

Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Elina Fairytale.