Is war because Western governments broke promise not to expand NATO?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military operations in Ukraine immediately resulted in international condemnation and the shockwave from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reverberated in the world’s financial markets but some blame the conflict on the expansion of NATO in the years since the dissolution of the former Soviet Union.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on all citizens to defend the country since Russia launched an all-out invasion by land, air and sea, in what is the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two.

While this aggression is confirmation of the worst fears of the West, Russia has long been vocal about its wish to avoid being penned in by hostile forces.

After its formation in 1949 with twelve founding members, NATO grew by including Greece and Turkey in 1952 and West Germany in 1955, and then later Spain in 1982. After the Cold War ended, and Germany reunited in 1990, there was a debate in NATO about continued expansion eastward.

Today, the alliance has 30 members.

In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, amid much debate and with strong Russian opposition.

Another expansion came when seven Central and Eastern European countries—Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia—joined NATO in 2004

Albania and Croatia joined in April 2009, followed by Montenegro in June 2017 and North Macedonia in March 2020.

NATO countries are blue, Ukraine is red and Russia is yellow in this image showing why Putin is concerned about NATO expansion.

Resorting to unacceptable violence means Putin will lose the opportunity to show that Western governments broke their promise not to expand NATO eastward after German reunification but knowing that the military alliance grew from 12 original members to 30 nations makes it understandable that Russians could feel like they are being surrounded by hostile forces.

“These are among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the European Union. “The EU will respond in the strongest possible terms and agree on the harshest package of sanctions we have ever implemented.”

“Once again, in the center of Europe, innocent women, men, and children are dying or fear for their lives. We condemn this barbaric attack, and the cynical arguments to justify it,” said European Union President Ursula von der Leyen. “It is President Putin, who is bringing war back to Europe. In these dark hours, the European Union and its people stand by Ukraine and its people.”

NATO is represented in blue, Russia is yellow and Ukraine is depicted in red. Russians fear the impact of NATO allies having such close proximity to their borders, much as the American response to the discovery that communist nuclear weapons were located 90 miles off the Florida coast triggered the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Estimates for Soviet losses in the Second World War range from 7 million to over 43 million.

World War II casualties in the Soviet Union from all related causes, both civilian and military, are most likely between 20 million and 27 million, including 8,668,400 military deaths as calculated by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

For the majority of Americans, the Eastern Front barely registers in our collective memory, or our popular culture, or our political and philosophical preoccupations but the influence of World War II’s gargantuan losses and unimaginable brutality on Russian ideology must not be understated.

“In the middle of the 21st century, you never expected to have this, really. You never expected. And my heart goes out to people in Ukraine who I know, who I don’t know — who are subjected to such suffering,” said one woman from a city in central Russia after the invasion started. “I’m suffocating with a feeling of shame and remorse for the government of my country, the government that I haven’t voted for. I feel alienated from a lot of my compatriots who support the government.”

There are some who dispute the history that suggests Russia had a right to expect more security that America demanded during the Cuban missile crisis.

“The U.S.S.R. was never offered a formal guarantee on the limits of NATO expansion post-1990,” John Lough, the research associate who authored the section, wrote. “Moscow merely distorts history to help preserve an anti-Western consensus at home.”

Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian diplomat who served in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow between 1987 and 1992, disagrees. “The Chatham House piece is very bad — it sounds to be as a piece produced by the Ideology Department of the Central Committee” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he told RFE/RL.

“We didn’t have to come to this, though, and the issue could have remained a small script in history that does not need to be resolved,” he said. “It is more about the manner of NATO enlargement and the arguments used to promote enlargement.”

Former NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow said Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has “surpassed all our expectations” and will have “significant implications” for Europe’s security order.

Vershbow, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2005, said that Putin was “obsessed with the idea of undermining the post-Cold War order” and returning Europe to an era of spheres of influence where larger countries dominate smaller ones.

And this, he noted, means the Brussels-based Western military alliance is going to have to take a harder stance when dealing with the Kremlin in the future.

“Real power comes from military power. Putin certainly feels that way. And I think NATO is going to have to develop a culture of readiness and start talking Putin’s language,” the 69-year-old former diplomat said.

Vershbow said that with Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, Putin tore up the diplomatic rule book as he tries to rewrite history and keep the “virus” of democracy out of Russia.

Vershbow said NATO’s enlargement to include several former Warsaw Pact countries that began in 1999 with the acceptance of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, “now looks smarter than ever.”

But, he added, in hindsight it was also a reminder that “we should have done more when we had the chance to anchor Ukraine and Georgia” to the alliance.

“The U.S. came into the Bucharest summit [in April 2008] supporting Membership Action Plans for Georgia and Ukraine, but it had done absolutely nothing before that summit to galvanize allied support. It was interpreted by the allies as a kind of a legacy project for President [George W.] Bush, and they didn’t see any need to accommodate it,” Vershbow said.

Prior to the invasion, Russia had demanded guarantees on European security issues, including a commitment by NATO not to expand to countries such as Ukraine or Georgia.

While some would see their aproach as throwing fuel on the fire, Vershbow and other hardliners seem entirely ignorant about Russia’s legitimate fears of invasion, harbored after the darkest days of the Second World War.

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