The Kremlin actually claims to be fighting NATO in Ukraine, which wants to destroy Russia. NATO countries provide military support to Ukraine, but do not send troops themselves, saying they want to prevent a direct conflict with Russia. How did relations between Russia and the Western alliance become so disturbed?
“Wat er in Oekraïne gebeurt, is eigenlijk geen botsing tussen Moskou en Kyiv. Het is een militaire confrontatie tussen Rusland en de NAVO, bovenal de Verenigde Staten en het Verenigd Koninkrijk”, zei Nikolai Patrushev afgelopen dinsdag tegen de Russische krant Argumenty i Fakty. Hij is voorzitter van de Russische nationale veiligheidsraad en een nauwe bondgenoot van president Vladimir Poetin.
“De plannen van de westerlingen zijn om Rusland uit elkaar te blijven trekken en het uiteindelijk van de politieke wereldkaart te wissen”, stelt Patrushev.
Rusland en de NAVO hebben altijd een ingewikkelde verhouding gehad, zegt historicus Hidde Bouwmeester, die zich specialiseert in Rusland na de Sovjet-Unie.
Van ‘hersendood’ naar springlevend
De NAVO werd opgericht om tegenwicht te bieden aan de Sovjet-Unie. Na het einde van de Koude Oorlog groeide het bondgenootschap, door de eenwording van Duitsland en de geleidelijke toetreding van voormalige Oostbloklanden. Militair liet de NAVO zich gelden met bombardementen in de Joegoslavië- en Kosovo-oorlogen, de invasie van Afghanistan na de terreuraanslagen in de Verenigde Staten op 11 september 2001 en een interventie in Libië.
NAVO-uitbreiding vanaf 1990
- Tsjechië, Hongarije en Polen
- Bulgarije, Estland, Letland, Litouwen, Roemenië, Slowakije en Slovenië
The past decade has not been good for the Western alliance. The US found it difficult to accept that European countries contributed relatively little to military power. The Americans’ focus has already turned away from Europe and towards China.
The then US President Donald Trump toyed loudly with the idea of leaving NATO. His French counterpart Emmanuel Macron warned in 2019 that the alliance had become “brain dead”.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was the lightning strike that re-ignited NATO’s brain. Member States provide Ukraine with arms and other support. The NATO presence in Eastern Europe is being stepped up, and Sweden and Finland have suddenly decided that it is a good idea to join the alliance after all. NATO has not been as relevant as it is now since the end of the Cold War.
Attraction and repulsion
After the Cold War, NATO and its Soviet counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, seemed to have become obsolete. The Warsaw Pact fell apart in 1991. Bouwmeester: “Originally there was the idea in Russia that NATO would also be dismantled and a pan-European security organization would be created.”
When that did not happen, Russia itself wanted to join. Bouwmeester: “The then Russian President Boris Yeltsin said in February 1993: ‘We want to become a member of NATO. Other former Soviet states can also become members, but Russia must join first’.”
Plans were made for close cooperation, and Russia, the US and Britain signed security guarantees for Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan in exchange for their Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
It was not just cake and eggs: Moscow condemned the NATO bombings in the 1999 Kosovo war and did not agree with the structure of the peacekeeping operation that followed. The accession of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary also did not go down well with Russia, but criticism from the Kremlin was ignored by the alliance.
Putin first took office as Russian president in 1999. He also said he wants NATO membership for his country. Bouwmeester: “Whether it was very sincere is another question.” After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Russia gave the Americans access to air bases and provided them with valuable intelligence about Afghanistan.
The rainbow of color revolutions
So where did it really go wrong between Russia and NATO? “Colour is revolutionizing,” says Bouwmeester. “That was the breakup.” Beginning in 2004, mass protests overthrew pro-Russian governments in several former Soviet countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine. That trend was a threat to Putin’s regime. What could happen in Kiev could also happen in Moscow.
The Russian president did not think these were really popular movements, says Bouwmeester. “He always thought the West was behind it.”
It did not help that the new governments in Georgia and Ukraine showed interest in NATO and the EU. The US pushed hard for NATO membership for the two, much to the fury of Moscow. At a summit in Bucharest, it was decided that Georgia and Ukraine were not yet ready, but NATO stated that both countries would one day become members.
In the end, the politicians who had emerged during the color revolutions failed to fulfill many of their promises. This seemed to remove the danger of the democratic and anti-corruption movement spreading to Russia. The fact that there were major political protests there between 2011 and 2013 came as an unpleasant surprise to the Kremlin. Bouwmeester: “Putin thinks they were organized by the CIA. He has come to believe more and more in his own propaganda.”
Stab in the back and surrounded
Russian NATO membership faded further out of the picture, and Moscow felt increasingly surrounded by NATO’s eastward expansion. A ‘stab-ass legend’ arose, like the one in Germany after the end of the First World War. Many Russians feel that their country was stabbed in the back after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cold War ended for them in a distasteful, humiliating peace.
During a new color revolution in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted after refusing to sign an association agreement (the one on the referendum in the Netherlands).
Russia responded by annexing Crimea and launching a “civil war” in eastern Ukraine to destabilize the neighboring country. Still, Ukraine continued to move westward. NATO countries began supplying weapons and allowed Ukraine to participate in military exercises.
Ukraine was not the only difficult file in the relationship between Russia and NATO. For example, there were arguments about the location of missiles elsewhere in Europe. Russia’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad and Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime at home drew widespread criticism from American and European capitals.
Thin excuse or existential threat?
Russian rhetoric about threats from NATO is often dismissed in Western countries as a flimsy excuse to justify the invasion of Ukraine. The prevailing image is that Putin is bent on conquest and dreams of a larger Russian empire.
But not everyone agrees. The prominent American political scientist John Mearsheimer, for example, says that NATO is primarily responsible because Russia’s fears of encirclement have long been ignored. It is not important whether NATO is really a threat to Russia, but that it is perceived as such in Moscow, he says.
For others, it’s like cursing in church. There can be no excuse for invading a sovereign foreign country, they say. Certainly not because it makes choices about its own future. Mearsheimer’s somewhat cold analysis of the behavior of the great powers clashes with their moral outrage at war and the horrors that accompany it.
Regardless of how future historians tell the run-up to the war, it is certain that Russia and NATO will face each other in Ukraine, whether they fight directly or not. Even if peace comes to Ukraine, it will not end the rivalry between the two power blocs.
And we haven’t even mentioned China yet.