Delusion on all sides has paved way for Russia-Nato standoff

Tragedy of Ukraine crisis is how both sides seemed trapped within self-defeating policies

Ukrainian reservists attend a military exercise at a training ground near Kiev. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

Ukrainian reservists attend a military exercise at a training ground near Kiev. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

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It is hard to be objective about the Ukraine crisis. Russia is massing tanks and troops next to Ukraine. US intelligence reports Russia is planning a multi-front invasion involving 175,000 troops in the early new year.

Accompanying Russia’s posture of war is fevered rhetoric about Ukraine as an aggressor state. Russia decries Nato infrastructure, weapons, training and military exercises in Ukraine.

Late last week, Russia released a proposed draft treaty of what it sees as a desirable new security order for Europe. Viewing it as a gun-point demand for a Russian sphere of influence, Western and Ukrainian officials immediately rejected the proposals.

The tragedy of the current Ukraine crisis is how both Russia and Nato seemed trapped within self-defeating policies

Russia is behaving like a bully toward Ukraine. But why? What happened to the dream of Europe whole, free and at peace at the end of the Cold War? How did we get from that hopeful new dawn to the sobering prospect of military invasion in 21st-century Europe? The short answer is this: security delusions on all sides paved the way, delusions that are now on a dangerous collision course.

Russia’s security delusions are easiest to grasp. Thinking military force can create genuine security and influence in neighbouring states is delusional. Recovering under Russian president Vladimir Putin after a decade of crisis, Russia began rebuilding its power capacities across post-Soviet space.

In August 2008, the Russian army invaded Georgia after a reckless move by its pro-Nato leader Mikheil Saakashvili to crush Russian backed separatists. In March 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine as violent protests overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Kremlin leader. Russian forces annexed Crimea, but proxy forces backed by Russia failed to create a large secessionist territory (Novorossiya) in southeast Ukraine. Only in part of the Donbas did Russian backed separatists succeed.

The subsequent Minsk Accords were designed to ensure that Russia’s proxies would influence the geopolitical orientation of Ukraine. It has not worked out that way. Indeed, in all instances, Russia’s military actions polarised states it hoped to influence, driving them to deepen ties with Nato. What aggrieves Moscow today about the creeping Nato-isation of Ukraine is partly of its own making.

Gerard Toal is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech
Gerard Toal is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech

The security delusions of the Nato West are more difficult to recognise. After the Cold War, the alliance decided to expand not disband. Nato’s “open door” policy allowed former Soviet republics like the Baltic States to join the alliance. Veteran Soviet security officials, like the conspiratorial-minded Putin, were forced to accept that their Cold War enemy was now at the border. Nato, of course, did not see it this way. It argued that all states have a sovereign right to choose their own defence orientation. Further, they claimed, Nato is not a threat to any power. Rather, it is a civilisational alliance advancing security and freedom.

Critics, most prominently an aging American diplomat George Kennan, saw Nato expansion as a fateful error and predicted it would strengthen the hand of hardliners within Russia. He was right. The insecurity that Nato expansion was designed to address only redoubled insecurity as Russia rebuilt its power and reacted.

A self-fulfilling security dilemma took hold. Nato expansion was justified by the very insecurity it produced. By 2008, Russia publicly asserted that Nato membership for Georgia and Ukraine were its defensive red lines. Nato radicalised matters when in April 2008 it declared, in defiance of Russia, that those two countries would one day become members of the alliance.

Claiming Nato is not a threat to anyone is a delusion. Nato does not get to define Russia’s security perception. Presuming that expanding a military alliance to the border of an insecure great power advances security is delusional. Unilaterally exiting arms control agreements with Russia – like the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty the US left in August 2019 – is reckless behaviour.

Admitting Ukraine into the Nato procurement system, training its troops, building Nato-standard infrastructure, and supplying advanced weapons to its forces without grasping that this may inflame Russian insecurity is also delusional thinking. It is living solely within one’s benevolent view of oneself.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg greets Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during a press conference. Photograph: John Thys/AFP via Getty
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg (right) greets Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during a press conference last week. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty

The tragedy of the current Ukraine crisis is how both Russia and Nato seemed trapped within self-defeating policies. In seeking greater territorial security Russia has pursued a policy of undermining the territorial integrity of neighbouring states. Its imperialistic habits and attitudes endure.

While the overall picture looks grim, let us hope that this crisis is a spur to serious negotiations and, out of these, a good enough compromise

In the past it has used separatists to advance its geopolitical goals. It now appears poised to pursue a more radical policy of direct military intervention to change facts on the ground. This can only further inflame Ukrainian sentiment against it. In no region will the Russian army be welcomed. Many Ukrainians may not actively resist but some undoubtedly will wage an insurgency against Russian occupation if it comes to that.

The West appears trapped by its fixation on the principle that all states have the sovereign right to choose their own military orientation. They cite articles from past security agreements. But they ignore other articles asserting that security is indivisible. Security requires responsibility and that begins with acknowledging collective sources of insecurity. The coronavirus pandemic has made clear the importance of qualifying individual free choice: we all have responsibilities to the collective good.

Many in the West are also fixated with Munich and appeasement, Yalta and spheres of influence. This desire for historically selective moralised analogies betrays a desire to purify the present into simpleminded categories of good and evil. More disturbingly, it also propels desire for righteous action. Violence is soon easily justified.

While the overall picture looks grim, let us hope that this crisis is a spur to serious negotiations and, out of these, a good enough compromise. Ukraine is a desperately poor country whose people have been victimized by embedded corruption and oligopoly since the Soviet collapse. They deserve better that to be a sandbox for a proxy war between Russia and the West. As we extend them solidarity and support in this hour of anxiety, let us also acknowledge the prevailing security delusions that got us here.

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