Myths and realities of Putinism and NATO expansion

The lack of transparency over NATO expansion can be linked to the Russian leader’s mythologising over his country’s epic struggle.
Depiction of a web conference between Helmut Kohl, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.
Depiction of a web conference between Helmut Kohl, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Credit: Agencja Fotograficzna Caro / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Two myths became intertwined in Putin’s mind by February 2022 which led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The first involves Ukrainian ‘Nazis’ who allegedly seized power in Ukraine, with assistance from the West, and oppressed ‘Russians’ in Donbass. The other concerns US global hegemony, finding an eager collaborator in ‘Nazified’ Ukraine and using NATO as its main instrument against Russia. In his article published in July 2021, titled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, Vladimir Putin wrote: ‘Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning [it] into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia.’ For the Russian leader, the ‘Nazis’ of Ukraine and the geopolitical calculations of Washington and its Eastern European allies were two sides of the same coin. Russia had been continuously deceived, Putin argued, its influence in its very neighbourhood ignored. The only option was to use force.  

Western leaders dismissed Putin’s narrative. When he repeated it on February 21, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, referred to the ‘absurd and mystical reasons’ offered by the Russian leader to support his invasion of Ukraine. His reasons were ‘without a shred of justification’. For the Western elites, the cause of the war lies in the authoritarian and aggressive nature of the Russian regime, not its geopolitical grievances. Yet Russian myths are not just a bundle of lies and deceptions. A myth is a powerful synthesis of actual developments, just a biased one. Russian myths, like all myths, have grains of truth enveloped in wilful interpretations and self-fulfilling prophesies.

NATO’s expansion in the East is at the core of this mythology. In his essay, Putin referred to this again and again. Perfidious Americans, he argued, promised that NATO would move ‘not one inch’ to the East; they cheated the gullible Mikhail Gorbachev and his well-intended successor, Boris Yeltsin. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, recently backed Putin’s claim, citing the memoirs of the then British Ambassador to Moscow, Rodric Braithwaite as evidence. In his unpublished diaries, Braithwaite wrote on March 5, 1991, that John Major had reassured the Soviet Defence Marshal, Dmitry Yazov, that the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles would not join NATO. In 1990-91, Western policy makers did indeed operate on a premise that NATO had no purpose in expanding to Eastern Europe, and that such a move would badly hurt long-term prospects for stability and security in Russia and in Eastern Europe.

According to Western commentators, the famous phrase that NATO would move ‘not one inch’ to the East never concerned Poland and other Eastern European countries, only East Germany that was to be incorporated into the West German state. Yet the evidence from Braithwaite and other Western veterans contradicts this view. The commitment to not expand NATO into Poland and further countries did exist briefly. However, Western powers did not cheat Russia in the way Putin claims. Historian Mary Sarotte, in her well-sourced study of NATO expansion, shows that Western reservations against NATO expansion into Eastern Europe were designed to support Gorbachev politically. But US policy makers always left the door ajar for Eastern European countries, and the Russians always knew it.

After the Soviet collapse, the US intention to invite Eastern Europeans into NATO firmed up. In 1994-95, Bill Clinton, acting largely in response to domestic politics, such as the danger of losing elections to the Republicans, openly proclaimed, first tentatively and then assertively, the desire to incorporate Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary into NATO. Many understood at the time that this introduced an indefinite ‘open doors’ policy on the part of the United States and the Atlantic Alliance. A furious debate erupted in the US political community. In 1997, George F. Kennan, the author of the containment policy of the Soviet Union, wrote an eloquent essay against the expansion. He wrote that it would be ‘the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era’. When NATO inevitably reached Russia’s borders, he warned, there would be conflict.

Clinton and his people argued that NATO expansion was not a zero-sum game. It would allay historic security concerns for Eastern Europeans, doubly betrayed by Western democracies in the past century, but it would also address the security interests of Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor. Clinton’s entourage and many liberal theorists of international relations argued that NATO could not be a security threat to Russia: what kind of danger is it to have borders with peaceful democracies? When Putin began to act increasingly aggressively, the NATO expansionists began to argue that Kennan had been wrong. Putin’s behaviour had nothing to do with NATO, they said. And it was fortuitous that the bloc had taken advantage of Russia’s weakness to extend protection to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. The complex causality in this case, as with so many sensitive issues, was pushed aside by the reality of growing confrontation.

After Russia attacked Ukraine, Clinton revisited the debate in The Atlantic. He claimed that his administration ‘left the door open for Russia’s eventual membership in NATO, something I made clear to Yeltsin and later confirmed to his successor, Vladimir Putin’. This is a surprising assertion from the former US President. In the available records there is no trace of such a ‘clear’ message. In fact, the US leadership and its allies were quite consistent about not inviting Russia into NATO. Yeltsin’s strategist, Gennady Burbulis, related a revealing episode to me. When Yeltsin had the Soviet Union dissolved in early December 1991, he immediately sent Burbulis to Brussels to meet with Manfred Wörner, the Secretary-General of NATO. Yeltsin’s envoy told him that Russian reformers ‘decisively consider a possibility of joining NATO as part of our primary mission to remove all conditions for confrontation’ in Europe and the world. Burbulis recalled that his words left Wörner ‘confused, if not shocked. He was silent for a couple of minutes and then looked into my eyes and said: “Mr State Secretary. Your confession is very unexpected for me. I think this is a very complicated task.” And almost without searching for arguments, he said: “You are such an enormous country. I cannot imagine under what configuration this may become reality.”’

Yeltsin did not give up. After Washington announced plans to expand NATO, the Russian leader asked his American partners repeatedly that Russia be ‘the first’ to be admitted to the bloc. This wish, however, had no chance of being granted. And not only because of Russia’s size and its borders with China. Geography and decades of history helped to create powerful stereotypes of Russia in the rest of Europe. The rapid end of the Cold War, Gorbachev’s heady rhetoric about ‘a common European home’, and Yeltsin’s ban on the Communist Party in 1991 could hardly change those stereotypes. For the European elite, Russia was not a good fit for European security structures. Instead, Russia, whether in its Soviet or post-Soviet ‘democratic’ guises, remained stuck in the role of ‘the Other’, a role that limited and defined what ‘Europe’ was about.

Yeltsin hoped he could change this pattern. He wanted to make ‘his’ Russia a member of the Concert of Europe. Yeltsin ended up disappointed and frustrated. The US hegemony, he began to suspect, was at the root of all this. Students of history know how Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary-General, defined its triple mission: ‘To keep Americans in [Europe], Germans down, and Russians out.’ The Americans had played an indispensable role in balancing the European powers. The US hegemony, however benign, made it impossible for a Russia, democratic or authoritarian, to have a voice in European security affairs. In contrast, it gave a powerful voice to Poland, the Baltic states, and other Eastern European actors that viewed Russia as a historic threat.

At the summit of Budapest in December 1994, Yeltsin castigated Clinton for presenting NATO as the only bedrock of European security, an institution that excluded Russia. The Russian warned of a ‘cold peace’. Sarotte writes that this episode caused a breakdown of trust, from which US-Russian cooperation never fully recovered. A few days later, Yeltsin ordered his military ‘to restore order’ in the secessionist region of Chechnya, in the hope of strengthening Moscow’s authority. This move backfired horribly. Yeltsin’s use of force in Chechnya reinforced the stereotype that the ‘good Bear’ could quickly turn into a ‘bad Bear’. In May 1997, Clinton and Yeltsin signed a ‘Russia-NATO founding act’ that set up ‘the council’ where both could discuss issues. This stipulated: ‘NATO retains its full prerogatives. While Russia will work closely with NATO, it will not work within NATO. The Act makes clear that Russia has no veto over alliance decisions and NATO retains the right to act independently when it so chooses.’ In essence, Russia remained outside with no say in NATO’s ‘open door’ policy. 

In the spring of 1999, Yeltsin became enraged again, this time over NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia. The United States did this in spite of Russia’s protests and without a mandate from the UN Security Council. As Sarotte writes correctly, for many in Moscow, a combination of NATO’s incorporation of Eastern Europe and its military attack in the Balkans exposed American promises of Russia’s inclusion into a new European security architecture as a deceit. Yeltsin’s critics said: ‘Belgrade today, Moscow tomorrow!’ At a meeting with Clinton in Istanbul, Yeltsin angrily told the US President: ‘The US is not Europe. Europe should be the business of Europeans.’

Soon the Russian president, once the hope of Russian democracy, resigned. In his bitter farewell speech, Yeltsin said he had been naïve to assume that Russia could leap ‘in one tug from the totalitarian past into a bright, rich, civilised future’. Russia historian Andrei Zorin argued that Yeltsin’s speech signalled the end to a foundational myth of Russian democracy: that the country could make a big leap from misery and the stasis of the Cold War into economic prosperity and inclusion in a new Europe. At the very least, Yeltsin admitted in his speech that this myth was far removed from the country’s reality. The mythology of Russian democratisation included another important element: that the West, specifically the United States, would guide a submissive, cooperative Russia towards this future. Instead, in 1998 Russia suffered a domestic default, and the US hegemony in Europe functioned in a way that was seen to ignore Russia’s security interests and play on its weakness. A competing myth, that Western promises of partnership were all one big deception, began to gain currency.

Vladimir Putin inherited this conclusion from Yeltsin, his predecessor, in 1999. Yet he did not protest. Rather, he decided to prepare well and challenge the US hegemony in Europe. In early March 2022, Putin took pains to dismiss Clinton’s statement that NATO was open to Russia joining. He commented that Yeltsin and himself had repeatedly asked the US leadership to accept Russia into NATO. Clinton allegedly fudged a response. The Russian President is well known for his capacity for deception. This time, however, the evidence was on his side. American denials only reinforced Putin’s conviction that the US was stringing Russia along.

Putin’s fixation on Ukraine was initially not determined by the NATO expansion. Yet the former gradually became a geopolitical background for the latter. Putin’s early career in the KGB did not give him any special exposure to Ukraine’s language, culture, and history. It is safe to say, though, that when Ukraine voted for independence in December 1991, Putin reacted like millions of other Russians: with a mixture of incredulity and emotional denial. The prospect of a ‘divorce’ between the two republics and the two peoples that had appeared inseparable happened too fast for the Russian mind to adjust. Gorbachev and his liberal advisers (among them, some Armenians and Ukrainians) just could not conceive of Ukraine as a separate state, with its own army and navy. Yeltsin and most leading Russian democrats from Moscow and St Petersburg thought that it was impudence for the Ukrainians to claim Crimea, freighted with memories of Russian imperial glory, to be theirs.

A prominent Russian democrat, Anatoly Sobchak, became Putin’s boss in 1991 when the ex-KGB agent began his political career. The elected mayor of St Petersburg, Sobchak urged Russia to make territorial claims on Ukraine, and not only on Crimea. He believed the existence of an independent Ukraine had the potential to trigger a war between Ukraine and Russia, similar to the one unfolding between Serbia and Croatia. ‘There would be no civilised divorce’ between Russia and Ukraine, he prophesied. Sobchak also expressed early fears of involvement by the West, which might aim to try and separate Ukraine from Russia. In the autumn of 1991, while speaking to a British consul, he accused the West of courting Ukrainian separatism. The British official replied that the West had no option but to deal with practical realities. Sobchak snapped back: ‘It was the West’s policy of recognising realities that allowed Hitler to rise to power.’

Some say now that Putin acted against Ukraine because he had never reconciled himself to the Soviet collapse, which KGB officers experienced as an almighty trauma which they sought to avenge. When we look into what happened during the last 30 years, however, this explanation does not reflect the whole truth. If Putin was always guided by this kind of thinking, why he did not seize south-eastern Ukraine in 2014-15, when there were no Ukrainian forces to offer strong resistance? And why did Putin, if he were a ‘sleeper’ agent of Soviet imperialism, tolerate Ukraine’s leaders pre-2014?

The answer to this enigma lies not only in Putin’s innate caution, but rather in his transformation from the KGB officer who did accept the finality of the Soviet collapse into a Russian imperialist, who began to view history and the world through new lenses. George F. Kennan famously drew a difference between the world views of Hitler’s Nazism and of Stalin’s Soviet communism. The former operated on a tight ‘now or never’ deadline, reacting to a dilemma: to use an imagined window of opportunity to build a Lebensraum for the German race or perish in the global struggle. The Soviet view, Kennan argued, was based on the Marxist credo that history was on the side of the Soviet way of life, as the more progressive system compared to capitalism. Stalin was reasonably cautious because he could afford to wait.

In 1991, the KGB colonel Putin acknowledged that Marx and Lenin were wrong, and he joined the ranks of those who made money and built Russian ‘wild’ capitalism by semi-legal and illegal means. During the 2000s, President Putin began to use a vastly different language. It was the language which his former boss Sobchak had used vis-a-vis Ukraine. And it reflected an outlook informed by Russian nationalism, not Soviet inspired revenge.

Russian national-imperialists, such as the novelist Alexander Prokhanov and political philosopher Alexander Dugin, wrote that after the Soviet collapse a mortal battle would ensue between ‘the Russian world’ and global liberal capitalism led by the United States. They painted the world in black and white colours and put a special focus on the Russians who were separated from the Russian Federation in the aftermath of the breakdown of the Soviet empire and stranded in the Baltic States and Ukraine. It was about living space and racial survival, without any room for compromise and peaceful co-existence. In 1999, when NATO bombed Yugoslavia, Russian nationalists viewed that country as a battleground between Russia and NATO. After 2004’s ‘Orange Revolution’ in Kyiv, Ukraine was seen to be a new battleground, one much closer to the homeland.

For a while, Putin considered those views too radical. Bolstered by oil profits after 2000, he and his corrupt entourage, as well as the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church, wanted to play the role of a regional hegemony in Ukraine, in both financial and cultural spheres. A lack of clear strategy from the Western alliance regarding Ukraine abetted his ambitions. Western politicians and NGOs, especially in North America and the UK, stopped short of a clear pro-active policy of integrating Ukraine into NATO and the EU. Ukraine for them was too large, too poor, and too corrupt, and Putin was given enough leeway to act with impunity. From 2005 he moved to circumvent Ukraine by new Russia-controlled pipelines in the north, such as Nordstream-1 and then 2, and in the south via Turkey. Ukrainian officials accused Russia of imperialism and lobbied Washington and other European capitals to block the new pipelines. A compromise looked increasingly doubtful.

A pragmatic reaction in Moscow would have been to boost Ukraine’s neutrality through peaceful means, yet the drift of Putin’s Russia towards authoritarianism and kleptocracy negated these possibilities. Ukrainians looked to the West for solutions, not Russia and its corrupt friends inside the Ukrainian elites. Putin began to look at Ukraine as a geopolitical challenge he could neither escape nor afford to lose. In 2008, after President George W. Bush declared that Ukraine could join NATO in the future, Putin funded the creation of ‘the Russian world’ (Russkiy Mir) foundation to reach out to Russians abroad. The primary target of this foundation was Russia’s ‘near abroad,’ above all, Ukraine, where twelve million ethnic Russians lived and many more spoke Russian as their native language. Putin also allocated more funds to cultivate pro-Russian Ukrainians.

The Maidan Revolution of 2013-14 was a game changer. Putin viewed Ukraine’s rush ‘to join Europe’ not as a legitimate search for a separate identity from Russia, but as a US geopolitical operation to expand NATO and its hegemony in Eastern Europe, all the way to Russia’s borders. After Putin annexed Crimea in March 2014, this made him a de facto leader of the nationalist ideology of ‘the Russian world’. The Ukrainian army attempted to liberate Donbass from the pro-Russian separatists. Putin provided lethal support to the latter. The lack of strong and unified Western sanctions convinced the Kremlin leader that Russia could win a geopolitical battle over Ukraine with the United States. At the same time, the growing efforts of the US and UK military and intelligence organisations to prepare the Ukrainian state and army for a future war with Russia worried Putin. He probably learned about NATO contingency plans to increase its military presence on Russian borders and regarded it as a self-fulfilling scenario. He grew to believe that time was running out for his project to ensure Russia’s survival in a globalised world. If a compromise in Ukraine was unlikely on Russian terms, then the only choice for the Kremlin was between a decisive victory and a defeat of historic magnitude, on a par with the Soviet collapse. He had to act decisively, or Russia would go down. In February 2022, this warped ‘logic’, borrowed from radical Russian nationalist thinking, made Putin attack.

Myths can be the movers and shakers of history when they take hold of people’s minds, particularly those at the helm of states. Western observers recognise this in a backhanded way, when they wonder why there is such a strong circle around Putin; Russia’s vast bureaucracies, and the majority of people did not recoil in horror when their leader launched his war. Unfortunately, historic investigations into the impact of NATO enlargement on the Russian elites have become side-lined by current security and geopolitical concerns in the West. Still, as this essay suggests, it would have been much better for Western leaders to acknowledge what happened without prevarications. A candid effort to get the story of NATO expansion straight would probably not have stopped Putin or prevented the tragedy of Ukraine. But it would have settled the issue once and for all, and thus denied Putin, as well as his sympathisers in the West, any real grounds for credibility.

As the war lasts — with unexpected losses for the Russian military, an unprecedented Western-led attack on Russia’s finances and economy, and terrible carnage for Ukrainian civilians — Russian nationalist ‘fight or perish’ mythology becomes the means of last recourse for the Putin regime. For some members of Russian officialdom and a surprising number of Russians, myths of national survival in an epic battle against the West, tales of Russian fate and sacrifice, still remain a shield from the reality of isolation and looming catastrophe. How resilient will this myth be? Will it crumble one day, like the communist ideology from the last century? Or will it keep resurrecting as a phoenix, as it has several times in history? The next few months could answer this question once and for all.

Vladislav Zubok

Vladislav Zubok is Professor of History at the London School of Economics and author of Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, Yale University Press, 2021.

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