There’s a theory, held by some American pundits, that Vladimir Putin’s menacing of Ukraine is all our fault.
Here’s the argument: In the 1990s, Moscow had just lost the Cold War. The Soviet Union had broken up. The Warsaw Pact was dead. Russia was down and all but out. Instead of being gracious winners, the West gloated. We brought Poland and most of Moscow’s other allies into NATO. We expanded the alliance eastward all the way to the former Soviet border. By rubbing it in, we guaranteed that, sooner or later, we’d get a future nationalistic Russian leader—Putin, for instance—bent on avenging this humiliation by hitting us where he could—Ukraine, for instance.
According to this theory, if we’d just treated Russia more like an equal and foregone NATO expansion, Putin would be running a proper parliamentary democracy and diplomatic harmony would rule from the Azores to Vladivostok.
Not likely. To see why, let’s go back 25 years, when the Cold War ended, and then imagine what would have happened if NATO hadn’t expanded or, as many suggested then, had closed shop altogether.
It was a time of giddy possibilities and great danger. In 1991, the Soviet Union broke into 15 independent nations. Two years earlier, in one blissful autumn of revolt, the former satellite nations had ousted their Communist governments.
Yes, there was a lot of dancing in the streets. But the Soviet Union, however cowed and crumbled, still ranked as a nuclear superpower. I was there at the time and remember thinking that it was a terrifying sight—semi-anarchy, a mighty but damaged nation with nuclear bombs but virtually no government, spinning in a political void.
Next door, those former satellites—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia—occupied a geography that was one of history’s triggers. These were small, often defenseless lands where great empires—Hollenzollerns, Hapburgs, Romanovs—struggled for dominance, where conquering waves from the east, from khans to commissars, had washed up against the defenses of the west, where conquest and genocide produced what Timothy Snyder called “Bloodlands.”
For 40 years, these countries had been plucked from history. After World War II, the Soviets moved in, creating a cordon sanitaire between Russia and the West. Still nominally sovereign, these countries, frozen and forgotten, had no independence or policy of their own.
In 1989, this changed, overnight. From the Baltics to Bulgaria, the former “captive nations” were freed. They also were unanchored, floating without allegiance or alliances, no longer part of the Soviet bloc but not yet in the Western world to which they longed to return.
Everywhere I went in that autumn, the East Europeans (we hadn’t learned yet to call them “Central Europeans) said the same thing: “We want to rejoin the West.” Not “join” the West: they felt themselves historically and culturally as Western as the French or British, but severed by the Iron Curtain from their natural home. Now, they wanted to “rejoin” it.
By this, they said, they needed and wanted membership in the two great postwar Western institutions, NATO and the European Union.
Well, what were we supposed to do? Turn them down? Tell them that, while we loved them when they were “captive nations,” they were now on their own? That we couldn’t take them in because it would anger the Russians? In other words, that they were still satellites, because their foreign policies, including their freedom to choose their own allies, was subject to Soviet veto?
Some Westerners suggested that they join the EU but not NATO. NATO was too provocative, they said. The EU is non-military and European, not American, and, hence, non-threatening.
Forget it, the East Europeans said. They vividly remembered the last time they counted on the West Europeans, which was at Munich. They clearly didn’t trust the West Europeans, but they trusted America. They wanted that American connection. And that meant NATO.
(OK, the US had let them down at Yalta, but somehow this didn’t carry the same historical weight.)
It came down to this: what was the Cold War about anyway? If we’d spent 40 years to overcome Communism and to create a Europe “whole and free,” could we say no when the East Europeans asked us to put up or shut up?
NATO established a special category—the Partnership for Peace, or PfP—for the East Europeans. Most West Europeans, who never liked the Slavic east that much and wanted no responsibility for it, assumed this would satisfy the ex-Communist countries. Instead, they saw it as a vestibule to full membership. Supported mostly by the Clinton administration and West Germany, NATO expanded to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999 and to the others, including the Baltic states, in 2004, the same year that eight of these countries joined the EU.
What if this hadn’t happened? What if the pundits had got their wish, and NATO stayed where it was?
Basically, the admission of the 12 ex-communist countries between 1999 and 2009 did for them what the founding of NATO in 1948 did for the postwar West European nations. It gave them a security structure within which they rebuilt their shattered political and economic lives.
During the Communist era, these countries felt no allegiance to each other. All politics and diplomacy went through Moscow. Occasionally, as in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, they invaded each other. Years of border changes had created old rivalries and ethnic hatreds. When the Cold War ended, they had no reason to like or trust each other. Mostly, they had no structure within which to work to repair the damage of decades.
NATO created this security structure. Together with the EU, it has turned these countries into (mostly) market democracies. Some are doing better than others. But without this structure, it’s a safe bet that, by now, some of these countries would have gone to war with each other. In other words, history would have repeated itself.
It hasn’t, and the world is better for it.
But what about Russia? Is the hostility of a humiliated Russia the price that we had to pay for central European stability?
I don’t believe it. This hostility probably was inevitable. NATO expansion didn’t help, but it didn’t cause the problem.
Russia and the West really are different. If Poland belongs to the West, Russia is its own continental civilization. The Cold War was a struggle between two civilizations. Its defeat struck Russia in its soul.
Under any circumstances, Russia would remain bitter about its loss of empire and superpower status. It still suspects (accurately) that it doesn’t get Western respect. Throw in its self-inflicted wounds—economic mismanagement and a reversion to autocracy—and you have a recipe for hard feelings.
Periodically, the US still talks about NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia. This probably would be a mistake, if only because we can’t realistically protect either from attack.
Ukraine may be doomed by its non-membership in NATO. We’re committed to protecting Poland and the Baltics, which is why Putin isn’t threatening them. Instead, he feels free to threaten Ukraine because it’s not in NATO.
So let’s end by where we began, by envisaging a post-Communist eastern Europe without NATO or the EU.
Putin certainly would have gone after Ukraine by now, and probably Poland and the Baltics, because their natural protectors—the West—would have no skin in the game. The remaining ex-Communist countries would be small, incompetent, mutually hostile, wildly nationalistic places, tinder for the next war. Most would still be Russian satellites, not necessarily occupied by Russia but dominated by the bear next door.
For once, we did something right. Let’s not apologize for it.
Something else would be different, too. Germany, like Russia, has brought grief and suffering to its neighbors: Hitler and Stalin collaborated to create the Bloodlands. Germany supported NATO expansion because it feared its own history.
It’s worked. For the first time in its history, Germany is surrounded by friends and allies. In European history, this makes all the difference.
Putin doesn’t like it. OK. We can literally live with that.