Austria, Finland, Finlandization, John Mearsheimer, NATO, NATO expansion, neutrality, North Atlantic treaty Organization, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, Ukraine, Ukraine invasion, Ukraine-Russia war, Vladimir Putin
Lots of attention has focused lately (and rightly, IMO) on whether the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) membership ranks smack up against the Russian border wound up needlessly provoking Russian countermoves that have culminated in the invasion of Ukraine. Generally neglected but also important is examining the conflict and its runup from another angle: whether the West’s post-Cold War policies wound up leading Ukraine’s recent leaders down a primrose path, creating both unrealistic expectations about the alliance’s commitment to that country’s defense, and therefore equally unrealistic expectations in Kyiv about the best options for living on acceptable terms with Russia.
This neglect is surprising, to say the least, because so much evidence for that proposition is available from sources that can’t sanely be dismissed as apologists for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, or as head-in-the-sand isolationists. (The latter accusation has been leveled against, notably, political scientist John Mearsheimer – who made this argument at length here back in 2015.) In fact, some of the most compelling material supporting the primrose path case comes from NATO itself. Just look at this document posted by the alliance from last month. Here are some highlights:
>NATO has permitted Ukraine to “actively contribute” (that is, fight alongside NATO forces), in “peace-support operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO’s two missions in Afghanistan, namely the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Resolute Support Mission, the NATO Training Mission in Iraq and the maritime operations Active Endeavour and Ocean Shield. It currently supports NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) and continues to provide information in support of NATO’s maritime situational awareness in and around the Black Sea [which also borders Russia].”
>In this vein, “NATO has increased its presence in the Black Sea and stepped up maritime cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia.”
>”Furthermore, Ukraine is building capacity and interoperability through participation in the NATO Response Force as well as through the participation in exercises such as NATO’s flagship annual collective cyber defence exercise ‘Cyber Coalition’”.
>”Given this longstanding support and significant contributions to its operations, NATO offered Ukraine in June 2020 the status as Enhanced Opportunity Partner (EOP). This status works as a facilitator, providing Ukraine preferential access to NATO’s interoperability toolbox, including exercises, training, exchange of information and situational awareness….”
>”NATO supports Ukraine in building capabilities and interoperability through dedicated working groups, such as the Joint Working Group on Defence Reform, programmes….”
>”NATO has significantly stepped up its practical assistance to Ukraine following the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea by Russia.”
This rhetoric and these concrete measures, moreover, have come in the context of the alliance’s landmark declaration at its 2008 summit in Romania that, “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”
So leaving aside how Putin might have interpreted these developments, it seems reasonable that they fueled Ukraine’s leaders’ refusal virtually up to the last pre-invasion minute to entertain seriously Moscow’s demand that it rethink joining NATO. (Indeed, in 2019, Ukraine enshrined this goal in its constitution.)
After all, not only did NATO endorse its bid. It was already treating Ukraine, and especially its military, as a member in numerous – and tangible – respects.
Ukraine’s leaders are of course ultimately responsible for their own decisions. And the country’s valiant (and so far seemingly pretty effective) resistance, along with the impact on Russia of western sanctions, may well wind up preserving its right to take whatever national security steps it wishes – including joining NATO.
But when I look at the fates of European countries that have been willing to accept limits on their sovereignty – namely Finlandized and prosperous Finland, and neutralized and prosperous Austria – and compare them with the death and destruction being suffered by Ukraine, I can’t help but wonder if the alliance should have actually focused on convincing Kyiv that discretion can be the better part of valor.