How NATO really provoked Putin

Poland is about to host the largest multinational military exercises on its territory in more than a decade. The “Anakonda-16” exercises, involving 31,000 troops from more than 20 countries, are intended to showcase the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s unity and speed one month before the alliance’s summit in Warsaw. The U.S. Army will play a key role, with a mechanized regiment based in Germany simulating a mission to rescue the Baltic states from a Russian attack.

The exercises come just weeks after the United States inaugurated the first of two controversial missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe. Next year, the Pentagon plans to quadruple military spending in Europe to $3.4 billion and begin rotating an armored brigade through Eastern Europe — in addition to extra NATO forces to be deployed to Poland and the Baltics.

The Kremlin’s response to Anakonda-16 is predictable. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already threatened Romania for participating in the U.S. missile shield. The large-scale maneuvers will only fuel the Kremlin narrative that Russia is being encircled by hostile forces. European peaceniks, too, won’t have to look far for new evidence of American war-mongering.

The escalating standoff resembles the chicken-egg conundrum. NATO argues that a return to containment and deterrence is the regrettable result of Putin’s 2014 attack on Ukraine. The Kremlin and its apologists answer that military intervention was necessary to forestall the U.S.-led alliance’s inexorable eastward encroachment. All debates over the Ukraine conflict start and end with NATO’s role.

In the case of Ukraine, NATO is a red herring. The former Soviet republic was never under serious consideration for membership, and barely a fifth of Ukrainians supported joining the alliance in polls taken before the Russian invasion.

NATO actually bowed to the Kremlin when Germany and France blocked a straight path to membership for Georgia and Ukraine in 2008. Months later, Russia occupied two breakaway regions in Georgia in a prelude to the annexation of Crimea and the creation of two puppet states in eastern Ukraine. To be accepted into NATO, an applicant country may not have any outstanding territorial disputes.

It’s easy to forget that it was reunified Germany that initially pushed for NATO enlargement after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Far from being a diabolical Pentagon plot, the issue was hotly debated on both sides of the Atlantic. Although dismayed by Western triumphalism after the Cold War, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called it a “myth” that Western leaders had promised not to enlarge NATO.

After being situated on the Cold War frontline for more than four decades, Germans were eager to extend the NATO security bubble as far east as possible. The West was operating on the naive assumption that Russia had a shared interest in seeing the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe turn into stable, flourishing democracies. In fact, the Kremlin — even before Putin — preferred a buffer zone of weak, divided kleptocracies that had no chance of joining Western institutions or serving as an example for Russia.

“Expansion” is not the best word to describe NATO’s enlargement because it implies that the 12 Eastern European nations who have joined since 1999 were somehow passively involved. Having been trapped in the Soviet sphere of influence after World War Two, Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, and Hungarians went for the best insurance policy around. Ultimately the decision to join NATO was taken by sovereign, democratic states incapable of defending themselves but for whom neutrality was not an option.

Moscow is not doomed to antagonism with the West. Russia has allied itself with Western European powers for more than two centuries. As he was running for his first presidential term in 2000, Putin said that he neither viewed NATO as an enemy, nor would he rule out joining the alliance — as an equal. Those last three words are key to understanding his anger with NATO today.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, it’s infinitely worse to be ignored than to be considered a worthy rival. Unfortunately, Putin’s rise coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush, who ran roughshod over the sensibilities of friend and foe alike. Putin’s outreach was rebuffed. In the face of Bush’s militant unilateralism, Moscow’s membership in the United Nations Security Council, the Group of Eight and the NATO-Russia Council proved useless.

Bush’s interest in Eastern Europe was primarily to reward nations that had participated in his “coalition of the willing” during the war in Iraq by bestowing NATO membership or promising to base elements of a planned U.S. system to shoot down missiles originating in the Middle East.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he first had to dig himself out of the rubble of Bush’s disastrous foreign policy. The new president declared a “reset” in relations with Russia and froze missile defense plans for Eastern Europe, arguably the most contentious issue between Washington and Moscow.

In the end, Obama approved a pared-down version of the Bush missile shield because it would have been politically difficult to abandon a project involving Eastern European allies. Although the laws of physics prohibit the new installations from targeting Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons, missile defense serves the Kremlin well as an example of NATO encirclement.

Obama originally wanted to cooperate with Putin on issues of common concern and continue to ignore him wherever else possible. The American president failed to appreciate the post-imperial phantom pains still plaguing Russia.

When Obama spoke about a future without nuclear weapons, Putin heard him say Russia should be stripped of its only credible deterrent. When the White House pivoted to Asia and withdrew the last U.S. tank from Germany in 2013, the Kremlin saw it as waning American commitment to Europe.

Putin’s lightning occupation of Crimea and manufactured insurrection in eastern Ukraine took NATO by surprise. Even if Eastern Europeans remained wary of Moscow’s intentions, the rest of the alliance had come to view Russia as a grumpy neighbor rather than a stealthy adversary.

NATO’s efforts to reassure eastern allies with rotational forces from the United States or Germany are a crucial first step to restoring balance in Europe. But missile defense is a political football that poses no real threat to Russia. Eastern Europeans are using it to get U.S. boots on the ground, while the Kremlin can raise it as the hobgoblin of encirclement.

The United States may have provoked Putin through ignorance, arrogance or negligence — but not belligerence. That’s why NATO is in such a mad scramble to catch up.

Lucian Kim has been reporting from Germany, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since 1996. He covered conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Georgia, and Ukraine. He is now based in Berlin.

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