Russia’s bellicosity in recent months appears to be prompting its neighbors to deepen cooperation between one another and with the West, creating the very threat to Russian security the country saw in the first place. It is this unfounded Russian sense of insecurity that has aggravated its security situation.
Russia’s apologists insist the West is to blame for this year’s deterioration in East-West relations by pushing NATO ever closer to Russia’s borders and failing to take its legitimate security interests into account. A well-argued example of this position is John J. Mearsheimer’s recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine.
Mearsheimer, who is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, laments that “the West had been moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests” for years before the Ukraine crisis erupted this year. For Russian president Vladimir Putin, he believes, “the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president — which he rightly labeled a ‘coup’ — was the final straw. He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a NATO naval base, and working to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.”
Whether Ukrainians were right, or had a right, to eject President Viktor Yanukovych after he unexpectedly pulled out of an association treaty with the European Union doesn’t factor into Mearsheimer’s argument. Nor does it seem to factor into Russia’s thinking, which helps explain why it “blames” the West for expanding NATO. Whereas the West is supposed to recognize Russia’s “legitimate” security interests, its former vassals in Central and Eastern Europe are denied the same by Russia’s defenders.
Similar, the people of Ukraine are denied a say in their own future — whether to integrate with the rest of Europe or remain dependent on their former Soviet master — for the sake of appeasing a paranoid Russia.
Russia never accepted that NATO was a purely defensive alliance. Even today, it sees the bloc as a threat when chances of it initiating hostilities against Russia are, of course, remote at best.
Russia’s perspective is not altogether unreasonable. Its territory is difficult to defend and its history is one of continuous invasion, the most recent — World War II — being a particularly devastating experience. Throughout the Cold War period, the enormous sacrifices Russia made to defeat the Nazis were reiterated in schools and propaganda over and over again. During the same period, most Russians were convinced the West intended to attack them. As Thomas Kent, an AP journalist, wrote in the most recent issue of Harriman Magazine:
The United States and the rest of NATO looked threatening to ordinary Soviets. If Americans favored Mercator map projections that made Russia look like a colossus stretching across half the globe, Russia favored polar projections that showed their country ringed by U.S. bases and client states. The Soviet press regularly asserted that the United States spared no expense for weaponry. […] When Americans in senior positions regularly denounced and threatened the Soviet Union, their words essentially confirmed for ordinary Russians what their own government was saying about U.S. intentions. — Thomas Kent, “Russia in the Late Years of Soviet Rule“, Harriman Magazine, no. Summer 2014 (July 15, 2014): 16–21.
The people running Russia today grew up in that period. They grew up with an exaggerated threat perception of the West and that seems to continue to inform their worldview today.
The same may be true for the other side. Eastern and Northern Europeans see Russia’s behavior today as proof that it’s falling back into old patterns. So do some strategists further west. Their response is to sever ties with Russia — by imposing economic sanctions — and strengthen their defenses, leaving Russia more isolated and more vulnerable. In effect, Russia’s behavior is creating the very conditions it believed it was only responding to.
Former Soviet satellite state Poland is the most aggressive in pushing the anti-Russian line. It urged a strong NATO response when Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March and announced last month that it was shifting its military strength east, to face Russia.
This week, Baltic and Nordic countries and the United Kingdom announced they would improve intelligence-sharing and widen cross-border air force training in the region in response to both Russia’s aggression in southeastern Ukraine — where it is supporting a separatist uprising against the Kiev government — and its regular incursions of NATO airspace.
Even Germany, which has been more sympathetic to Russia than most, condemns its actions in Ukraine and supports the sanctions. According to the Financial Times, it also tried to get China to put pressure on Putin at a time when the Russian leader eyed his Asian neighbor as an alternative destination for oil and gas sales.
The likes of Mearsheimer will argue that the West must simply take Russia’s paranoia as a given and act accordingly — even if that means leaving new allies in Eastern Europe, who want to be part of the West, rather than subjugated to Russia (again), in the cold. Their advice to Western governments is to allow Russia a sphere of influence and conspire with it to ensure the neutrality of countries such as Finland and Ukraine.
Surely we didn’t win the Cold War, though, only to deny the legitimate aspirations of people who know only too well what it’s like to live under the Russian yoke? If the Fins want to be in NATO or the Ukrainians want to join the European Union, that’s between them and those organizations. No one has to ask Russia for permission. Nor should the West have to accommodate Russia’s irrational threat perception. Its paranoia is the problem, not the urge of other countries to defend themselves.