NATO is not to blame for Russia’s invasion, here’s why

Despite speculation, Russia’s rationale is much more personal

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Shilpa Sweth / Daily Collegian

By Liam Rue, Collegian Columnist

Is Russia attacking Ukraine as self-defense against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as Putin claims? Or is Moscow merely using the presence of NATO near its borders as an excuse to conquer Ukraine?

These are the two dueling narratives at the heart of the debate about whether NATO caused Russia to invade Ukraine. Russia’s side of the story – that NATO aggression is to blame for its invasion — is also one of its main justifications for war against Ukraine. While Russia does have reason to be wary of NATO on its borders (i.e., in Ukraine), it’s no justification for their war of pure aggression against Ukraine.

But first, we must ask what is NATO? And how did it play a role in the lead up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

NATO was founded in 1949 as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. The roots of the current conflict date to the 1990s, after the Soviet Union broke up into various states that include modern-day Russia and Ukraine.

The military alliance was originally limited to the U.S., Canada and their European allies not under communist control. Starting in the 1990s, however, NATO took advantage of the Soviet Union’s dissolution to add more countries in eastern Europe that were previously under Soviet control.

Since Russia did not join NATO – and since the organization’s original purpose was to keep its predecessor in check– it saw the alliance’s expansion towards its borders as a security threat. This was especially significant to Russia since its former allies and puppet states were now culturally and economically more connected to the U.S. and western Europe. During the 90s, an extensive number of foreign policy experts warned that expanding NATO would cause instability in Europe as Russia would retaliate with force against countries who would try to join the peace organization.

Since Russia had its fleet in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, another problem of Ukraine joining NATO was the control over Russia’s fleet it would give NATO members like the U.S.

The prospect of this became real when the 2014 “Euromaidan” revolution in Ukraine produced a pro-western government determined to join NATO. While non-allied countries gaining control over the port of Russia’s fleet is a valid security concern, it was no excuse for war since Ukraine had not even begun the process of joining NATO.

Ukraine joining NATO would also mean that the U.S. and other NATO powers could position “defensive” missiles within range of Moscow and other major Russian cities. This would be akin to Russia making an alliance against the U.S. with a neighboring country like Canada and installing warheads on America’s front door (or so the argument goes.)

For these security concerns, Russian officials accuse the U.S. and its NATO allies of breaking a promise in 1990 not to expand NATO eastward towards Russia. Despite these claims, no such promise was ever made.

Furthermore, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has been an alliance for mutual defense and peacekeeping and much less so an alliance against Russia. Russia had already come to this conclusion itself with the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act at the 1997 Madrid Summit.

As an independent nation, Ukraine also has the freedom to join whatever alliance it chooses. This is where the argument that Ukraine should not join NATO stems because it’s technically in Russia’s “sphere of influence.” This argument is unfounded: it claims that, regardless of what Ukrainians want, Russia has historically controlled them and thus should serve as willing prisoners of Russian rule.

Indeed, NATO even welcomed Russia to apply to become a member. A much younger Vladimir Putin, in his first years as Russia’s leader, refused to apply, as he considered it an insult to have to apply and “wait with countries that don’t matter” rather than be invited. If Russia had become a member 20 years ago, there shouldn’t be anything preventing Ukraine from joining NATO today.

Finally, the main reason Ukraine now wants to join NATO is the threat Russia has proved itself to be since it first invaded Ukraine in 2014. The icing on the cake is that Putin already admitted his intent to conquer Ukraine, stating that Ukraine is not a “real country” but a rightful part of Russia.

Ukraine wouldn’t have nearly as much of a need to join NATO if Russia weren’t blatantly denying it had a right to exist. Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support of rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, NATO support has grown considerably — to around 56 percent according to 2021 data.

Given NATO’s status as a defensive alliance, Russia’s continued aggression despite Ukraine not even joining NATO, as well as Ukraine’s right to join NATO if so willing as a sovereign state, NATO is no excuse for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has become even less of a plausible excuse since Putin openly stated that Ukraine was property of Russia and “not a real country.”

NATO and the U.S. are far from perfect themselves, especially considering NATO’s poor track record on its post-Cold War peacekeeping, as well as the U.S.’ political interference in Ukraine. But there is only one aggressive war-monger terrorizing Ukraine right now, and that is Russia.

Liam Rue can be reached at [email protected]