It's becoming very fashionable to blame the policies of the USA and the NATO countries for what seems like the early tremors signaling a renewed Cold War. I find that those who support Chavisimo in Venezuela, who oppose Israel or at least Israel's current Zionist vision and policies, are far and away the most likely to speak almost in defense of Russia, blaming the West for whatever Russia is doing in and around Ukraine. Perhaps that's a bit of a digression, but I see this line of thinking as part of a knee-jerk, blame America first groupthink that flies in the face of common sense on this point.
There is an excellent diary by Richard Lyon, reviewing the history of NATO and pondering the future in light of the new situation with Russia. One comment in the diary notes the prediction by America's most famous diplomat -- and author of the containment policy that defined US Cold War policy for 40 years -- that the expansion of ATO to the nations of the former Warsaw Pact would provoke Russia, and slowly push the country down a path that would eventually create a new cold war.
I don't disagree with Kennan's observations, but I don't think that the USA or the West can be blamed for Russian actions that violate basic principles of national sovereignty and threaten the peace and stability of the post-war (WWII) (and post-Cold War) legal order. O do think what has happened in Russia was largely predictable, but I think it's a fallacy to finger the policies of the US and NATO for having any real responsibility.
The fundamental question for me is whether anything would have been different regarding Russia today if NATO had not been expanded in the 1990s into territories once controlled by the USSR. The answer to that question, it seems to me, is a resounding "no!"
Yes, the NATO expansion and the plan to put ABMs in eastern Europe were all actions that fed the narrative about Russian paranoia. If you accept the truth of this narrative about a national Russian paranoia, it may eve be true that these actions did actually feed into that paranoia. That, however, really doesn't mean that Western nations are somehow responsible for Putin's misadventures and the re-opening of the Cold War.
There really are two questions that emerge from this observation.
First -- the question I posed in the introduction: Would anything have been different if NATO didn't expand? Would someone like Putin have emerged anyway to lead Russia -- probably Putin himself? And, if Putin would still have been the successor to Yeltsin, then what would have been different?
Would Russia be more than the kleptocracy it is now, run by mobsters and KGB apparatchiks? Or, would it have travelled the same line? What would have happened in Chechnya? Dagestan? Georgia? Would any of that have been different?
Most significantly, where would that have left Ukraine? Would Ukraine have travelled the same history, with the push/pull of Russia and Europe? Would the apparatchiks not have poisoned a Presidential candidate who wanted to escape Russian blackmail? Would we not have had Yanukovich and his corrupt regime? Would we not have had the Maidan movement and then the Russian move in Crimea?
The point being -- could any of this have turned out differently? Or, does Kennan's point about NATO expansion really just give Putin and his apologists a convenient excuse? Are we pointing the finger in the wrong direction, if we point to the West for the current situation?
If you want to argue that western policies are to blame and that Russia is merely being reactive, the burden is upon you to prove that is true. Is there anything about Russia, or Putin, that would be substantially different, if the West hadn't pursued -- or agreed to NATO expansion (since the pressure for NATO expansion largely came from nations outside NATO's umbrella)?
Along those lines, what about the view from the countries who were thrilled to escape the yoke of Russian/Soviet oppression? Were they wrong to fear the Russians as a long-term threat? Did they create this threat as a "self-fulfilling prophecy" or was the return of the threat inevitable anyway?
Think about Russia and Russians then -- and now. Sure, there are educated Russians who aren't ant-Semitic, homophobic, racist, fascist hooligans...but there's a sizable group who are...and they have served as the shock troops for Putinism. I am loathe to suggest that there is something as stereotypical as a "national character" -- but, the majority of Russians have attitudes that those in the West would find troubling. They are far less committed to democracy -- far more invested in a national ethnic identity -- and, consequently, are far more likely to support the expansionist moves that Putin has been orchestrating. Or, at least, that's how they are perceived abroad. Small wonder that Russia's neighbors fear their big neighbor -- whether or not their fears have become self-fulfilling prophecy, they don't seem outlandish or baseless.
Whether or not you perceive some defect in Russia's national character or in the character of the nation's leaders, I think it's totally fair and reasonable to ask if Russia's trajectory would have been any different if the West refrained from expanding NATO. Moreover, if the answer is no, one must consider the possible wisdom in expanding NATO at a time when Russia and NATO were not openly hostile.
If the threat to Eastern Europe was going to return regardless of what the West did in terms of NATO, then aren't we in a much better, safer position now? Imagine the clamor we'd be hearing now from the former Warsaw Pact nations, insisting on joining the alliance now for protection from Russia. Then, imagine the depth of the response that would provoke in Russia now. If you think they see the world as lined up against them now, imagine how they'd see an expansion of NATO that occurred in response to the annexation of Crimea.
I might add, that there were other reasons for expanding NATO. It's the European security alliance. It's quite appropriate to attempt to include all the nations of Europe, as the other collective regional security organs are pretty inclusive, too. What would have been accomplished by not expanding NATO? There are all sorts of benefits by bringing numerous nations into the more democratic, liberal cultures of the European Union and NATO.
Perhaps Russia might also have been brought into this liberal, democratic vision of Europe, but I have my doubts. They didn't have the same fear of an imperialistic neighbor pushing them in that direction. Few countries in the former Warsaw Pact are nostalgic for those days. Russians? Not so much.
As simple as it might be for a lot of liberals to want to blame imperialistic American policies for all the ills of the world, this is one situation where the glove clearly does not fit. We're not to blame for Russian actions that are wholly unjustifiable. Whatever historical claim they might have to Crimea, Russia's moves to seize the territory by force are a serious threat and should not be excused in any way. Moreover, there's a considerable likelihood that they will be repeated elsewhere..and that's a big problem for everyone. If anything, Germany's expansionist demands in the 1930s seem more reasonable -- more based in in real grievances. Even if Russia isn't the same as Nazi Germany and Putin isn't Hitler, this is a significant challenge to maintaining international peace. Like it or not, we cannot pretend that this isn't a big deal.
I don't have a magic answer as to what our response should be (personally, in addition to other sanctions, I've got my eyes on taking away the 2018 World Cup from Russia -- giving it to the USA or England would be problematic, but maybe Australia would fly? I know this is a FIFA issue, but a re-vote can be arranged) -- but it can't be to blame our own past policies and give Russia a pass. This is a threat the world cannot ignore, because it will only grow.