Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Barack Obama, Bashar Assad, Bio-weapons, Biolabs, Chechnya Invasion, Chemical Weapons, Claire Berlinski, De-Nazification, Dmitry Utkin, Donald Trump, George Kennan, Georgia Invasion, Hillary Clinton, Holodomer Genicide, Joe Biden, John Mearscheimer, Kyle Becker, Malaysian Airlines, Matt Vespa, Melanie Willis, NATO, Russian Federal Security Service, Russian Imperial Movement, Stephen Kotkin, Syria, Thermobaric Weapons, Ukraine, Ukraine Invasion, USSR, Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky, Wagner Group, WMDs
One would think condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would be easy for anyone who cares about human rights. This action and the threats he’s made against the West are the work of a psychotic. Yet there are some who place the ultimate blame for his behavior on the West and on NATO in particular. These reactions range from “This is all our fault” to “He’s evil, but we should not have provoked him”. Other reactions are much wilder, such as “We’re hiding something in Ukraine” to “We orchestrated this whole thing.” I am a small-government classical liberal, and no one trusts government power less than I do. However, I certainly place more trust in Western governments than in Russia’s authoritarian regime. If the West deserves any blame here, it’s because we made it easy for Putin.
For certain Western conservatives who’ve developed a man-crush on the “strong leader” Putin, the first thing you should understand is that he is an inveterate gangster and thug. Brute force fascism has always defined his approach to governance and foreign policy. That’s how this so-called “genius” came to power: three Russian apartment buildings were bombed in 1999, an act believed to have been instigated by the Russian Federal Security Service, of which he was head. Putin blamed Chechen rebels, prompting an attack on Chechnya that led to his ascendency.
Even among more moderate voices we hear statements like this:
“Russia has an existential interest in keeping NATO away from his border.”
Existential? “His” border? NATO may have expanded to include members from Eastern Europe, but that didn’t change its basic defensive posture nor the Putin regime’s expansionist goals. Objectively, it might have been more in Russia’s existential interest to be less belligerent and avoid the kind of rogue-state trap it’s now sprung on itself.
There are a few so-called leading intellectuals in the West who have condemned NATO eastward expansion as the root cause of Russia’s vengeful mind set, such as George Kennan and John Mearsheimer. However, Russian scholar Stephan Kotkin says they have it all backwards:
“The problem with their argument is that it assumes that, had nato not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before nato existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.
I would even go further. I would say that nato expansion has put us in a better place to deal with this historical pattern in Russia that we’re seeing again today.”
Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen agrees with that assessment, noting several early attempts at outreach to Russia:
“Russia is not a victim. We have reached out to Russia several times during history…. First, we approved the NATO Russia Founding Act in 1997…. Next time, it was in 2002, we reached out once again, established something very special, namely the NATO-Russia Council. And in 2010, we decided at a NATO-Russia summit that we would develop a strategic partnership between Russia and NATO.”
Nazis At the Kremlin
Putin contends that Ukraine must be “de-Nazified”, which is bizarre given the large Jewish population of Ukraine and its representation in leadership. Putin’s claim is also complete projection, as Melanie Willis has written:
“It is in fact Putin himself who has unleashed neo-Nazism on Ukraine using the Wagner Group. This is a private army of mercenaries financed by pro-Kremlin oligarchs. It’s led by Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian military intelligence officer sporting Waffen-SS tattoos who allegedly named his outfit after Hitler’s favourite composer.
Far-right extremists comprise the core of this group, which has committed horrific atrocities across Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine as a front for Russian imperial policy. …
The Russian Imperial Movement, which has fought in Ukraine, was designated a terrorist organisation by the US in 2020 for training and funding neo-Nazi terrorists across the world in its military camps, which operate under the Russian security services’ eye.”
Love Letters To Soviet Monsters
As if to emphasize his bona fides as a vicious authoritarian, Putin lionizes the failed Soviet empire, as if to forgive the horrors perpetrated by the communists: millions of lives lost to the engineered Ukrainian famine of the Holodomer genocide in the 1930s, the widespread raping of Russian, Polish, German women by members of the Red Army at the end of World War II, the millions confined to concentration camps over the entire Soviet era, and the repression, murder, or exile of many others. And this is to say nothing of the long economic nightmare inflicted by communist central planners, including the denial of property rights to ordinary people in the USSR and its satellite states.
Also recall that Putin’s army has made a practice of bombing civilian targets in separate conflicts starting with Chechnya in 1999, Georgia in 2008, and Syria in 2015. Cluster bombs and thermobaric weapons were used against residential areas in all three of these actions, the first two of which were Russian invasions of sovereign nations, and the third was on behalf of the Bashar Assad regime. It’s no surprise that we’re now seeing atrocities committed at Putin’s behest in Ukraine, and it could get far worse.
NATO: Not All About Russia
Another thing to understand: NATO’s original and ongoing purpose goes far beyond simply defending against Soviet and now Russian aggression. Claire Berlinski has a good post on this subject. She quotes “A Short History of NATO”:
“In fact, the Alliance’s creation was part of a broader effort to serve three purposes: deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration.”
Much of Europe was reduced to rubble after World War II, with many millions of soldiers and civilians dead. Homelessness and hunger were everywhere. Berlinski points to outbreaks of “militant nationalism” that plagued Europe in the wake of earlier crises.
“The enormity of the destruction transferred the responsibility for preserving Western civilization to the United States. …
Americans who resent Europeans for being reluctant to militarize and for placing so much importance on political integration should remember that this is the world we created. We insisted upon this. Europe had no choice. It’s very strange for Americans suddenly to view the United States’ greatest military and foreign policy achievement as a failure. It was the United States’ plan for Europe to focus on economic growth rather than maintaining large conventional armies …”
Indeed, this point was lost on Donald Trump. There is no question that European states should pay up to their commitments to NATO, and today more balance in those commitments is probably well-advised. However, as Berlinski notes, even when the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR dissolved, NATO’s role in ensuring European stability was still paramount. One might even say it ultimately required NATO expansion to the Eastern European states. And no, Russia was never promised that NATO would not expand to the east. That is a complete myth promoted by Putin and the Russian misinformation apparatus.
The rise of Russian belligerence over the past two decades meant that all three components of NATO’s original mission remained relevant. And through all that, NATO’s posture has remained defensive, not offensive. Yet many in the West have fallen for a continuing barrage of Russian propaganda and misinformation that the U.S. should withdraw from the alliance. On that, Berlinski says,
“It’s an idea very much like unilateral nuclear disarmament.”
The West Did Not Impede Putin
As a staunch Russian nationalist, Putin has always been butt-hurt about the fall of the USSR. And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking he hasn’t been coddled to a significant degree by the West, even as he grew bolder in his provocations and bullying. I already discussed NATO’s attempts to reach out to Putin before 2010. This article recounts, from a series of tweets by Kyle Becker, the subsequent course of affairs. Becker notes the following:
- As Secretary of State under Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton approved the Uranium One deal giving Russia 20% of U.S. reserves.
- In early 2010, the new START treaty left Russia with huge tactical nuclear advantages, and the agreement had very weak enforcement mechanisms.
- Obama’s incredible hot-mic moment in 2012 caught him promising “more flexibility” to the Russians on ballistic missile defense after the November election.
- The 2014 takeover of the Crimean Parliament and the subsequent rigged referendum to leave Ukraine was met with ineffective sanctions.
- Missiles fired by pro-Russian forces took down a Malaysian Airlines flight over the Dunbas region in 2014. Earlier, Obama had denied Ukraine access to equipment that would have defended against anti-aircraft fire, and might have prevented the tragedy.
Even more recently, Joe Biden in January practically issued a pass to Russia on action against Ukraine: “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion…” Well then! Townhall’s Matt Vespa says:
“Russia is invading because they’ve been getting away with using brute force for years, coupled with an eight-year administration in the United States that did all it could to weaken everyone around them. Obama did nothing when Crimea was seized. He did nothing when Russians established themselves in the Middle East… For a solid decade, the use of force has worked, and Biden being Obama’s former VP, he sees a continuation of that weakness. Putin was right in that regard, gaming out the West’s response to a senile U.S. president. What he did not expect was the tenacity of the Ukrainian resistance.”
The Biolabs Pretext
What about those biolabs in the Ukraine? Putin’s propaganda machine went into high gear to characterize the labs as threats of biological warfare on Russia’s border. Many Western populists and conservatives thought this seemed like a rational pretext for Putin’s actions, but without a shred of proof. We really don’t know what’s happening there, but biolabs are not exactly uncommon, and the vast preponderance of biological and virological research is benign. The mere existence of those facilities is certainly not synonymous with “bio-weapons” research, as many have taken for granted. And, of course, a biolab in the West is likely to be engaged in bio-defense research as well. You can be sure, however, that Putin has contemplated the use of bio-weapons against Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin has made ominous threats against NATO countries, but if he didn’t have a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons he’d be merely a bad actor from a low-tier industrial society, and without the clout to frighten the entire world. His belligerence is long-standing and quite out-of-hand, and it is unlikely to stop with Ukraine should he succeed in crushing it. That seems to be his intent. NATO and the West did not do anything to justify Putin’s conspiratorial fantasies. In fact, the West coddled Putin for far too long, to our detriment and to the horror of the Ukrainian people.
I’m trying to maintain some optimism that Putin’s miscalculations in this invasion will eventually lead to Russian defeat. At the very least, it may be impossible for his occupying forces to maintain control without disastrous consequences to them. That might eventually lead to a withdrawal, much as it did in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Western leaders still hope to find an “off-ramp” for Putin allowing him to save face and perhaps settle for small gains in the separatist regions. If so, I won’t be surprised to see repeat offenses from Putin in the future, either in Ukraine or elsewhere.