As Ukraine Conflict Heats Back Up Scholars Point To NATO Expansion As Cause Of Tensions

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Now that NATO has claimed to have seen Russian military equipment entering Ukraine in the past few days and prospects for peace appear elusive some scholars are beginning to analyze how we got here. The charge of a “Russian invasion” was made previously by the government in Kiev, though government officials would not disclose how they knew about it. It was speculated at the time that NATO intelligence was the one behind the charge as Kiev was unable to properly monitor the Russian-Ukraine border.

Foreign Affairs, a publication of the highly influential Council On Foreign Relations, polled Western scholars asking if “The West provoked Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Russia’s near abroad by expanding NATO and the EU after the Cold War.” Not surprisingly, the majority (18-9 with 2 neutral votes) opposed the West taking responsibility for the Ukraine crisis, but even among those who disagreed with the statement offered by Foreign Affairs was an admission that NATO expansion was a contributing factor to current tensions with Russia.

NATO members, including the United States, made an all but explicit promise to not expand the alliance after the Cold War ended. A promise they broke with a steady march eastward that has finally hit a proverbial wall in East Ukraine. Whether or not that justifies Russia’s behavior is an open question, but it surely helps explain it.

From the poll:

Stephen Walt – Strongly Agree – “NATO expansion is not the only reason for Russia’s harsh reaction, nor is it a justification for some of what Russia has done. But as critics of expansion warned in the 1990s, the decision to move NATO eastward helped poison relations between Moscow and the United States and made Russian leaders far more sensitive about subsequent Western efforts to strengthen ties with Ukraine.”

Michael Mandelbaum – Strongly Agree – “NATO expansion provoked Russian aggression against Ukraine indirectly. By excluding Russia from the Western-designed European security system, and by breaking what the Russians had every reason to believe was a promise to not expand the Atlantic Alliance (while making it clear that Russia itself was not welcome in it), NATO expansion did a great deal to foster a sense of hostility to the West in Russia.”

Robert Legvold – Agree – “NATO enlargement stimulated a basic mistrust of the United States and NATO allies. It was not the proximate cause for Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine, but an important part of the context.”

Robert Jervis – Agree – “Although Putin surely had multiple motives, NATO expansion was asking for trouble, which is why most IR experts (or at least those in the Realist community) opposed it at the time.”

Ivan Krasteve – Disagree –  “NATO and EU expansion probably were among the factors that contributed to Russia’s aggression in its neighborhood, but I do disagree that, in the absence of NATO’s expansion, Russia would have respected the sovereignty of its neighbors.”

Kimberly Marten – Disagree – “The West did indeed provoke a sense of betrayal and wounded Russian pride by expanding NATO and the EU. ”

Fiona Hill – Disagree – “The expansion of NATO was a factor shaping Putin’s views of the West and its intentions, and the European Union’s expansion was the proximate trigger for the events in Ukraine, but there were many other factors at play.”

Leon Aron – Strongly Disagree – “I was on record as opposing the NATO expansion at the time as unnecessary and divisive given what seemed to be Russia’s trajectory in the early 1990s. But this is a straw man.”

So while there is genuine disagreement among Western scholars about how much responsibility the West has for the crisis in Ukraine many agree that NATO expansion exacerbated the situation and was a catalyst for early tensions between the West and Post-Soviet Russia. Those tensions are now setting up a potential nuclear showdown in Ukraine if the conflict spirals further and NATO and Russian forces exchange fire.

It is hard to deny that the logic of NATO expansion would inevitably lead to this kind of standoff in Ukraine which previous NATO members such as US President George H.W. Bush had conceded to Russian influence after the Cold War ended. How far east could NATO go without the Russians putting their foot down? Now we know.

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