The Bigger the Lie – NATO, New Members & Eastern Europe (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #80)

It is shocking to discover the subtlety with which Russian propaganda has found its way into conversations about eastern Europe. In some cases, that propaganda is being repeated by many of us who should know better. This was pointed out to me by one of my readers when I used the phrase “NATO expansion.” That phrase implies that NATO is actively seeking to expand its influence, rather than nations independently deciding to join the alliance. Welcoming new members and aggressive expansion are two different things. NATO does the former, Russia is trying to do the latter and create its own sphere of influence. “Joining” versus “expanding” might seem like a matter of semantics, but Russian propaganda has repeated the phrase “NATO expansion” so many times that it has come to be seen as a cause, rather than the symptom of Russian aggression.

A case can be made that NATO would lose much of its raison d’etre without Russia. It is Russia driving NATO membership, not some shadowy conspiracy. No matter what anyone inside or outside the alliance might say, NATO’s existence is predicated upon fear of Russian (or in the past Soviet) aggression. The Russian Invasion of Ukraine brought these barely suppressed fears back to the surface for smaller nations in eastern and northern Europe. Was NATO really looking to expand its influence into Sweden or Finland? Or were these two Nordic nations that have been bastions of post-World War II neutrality, spooked into joining by Russia’s behavior? One side offered the stick, the other a carrot. Russian militarism or collective security in NATO? The choice was not a difficult one to make.

The path to NATO membership – Protest of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in Helsinki (Credit: rajatonvimma)

The Best Defense – NATO Membership
Defense by its very nature is not expansive and NATO is an alliance dedicated to the defense of its members. Despite this, NATO has grown remarkably since the Cold War ended. Why is that? Like everything else with the politics of Eastern European security it goes back to history. The first three countries to join NATO from the region were Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The main reasons they wanted to become members can be summed up as eastern Poland 1939, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968. In each one of these cases that nation’s sovereignty was violated by the Soviet Union. Later such former Eastern Bloc countries as Bulgaria and Romania also joined. Both had awful experiences with Soviet style communism. The same was true for Latvia and Lithuania, both of whom needed assurance that Russia would not attack them. None of these countries could afford to take chances with a newly independent Russia which was much larger and more militarily powerful than they could ever hope to be.

Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s legacy after its collapse in 1989. As such, Eastern European nations saw it as most likely to follow in Soviet footsteps. Their worries have been justified by Putin, a man who believes the Soviet collapse was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Read between the lines of that statement and it becomes apparent that Putin would love nothing more than to expand Russia’s sphere of influence back into Eastern Europe. One of the main reasons Putin loathes NATO is because it is a barrier to Russian expansion. It also acts as a magnet, attracting nations seeking to keep Russian influence at bay.

Heading East – Map of NATO enlargement (Credit: Patrickneil)

Core Values – Heart of the Problem  
When considering the phrase “NATO expansion” ask yourself the following: Does anyone really think if Putin had not decided to invade Ukraine that Finland and Sweden would have joined NATO? Both nations are joining to ensure their security. Forfeiting their neutrality is a cost both were willing to pay. The reason why is so simple that it often escapes notice. Both Ukraine and Georgia are not in NATO, and both have been attacked by Russia during Putin’s time in office. The reason that Putin did not attack any of the Baltic States is because it would have meant going to war with NATO. Putin knew that if Ukraine joined NATO, it would be lost forever or at least within his lifetime. Thus, he invaded and made sure that it would be lost forever to Russia without Ukraine even having to join NATO. A side effect is that Ukraine could still join the alliance. What was once a remote prospect, now looks plausible.
It is often forgotten that NATO poses a bigger problem to Russia, than Russia does to NATO. The chance of NATO invading a nuclear armed Russia is near zero. It would be self-defeating and suicidal. The same situation applies in reverse to Russia, but Putin never lets an opportunity pass to engage in nuclear saber rattling with NATO. Of course, Putin probably believes NATO really is expanding at Russia’s expense as part of a shadowy plan to weaken Russia irreparably. This is not one of his usual lies, it is a core belief that propels Russian insecurity. Despite what Russian propaganda might claim, NATO acquiring new members was not part of any grand plan. Anyone who has ever studied the politics of European and North American democracies knows that divisions are often insurmountable. Disunity is as much the rule as it is the exception. Compromise is often a process that teeters on a precipice between modest successes and outright failures. To think there was some shadowy conspiracy that led nations into NATO defies logic. Then again, Putin is using his own logic, namely that the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.

Sending a message – Billboard in Tblisi Georgia (Credit: George Nikoladze)

The Road to Ruin – Putin’s Logic
The best explanation for Putin’s obsession with NATO expansion is that he projects his own behavior and beliefs on the opposition. This is exactly the kind of behavior Putin would engage in if given the opportunity. Paradoxically, this is what he tried to do unilaterally by ordering the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This was an example of Russia’s expansive tendencies. It has now led to what Putin feared the most, more NATO aligned nations on Russia’s doorstep. And still Putin continues to prattle on about “NATO expansion.” There is no such thing except in his mind. The truth is rather benign. In essence, sovereign countries are making the momentous decision to protect themselves against Russian aggression. Right now, the only thing expanding in Europe is insecurity. It can make nations do strange things. The decision of Finland and Sweden to join NATO is a striking example of that. And if there was such a thing as NATO expansion, Vladimir Putin would be its greatest promoter. His flawed logic is leading Russia down the road ruin. That is one thing NATO will not stop.

Click here for: Meteoric Rise – Volodymyr Zelensky’s Political Career In War & Peace (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #79)

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