• To begin with, NATO had never promised Russia that it would not expand. Russia originally fabricated this bogus charge in the wake of its disappointment over the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

  • Countries formerly in or near the Soviet Union did not trust Russia to refrain from doing what it had done before, such as rolling tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968, or military aggression in Georgia in 2008. They were right.

  • At a press conference in Yalta in 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin conceded the right of former Soviet bloc members to join NATO.

  • Russian military planning for its Crimean operation may actually have begun as early as 2005 or 2008; not because of Kiev's alleged "mistreatment of ethnic Russians" as Russia claimed rather later, in 2014.

  • It was not NATO expansion that upset Putin, but apparently the fear that Russia's own people might begin to demand a democracy like their neighbors' in Ukraine.

  • Russia "does not ask permission," Putin said in his latest "State of the Nation" speech, asserting that moves such as holding onto Crimea and undermining Ukraine are solely "defensive." One can only imagine what kind of Russian "defensive" Europe and the U.S. might face if Russia's aggression goes unpunished and its myth-making is allowed to stand.

In world politics and life, belief in myths invites disaster. One currently prevailing myth propagated by Russia and its defenders in America is that the cause of Moscow's ongoing aggression against Ukraine is the result of the threat Russia feels from the enlargement of NATO and its after-effects.[1]

Even for those who believe this Russian myth -- but who admit that Russia is clearly committing aggression against Ukraine -- NATO enlargement seems to be viewed as America's post-Cold War "original sin."

As Moscow and its friends tell it, the West -- and especially the United States -- went back on its promise not to expand NATO after 1989, and then proceeded to enlarge NATO and isolate Russia from Europe.

This enlargement of NATO, according to Moscow, also demonstrated an unjustified distrust of Russia by NATO, made even worse both by NATO operations against Kosovo in 1999, and lately by NATO allegedly inciting the 2013-14 political revolution in Ukraine. That revolution in Ukraine threw Moscow's friends out of power and replaced them with Ukrainian leaders no longer willing to steal from Ukraine's treasury in order to provide Moscow with ill-gotten gains. Ukraine's senior government leaders had been engaging in routine and massive corruption, involving the outright theft of billions in hard currency from the Ukrainian government's treasury.

These alleged NATO and American "activities" led to an official Moscow-generated threat assessment -- seen by the Kremlin as threats to Moscow from the West.

The threat assessment described NATO as inveterately anti-Russian as well as to blame for the crisis and conflict in Ukraine. In short, Moscow viewed NATO as increasingly menacing to what Moscow sees as Russia's legitimate sphere of influence.

But was this Russian view of things justified, and what are the facts?

First of all, NATO enlargement never had anything to do with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, even if a enlarging NATO may have served to intensify Moscow's already gathering distrust of Western and NATO objectives toward Russia.

To begin with, NATO had never promised Moscow that it would not expand.[2] Moscow originally fabricated this bogus charge in the wake of its disappointment over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Then Russia relentlessly promoted that charge and has continued to do so right up to this day.

Moscow may have been trying to persuade the "international community" that two wrongs had been inflicted on it. One was that Russia had been betrayed over the issue of enlargement by NATO in general, and the United States in particular. The other was that both the U.S. and NATO are inherently anti-Russian.

NATO did indeed expand, but it did so as a result of two pressures -- neither of which was American. The first pressure came from Germany, followed by allied -- but not American -- diplomatic and political pressure to bring additional countries into NATO. The second pressure came in the form of entreaties from newly independent states -- especially the Baltic States and Poland -- to be brought into the European Union. The alleged mistrust, if any, on both sides was probably totally mutual. Russia claimed that it did not trust an enlarging Western military alliance. And countries formerly in or near the Soviet Union evidently did not trust Russia to refrain from doing what it had done before, such as rolling Soviet tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Russian military aggression in Georgia in 2008.

U.S. support for the expansion of NATO came only after entreaties from Eastern Europe -- borne of earlier Russian aggression.

Other pressures that contributed to NATO's expansion included Germany's determination never again to be a front-line state, as it had been throughout the Cold War. Germany's territory had marked the easternmost border of NATO during the Cold War and as such would again be the country first at risk of being attacked by Russian artillery, tanks, or missiles if war erupted in the area.

In that respect, NATO enlargement served to create a welcome set of buffer NATO member states between Germany's eastern border and Russia.

In late 1993 came an additional push for NATO enlargement, led by Poland and other central European states. They were seeking to expand the membership in the European Union by admitting former Soviet bloc member states, some of which had already been seeking NATO membership as well.[3]

Their request had sprung from remarks made by Russian President Boris Yeltsin on August 23, 1993, when he conceded the right of former Soviet bloc members to join NATO. At a press conference in Warsaw, Yeltsin had admitted that NATO membership was a decision for Poland alone and not subject to a Russian veto. Yeltsin also signed a communiqué with Polish President Lech Walesa; it stated that Poland's well-known position on joining NATO was met with "understanding" by Russia, and did "not go against the interests of other states," including Russia.[4]

Although a subsequent hailstorm of Russian opposition eventually forced Yeltsin to "walk back" his remarks, Moscow -- however inadvertently -- had given a green light to NATO expansion.

It was then, in late 1993, that, despite many hesitations, NATO enlargement began in earnest.

By then, it was also apparent that in Russia, elements of democracy -- which the West had so hoped would be established after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union -- had failed to take root.

Yeltsin had forcibly suppressed challenges to his rule, and had already outlined a foreign policy advocating Russian hegemony and a right to intervene in the former Soviet republics[5] -- often referred to by Moscow as the "near abroad."

Yeltsin's new demands -- that former nations within the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union accept Moscow's political and military control -- had grown out of a draft of the 1992 Russian "foreign policy concept," which openly advocated Russian hegemony in the former USSR -- against the clear interests of its newly independent states.[6]

Seeing this fierce opposition from Moscow to NATO expansion, however, only propelled these newly independent states to seek NATO membership even more avidly, as protection from Russia's newly-declared hostile intentions toward their fledgling sovereignties.

They were apparently right. Since 1992, Moscow has never accepted the sovereignty or territorial integrity of its former republics. Instead, Moscow has steadily sought to create or exploit -- for its own benefit -- conflict situations in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh, in the Commonwealth of Independent States (a regional organization whose participating countries consist of former Soviet Republics), while also bringing constant pressure to bear on the Baltic states.[7]

Russia's invasion of Ukraine certainly justifies the newer NATO members' earlier fears of Russian aggression and subversion. Russia's invasion of Ukraine shows -- not only to them but the world -- that for Moscow, solemn treaties, of which there are at least six between Russia and Ukraine, constitute no more than scraps of waste paper.[8]

Further, members of the present Russian government never officially complained to the Obama Administration about NATO enlargement. Russia, in fact, by its silence, indicated that NATO enlargement was not on any agenda of Russian concerns.

One alternative to Russian objections to NATO expansion, of course, would have been to have Russia join NATO. But Russia never asked to join NATO. Doing so would have forced Moscow to subject elements of its national security and defense policy to international supervision -- presumably a deal-breaker from Moscow's point of view, even if NATO membership for Moscow had been on the table.

Instead, since the1990s, Russian spokesmen have advocated a bipolar structure for Europe. In this model, America would control NATO (implying that NATO members forfeited their independent sovereignty and were subject only to U.S. "diktats"), while Russia would lead the clearly non-sovereign Commonwealth of Independent States.

But this Russian proposition was unacceptable both to NATO and to other states, including Ukraine.[9]

Moscow has repeatedly, in both formal and informal government statements, objected to European integration, and the strengthening of the economic and military bonds between western and eastern Europe. Russia evidently sees any integration around democratic principles, and within the embrace of the European Union and NATO, as foreclosing Moscow's desired "imperial option": to have hegemonic control over its "near abroad."

The success of Russia's neo-imperialism, in turn, is critical to the legitimacy and durability of Russian President Vladimir Putin's despotism inside Russia. Putin has in many official Russian policy statements and speeches explicitly made Moscow's control over those countries the centerpiece of his security policy. He has repeatedly told Russians that Russia's very future depends upon Moscow reasserting control over those formerly Soviet states.

What is most revealing, however, is that Russia's actual military planning for its Crimean military operation may have begun as early as 2005 -- with the recruitment of Crimean youths for indoctrination in Moscow's Seliger camps. This recruitment in 2005 clearly had nothing to do with Russia's protestations -- a full nine years later, in 2014 -- of Kiev's alleged "mistreatment" of ethnic Russians, which Russia claimed was the trigger for its aggression. Dmitri Trenin, for instance, Director of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment, admitted that Russia's contingency planning for an invasion of Crimea had begun earlier. The date he gave was 2008, later than, but not inconsistent with, the recruitment of Crimean youths in 2005.

Last year, in 2014, Russia's military plans against Ukraine only intensified.[10] As Russia's operational planning for the invasion had to precede its actual invasion by months, if not years, military planning by Moscow had most likely begun at least as early as 2011-12, although concept planning may have started earlier, in 2005 or 2008.

Thus, even if NATO expansion truly angers Moscow, it could not have been the trigger for Moscow's aggression against Ukraine.

Moscow's actual concern, rather, seems to have been of an "Orange Revolution" inside Russia, similar to the revolutions inside Ukraine both in 2004 and 2013-14.

In Moscow's view, both "Orange Revolutions" in Ukraine, when they began, threatened to remove Moscow's pliant "partners" from Kiev, which of course the 2013-14 "revolution" eventually did.

More alarming for Russia, no doubt, was that the Ukraine revolution of 2013-14 was beginning to establish both a democracy and the people's voice in the political affairs of Ukraine. There was very likely concern in Moscow that these voices might become powerful enough to end Ukraine's ongoing financial corruption, as well as to instill in Russia's population the desire for a similar "new order" at home.

This move toward democracy may well have appeared to Putin as a significant threat to his rule. This myth-making by the Russians -- and also some in the West -- around NATO enlargement seems to be part of an effort to obscure an underlying fear in the Kremlin over the potential rise of democracy in Russia. This situation would certainly be inconsistent with what Putin has characterized as "the rule of the gun," and which Moscow itself uses to justify as its prerogative in enforcing Russia's "sphere of influence" over the newly independent states that were freed as a result of the end of the Cold War.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his "State of the Nation" address, December 4, 2014. (Image source: RT video screenshot)

In short, it was not NATO expansion that upset Putin, but rather fear that Russia's own people might begin to demand a democracy like that of their neighbors in Ukraine.

The idea of NATO enlargement as a betrayal of Russia's interest goes back at least to the hailstorm of opposition, noted earlier, that Yeltsin encountered in 1993.

Ironically, Russia now asserts such a hegemonic claim even at a time when America's Secretary of State has recently renounced the Monroe Doctrine, adopted in 1823, in which the U.S. warned European powers not to interfere with countries in North or South America, while the U.S. would refrain from to intervening in the affairs of Europe.

In short, Russia and its supporters' fabrications are now being used to justify serial Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, such Russian views may have given a false, superficial justification to anyone seeking to "excuse" Russia's aggression in Ukraine -- including to some in the West. In a PBS-supported documentary, for instance, Professor Stephen Cohen of New York University claims that, "When NATO expansion began in the 1990's, George P. Kennan... said, 'This is a terrible, reckless, stupid decision.'" Cohen also noted that, "Jack Matlock who was Reagan's ambassador to the Soviet Union and [former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail] Gorbachev... warned that the expansion of NATO eastward was going to lead to a 'new Cold War'," the very term used for previous Russian complaints about NATO expansion.[11]

At risk is world peace between the two largest nuclear superpowers -- and a recipe for potential disaster. As Putin's latest annual "State of the Nation" speech reveals, he is determined to hold onto Crimea, and to undermine the foundations of Ukrainian statehood. Putin asserted about these "activities," that Russia "does not ask permission". If these Russian moves are solely defensive, as Putin claimed in his speech to the Duma on March 18, 2014, one can only imagine what kind of Russian "defensive" Europe and the U.S. might face if Russia's aggression goes unpunished and its myth-making is allowed to stand.[12]

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington, D.C. Peter Huessy is a Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs, and at the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington, D.C.


[1] "Address by President of the Russian Federation," www.kremlin.ru, March 18, 2014; John J. Mearsheimer, "Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West's Fault," Foreign Affairs, September-October, 2014.

[2] Mary Elise Sarotte, "A Broken Promise?", Foreign Affairs, September-October, 2014; Mark Kramer, "The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia," The Washington Quarterly, XXXII, No. 2, April, 2009, pp. 39-61.

[3] Frank Schimmelfennig, The EU, NATO And the Integration of Europe: Rules, Rhetoric, and the Integration of Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 170-190; Chaya Arora, Germany's Civilian Power Diplomacy: NATO Expansion And the Art of Communicative Action, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 110-134

[4] Michael Mihalka, "Squaring the Circle: NATO's Offer to the East", RFE/RL Research Report, Vol.3, No.12, 25 March 1994, p. 2.

[5] Anne L. Clunan, The Social Construction of Russia's Resurgence: Aspirations, Identity And Security Interests, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, pp. 125-127; Fiona Hill and Pamela Jewett, BACK IN THE USSR: Russia's Intervention in the Internal Affairs Of the Former Soviet Republics and the Implications for United States Policy Toward Russia, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, January 1994, pp. 4-10

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stephen Blank, "The Values Gap Between Moscow and the West: the Sovereignty Issue," Acque et Terre, No. 6, 2007, pp. 9-14 (Italian), 90-95 (English); James Sherr, Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia's Influence Abroad: London: Chatham House, 2013, pp. 61-62; Susan Stewart, "The EU, Russia and Less Common Neighborhood, " SWP Comments, Stiftung Wissenschaft Und Politik, January, 2014, pp.2-3

[8] These treaties are the Tashkent Treaty of 1992 with other CIS members, the 1997, 2007, and 2010 treaties with Ukraine, and the 1994 Budapest Agreement with the U.S., UK, and Ukraine.

[9] Peter Huessy, heard this very proposal in January, 1996 at the Biennial Conference of European Security Institutions in Moscow and it has remained, albeit in different forms, a staple of Russian proposals ever since.

[10] Ben Judah, "Putin's Coup, How the Russian leader used the Ukraine crisis to consolidate his dictatorship." Politico Magazine, October 19, 2014; Also author's interview with Katarzyna Zysk, IFS, Oslo, November11, 2014, and Stephen Blank, "Russia and the Black Sea's Frozen Conflicts In Strategic Perspective," Mediterranean Quarterly, XIX, No., 3, Summer, 2008, pp. 23-54; Blank, "The Values Gap Between Moscow and the West: the Sovereignty Issue," pp. 9-14 (Italian), 90-95 (English).

[11] Jack Matlock was Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987-91 during both the administration's of President Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush. The Cohen quotes are from the 1996 film "Russia Betrayed," funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, narrated by Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton; see also "NATO's games with Ukraine bring world to 5 minutes before nuclear midnight - Stephen Cohen," RT (Russia Today), October 10, 2014.

[12] "Address by the President of the Russian Federation", www.kremlin.ru, March 18, 2014. See also "Putin, Amid Stark Challenges, Says Russian Destiny Is in Hand," by Neil MacFarguharae, The New York Times, December 4, 2014.

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