NATO’s international credibility rapidly deteriorated since the end of the Cold War, and its reactions to Russia’s aggression is hardly a reassurance to Kiev.
In perhaps the most powerful statement since the start of the Russian assault on Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “What we have heard today are not just missile blasts, fighting and the rumble of aircrafts.”
“It is the sound of a new iron curtain which has come down and is closing Russia off from the civilised world,” he said, referring to the Cold War division of Europe between “east” influenced by Russia, and “west” influenced by the United States through NATO.
But this is no longer the Cold War, and both the US and NATO have seen their fortunes and credibility slide in recent decades while Russia has been reasserting itself under the leadership of Vladimir Putin who, and without hyperbole, is establishing himself as the latest tsar in Moscow.
American hubris and the liberal world order
While many have expressed shock at the seemingly sudden assault on Ukraine by Russian forces, this conflict did not occur in a vacuum and has, in fact, been brewing for decades.
At the end of the Cold War and the iconic destruction of the last Iron Curtain – including the Berlin Wall – a victorious West led by the United States emerged and began to create a new world order based on liberalism without any opposition.
Seeing themselves as invincible and untouchable after having defeated Soviet Russia’s communist ideological system all while containing the threat of its vast nuclear arsenal, the West proceeded to expand NATO, the mutual defence military alliance they had relied upon throughout the Cold War to contain Moscow’s ambitions. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined in 1999, followed by a whole host of Eastern European countries who had once been in Russia’s orbit.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, NATO’s steady expansion eastwards, despite the end of the Cold War and Russia’s defeat, was the international relations equivalent of kicking a man while he was down. To make matters worse, NATO had an “open door” policy for Ukraine – right on Russia’s border – to join the military alliance, which was a red line for Russia and was repeatedly expressed as such by the Kremlin. Not that anybody in the West was listening.
It is this “liberal delusion” that led Putin to take action to ensure the Kremlin’s concerns were listened to. While Russia may have been defeated, it still perceived itself as having all the trappings of a great power and would not be denied this status.
Putin’s military adventures first began domestically with his successful attempts to get the Russian house in order by being the architect behind the smashing of the resistance of the rebels in Chechnya. Chechnya showed the lengths Putin was prepared to go to in order to establish Russian dominance in a new era in which his country had been repeatedly humiliated.
While the West cannot be blamed for events in Chechnya, they can certainly be blamed for what came after and for failing to halt Putin’s aggression.
Western failures ensured Ukraine’s crisis
As European powers allowed their military capabilities to atrophy and took part in their own illegal wars, Putin was busy planning the next phase of his legacy. Just months after the April 2008 Bucharest Summit in which it was decided that Georgia would accede to NATO’s ranks, the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion of Georgia under the pretext of protecting Russian citizens, and recognised the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics.
Critically, however, the Russian move also halted Georgian accession to NATO. For Putin, the pattern was therefore established, and the ultimate stage for Ukraine was set. Any proximate threat to Russia’s borders by further NATO expansion in former Soviet republics would be met with force.
Moscow’s success in Georgia in 2008 and relatively little international backlash from NATO or otherwise emboldened Putin, who established Russian bases where NATO planned to be. In 2014, in an attempt to replicate his success in Georgia while indicating to the West that they ought to back away from dragging Ukraine into their orbit, Putin launched an invasion of Crimea in Ukraine’s south and annexed it in 2014, again claiming ethnic Russians wanted an intervention.
Once more, aside from condemnation and some sanctions (which Russia shrugged off and its economy grew regardless), nothing happened. This should have set alarm bells ringing in Kiev about Western weakness and fecklessness in the face of Russian aggression, but repeated American promises of support kept the pro-Western government on the same trajectory.
The final blow for NATO’s international credibility came in 2015 when Turkey, a full-fledged NATO member since 1952, was abandoned repeatedly by its allies.
The US and other NATO members began to remove Patriot air defence missile batteries from Turkish soil, and only a few weeks later, Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 that had breached its air sovereignty.
Rather than stand behind their ally, NATO countries had the temerity to say that Ankara was on its own in any conflict with Russia.
As such, NATO has become little more than a paper tiger.
The immediate American response to the impending invasion of Ukraine was to redeploy forces to Poland and other Eastern European countries – hardly a sign that NATO intended to defend Ukraine. Recent NATO deployments can be understood as a reassurance to current members of this very exclusive club, rather than peripheral allies like Ukraine, who are not yet members.
Meanwhile, both the United States and the United Kingdom have repeatedly been boasting on Twitter about how their intelligence operations uncovered the Kremlin’s invasion plans. Good intelligence is useless if not acted upon, so it is a wonder they are bragging at all, especially as Westminster has now declared that British and NATO forces must not get involved militarily in Ukraine in case a “miscalculation” turns nuclear Russia into an “existential” threat to the West.
While all this is happening, China will be watching the West’s response to the Ukraine crisis keenly. Beijing has long desired to fold Taiwan back into the Chinese sphere and it is likely that the West’s failure to stop a new Iron Curtain descending over Ukraine will have repercussions far beyond Europe and into other strategic theatres. When the US-led world order begins to unravel, the West will have no one but themselves to blame.
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