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What Putin Fears Most

Forget his excuses. Russia’s autocrat doesn’t worry about NATO. What terrifies him is the prospect of a flourishing Ukrainian democracy.

By Robert Person and Michael McFaul

February 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has begun. Russian president Vladimir Putin wants you to believe that it’s NATO’s fault. He frequently has claimed (including again in an address to the nation as this invasion commenced) that NATO expansion — not 190,000 Russian soldiers and sailors mobilized on Ukraine’s borders — is the central driver of this crisis. Following John Mearsheimer’s provocative 2014 Foreign Affairs article arguing that “the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault,” the narrative of Russian backlash against NATO expansion has become a dominant framework for explaining — if not justifying — Moscow’s ongoing war against Ukraine. This notion has been repeated by politicians, analysts, and writers in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Multiple rounds of enlargement, they argue, exacerbated Russia’s sense of insecurity as NATO forces crept closer to Russia’s borders, finally provoking Putin to lash out violently, first by invading Georgia in 2008, then Ukraine in 2014, and now a second, likely far larger, invasion of Ukraine today. By this telling, the specter of Ukraine’s NATO membership points both to the cause of the conflict and its solution: take membership off the table for Ukraine, so the argument goes, and war will be prevented.

This argument has two flaws, one about history and one about Putin’s thinking. First, NATO expansion has not been a constant source of tension between Russia and the West, but a variable. Over the last thirty years, the salience of the issue has risen and fallen not primarily because of the waves of NATO expansion, but due instead to waves of democratic expansion in Eurasia. In a very clear pattern, Moscow’s complaints about NATO spike after democratic breakthroughs. While the tragic invasions and occupations of Georgia and Ukraine have secured Putin a de facto veto over their NATO aspirations, since the alliance would never admit a country under partial occupation by Russian forces, this fact undermines Putin’s claim that the current invasion is aimed at NATO membership. He has already blocked NATO expansion for all intents and purposes, thereby revealing that he wants something far more significant in Ukraine today: the end of democracy and the return of subjugation.

This reality highlights the second flaw: Because the primary threat to Putin and his autocratic regime is democracy, not NATO, that perceived threat would not magically disappear with a moratorium on NATO expansion. Putin would not stop seeking to undermine democracy and sovereignty in Ukraine, Georgia, or the region as whole if NATO stopped expanding. As long as citizens in free countries exercise their democratic rights to elect their own leaders and set their own course in domestic and foreign politics, Putin will keep them in his crosshairs.

How We Got Here

To be sure, NATO and NATO expansion have always been sources of tension in U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian relations. Two decades ago, one of us coauthored (with James Goldgeier) a book on U.S-Russia relations, Power and Purpose, that includes a chapter called “NATO is a Four-Letter Word.” To varying degrees, Kremlin leaders Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Putin, and Dmitri Medvedev have expressed concerns about the expansion of the alliance.

Since its founding in 1949, NATO has kept its door open to new members who meet the criteria for admission. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, no one should be surprised that countries formerly annexed, subjugated, and invaded by the Soviet Union might seek closer security ties to the West. The United States and other NATO allies have worked hard not to deny the aspirations of those newly free societies while also partnering with Russia on European and other security issues. They sometimes had success; sometimes not.

Many of those who blame the current Ukraine conflict on NATO overlook the fact that in the thirty years that have elapsed since the end of the Cold War, Moscow’s rejection of NATO expansion has veered in different directions at different times.

When President Boris Yeltsin agreed to sign the Russia-NATO Founding Act in 1997, Russia and the alliance codified into this agreement a comprehensive agenda of cooperation. At the signing ceremony Yeltsin declared, “What is also very important is that we are creating the mechanisms for consultations and cooperation between Russia and the Alliance. And this will enable us — on a fair, egalitarian basis — to discuss, and when need be, pass joint decisions on major issues relating to security and stabilities, those issues and those areas which touch upon our interests.”

In 2000 while visiting London, Putin, then serving as acting Russian president, even suggested that Russia could join NATO someday: “Why not? Why not … I do not rule out such a possibility… in the case that Russia’s interests will be reckoned with, if it will be an equal partner. Russia is a part of European culture, and I do not consider my own country in isolation from Europe … Therefore, it is with difficulty that I imagine NATO as an enemy.” Why would Putin want to join an alliance allegedly threatening Russia?

After September 11, 2001, Presidents Bush and Putin forged a close, cooperative relationship to fight a common enemy, terrorism. At the time, Putin was focused on cooperation with NATO, not confrontation. The only time the alliance has ever invoked Article 5 on collective defense was to support a NATO intervention in Afghanistan, an action that Putin supported at the UN Security Council. He then followed up this diplomatic support with concrete military assistance for the alliance.

During his November 2001 visit to the United States, Putin struck a realistic but cooperative note: “we differ in the ways and means we perceive that are suitable for reaching the same objective… [But] one can rest assured that whatever final solution is found, it will not threaten … the interests of both our countries and of the world.” In an interview that month, Putin declared, “Russia acknowledges the role of NATO in the world of today, Russia is prepared to expand its cooperation with this organization. And if we change the quality of the relationship, if we change the format of the relationship between Russia and NATO, then I think NATO enlargement will cease to be an issue — will no longer be a relevant issue.”

When NATO announced in 2002 its plan for a major wave of expansion that would include three former Soviet republics — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — Putin barely reacted. He certainly did not threaten to invade any of the countries to keep them out of NATO. Asked specifically in late 2001 whether he opposed the Baltic states’ membership in NATO, he stated, “We of course are not in a position to tell people what to do. We cannot forbid people to make certain choices if they want to increase the security of their nations in a particular way.”

Putin even maintained the same attitude when it was a question of Ukraine someday entering the Atlantic Alliance. In May 2002, when asked for his views on the future of Ukraine’s relations with NATO, Putin dispassionately replied, “I am absolutely convinced that Ukraine will not shy away from the processes of expanding interaction with NATO and the Western allies as a whole. Ukraine has its own relations with NATO; there is the Ukraine-NATO Council. At the end of the day, the decision is to be taken by NATO and Ukraine. It is a matter for those two partners.”

A decade later, under President Medvedev, Russia and NATO were cooperating once again. At the 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, Medvedev declared, the “period of distance in our relations and claims against each other is over now. We view the future with optimism and will work on developing relations between Russia and NATO in all areas … [as they progress toward] a full-fledged partnership.” At that summit, he even floated the possibility of Russia-NATO cooperation on missile defense. Complaints about NATO expansion never arose.

From the end of the Cold War until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO in Europe was drawing down resources and forces, not building up. Even while expanding membership, NATO’s military capacity in Europe was much greater in the 1990s than in the 2000s. During this same period, Putin was spending significant resources to modernize and expand Russia’s conventional forces deployed in Europe. The balance of power between NATO and Russia was shifting in favor of Moscow.

These episodes of substantive Russia-NATO cooperation undermine the argument that NATO expansion has always and continuously been the driver of Russia’s confrontation with the West over the last thirty years. The historical record simply does not support the thesis that an expanding NATO bears sole blame for Russian antagonism with the West and Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014. Rather, we must look elsewhere to understand the genuine source of Putin’s hostility to Ukraine and its Western partners.

Putin’s True Fear

The more serious cause of tensions has been a series of democratic breakthroughs and popular protests for freedom throughout the 2000s, what many refer to as the “Color Revolutions.” Putin believes that Russian national interests have been threatened by what he portrays as U.S.-supported coups. After each of them — Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, the Arab Spring in 2011, Russia in 2011–12, and Ukraine in 2013–14 — Putin has pivoted to more hostile policies toward the United States, and then invoked the NATO threat as justification for doing so.

Boris Yeltsin never supported NATO expansion but acquiesced to the first round of expansion in 1997 because he believed his close ties to President Bill Clinton and the United States were not worth sacrificing over this comparatively smaller matter. Through Partnership for Peace and especially the NATO-Russia Founding Act, Clinton and his team made a considerable effort to keep US-Russian relations positive while at the same time managing NATO expansion. The 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo severely tested that strategy but survived in part because Clinton gave Yeltsin and Russia a role in the negotiated solution. When the first post-communist color revolution overthrew Slobodan Milosevic a year later, Russia’s new president, Putin, deplored the act but did not overreact. At that time, he still entertained the possibility of cooperation with the West, including NATO.

However, the next round of democratic expansion in the post-Soviet world, the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, escalated U.S.-Russian tensions significantly. Putin blamed the United States directly for assisting in this democratic breakthrough and helping to install what he saw as a pro-American puppet, President Mikheil Saakashvili. Immediately after the Rose Revolution, Putin sought to undermine Georgian democracy, ultimately invading in 2008 and recognizing two Georgian regions — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — as independent states. U.S.-Russian relations reached a new low point in 2008.

A year after the Rose Revolution, the most consequential democratic expansion in the post-Soviet world erupted in Ukraine in 2004, the Orange Revolution. In the years prior to that momentous event, Ukraine’s foreign-policy orientation under President Leonid Kuchma was relatively balanced between east and west, but with gradually improving ties between Kyiv and Moscow. That changed when a falsified presidential election in late 2004 brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians into the streets, eventually sweeping away Kuchma’s — and Putin’s — handpicked successor, Viktor Yanukovych. Instead, the prodemocratic and pro-western Orange Coalition led by President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko took power.

Compared to Serbia in 2000 or Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 was a much larger threat to Putin. First, the Orange Revolution occurred suddenly and in a much bigger and more strategic country on Russia’s border. The abrupt pivot to the West by Yushchenko and his allies left Putin facing the prospect that he had “lost” a country on which he placed tremendous symbolic and strategic importance.

To Putin, the Orange Revolution undermined a core objective of his grand strategy: to establish a privileged and exclusive sphere of influence across the territory that once comprised the Soviet Union. Putin believes in spheres of influence; that as a great power, Russia has a right to veto the sovereign political decisions of its neighbors. Putin also demands exclusivity in his neighborhood: Russia can be the only great power to exercise such privilege (or even develop close ties) with these countries. This position has hardened significantly since Putin’s conciliatory position of 2002 as Russia’s influence in Ukraine has waned and Ukraine’s citizens have repeatedly signaled their desire to escape from Moscow’s grasp. Subservience was now required. As Putin explained in a recent historical article, in his view Ukrainians and Russians “were one people” whom he is seeking to reunite, even if through coercion. For Putin, therefore, the loss of Ukraine in 2004 to the West marked a major negative turning point in U.S.-Russian relations that was far more salient than the second wave of NATO expansion that was completed the same year.

Second, those Ukrainians who rose up in defense of their freedom were, in Putin’s own assessment, Slavic brethren with close historical, religious, and cultural ties to Russia. If it could happen in Kyiv, why not in Moscow? Several years later, it almost did happen in Russia when a series of mass protests erupted in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities in the wake of fraudulent parliamentary elections in December 2011. They were the largest protests in Russia since 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. For the first time in his decade-plus in power, ordinary Russians showed themselves to have both the will and the capability to threaten Putin’s grip on power. That popular uprising in Russia, occurring the same year as the Arab Spring, and then followed with Putin’s return to the Kremlin as president for a third term in 2012, marked another major negative turn in U.S.-Russian relations, ending the reset launched by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in 2009. Democratic mobilization, first the Middle East and then Russia — not NATO expansion — ended this last chapter of U.S.-Russian cooperation. There have been no new chapters of cooperation since.

But U.S.-Russian relations deteriorated ever further in 2014, again because of new democratic expansion. The next democratic mobilization to threaten Putin happened a second time in Ukraine in 2013–14. After the Orange Revolution in 2004, Putin did not invade Ukraine, but wielded other instruments of influence to help his protégé, Viktor Yanukovych, narrowly win the Ukrainian presidency six years later. Yanukovych, however, turned out not to be a loyal Kremlin servant, but tried to cultivate ties with both Russia and the West. Putin finally compelled Yanukovych to make a choice, and the Ukrainian president chose Russia in the fall of 2013 when he reneged on signing an EU association agreement in favor of membership in Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.

To the surprise of everyone in Moscow, Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington, Yanukovych’s decision to scuttle this agreement with the EU triggered mass demonstrations in Ukraine again, bringing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians into the streets in what would become known as the Euromaidan or “Revolution of Dignity” to protest Yanukovych’s turn away from the democratic West. The street protests lasted several weeks, punctuated by the killing of dozens of peaceful protestors by Yanukovych’s government, the eventual collapse of that government and Yanukovych’s flight to Russia in February 2014, and a new pro-Western government taking power in Kyiv. Putin had “lost” Ukraine for the second time in a decade.

This time, Putin struck back with military force to punish the alleged American-backed, neo-Nazi usurpers in Kyiv. Russian armed forces seized Crimea; Moscow later annexed the Ukrainian peninsula. Putin also provided money, equipment, and soldiers to back separatists in eastern Ukraine, fueling a simmering war in Donbas for eight years, in which approximately 14,000 people have been killed. After invading, not before, Putin amped up his criticisms of NATO expansion as justification for his belligerent actions.

In response to this second Ukrainian democratic revolution, Putin concluded that cooption through elections and other nonmilitary means had to be augmented with greater coercive pressure, including military intervention. Since the Revolution of Dignity, Putin has waged an unprecedented war against Ukraine using a full spectrum of military, political, informational, social, and economic weapons in an attempt to destabilize and eventually topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government. Ukraine’s relationship with NATO and the United States is just a symptom of what Putin believes is the underlying disease: a sovereign, democratic Ukraine.

Putin’s Real Casus Belli: Ukrainian Democracy

Amazingly, eight years of unrelenting Russian pressure did not break Ukraine’s democracy. Just the opposite. After Putin’s annexation and ongoing support for the war in Donbas, Ukrainians are now more united across ethnic, linguistic, and regional divides than at any other point in Ukrainian history. In 2019, President Volodymyr Zelensky won in a landslide, winning popular support in every region of Ukraine. Not surprisingly, Putin’s war also has fueled greater popular support among Ukrainians for joining NATO.

So now, Putin has decided on a new strategy for ending Ukrainian democracy: massive military intervention. Putin claims that his purpose is to stop NATO expansion. But that’s a fiction. Nothing in the past year in Ukraine-NATO relations has changed. It is true Ukraine aspires to join NATO someday. (The goal is even embedded in the Ukrainian constitution.) But while NATO leaders have remained committed to the principle of an open-door policy, they have also clearly stated that Ukraine today is not qualified to join. Putin’s casus belli is his own invention.

Putin has fabricated this crisis about NATO expansion to undermine Ukrainian democracy even more directly. Already, the Russian military mobilization on Ukraine’s borders has triggered significant damage to the Ukrainian economy and fueled new divisions among Ukraine’s political parties over how Zelensky has handled the crisis. Some argue that Zelensky should have created a new grand coalition or unity government; others lament his alleged inadequate preparations for war. And some contend that Zelensky showed his diplomatic inexperience by arguing with U.S. president Joe Biden about the probability of a Russian invasion at a time when unity with the West is most needed. In other words, Putin’s military mobilization already achieved some early successes in his war against Ukrainian democracy.

Paradoxically, Putin’s use of force may have strengthened Ukrainian democracy in the short term. His decision to invade Ukraine by sending Russian forces into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (still recognized as sovereign Ukrainian territory under international law) has united Ukrainians and strengthened Zelensky’s popularity and image as a leader of the nation. But the long-term survival of Ukraine’s democracy hangs in the balance, and Putin’s bellicose rhetoric suggests that Moscow’s assault is just beginning. A blitzkrieg invasion and rapid encirclement of Kyiv could result in Zelensky’s forcible removal from power. New elections held at gunpoint could deliver the desired government, just as they did in post–World War II Eastern Europe in the shadow of Soviet tanks. It is too early to predict the outcome. But Putin’s objective is clear.

Putin may dislike NATO expansion, but he is not genuinely frightened by it. Russia has the largest army in Europe, now much more capable after two decades of lavish spending. NATO is a defensive alliance. It has never attacked the Soviet Union or Russia, and it never will. Putin knows that. But Putin is threatened by a successful democracy in Ukraine. He cannot tolerate a successful, flourishing, and democratic Ukraine on his borders, especially if the Ukrainian people also begin to prosper economically. That undermines the Kremlin’s own regime stability and proposed rationale for autocratic state leadership. Just as Putin cannot allow the will of the Russian people to guide Russia’s future, he cannot allow the people of Ukraine, who have a shared culture and history, to choose the prosperous, independent, and free future that they have voted for and fought for.

Though the chance of deescalation is remote, further negotiations and the threat of sanctions could still — in theory — prevent a Russian invasion beyond Ukraine’s Donbas region in the coming days or weeks. But regardless of where Putin finally orders his troops to halt — be it Luhansk and Donetsk or Kharkiv, Odessa, Kyiv, or Lviv — the Kremlin will remain committed to undermining Ukrainian (and Georgian, Moldovan, Armenian, etc.) democracy and sovereignty for as long as Putin remains in power and maybe longer if Russian autocracy continues. Tragically, George Kennan’s warning in his 1947 Foreign Affairs article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” still holds true today:

“[The] Kremlin is under no ideological compulsion to accomplish its purposes in a hurry … Here caution, circumspection, flexibility and deception are the valuable qualities … And being under the compulsion of no timetable, it does not get panicky under the necessity for such retreat. Its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal.”

There should be no illusions about Putin’s long-term strategic goal of stopping democratic expansion, in Ukraine and the rest of the region.

Robert Person is an associate professor of international relations at the United States Military Academy and director of West Point’s International Affairs curriculum. He is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a faculty affiliate at West Point’s Modern War Institute. His next book, Russia’s Grand Strategy in the 21st Century is forthcoming from the Brookings Press (2023). His Twitter is @RTPerson3. Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, is professor of political science at Stanford University, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book is From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (2018).

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect the official position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or United States Government.


Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images




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