Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
We at Foreign Affairs have recently published a number of articles examining the extent to which the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is the West's fault. Those articles sparked a heated debate, so we decided to ask a broader pool of experts to state whether they agree or disagree with the following statement and to rate their confidence level about that answer.
The West provoked Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression in Russia's near abroad by expanding NATO and the EU after the Cold War.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10
War is a continuation of politics by other means, and Russia’s war on Ukraine is no exception. It is hard for anyone closely watching Russia’s domestic political and economic dynamics in the past few years—especially since the 2008–9 crisis, the 2011–12 anti-regime demonstrations in over 80 of Russia’s largest cities, the tenor of Putin’s 2012 reelection campaign, and the authoritarian consolidation that followed—not to see the Ukrainian escapade as an epiphenomenon of the regime’s domestic strategic direction. With foreign policy and Russia’s great power status increasingly key to Putin’s popularity (and thus to the regime’s legitimacy), it is difficult to see how the Kremlin could have tolerated a Europe-bound Ukraine. 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.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 8 Russia, no doubt, was threatened by the possible “defection” of a major state in what Russia defines as its zone of influence, but it was also afraid of the diffusion of popular protests from Ukraine to Russia. However, anger about EU and NATO expansion and the Kosovo precedent, together with fears about diffusion, do not by any means justify Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.
Ivo H. Daalder
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 In the 1990 Charter of Paris, Russia accepted that all European nations are free to choose their alliances—a fundamental precept of the post–Cold War European security order. Russia did not oppose NATO enlargement in 1990 (to East Germany), in 1999 (to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary), in 2004 (to the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia), and in 2009 (Albania and Croatia).
Disagree, Confidence Level 7 Russia is concerned about the extension of U.S. power and influence to its immediate borders, particularly to areas that it considers historically Russian. Even if NATO and the EU did not exist, the presence of anti-Russian governments tied to the United States there would be considered a threat that Russian policymakers would work to counter—through economic pressure, covert action, and, if necessary, direct military confrontation.
Disagree, Confidence Level 10 I am taken aback by the question, which uses Kremlin terminology. What the hell is “near abroad”? Ukraine is a sovereign country, as separate from Russia as, say, Finland. Incidentally, if Finland chose to join NATO, I bet we would be talking about it in terms of Finland’s choice, not NATO’s expansionism. And so have the 45 million people of the sovereign state of Ukraine, who sought the support and protection of Western powers, which have failed to protect them from Russian aggression.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 This is the wrong question to ask. Expansion of NATO and the EU would not have been a problem if Russia were on track to join both organizations, for instance. The problems have arisen from the incompatibility of promising Russia a substantive “voice” in both organizations as they expanded, while simultaneously assuring new members that Russia would have no effective influence and certainly no “veto” over them.
Disagree, Confidence Level 9 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. NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999 played more of a role in shaping Putin’s views about NATO’s intentions than the expansion did. The so-called color revolutions, Western support for regime change during the events of the Arab Spring, and Putin’s perceptions of Western involvement in fueling the protests in Russia in 2011–12 as well as in Ukraine in 2013 were also key factors. Putin’s actions in the near abroad are the result of a complex set of foreign policy and domestic drivers.
Agree, Confidence Level 9 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.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 9 Russian revision of the 1991 settlement would likely have happened even without extreme NATO expansion. Great powers often revise the status quo when they can.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8 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.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 This is a more complex issue than the question implies. 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. The cause was a combination of U.S. and EU actions in the February phase of the Ukrainian crisis and Putin’s miscalculations about the opportunity that the rebellion in the Eastern Ukrainian provinces represented for Russia.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 10 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. Putin has exploited and capitalized on that sense to justify his aggressive foreign policies toward the near abroad. Even without NATO expansion, Russia would not be a model democracy, but the default option for Russian foreign policy would not be anti-Western and anti-American. And Putin, or whoever was leading Russia, would find it much more difficult to whip up popular and elite support for the kind of policy he is following in Ukraine.
Disagree, Confidence Level 10 The West did indeed provoke a sense of betrayal and wounded Russian pride by expanding NATO and the EU. This background mood explains why the Russian public accepts Putin’s actions. But the choices he made are his and his alone. There is no evidence that Russian political leaders have actually believed that Russian security is threatened by NATO or EU expansion; indeed, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov explicitly accepted expansion in signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Putin has used NATO expansion as an excuse for actions that have bolstered his own goals of making Russia a great military power once more, as well as making himself a place in history for achieving it.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10
John J. Mearsheimer
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 9 Russian leaders and elites made it clear from the mid-1990s forward that they viewed NATO expansion as a serious threat and a violation of a tacit bargain made at the end of the Cold War. Putin and other Russian leaders were especially exercised when NATO announced in April 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join NATO; they warned it would lead to a crisis. Indeed it helped cause the Russia-Georgia War in August 2008. Yet Western leaders foolishly continued to pursue NATO and EU expansion, and that eventually led to the present crisis.
Sarah E. Mendelson
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 The statement is biased as written (the term “near abroad” is problematic, for example).
Alexander J. Motyl
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 All such claims are based on the usually implicit assumption that Putin was paranoid, aggressive, and imperialist to begin with. In other words, such claims assume what they purport to demonstrate. That’s bad reasoning.
Mitchell A. Orenstein
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 8
Cynthia A. Roberts
Disagree, Confidence Level 7 Russia seeks to be the regional hegemon and is willing to use its partially modernized military to assert its claims. The West made policy errors and should have anticipated the geopolitical consequences of expanding into the former USSR.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8 Annoyed him? Sure. But people don’t invade other countries because they’re annoyed.
Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson
Agree, Confidence Level 7 A significant portion of recent developments in Ukraine and U.S.-Russian relations in general may be the result of a spiral. All other things being equal, major states prefer to keep other major states at arms-length (physically)—they prefer not to have other major players on or near their borders. NATO expansion since the mid-1990s, although understandable due to post–Cold War power dynamics, may have left Russia feeling betrayed (in light of Western pledges in1990) and isolated writ large. We can criticize it, but we should not be surprised that Russia acted as it did when it looked as if Ukraine might be lost as a buffer zone between Russia and the West (and perhaps even join NATO or the EU outright). With Russia already fearing encirclement, Ukraine’s loss would have left Russia even more isolated and confronted with Western power at its front door. Western actions since the mid-1990s may not have provoked Russian actions, but they helped set the stage on which Putin deemed action in Ukraine reasonable and in its self-interest.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 Without NATO/EU expansion, Putin would probably have chosen to continue to manipulate and dominate Ukraine without a military invasion.
Disagree, Confidence Level 10 The West should have worked harder in the 1990s to create a Euro-Atlantic security architecture in which Russia had a stake. But the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had every right to join NATO and the EU after being under Russian/Soviet domination for decades or even centuries. Russia made little effort to come to terms with its lost empire. Is it entitled to dominate these countries forever?
Disagree, Confidence Level 8 If this were Russia’s true reason for grabbing Crimea, then why did it not act strongly ten years ago or at least closer to the time when NATO expanded? The EU is not a military alliance and Ukraine was merely pursuing closer trade ties. NATO will not expand into Ukraine or further East. NATO expansion took place 20 years ago and it is hard to argue this is a clear trigger for Russia’s actions. Putin has a vision of Russia as a rising superpower and wants to assert Russian dominance in this sphere of influence. He overlooks the fact, however, that his neighbors are sovereign states and have been so for two decades.
Neutral, Confidence Level 1 NATO expansion did not make Putin’s actions inevitable. And Putin might have acted similarly even without NATO expansion. But NATO expansion—especially given the way that it was done—increased the odds of Putin (or any other Russian leader in his place) taking some action aimed at increasing Russian control in its “near abroad.” Noting this does not, however, in any way justify Putin’s actions, as is sometimes implied. It does not make the West in any way responsible or to blame for Putin’s actions. And that is why the use of the word “provoked” is problematic. It suggests (a) that NATO and EU expansion were the only causes and were sufficient in themselves and (b) that Putin may have been in some sense justified because of the West’s actions, or that the West “shares the blame.” Neither is the case. Had the survey statement been “The West increased the odds of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in....” I would have strongly agreed, with level of certainty 8. Given the question’s actual wording, I agree with some of the implications of the sentence and disagree with others, so I choose “neutral” and low confidence.
Agree, Confidence Level 9 The root cause of the present crisis is the failure of the West to integrate Russia into a common security system. The mistake made after World War I and avoided after World War II with regard to Germany, was made again.
Stephen M. Walt
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 9 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. Expanding NATO increased the alliance’s defense burden without making it stronger, and made friction between East and West more likely. On balance, it was a strategic error.
William C. Wohlforth
Neutral, Confidence Level 8 What provoked Russia to move so dramatically was potential expansion to Ukraine rather than the earlier expansion as implied by the question. I think if the West drew the line at the Baltics, it would likely have been OK.