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Ukraine crisis: how Putin is feeding on anger over NATO’s eastward expansion

IIt has been more than 13 years since the NATO summit in Bucharest, the meeting that agreed the Western alliance wanted the former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia to join. But in many ways, the legacy of that April 2008 meeting — the last attended by Vladimir Putin — hangs over the crisis in Ukraine.

George W. Bush arrived in an expansionist, post-Cold War mindset, pushing for Ukraine and Georgia to get a roadmap to NATO membership. Granting them a so-called membership action plan would allow the two countries to follow a string of former Eastern Bloc states that had joined since 1999.

However, Putin addressed the assembled leaders at the beginning of the meeting, describing one such move: as a “immediate threat” to Russian security. “I remember clearly saying to Angela Merkel and Bush, ‘Ukraine is not a real country to me,'” said Jamie Shea, who spent 38 years in NATO.

Putin’s language led to a partial withdrawal – and a problematic compromise.

“There was furious bickering with Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy [the then French president] and the result was that Ukraine would get membership in the future, but there would be no membership action plan, no fixed date to join NATO,” Shea said.

NATO new member states

As a result, the issue was allowed to linger, with NATO and its members not being fully committed to Ukraine. “I was actually there,” NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said during a press appearance with Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, last week. “We stand behind that decision.”

But the half-promise remains an open wound for Russia’s long-serving leader, obsessed with its long pre-1991 history as one of the two nations. “I am convinced that real sovereignty of Ukraine is only possible in cooperation with Russia,” Putin wrote in a historical essay released by the Kremlin in July. “For we are one people.”

During this winter’s crisis, Russia has gathered an estimated 100,000 troops in northern, eastern and southern Ukraine, leading NATO allies to fear invasion and conflict “on a scale not seen since World War II” said the new head of the British government. the armed forces, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin. But in the past week, the attention-seeking Kremlin has turned into a series of diplomatic demands.

Russia presented a draft security treaty to the US before it is made public. Under the terms, the US must prevent Ukraine and Georgia and other former Soviet states from joining NATO. It also urges the US not to establish military bases or even engage in “bilateral military cooperation” with Ukraine or any other non-NATO, former Soviet state — an attempt to delineate a clearly defined Russian sphere of influence.

A Russian soldier participates in exercises in the Rostov region near the border with Ukraine. Photo: AP

Such an idea is clearly controversial, especially in Eastern Europe, where memories of communist rule linger. “Russia has proposed” two draft treaties on December 17 outline the creation of a two-tiered Europe – one with the right to defend itself against Russian interference, while the other must accept Russian supremacy as a new geopolitical reality,” wrote Orysia Lutsevych, an analyst at the Chatham House think tank, in a recent newspaper.

Other experts argue that NATO has become overconfident. Joshua Shifrinson, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University, said the US and the west “have become less sensitive to Russian concerns in the great magnitude of relations after the Cold War,” losing sight of the idea that the Kremlin is also vital. interests.

He added: “Russia does not want other political groups to be present near their homeland. That is not difficult to understand. Imagine if China were to form an alliance with Canada. Powerful states do not want other powers to form alliances near their borders.”

Shifrinson, a historian, said US and German strategists had given “very clear signals” at the end of the Cold War that NATO would not expand further east if Germany were allowed to reunite. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, this sphere of influence quickly fell away as Russia struggled as an independent country and a series of Eastern Bloc countries joined NATO and the EU.

Critics of this mindset argue that NATO’s recent support to Ukraine has been too limited in any case. “It is a lack of determined action in the past that has taught Russia that it is” [can] upgrade and dismantle a crisis whenever they want,” said William Alberque, a former US NATO official and now director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. “Russia has full momentum in the current crisis,” he added, while the US and NATO have agreed to meet with Kremlin diplomats in the new year.

Ukraine has already had to weather the 2014 war, when Russia captured Crimea and helped create a crisis that led to separatists taking control of the eastern Donbas region, where an unresolved, low-intensity conflict has taken place. claimed the lives of an estimated 14,000. NATO allies have responded with steady but modest military support since 2014.

Ukrainian soldiers launch US-supplied Javelin missile during military exercises in Donetsk . region
Ukrainian soldiers launch a US-supplied Javelin missile during military exercises in the Donetsk region. Photo: AP

A hundred US military trainers are located in the west of the country, far from the front line. Washington has provided $2.5 billion in military aid, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, since Russia’s capture of Crimea, part of a gradual strategy to modernize Kiev’s armed forces and officially foreshadows Ukraine’s path to NATO membership.

More irritating for the Kremlin was the purchase of Kiev of at least six euros TB2 drones from Turkey, whose effectiveness against Russian-made armor was demonstrated in last year’s brief Nagorno-Karabakh war when it was used by Azerbaijan against Armenia. While deploying the drones, Putin told his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a telephone conversation in early December: was “provocative”.

NATO repeatedly emphasizes that it poses no military threat to Russia. Earlier this month, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said it was “highly unlikely” that Western troops would be sent to defend Ukraine if attacked.

But Shifrinson said that even if the West believed it was acting leniently, it needed to better understand how his actions were perceived. “Moscow understands that tomorrow Ukraine will not be armed to the teeth or anchor in the west, but at the same time wonders where Ukraine will go in the future.”