The recent non-action by Russia against Finland and Sweden for beginning official accession procedures with NATO has been cited as evidence that Russia’s actions against Ukraine has nothing to do about NATO. While it is likely that domestic factors in Russia are more causal, eliminating NATO entirely from any analysis of the war in Ukraine is a mistake as NATO expansion, in part, brought about crucial geopolitical changes in Eastern Europe that irrevocably changed the region, making it far more unstable and prone to conflict. Worryingly, it seems similar mistakes are being made in the Indo-Pacific super region as recent steps by the United States are likely to cause geopolitical shifts that, currently, are not factored into policymaking.
With only two countries (Turkey and Hungary) left to ratify Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO, it seems a foregone conclusion – despite some political hurdles, such as Turkey’s demand that Sweden and Finland cooperate with it in combatting the activities of the PKK – that these two will join NATO in 2023. Such an outcome would have seemed fanciful a year ago but Putin’s brazen decision to attack Ukraine caused such a geopolitical ripple that the Finns and Swedes – both traditionally more favourable to neutrality or non-alignment – saw no other choice than to join NATO.
Although the Kremlin has issued stern warnings – including the threat of moving nuclear weapons to the Baltic – to both Finland and Sweden about their desires to join NATO, this has generally been seen as nothing more than weak rhetoric and, particularly given how the war in Ukraine is progressing for Russia, not a credible threat.
Recently, at the 2022 American Political Science Association meeting in Montreal, a number of academics forwarded the argument that Russia’s relative non-action against Finland and Sweden’s imminent accession was proof that the conflict in Ukraine was never about NATO. Such reasoning has become popular in the punditocracy too, as evident in Steven Pifer’s recent Brookings article in which he argues: “The Russian president reacted calmly to this year’s Finnish and Swedish decisions to apply to join – even though Finland’s addition will more than double the length of Russia’s borders with NATO.”
Domestic factors inside Russia, particularly Putin’s desire to destroy the idea of a sovereign Ukraine in an effort to resurrect something akin to the Russian Empire, are generally touted as being far more causal than NATO expansion. Indeed, there is significant evidence to suggest that the rise of civilizational thinking in Russia – especially the idea of Russia as a civilization-state – combined with the development of acute ontological insecurity – a lack of sense of place in order – are crucial factors in understanding Russian action.
A corollary of this emerging conventional wisdom about the lack of causality between NATO expansion and Russian action in Ukraine is that this also invalidates “realist” arguments. The central realist figure of ridicule is undoubtedly John J. Mearsheimer, the creator of the popular (especially in China and Russia) but parsimonious theory, offensive realism. Essentially, offensive realism is a structural theory of International Relations built off an assumption that great powers always seek power maximization and hope they can, one day, become the “hegemon in the system.” For Mearsheimer, NATO expansion is the clear driving factor behind Russia’s escalation, and the West’s failure to recognize this has unwittingly led it towards a potential catastrophe.
Indeed, Mearsheimer’s theory appears quite weak in light of recent events. But, the argument that lack of Russian retaliation against Sweden and Finland pursuing NATO membership proves the war in Ukraine has nothing to do with NATO is not the coup de grâce of realism or the idea that NATO expansion has played a role in the conflict that many seem to believe. For one, it makes the mistake of conflating Mearsheimer’s realism and realism in general, which erroneously overlooks the rich and diverse school of realism. And secondly, many proponents of this argument have, unwittingly, become something of a mirror image of Mearsheimer in that they also assert a bold parsimonious position themselves: that NATO is not important to Russia’s conduct.
Russia and its “near abroad”
Crucially, assuming Finland or Sweden’s accession to NATO has the same importance to Russia as Ukraine’s potential accession is a critical error as it grossly simplifies Russia’s foreign policies over the past decades. When looking at Russia’s foreign policy discourse since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is often front and centre in much of it whereas Finland and Sweden are generally afterthoughts. Indeed, the question of Ukraine’s sovereignty was a particularly thorny issue in the early post-Soviet days of the Russian Federation and only in 1994 (the Budapest Memorandum) was it officially resolved, although lingering issues remained, starkly demonstrated by Russia’s repeated violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty since annexing Crimea in 2014.
While Finland was once part of the Russian Empire and remained indirectly influenced by the Soviet Union during the Cold War (known as Finlandization), there has not been the same level of irridentism or claims of “brotherhood” that there has been with Ukraine. Plainly put, there is not the same historical or ethnolinguistic links between Finland and Russia as there are between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine, as Putin has constantly reiterated, is seen as inextricably part of Russian civilization. In 2013, before the onset of the Ukraine crisis, Putin stated: “Russian statehood has roots in the Dnieper; as we say, we have a common Dnieper baptistery. Kievan Rus started out as the foundation of the enormous future Russian state. We have common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture. We have very similar languages. In that respect, I want to repeat again, we are one people.”
Arguably the key foreign policy concept in Russia over the past three decades has been the idea of Russia having a “near abroad”: a geopolitical space encompassing all of the territories, save for the Baltic three, that were once part of the Soviet Union. This is an area long defined by the Kremlin as a “zone of privileged interest,” meaning in the eyes of the Kremlin only Russia has legitimate foreign policy interests in these countries.
Crucially, Finland and Sweden have never been seriously considered part of the near abroad; conversely, the Kremlin could not conceive of a zone of “privileged interest” without Ukraine. Therefore, it is not hard to make a case that for Russia, Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO is much more problematic to its perceived national interests than either Finland or Sweden joining.
Yet, one should avoid falling into the Mearsheimer trap of overstating the importance of NATO. The spark of the initial Ukraine crisis in late 2013 was actually the EU’s closer engagement with Ukraine, specifically its attempts to sign an Association Agreement which would link Ukraine politically and economically to Brussels.
Ironically, at this time, NATO-Russia relations were actually quite warm and the two had been conducting numerous joint exercises under the NATO-Russia Council framework, something which would have been unfathomable a couple of decades earlier during the Cold War.
Add to this that Ukraine’s accession to NATO was hardly credible, especially after Russia’s response in Georgia, in 2008, when NATO clumsily flirted with the idea of expanding into Russia’s near abroad. While it was clear that Ukraine coveted NATO membership (and why would they not), there was a lacking political will inside of NATO to make it happen – something which Russia could clearly see. Thus, Russia’s ‘jumping up and down’ about NATO expansion and the fear of Ukraine joining was strongly performative and more about asserting a kind of victimhood.
Regional geopolitics matter
It would be extremely naïve and reductive to entirely eliminate NATO expansion as part of the analysis on how Russia’s attack on Ukraine came to fruition, however. Although the argument that the fear of NATO expansion forced a pre-emptive response out of Kremlin is extremely flimsy, one should not overlook the geopolitical changes that NATO expansion (and, in conjunction, EU expansion) brought about in Eastern Europe and how this new geopolitical environment altered Russia’s foreign policymaking.
Prominent International Relations scholars, Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, observed that regional settings are often prone to instability because security threats minimise over distance, so insecurity typically is regionally-based. In certain cases, regions can develop “complexes” which are systems where the security of different members (large and small) are “so interlinked that their security problems cannot reasonably be analyzed or resolved apart from one another.” Therefore, when a regional security complex develops, states’ security is strongly interlinked and actions, even unintended actions, by one member can create ripples that strongly affect other members.
In the context of Russia’s actions against Ukraine, the changing power dynamics brought about by the expansion of NATO (and the EU) were important because they helped turn Eastern Europe into a regional security complex. Previously, it was hard to conceive of Eastern Europe as a standalone region (in a geopolitical sense), and Buzan and Wæver rather identified a large post-Soviet regional security complex encompassing Russia along with the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. However, by expanding the borders of NATO and the EU closer to Russia’s near abroad and, in particular, the jewel in its near abroad crown, Ukraine, the West unwittingly created a new regional security complex.
Importantly, not all regional security complexes are prone to instability and conflict. In complexes like Central Asia, the geopolitical setting is mediated by regional security institutions (notably the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and by the relative amity between the greater powers (China and Russia), which, in conjunction, have created a stable security architecture. Such a setting is not volatile and the different members can generally pursue mutually beneficial foreign policies.
However, problematically, in the newly created Eastern European security complex brought about, in part, by NATO expansion, the geopolitical setting is characterized by crude bipolarity with no functioning regional security institutions and rising levels of enmity between Russia and the West. This has made Eastern Europe a setting without an agreed security architecture and, therefore, highly unstable and prone to competition and conflict.
Of course, it takes two to tango and Russia’s own actions are also crucial to understanding the changing geopolitics of Eastern Europe. Russia’s resurgence under Putin and, in particular, its apparent pursuit of hegemony in the near abroad were arguably the main reasons Ukraine sought a Western future. They also significantly affected the dynamics of the regional security complex, pushing it closer to the unstable and competitive setting it became.
On top of this, Russia’s actions since 2014 have resurrected NATO, giving it a purpose that it was struggling to find in the post-Cold War setting. It is unsurprising given Russia’s actions over the last decade that countries like Finland and Sweden have changed long-held foreign policy doctrines in order to protect themselves from a belligerent and knee-jerk Russia. And given the clear importance of Ukraine to Russia’s conception of self under Putin, it is also unsurprising that for Zelensky, Ukraine’s survival rests on NATO membership.
Implications for policymakers in the Indo-Pacific
Ultimately, there is no satisfactory singular reason for why Russia attacked Ukraine and trying to find one is a fool’s errand, particularly when considering the policy lessons of the war in Ukraine. To this end, it is important to avoid overstating or understating the impact of NATO on the war in Ukraine. Yes, Russia’s war in Ukraine is unlikely to be about NATO expansion and more about internal drivers. But equally, dismissing NATO expansion entirely is to overlook the important role that regional geopolitics plays, especially in the calculations of a paranoid and insecure great power like Russia.
Taking regional geopolitics seriously is extremely important in this age of diminishing United States primacy, particularly as another part of the globe, the so-called Indo-Pacific super-region, is experiencing the start of geopolitical shifts that could have serious ramifications in the future. Naively dismissing such geopolitical factors could lead to the West “sleepwalking” into future strife, as it has been accused of doing in the context of Ukraine.
The Indo-Pacific is a much larger and arguably more complex setting than Eastern Europe. Buzan actually criticized the notion of there being an Indo-Pacific region, preferring to demarcate it as a setting that encompasses a number of different regional security complexes and subcomplexes. Yet, in the years since Buzan’s critique, the Indo-Pacific has undeniably gained international credence and has emerged as a crucial “super-region” and most of the key (pro-Western) international players in the region have clearly identifiable Indo-Pacific strategies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the EU, Japan, and Australia (to name but a few). The clear common focus of these strategies is grappling with the perceived challenge brought about by the rise of China and its changing regional ambitions and aggressiveness.
Yet, like with Russia and its actions in Ukraine, and the broader near abroad, one should avoid solely looking at the belligerent revisionist power – in this case, China – to grasp the changing geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. Worryingly, much of the United States’ moves in the Indo-Pacific since Biden came to power – such as the revitalization of the QUAD and the creation of AUKUS – have been inelegant and have helped not only create a strong sense of victimhood in China but have also unwittingly moved the regional setting closer to something of a New Cold War – albeit a more regionally-located Cold War between the United States and China – by undermining the putative Asian security architecture.
As in Eastern Europe and the West’s continued rhetoric about NATO expansion not being a threat to Russia, merely stating that initiatives like the QUAD and AUKUS are not about China is not enough to allay suspicions in Beijing. Actions speak louder than words and understanding (and predicting) how actions impact geopolitics is critical to effective policymaking. To this end, perhaps it is wise to listen to ostensibly “non-aligned” states like Malaysia and Indonesia when, after the announcement of AUKUS, they jointly stated that they “don’t want the current dynamics to lead to tensions caused by an arms race and power projection” because such a geopolitical environment “will not benefit anyone.”
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