NATO Expansion is a non-issue, a bluff to legitimize Crimea’s invasion.

Dear readers,

Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to withdraw its pledge to expand eastward in Europe.

In a series of statements, Putin has demanded that NATO and the U.S. make “reliable and firm legal guarantees” that the military alliance will not expand to countries like Georgia and Ukraine, which are currently “aspiring members” of NATO.

According to the Kremlin, NATO’s expansion into eastern Europe represents an intolerable and clear threat to Russia’s national security. On this matter, Russia’s Presidential Aide, Yuri Ushakov, quoted Putin as saying to Biden the following:

“You, Americans, are worried by our battalions stationed on the Russian territory, thousands of kilometers away from the US, while we are really concerned about our own security, about Russia’s security in the global sense, on the global level,” President Putin told President Biden, according to Ushakov.

Putin’s demand comes at a time when Russia is building up its military presence along the Ukrainian border. Putin’s intention is clear. He wants to set the table as follows: either the West and NATO agree to retreat, or they will end up facing a bigger problem in the Spring with a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

For many experts, Putin’s demand is reasonable. Ultimately, neither Georgia nor Ukraine are NATO members. So, from this perspective, Putin’s demand is basically cementing the current balance of power and status quo in exchange for avoiding a bigger conflict in the near future.

However, history shows that such a strategy is destined to fail. And in no other discipline, history is more important than in geopolitics and international affairs.

In 1992, a war escalated between Russian-led forces and the Moldovan government in Moldova’s Transnistria region. In that war, Moldova tried to deescalate the issue by appeasing the Kremlin, even though Russia had escalated the conflict in the first place. By 1994, Moldova even adopted an official policy of complete neutrality, announcing that I would not seek NATO membership. What was the result of this strategy? To this day, Russian troops and weapons remain in Transnistria, and Moldova’s conflict remains frozen, hindering the economic, political, and social development of the country.

The second cause of skepticism lies in the fact that NATO was a non-issue in Ukraine back in 2014, the year Russia illegally annexed Crimea. At the time, Ukraine was completely indifferent to the idea of joining NATO. The then-president Viktor Yanukovich was firmly against it, and the public was more focused on joining the EU than NATO.

This point has been reiterated by Mike McFaul, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow from 2009 to 2014.

“In my five years in the US government (2009-2014), NATO expansion to Ukraine was a non-issue in U.S.-Russia relations and in U.S.-Ukraine relations … between 2009-2014, the Ukrainian government also was not pressing for NATO membership. Yushchenko was not pushing. Yanukovich was firmly against. Societal support was weak & focused more on joining the EU,” Dr. McFaul said.

So, if Ukraine’s neutrality back then did not prevent Putin from destabilizing Crimea and the Donbas region, why should the United States or the European Union take his demands seriously now?

Putin’s argument that blames the expansion of NATO for Russia’s behavior is inconsistent at best. In my opinion, it is nothing more than a bluff, an excuse created by Putin himself. One that allows him to galvanize its domestic support. More importantly, an excuse that validated and legitimatized his illegal annexation of Crimea.

So, the United States and the European Union should not try to appease Russia. Instead, they should double down their commitments to Ukraine. In fact, the goal should not just avoid an escalation of the Ukrainian crisis but to develop a long-term engagement strategy with Ukraine, the Balkans, and eastern Europe as a whole.

Peace in Eastern Europe will only be achieved through strength; there is no other way.