As Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine enters its second week, the trope that places at least part of the blame on the West’s alleged mistreatment of Russia remains in circulation despite compelling rebuttals, including Tomáš Klvaňa’s here in The Bulwark and Christopher Miller’s in Quillette. The claim that NATO creep toward Russian borders and the threat of “encirclement” practically forced Putin to attack is popular with right-wing Putin fanboys such as Tucker Carlson, Richard Hanania, and Sohrab Ahmari and with left-wing “anti-imperialists” such as Glenn Greenwald, Aaron Maté, and the Democratic Socialists of America. It’s peddled by foreign policy “realists” who cannot be easily pegged as right or left, such as political scientist John Mearsheimer. It’s also tempting for many libertarians who strongly oppose interventionist American foreign policy. In Reason, my friend Robby Soave makes it very clear that he holds Putin responsible and regards him as a tyrant and a killer, but also insists that “the U.S.’s failed approach to Russia for the last 30 years”—above all, the insistence on NATO enlargement in a framework that treated Russia as a potential adversary—helped bring us to the present fiasco.
It would be silly and presumptuous to argue that the West, and the United States in particular, has never made mistakes with regard to Russia. But the idea that NATO enlargement and other Western policies threatened Russia’s legitimate security interests and ultimately either baited or cornered Putin into striking out at Ukraine is wrongheaded. The claim can easily devolve into an exercise in apologetics on Putin’s behalf, even when it’s not intended as such. It also perpetuates the illiberal idea that Russia is entitled to submissive neighbors—a notion that will not bother Hanania or Mearsheimer but should bother anyone concerned with progressive, classically conservative, or libertarian values.
Much has been made of the question of whether the West deceived Russia with assurances given to Mikhail Gorbachev—then the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party—that if Germany was reunified and became a NATO country, NATO would not be enlarged further toward Russian borders. Many analysts have argued that the non-enlargement pledge was a myth; among others, this case was forcefully made by Mark Kramer, director of Harvard’s Cold War Studies Project, in a 2009 Wilson Quarterly article. Documents declassified in late 2017 and made public by the National Security Archive suggest that the answer is complicated. Stephen F. Cohen, the late historian who became infamous as a Putin apologist at the time of the Crimea annexation, saw those records as grounds to claim (as the headline put it) that “the U.S. betrayed Russia” with a promise not to enlarge NATO “one inch eastward.” Yet, writing in the American Interest, retired U.S. Foreign Service officer Kirk Bennett pointed out that the promise referred specifically to not moving NATO forces into the former East Germany after reunification and was made solely in that context. As Bennett points out, Gorbachev himself confirmed this in a 2014 interview (though he has also said that he considered eventual NATO enlargement to be a violation of the spirit of the pledge).
The declassified documents show an even more complex picture with regard to the NATO enlargement issue under Boris Yeltsin, essentially confirming the account given by Ira L. Straus, founder and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, in a 1997 paper and a lengthy 2003 article. Straus stressed that when the admission of former Eastern bloc countries to NATO first came up for serious consideration in 1993, it was with a view to more extensive engagement and partnership with Russia—including possible Russian membership in a revamped NATO at some point in the future.