In any case, NATO has neither established permanent bases nor based nuclear weapons in the European countries that joined the alliance after May 1997. And Putin, through his war on Ukraine, has resurrected an organization that had appeared to be cracking. US President Joe Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump was no fan of NATO and is said to have planned to withdraw from the organization if he had won a second term. In 2019, Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to be re-elected as president of France, a nuclear power that once practically withdrew from the alliance, asserted that NATO was experiencing “brain death”. Putin misconstrued NATO cohesion, especially when its members are confronted by the biggest challenge to European stability and security since World War II.
What of Putin’s claims about Ukraine?
There is no need to examine in any depth the other pretexts for Putin’s invasion, including the allegations that Moscow had to intervene to “de-nazify” Ukraine, which it accused of the genocide of Russian speakers in the eastern Donbas region, or that the US has been funding biological weapon labs in the country. No one outside of Russia believes this propaganda and disinformation, just as it is improbably that any NATO members could credibly threaten or bully Russia.
Why does Putin demand security, if no one has threatened him? That is the key question. Putin is his best publicist, confusing his own people. Some may believe his narrative of being a crusader for traditional values of the family or Christianity, without appreciating the obvious contradiction posed by his belligerence. How can his war be a fight against American imperialism? While the US may not be without geopolitical sin, lodging accusations about its involvement in Ukraine to justify invasion is an unjustifiable leap.
The reality is that this is not a US-Russia proxy war – it is an attack of an autocracy against an albeit flawed democratic sovereign state. No one is forcing Russia to kill civilians in Ukraine. And even if there were any grain of truth to Putin’s allegations about the Ukraine and the US, there is international law to consider – nations are equal and their sovereignty protected. Aggression and conflict are not solutions to grievances and historical claims between states.
The reaction of international actors
If Putin’s objective was to divide the West or take advantage of divisions among Western allies and partners, he has failed. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the Russian invasion: Only five countries voted against, while China and India abstained. The US and European Union, together with Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom, have applied the toughest punitive measures and sanctions on Russia on top of those imposed on Moscow after it annexed Crimea in 2014. Putin has united the West and its allies, even though most of the world has not joined the sanctions program.
To be sure, the interdictions have increased the cost of war. Putin was likely surprised by the unity of the West’s actions and the severity of the punishments. The geopolitical message is loud and clear to whoever might intend to invade another territory: Isolation can be swift and harsh.
The US and NATO have resisted from imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would essentially neutralize Russian air power in the conflict. Such an action would go beyond the military assistance and equipment they are supplying Kyiv and could potentially drive NATO and Russia into a de facto hot war.
Europe’s cohesion has been a welcome surprise, especially considering the EU convention of requiring unanimity when deciding policy. In 2014, in the wake of Russia’s Crimea grab, EU member states were divided, given their varying dependence on Russian energy and raw materials. This time, EU members have reacted rapidly, robustly and effectively, even though the sanctions will have boomerang impact on their economies, causing real pain for citizens. In this case, asserting the values of peace and security superseded the costs and hardships caused by the war. Taboos have been broken – perhaps most glaring is the decision to impose heavy sanctions on Russia, while at the same time continuing to rely on the country for vital energy supplies. The approval of two one-billion-euro packages from the European Peace Facility for military equipment and weapons for Ukraine was another unexpected move.
European countries have also overcome past national opposition to opening up their borders to refugees. Instead, countries to varying numbers have welcomed Ukrainian refugees, offering them not just shelter but residency rights, access to the labor market and housing, medical assistance and education for their children, even as the host countries are still reeling after the public-health and economic crises of the pandemic.
Europe has finally had to face its own weaknesses in defense and energy policies. Since 1991, European countries had been reducing general defense spending but have been reversing course. Germany has decided to raise its military budget to 2 percent of GDP, with other countries following. EU members are now taking steps to reduce their dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal imports, diversifying energy sources. Political integration is deepening, and the EU is implementing its NextGeneration EU recovery plan in earnest.
Could they go further? Without doubt. There are still measures to be taken that could help to end the war, including a total ban of petrol imports from Russia. A hardheaded Putin may yet oblige.