Western unity is the worst threat to Moscow currently, as Russian President Vladimir Putin sees it. Photo: AFP

There exists a bright dividing line in the Western alliance over the concept of NATO expansion into many of the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe.

Despite the consensus of European, American, Canadian and British leaders on the matter of NATO expansion, behind closed doors, many European states – notably the two most powerful countries on the continent, Germany and France – appear resistant to the continuous expansion.

This divide has been highlighted in recent weeks as it appears that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is about to invade eastern Ukraine and annex that mostly Russian-speaking region from the Ukrainian government’s control, as it did to the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Europe’s division was brought about, ironically, by Washington’s and Brussels’ insistence that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization endlessly expand into the former Soviet states after the Cold War ended.

Russia wants Ukraine more than West does

Western unity is the worst threat to Moscow currently, as Putin sees it. Having long chafed under the “double expansion” of the European Union and NATO since the end of the Cold War, Russian leaders, from liberal Boris Yeltsin to autocratic Vladimir Putin, have decried the aggressive expansion of the West into territories that were once strategic buffer states between Russia’s border and the West.

Putin himself has argued that the United States betrayed the (unwritten) agreement forged between then-secretary of state James Baker, representing president George H W Bush, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Of course, NATO never actually agreed not to not expand into former Soviet territories in Europe. At the time that the initial Soviet-American agreement was forged to get Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe, the only concern was German unification.

Thirty years later, the flawed notion that Washington made assurances to Gorbachev to disallow the expansion of NATO into the former Soviet states of Europe persists among Russian leaders – with devastating implications for the present crisis in Ukraine.

The two former Cold War rivals, along with the Europeans, ultimately agreed to help midwife the birth of sovereign countries out of the former Soviet bloc. In the specific case of Ukraine, the Bucharest Memorandum of 1994 was signed, which guaranteed Ukraine’s independence so long as Kiev gave up its arsenal of old Soviet nuclear weapons. Having met its obligations, Ukraine’s independence was recognized by all and codified by the Bucharest agreement. 

So long as Moscow believes the West seeks to control Ukraine and make it part of its alliance against Russia, Putin will risk a world war to keep the territory away from the West. For Putin, this is not only a matter of strategic importance, but it is also a family matter.

After all, eastern Ukraine is a predominantly Russian-speaking enclave with strong ties to Russia. And Russian leaders since Catherine the Great have viewed Ukraine as an extension of Russian power (and before that, much of Russia’s cultural heritage can be traced back to the Kievan Rus).

Orange Revolution

All seemed well between Moscow and Washington, despite Poland and many of the former Soviet Baltic states joining NATO, until 2004 when Washington supported the “Orange” Revolution that overthrew a Russian-friendly regime in Kiev and replaced it with the reign of Viktor Yushchenko. 

According to Asia Times’ David P Goldman writing at the time, Vladimir Putin watched in horror as American-backed protesters opposed the official results of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election and insisted that the American-backed candidate, Yushchenko, be given power.

Putin is said to have raged about how the Americans “lied to me!” insisting that he’d “never trust them again.” As Goldman posited, “The Russians still can’t fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine.” But throw away the prospects for such an alliance with Moscow the Americans did … and the Chinese entered the fray to replace the US as a potential strategic partner to Russia.

Today, the West is witnessing the devastating results of such bad decision-making over the previous 30 years. Worse still, at least some of the Western powers appear poised to double down on their bad judgment by potentially supporting a bloody insurgency in Ukraine should Russia invade (which I remain convinced will happen soon).

What not to do

The esteemed Edward Luttwak has repeatedly called for a Western-backed insurgency in Ukraine against any Russian invasion. Luttwak has insisted that the Russians will abandon their quest for control in Ukraine after “losing a few soldiers” because Russia, like the rest of the West, is a “post-heroic society” that needs every young man it has to sustain the country rather than to die for it. Tell that to the young Russians who’ve sacrificed themselves in Syria.

Other Western analysts have argued that a Ukrainian insurgency would be successful against the Russians in the way that the famous Finnish resistance to the Soviet invasion of 1939 was. These analysts gloss over the fact that the Finns had almost 20 years to prepare their country for such an attack and were far more united behind their cause and government than the Ukrainian people are behind theirs. 

Besides, the Finnish resistance to the Red Army was successful in preventing a direct Soviet annexation of Finland. Although the resistance resulted in a process known as “Finlandization,” whereby in the words of Elisabeth Braw, Finland “was forced to maintain a delicate balance in its relations with the Soviet Union.”

In effect, throughout the Cold War, Finland’s internal affairs were left to the Finns while its foreign policy was forced to play to Moscow’s preferred beat lest the Nordic state suffer through another bloody invasion by the Red Army.

Finlandization was precisely what the Russians and West had in effect agreed to in 2015 after Russia took Crimea. Rather than invade the rest of Ukraine directly, Moscow agreed to the Minsk II Protocol, which would have neutralized Ukraine as a geopolitical hot potato in Europe. Yet none of the powers were happy with this agreement and ultimately did not abide by them. Thus the crisis in Ukraine has escalated. 

Plus, America’s history of backing foreign insurgencies is not so great. Whether it be the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War or the various Islamist insurgencies in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, the Americans end up paying dearly for supporting ethno-nationalist resistance forces. Washington should stop doing these irresponsible things.

What should be done

Instead, that bright line separating NATO nations from non-NATO states should be respected. Had the West respected those boundaries to begin with, Moscow would not be behaving as it currently is in Ukraine. The West, frankly, got the best bits of the former Soviet world – notably Poland. These states should be cherished and empowered by the West to defend themselves against any future Russian aggression. 

Ukraine, on the other hand, is a basket case. That the US would risk war with Russia over it is a little ridiculous. 

Jacek Bartosiak, the president of Strategy and Future and a prominent Polish strategist, has helmed an ambitious project to ensure that his country is made ready to deter Russia from any future aggression. Known as the “New Army Model for Poland” concept, Bartosiak’s plan represents the most coherent and judicious strategy for countering Russian irredentism in the former Soviet space of Europe.

Russia, despite its annoyance with the expansion of NATO into the Baltic states, did not actually take decisive action against the West until 2008, when NATO officials told the international press that both countries would “become members of NATO” at what was then an undeclared point in time.

Historically speaking, Russian leaders have constantly fretted that their borders are indefensible. In response, the Kremlin has consistently striven to create defensive buffer zones (in other people’s countries) separating their superable borders from those of their perceived enemies.

Western leaders must learn to respect these Russian fears and work to mitigate the very serious risk of general war with Russia in Europe over such avoidable and predictable disagreements.

Thanks to the West’s inability to think through these things strategically, Russia is going to have its way in Ukraine, either by force or because the West will have no choice but to concede the point to Moscow.

Supporting an insurgency is a ridiculous attempt by arrogant Western leaders to save face after having so badly bungled the Ukraine situation for decades. Western leaders should reassess the defensibility of their NATO boundaries and work to deter future Russian adventurism in the former Soviet states of Europe who are part of the NATO alliance.

If NATO is still a serious force, it will recognize the extent and nature that the renewed Russian threat poses to real NATO members of Europe and work to shore the defenses of those partners up by creating a nucleus of sustained resistance among the former Soviet states that are part of NATO, as Bartosiak’s “New Army Model for Poland” recommends.

If nations like Poland are reinforced adequately, Putin, who is merely looking to pluck Europe’s low-hanging fruit, will be deterred. 

Brandon J Weichert is a former US congressional staffer and a geopolitical analyst. On top of being a contributor at Asia Times, he is a contributing editor at American Greatness and The Washington Times. Weichert recently became a senior editor at 19FortyFive. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower, The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy, and Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.