At the heart of this historical debate is the question of NATO expansion. Some have argued that the Western decision to admit several countries from the former Soviet empire created a deep and lasting resentment in Moscow that has morphed into full-scale aggression. That case has been made most sharply by University of Chicago scholar John Mearsheimer as well as many others over the years.
As it happens, when NATO first started considering expansion, I was one of those advocating caution. While I was not entirely opposed to it, I argued that even as NATO admitted Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, it should also begin serious negotiations with Russia to ensure that any further expansion was part of a stable security arrangement that took some of Moscow’s concerns into account. And I think it is pretty clear that NATO’s 2008 Bucharest declaration was a disaster, dangling NATO membership in front of Ukraine and Georgia without actually setting them on a course to get it. It was enough to enrage Russian leader Vladimir Putin but not enough to actually protect those two countries.
And yet, as time has passed, I have wondered what Europe would look like with no NATO expansion. The reality is that the vast majority of the countries that were part of the Soviet sphere — and many that were in the Soviet Union itself — were utterly traumatized by that experience. It was an even greater trauma than having been defeated in a war by Russia. These nations — from Bulgaria and Hungary to Ukraine and Georgia — had their entire military, political, economic and cultural lives dominated by Moscow for many decades. They were desperate to free themselves. To have left these peoples unmoored and insecure in a no man’s land between Russia and Europe would have only heightened the level of instability in the region, as Russia would have tried to control them and they would have resisted.
Moscow’s efforts to control were actions of a former superpower, humiliated by its declining fortunes, grasping for some symbol of greatness. As I argued at the time, the West should have tried much harder to aid and rebuild Russia. (It is worth noting, though, that the critics sometimes exaggerate the extent to which the West was guilty of neglecting the country: The United States and Europe did provide Moscow with huge aid packages and created a new Group of Eight forum that gave Moscow a seat at the table.) But the largest problem might be that we are viewing the Ukraine crisis through the prism of great-power politics when the more appropriate framework might be imperialism.
The Soviet Union was history’s last great multinational empire. In the early 1990s, I participated in discussions at Harvard, inspired by Samuel Huntington, on what history taught us about the collapse of such empires. The answer was clear: They were always accompanied by bloody efforts by the imperial powers to hold onto their former territories. The French waged brutal wars in Algeria and Vietnam, and the British killed more than 10,000 people in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. They did this simply because, in their view, the idea of being a great power on the world stage required that they hold onto these colonial prizes.
Viewed through this prism, Russia’s actions in Ukraine are perfectly predictable. After a period of weakness in the 1990s (when Russia still waged a bloody war to keep Chechnya), Moscow set itself the goal of retaking its most cherished former colonies. Putin describes Ukraine as inseparable from Russia in much the same way France described Algeria in the 1950s. That cause, keeping Algeria part of France, was wildly popular for many so-called French nationalists.
There was just one problem, then and now: The Algerians then, like the Ukrainians now, had no desire to continue to be colonial subjects. This resistance from the ground is the key piece of the narrative that we sometimes neglect. Whatever Washington, London, Berlin and Moscow may have decided in gilded meeting rooms, the people in the former Soviet empire clearly wanted a political, military, economic and cultural association with the West. And they were willing to do what it took to get it. So when we tell the story of Russia and the West, let’s not forget to include Ukraine’s desire — its determination — to be free and independent, and to fight and die for it, for perhaps that is the real driver of this story.