When, in the context of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin demands legal guarantees from NATO Allies that the Alliance will not enlarge further east, he is asking for nothing less than a revision of the 1949 Washington Treaty, whose Article 10 stipulates: “The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.”
In Putin’s eyes, the weak suffer what they must
Although the EU demands human rights and enforces sanctions, Russia considers Europe neither strong nor dangerous, and Putin prefers to stay silent about EU enlargement. He is probably, in any case, right if he thinks that further EU enlargement, including to Ukraine, is extremely improbable.
But his demand that the Allies disregard NATO’s founding treaty is a stark demonstration of the contempt with which he views the West’s institutions, and smaller states. Russia clearly sees Ukraine as an object, whose fate is to be decided by greater powers. The attitudes behind such a demand recall the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, when two dictators saw fit to partition central and eastern Europe during peacetime. They suggest that the Kremlin believes that Europe can still be carved up today, as it was at Yalta in 1945, when the exhausted allies met to put a stamp on the de facto position at the end of the Second World War.
Russia demands, NATO responds, Russia demands more
Putin has spoken recently of the “serious security guarantees” that Russia urgently needs. The US and the European Allies have made clear, including at the NATO ministerial meeting in Riga (30 November – 1 December), that Russia should stop sabre-rattling and that the West stands behind Ukraine. Putin’s response was still more explicit, demanding that NATO give official and legal guarantees never to accept Ukraine as a member.
NATO has no choice but to reject Putin’s demand. Russia’s expectation of a veto over NATO business should be unthinkable to the Allies, even if a negative answer provides the Kremlin an excuse to claim that NATO does not wish to lower tensions and find durable solutions.
Russia’s propaganda already pretends that Moscow must act quickly and decisively to defend its legitimate and vital interests and to save the Ukrainian people from fascism. The so-called collective Putin is ever ready to accuse others of hysterical behaviour and provocation. They claim they do not threaten anyone or prepare for war, while moving large numbers of troops to sensitive areas, doubling down on propaganda and social media trolling, and pointing accusatory fingers at NATO and Ukraine.
Why the rush?
It is far from clear why Russia is in such a hurry. Putin and his closest associates cannot think that Ukraine will join NATO any time soon. NATO agreed at Bucharest in 2008 that Ukraine would become a member of NATO, but there is evidently no consensus in the Alliance to make this happen anytime soon. While Russia’s belligerence could speed up this process, instead of slowing or stopping it, the decisive fact will still be that Ukraine’s territories are annexed or controlled by Russia. A country that does not control its entire territory and borders and is in a state of (undeclared) war cannot join the Alliance. And Ukraine is unlikely to give up Crimea and the occupied areas of the Donbas.
Russia’s aggression stems instead from its own domestic uncertainty. The collective Putin has managed to amend Russia’s Constitution and ensure Putin’s perpetuity, to falsify and win State Duma and local elections, and to lock up Alexei Navalny and many other opponents. But Russia’s situation increasingly resembles Brezhnev-era political and economic stagnation. Putin presumably knows very well what followed that period and thus needs a new success story.
“Crimea is ours” is practically forgotten. Putin probably wants to prove that the efforts of the West and Ukraine to prevent a large-scale war simply do not matter. He is the one who decides on peace or war. Maybe he will let us enjoy Christmas peacefully, or maybe not. Maybe he will plan for retirement in 2024, rather than for war in 2022. That would be something worth celebrating.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).