Kura ali jajce: Imperialistične ambicije Putina ali članstvo v NATO kot eksistenčna grožnja?

V mnogočem gre za vprašanje “kure ali jajca”, čeprav ne popolnoma. Odgovor na to pa je ključen ne samo za razumevanje vzroka ali povoda za začetek vojne v Ukrajini, pač pa za razumevanje prihodnjega razvoja dogodkov, povezanih z vojno v Ukrajini, oziroma širšim regionalnim ali celo globalnim spopadom. Zelo dobra analiza Roberta Wrighta.

In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests. At this stage, a MAP offer [an offer to Ukraine of a path to NATO membership via a “Membership Action Plan”] would be seen not as a technical step along a long road toward membership, but as throwing down the strategic gauntlet… It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

—William Burns, US Ambassador to Russia, in an email to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, February of 2008.

That warning from William Burns—as I noted in a post two weeks ago—proved unpersuasive. President Bush persisted in his campaign to convince NATO allies to offer Ukraine a Membership Action Plan.    

Strictly speaking, Bush failed. Various European leaders shared Burns’s view that giving Ukraine a formal invitation to join the alliance was a bad idea. But, as a compromise, they agreed in April of 2008 to issue the rough rhetorical equivalent—a written pledge by NATO, in what became known as the Bucharest declaration, that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.”

Burns later wrote, in his book The Back Channel, that this outcome was in many ways “the worst of both worlds—indulging the Ukrainians and Georgians in hopes of NATO membership on which we were unlikely to deliver, while reinforcing Putin’s sense that we were determined to pursue a course he saw as an existential threat.”

In that post two weeks ago I looked at some of the analysis that went into Burns’s warning. In particular, I looked at how Burns employed cognitive empathy, sizing up the psychology and perspective of Vladimir Putin. I left for another day the question of how we can say with any confidence that Burns’s judgment has been vindicated—that encouraging Ukraine to pursue NATO membership was a mistake, a mistake that helped pave the way for war.

Today is that day. At least, today is the day when I’ll begin to make the argument that Burns has been vindicated. The whole argument is a two-post, maybe even three-post, affair.

As I noted two weeks ago, Burns’s warning about creating “fertile soil for Russian meddling” wasn’t a prediction that Russia would definitely intervene in Ukraine if the Bush administration encouraged Ukraine’s NATO membership bid. Creating fertile soil for an oak tree doesn’t mean you’re sure to wind up with an oak tree. It means you’ll wind up with an oak tree if other conditions apply—if there’s an acorn in the soil, if no animal digs up the acorn, if there’s enough rainfall and sunlight, and so on.

In other words: all you’re doing when you create “fertile soil” for something is increase the chances that it will come about. So the question before us, as we evaluate Burns’s success in applying cognitive empathy, is whether encouraging Ukraine’s NATO bid indeed made war more likely. I’ll argue that we can answer “yes” with a high degree of confidence.

There’s another implication of this “fertile soil” metaphor, and it may at first seem too obvious to bother spelling out. But spell it out I must, because its upshot seems to elude a number of people who claim that the NATO issue didn’t play a significant role in Putin’s decision to invade. So here goes:

If you wind up with an oak tree, it doesn’t make sense to point to the fact that there has been abundant sunshine during the tree’s growth and say, “So the fertile soil had nothing to do with it! Even if the soil had no nutrients, we’d still have an oak tree!”

See?—I told you it seems too obvious to bother with! And yet, the arena of foreign policy discourse is populated by no few people who point to some non-NATO factor that seems to have contributed to Putin’s decision to invade and basically say, “See?—NATO had nothing to do with it!”

One of the most commonly invoked such factors is Putin’s expressed belief that Ukraine is “not a real country”—that it’s not organically cohesive and maybe isn’t even a legitimate nation. As Boris Johnson put it in a 2022 interview (right after dismissing as “hogwash” the idea that Putin’s concerns about NATO drove his decision to invade): “You want to know why Putin invaded Ukraine? Read his essay of July last year. He basically believes that Ukraine is not a real country.”

That most people who emphasize this belief of Putin’s join Johnson in dismissing the NATO issue doesn’t mean they see this belief as the sole cause of the invasion. Many of them, including Johnson, see it as working in concert with a second factor: an imperialist ambition that is said to reside within Putin, a desire to reclaim some of the greatness of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. The idea seems to be that Putin can exercise this expansionist impulse without compunction so long as he thinks any nations he invades aren’t real nations to begin with—especially if, as with Ukraine, one reason he considers them not real is that their border interrupts a continuous expanse of Russian culture and ethnicity.

That Putin considers Ukraine “not a real country” is beyond doubt. He’s been saying that at least since 2008. But that raises a question:

Why didn’t he invade Ukraine in 2008? Or 2009? Or 2010? After all, the expansionist impulse supposedly catalyzed by this belief about Ukraine is said to have been with him for a long time, perhaps even since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union made some Russians long for its restoration. Proponents of the Putin-as-incorrigible-imperialist thesis often cite, for example, his lament in April of 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union had been “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Or they may note his saying, in May of that year, that “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart.”

As it happens, he followed that last sentence with this one: “Whoever wants it back has no brain.” This is among the reasons to doubt the Putin-as-incorrigible-expansionist thesis. But the point for now is that even if you grant, for the sake of argument, that Putin had wanted to restore the Soviet Union, or some chunk of it, ever since the Soviet empire fell, and you add to this stipulation his belief that Ukraine is “not a real country,” you still don’t have an adequate explanation for why he invaded Ukraine in 2022, or for that matter why he seized Crimea in 2014. Because if that were an adequate explanation, he’d have made his move against Ukraine earlier.  

To rephrase some of this using slightly technical terminology: Maybe believing Ukraine isn’t a real country was a necessary condition for Putin’s invading Ukraine, but it clearly wasn’t a sufficient condition. And even if you throw in the (debatable) expansionist impulse often attributed to Putin, you still don’t have sufficient conditions. So you need additional conditions to explain the invasion. Which brings us back to William Burns.  

Burns is among the people with whom Putin shared his belief that Ukraine is “not a real country.” In fact, the earliest example we have of Putin saying this, so far as I can tell, is Burns’s written recollection, in The Back Channel, of a conversation the two of them had in March of 2008. This was weeks after Burns had sent his warnings to the Bush administration about the perils of encouraging Ukraine’s NATO membership bid—and right before the NATO conference in Bucharest in early April. Notably, the NATO issue is the context in which Putin brings up the question of how real a nation Ukraine is. Here’s what Burns quotes him as saying:

“No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia. Even President Chubais or President Kasyanov [two of Russia’s better-known liberals] would have to fight back on this issue. We would do all in our power to prevent it.” Growing angry, Putin continued, “If people want to limit and weaken Russia, why do they have to do it through NATO enlargement? Doesn’t your government know that Ukraine is unstable and immature politically, and NATO is a very divisive issue there? Don’t you know that Ukraine is not even a real country? Part of it is really East European, and part is really Russian. This would be another mistake in American diplomacy…”

So Putin himself is pretty strongly suggesting that, though he considers Ukraine “not even a real country,” that alone won’t make him “fight back.” But “steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine” could have that effect.

Note also the way Putin connects the issues of NATO and of Ukraine’s lack of (in his view) natural coherence:

He doesn’t say that Ukraine’s lack of natural coherence would make invading it a legitimate way for Russia to “fight back” in the event that Ukraine moved toward NATO membership. Rather, he seems to be saying that Ukraine’s lack of natural coherence would make it vulnerable to internal division in the event that NATO membership became a live issue.

This formulation certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility that Russia would “fight back” against prospective NATO membership by invading Ukraine. But it does suggest a more complicated model of the way the fighting back would play out. Namely: Maybe the NATO issue would—in addition to heightening Russia’s motivation to invade Ukraine—create fissures within Ukraine that Russia would try to exploit in the course of invading.

Something like this did in fact wind up happening. But explaining exactly what happened, and the sense in which it was “like this,” takes a bit of time, and will await my next post on this subject. Meanwhile, I’ll pave the way for that part of the story by underscoring a couple of underappreciated points:

1) The Ukraine War of 2022 is in some ways a continuation of an earlier war. In 2014 Russia seized the Crimean region of Ukraine and gave military backing to separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Those separatists quickly gained control of parts of the Donbas—in fact, they did that before Russia had ramped up the military support—and the government in Kyiv fought back. Though most of the 14,000 Ukrainians killed in this war died in its first year, the conflict never quite ended. Soldiers and civilians on both sides died every year, up to and including 2021.

What triggered the war of 2014 was the “Maidan Revolution”—the violent overthrow of a democratically elected president with pro-Russia leanings after months of protests against his policies. The policies in question weren’t about NATO, but rather were about the European Union. The protesters wanted Ukraine to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, a step toward eventual membership in it. Which leads to underappreciated point number two:

2) The issue of Ukraine’s future membership in NATO was intertwined with the issue of Ukraine’s future membership in the European Union. Both of these prospects were part of Ukraine’s envisioned integration into the West. They represented the two basic dimensions of the integration—the military and the economic. Both had considerable support in western Ukraine and much less support in eastern and southern Ukraine. And both were opposed by Putin.

If you’re like many people, you may respond to the previous paragraph by asking something along the lines of, “What right does Vladimir Putin have to oppose Ukraine’s joining the European Union? Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and grant that he might naturally find Ukraine’s prospective membership in NATO threatening, what threat does Ukraine’s membership in the European Union pose to him?”

This is a fair question, but it’s not the kind of question we should ask right now. Right now we’re in cognitive empathy mode. We’re trying to understand how Putin’s perspective and his psychology led him to believe certain things and do certain things—things like invading Ukraine. And making judgments about the legitimacy of his attitudes, even if valid for some purposes, will only get in the way for this purpose.

So for now, at least, the question isn’t “Would Putin have been justified in seeing the EU and NATO issues as intertwined?” Rather, the question is, “Is there good reason to believe that Putin did see the EU and NATO issues as intertwined?”

I’ll argue in the next post on this subject that the answer is yes. What’s more, the events of 2013 and 2014—the Maidan Revolution—created a slightly different kind of connection between the two issues, linking them in a causal chain: The EU issue led to the revolution, and Putin then reacted to the revolution in ways that were shaped by his concerns about NATO. And that reaction—“meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine,” as Burns had put it in 2008—set the stage for an even more violent reaction in February of 2022.

If I’m right in arguing that Putin’s concerns about NATO figured critically in both of these reactions (and there’s no reason you should think I am, since I haven’t fully made that argument yet), does that mean that Putin’s alleged imperialist ambitions, and his belief that Ukraine isn’t a “real country” didn’t play a critical role?

No. It’s possible that there were lots of “necessary conditions” for invasion. It’s possible that the invasion is in some sense “an expression of Putin’s imperialist ambitions” and yet the invasion wouldn’t have happened had the US handled the NATO issue, and other issues, more skillfully.

And, just to complicate the picture a bit more: It’s possible that Putin’s “imperialist ambitions” aren’t a constant—that they can get weaker or stronger over time in reaction to events. It’s even possible that they got stronger over time in reaction to some American policies, possibly including NATO-related policies. I’ll explore this possibility in a future post.      

There’s no way William Burns could have foreseen, in 2008, the chain of events that led to Putin’s violent interventions in Ukraine. Then again, there’s no way you can predict exactly where in an expanse of soil the next oak tree will sprout up or exactly when that will be. Still, you know that the more fertile the ground, the more likely an oak tree is to show up eventually, somewhere in that expanse. And Burns saw in 2008 that George Bush’s insistence on embracing the prospect of future NATO membership for Ukraine had made Putin’s intervention in Ukraine more likely.   

Burns wrapped up his tour of duty as Ambassador to Russia in May of 2008—only a month after NATO’s member states declared in Bucharest that Ukraine “will become” a member of NATO, and only two months after Putin told him that Ukraine was “not even a real country.”

Burns still didn’t think a conflict over Ukraine was inevitable. And it wasn’t. But these two developments weren’t encouraging. And they looked even more ominous in light of what—as I noted in my previous post on this subject—Burns had come to believe about Putin: that he was “cocky, cranky, aggrieved, and insecure,” and that he “was paranoid about American conspiracies.” As Burns left his post in Moscow, he later recalled, “some kind of crash seemed more and more likely.”

Vir: Robert Wright, Nonzero


Robert Wright (born January 15, 1957) is an American journalist and author who writes about science, history, politics, and religion. He has written five books: Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information (1988), The Moral Animal (1994), Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (1999), The Evolution of God (2009), and Why Buddhism is True (2017). As of 2019, Wright is a Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary, New York.[1] He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bloggingheads.tv and the founder and editor-in-chief of Meaningoflife.tv.

Wright served as a Senior Editor at The Sciences and The New Republic,[4] and as an editor at The Wilson Quarterly.[5] He has been a contributing editor at The New Republic (where he also co-authored the “TRB” column),[6] Time,[7] and Slate,[8] and has written for The Atlantic Monthly,[9] The New Yorker,[10] and The New York Times Magazine. He contributes frequently to The New York Times, including a stint as guest columnist for the month of April, 2007 and as a contributor to The Opinionator,[11] a web-only opinion page in 2010. Wright became a senior editor of The Atlantic on January 1, 2012.[12] As of February, 2015, the magazine’s author page describes him as “a former senior editor at The Atlantic.”[13]

In early 2000, Wright began teaching at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, teaching a graduate seminar called “Religion and Human Nature” and an undergraduate course called “The Evolution of Religion.” At Princeton, Wright was a Laurence S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow[14] and began co-teaching a graduate seminar with Peter Singer on the biological basis of moral intuition.[15] In 2014, Wright taught a six-week Coursera MOOC on “Buddhism and Modern Psychology”.[16] As of 2019, Wright is a Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary, New York.[1] Also as of 2019, Wright is a Senior Fellow at the think tank New America.

Vir: Wikipedia

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