Putin, NATO Expansion and the Missing Context in McFaul’s Narrative
How Russia experts only tell half the story and make achieving peace more difficult
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has gone through several rounds of enlargement so that every non-Soviet former member of the Warsaw Pact and even some former Soviet republics are now part of the Alliance. Russia has long been claiming that it sees NATO expansion as a security threat, but this claim has recently attracted more scrutiny, for it was a key part of the justification presented by the Kremlin for the invasion of Ukraine.
At the end of 2021, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published the draft of a treaty between Russia and NATO members that, among other things, would have required the latter to commit not to enlarge the Alliance further. The US agreed to discuss some of the issues raised in the draft, but made it clear that NATO’s open door policy was not up for debate. A few weeks later, citing the threat that NATO expansion allegedly posed to Russia as one of the main justifications for his decision, Putin announced that Russia would officially recognize the separatist republics in Donbas and shortly after ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. From that moment on, the view that NATO expansion may actually have played a role in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine became verboten and, except for a handful of people like John Mearsheimer (who has been widely reviled for it), almost everyone started parroting that NATO expansion had “nothing to do” with it.
It’s understandable that people don’t want to give the impression they are conceding something to Russian propaganda, but the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is wrong doesn’t mean that people in the Kremlin don’t actually see NATO expansion as a security threat and it didn’t play a role in their calculus. I think it clearly did, albeit in a more complicated way than people on both sides of this debate assume, though I don’t plan on making the case for that view in this article. Instead, I just want to discuss one specific argument against that view, because it has been particularly influential and illustrates how Russia scholars often tell only half the story in that debate.
The argument in question was made by Michael McFaul, a prominent scholar of post-communist Russia and the US Ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, in a paper he co-authored with Robert Person, another Russia specialist. They acknowledge that since the end of the Cold War, NATO expansion has always been a source of tension between the US and Russia, but claim that Russia’s concerns over it have not been constant and that Putin in particular was pretty relaxed about the issue during his first years in power. In support of that argument, they quote several statements made by Putin during the period in question, in which he seemed to regard NATO expansion with equanimity. For instance, in a November 2001 interview, he declared:
Russia acknowledges the role of NATO in the world of today, Russia is prepared to expand its cooperation with this organization. And if we change the quality of the relationship, if we change the format of the relationship between Russia and NATO, then I think NATO enlargement will cease to be an issue — will no longer be a relevant issue.
McFaul and Person also point out that, when asked in the same interview whether he opposed the admission of the Baltic republics into NATO, Putin stated that Russia “cannot forbid people to make certain choices if they want to increase the security of their nations in a particular way”. They also note that a few months later he said during a press conference with Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma that he expected Ukraine to develop closer ties with NATO and that in any case “the decision [was] to be taken by NATO and Ukraine”. They infer from these statements that Putin “is not genuinely frightened by” NATO expansion and that we must look elsewhere for the source of his hostility towards Ukraine and the West. They argue that what Putin really fears is not the expansion of NATO but that of democracy and that he “fabricated this crisis about NATO expansion to undermine Ukrainian democracy”.
The problem with this narrative is that McFaul and Person omit crucial context about those statements that totally undermines the conclusion they draw from them. First, while the statements they quote make it sound as if Putin had no problem with NATO expansion, he made it very clear even at the time that he thought it was a bad idea. For instance, in the same November 2001 interview they quote, Putin also said that he didn’t think that expanding NATO “[made] any sense” because NATO had been created to deal with the threat posed by the Soviet Union and “there [was] no Soviet Union anymore”, so NATO expansion wouldn’t increase anyone’s security. Similarly, during a press conference in 2004 with Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, then Secretary General of NATO, he stated that “Russia's position toward the enlargement of NATO is well known and has not changed” and repeated his view that it wouldn’t increase anyone’s security, but strangely those statements and many others like them didn’t make it into McFaul and Person’s article.
Nevertheless, this raises the question of why, if Putin already saw NATO expansion as a threat at the time, he made the conciliatory statements towards the Alliance that McFaul and Person did quote. In order to answer that question, it’s necessary to explain the context in which they were made. At the time, NATO had just gone through its first post-Cold War round of expansion, which the Russians had opposed in the harshest terms before grudgingly accepting it because they didn’t have a choice. US officials were determined that NATO expansion would go ahead whether or not the Russians liked it, but they also wanted to preserve the relationship with Moscow if possible, so in parallel to the expansion process they started negotiations with Russia on a mechanism for cooperation with NATO that resulted in the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. In particular, this agreement created the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC), in which consultation was supposed to take place on various issues identified as promising avenues for cooperation.
While officially this was presented as a transformation of the relationship between NATO and Russia, in reality it was mostly a face-saving exercise for Yeltsin’s benefit that would allow him to claim as a win what was really a concrete manifestation of Russia’s weakened state and loss of influence. As McFaul himself recounted in a book on US policy toward Russia he co-authored with James Goldgeier, after his advisers explained to him what the NATO-Russia Founding Act was, even Clinton wasn’t exactly impressed by what the US was offering Russia:
So let me get this straight. What the Russians get out of this great deal we’re offering them is a chance to sit in the same room with NATO and join us whenever we all agree to something, but they don’t have any ability to stop us from doing something that they don’t agree with. They can register their disapproval by walking out of the room. And for their second big benefit, they get our promise that we’re not going to put our military stuff into their former allies who are now going to be our allies, unless we happen to wake up one morning and decide to change our mind?
As McFaul and Goldgeier put it, Russia was “getting symbols rather than substance”, but it still took the deal because the US “did not need Russia in order to bring Poland into NATO” and even symbols are better than nothing.
Putin learned the lesson of that episode and, when he became president of Russia, decided to adopt a completely different strategy to deal with NATO expansion. He understood that opposing it head-on was not only pointless but even counterproductive. Russian officials had spent years denouncing it with at times hysterical rhetoric, but this had only exposed Russia’s weakness after the US went ahead with NATO expansion anyway and had arguably sped up the process by appearing to vindicate those who defended the policy on the ground that it was necessary as insurance against a resurgence of Russian imperialism. Since there was no point in opposing something that Russia couldn’t stop, Putin figured that it was better to go along with it in the hope that by adopting a cooperative stance he could obtain a transformation of the relationship with NATO that, unlike the NATO-Russia Founding Act, would not be limited to symbols but actually be substantive.
Indeed, what most people miss in this debate is that it’s not so much NATO expansion per se that Russia opposed as much as the exclusion of Moscow from the post-Cold War European security architecture that it entailed, because the Alliance, despite what the Russians had been led to believe at the end of the Cold War (but that’s a story for another time), had become the cornerstone of that architecture. If NATO became a more political organization and a mechanism could be found to include Russia in the decision-making process, then it would have no reason to fear NATO expansion. In fact, this is exactly what Putin was alluding to in the statement quoted by McFaul and Person, in which he said that if the “quality of the relationship” with NATO changed then enlargement would cease to be an issue. But you wouldn’t know that from reading their paper, because although they are perfectly aware of it, they carefully omit this context.
For a while, especially after Putin went out of his way to support the US in the aftermath of 9/11 and stuck with his decision to realign Russia with the West despite Bush’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (but that’s also a story for another time), it looked as if this strategy was actually working. In 2002, the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was established, which replaced the PJC and promised a qualitative change in the nature of the relationship. Whereas in the PJC, Russia faced NATO as a bloc (the so-called “19 + 1” format), deliberations in the NRC would take place “at 20” and be based on the principle of equality, though NATO members still reserved the right to remove an issue from the NRC and discuss it without Russia if a consensus could not be reached at 20. Here is how George Robertson, then Secretary General of NATO, described this new framework during a press conference in November 2001:
[The new mechanism for cooperation] would involve Russia having an equality with the NATO countries in terms of the subject matter and would be part of the same compromising trade-offs, give and take, that is involved in day-to-day NATO business. That is how we do business at 19. The great United States of America, the mighty France and Germany, the United Kingdom have an equal voice to tiny Luxembourg and even tinier Iceland. But we get compromises. We build consensus. [So] the idea would be that Russia would enter that. That would give Russia a right of equality but also a responsibility and an obligation that would come from being part of the consensus-building organization.
Robertson pointed out that “a new attitude [was] going to be required on both sides if this [was] going to work”, but also noted that if it did, it would change “the way in which we do business”.
As we have seen, McFaul and Person quoted a statement that Putin made in 2002 during a press conference with Kuchma to the effect that he was fine with closer ties between NATO and Ukraine, but what they neglected to say is that he made this statement immediately after describing this new framework for cooperation between NATO and Russia:
Russia, as you know, is engaged in a very constructive dialogue with NATO to create a new Russia-NATO structure “at twenty”, in which all twenty countries will be represented as nations, each having one vote, and all the issues will be solved without prior consultations, without any prior decisions on a number of issues being taken first within the bloc.
Thus, it’s clear that if he made that statement at the time, it was because he thought that his strategy had worked and expected that NATO’s relationship with Russia was going to be transformed by the NRC. Indeed, the NRC promised to grant Russia some limited but nevertheless real decision-making power in concert with the Alliance, which would have gone some way towards alleviating Russia’s concerns about its exclusion from the post-Cold War European security architecture. As long as Russia had a say in decisions made by NATO, it wouldn’t have to worry if NATO continued to expand and became the cornerstone of that architecture, because it would have institutional means to make its voice heard from within and ensure that its interests were taken into account by the Alliance.
Of course, that was assuming that NATO kept up its part of the bargain, which it didn’t. Here is how Thomas Graham, who served as Associate Director of the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State, then Director for Russian Affairs at the National Security Council and finally Special Assistant to the President during that period, described what happened:
The problem was that from the very beginning, the United States and the Bush administration weren’t prepared to deal with this Council as a meeting of 20 individual countries dealing on a national basis. What we did and what we insisted on is that NATO would get together before each meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in what we called the North Atlantic Council — the primary decision-making body of the NATO alliance — and in that meeting we would agree on what the common NATO position would be on the issue that we were going to discuss in the NATO-Russia Council. So … you didn’t have 20 countries sitting at the table, you had NATO in which 19 NATO members were obliged to present and pursue and support a certain approach to a problem, and a Russian approach that may or may not differ from the NATO approach. Again it didn’t take the Russians long to figure out what was going on, so I think that made the Council less attractive to them. And my argument always was that we ought to try at least one issue where we don’t have the NATO alliance agree beforehand what its unified position is going to be and see how the Russians conduct themselves and see what impact it has on alliance unity. And if it worked out well, then we could continue down this process. If it turned out bad, because we had predominant influence at that point because of our power, we could always find an off-ramp with very little loss to our ultimate position vis-à-vis the Russians and vis-à-vis our allies.
However, Graham wasn’t able to convince the rest of the administration and the US never gave the new mechanism a chance, even though NATO had promised the Russians that deliberations in the NRC would really take place “at 20” and not at “19 + 1”. Thus, while it continued to meet until the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and arguably resulted in productive cooperation on some low-level issues, the NRC never transformed the NATO-Russia relationship in the way Putin hoped and had been promised.
Obviously, once you know the context of the statements quoted by McFaul and Person in their paper, they take on a very different meaning. If Putin made so many conciliatory statements on NATO expansion in the first years of his presidency, it’s not because he didn’t see it as a security threat if it implied Russia’s exclusion from the post-Cold War European security architecture, but because he thought that by adopting a cooperative stance on the issue Russia would be included in the decision-making process. For a while, it seemed that his strategy had paid off as NATO promised a new framework for cooperation that would have gone some way toward realizing this ambition, but in the end it didn’t happen because the US didn’t hold up its part of the bargain. Of course, McFaul and Person know about this, but they omit this context even though it undermines the simplistic narrative they are promoting. Nor is this episode the only legitimate grievance that Russia has toward the West, but as Russia scholar Marlène Laruelle recently noted, people are no longer interested in nuance when it comes to the degradation of relations between the two sides:
For me, the war is Putin’s responsibility, but the strategic deadlock that preceded it has been co-created by Russia and the West, with misunderstanding on both sides, and responsibilities on both sides. Whenever you try to bring in some nuance, then you get the accusation of being on Putin's side.
Unfortunately, she is right about that, which is a huge problem for the public discourse about the origins of the war.
In particular, the notion that NATO expansion has “nothing to do” with it has become a dogma that nobody can question in polite company, yet it’s not only false but preposterous. There are hundreds of memoirs, cables, memos, etc. spanning decades attesting that Russian elites have been genuinely frightened by the expansion of NATO. Nor is it the case, as people sometimes claim when you point that out, that if Russian officials have feared NATO expansion it’s only because it prevents Moscow from dominating its neighbors. I’m not saying that neo-imperialist considerations play no role, which would also be ridiculous, but Russian elites actually think that NATO expansion threatens Russia’s security. Now, I agree that their fears are to a large extent irrational (though not entirely), but Russian officials are not the first policymakers to have exaggerated security concerns, and nor will they be the last.
It’s ironic that many people who 20 years ago were convinced that Iraq posed such an imminent threat to the US that it had to be taken out immediately can’t even fathom the possibility that Russian elites might have a similarly inflated perception of the threat posed by NATO expansion. The notion that Putin just made this up and that Russian officials don’t really see NATO expansion as a security threat is so ridiculous that, if the public discourse about Russia were even minimally based in reality, nobody could make such a claim without suffering a serious reputational cost. However, as things are, it’s people who point that out whose reputations suffer because they’re accused of laundering Russian propaganda. Russia scholars bear a large responsibility for this state of affairs, because most of them know things are more complicated than what the dominant narrative claims, but they don’t speak up or even pretend that is not the case because they don’t want to pay the cost. While at some level their behavior is understandable, because in the current environment it’s very difficult to speak up against that narrative, I still think it’s a dereliction of duty.
Now, as I said at the beginning of this article, the way in which NATO expansion played a role in the origins of the war is more complicated than people on both sides commonly assume. In particular, it’s not so much that it was the proximate cause of the war, but rather that it contributed towards creating the conditions that made the war possible. The story of how this happened is complicated and Russia obviously has a huge share of responsibility in the degradations of relations with the West prior to the invasion, but it’s impossible to understand this process without acknowledging that Moscow has legitimate grievances against the West, as the episode I discussed in this article illustrates. The problem is that not only are those grievances never discussed, but when the Russians bring them up they are accused of making things up, which just adds insult to injury. If you were previously unaware of the history presented in this article, I hope that it has convinced you that things are more complicated than you thought.
Soon, I will publish the first part of a larger project on the history of post-Cold War relations between Russia, the West and Ukraine, in which I will give my interpretation of this complicated story. Understanding what led to the war and avoiding simplistic narratives is not only important because truth is intrinsically valuable, but also because it could help bring the conflict to a faster conclusion. Indeed, sooner or later, Russia and Ukraine will have to negotiate a settlement and, one way or another, Western countries will have to be part of the process. However, if people in the West are convinced that all the fault lies with Russia, it will be harder politically for Western governments to play a positive role in the negotiations, because this will necessarily require making compromises and making compromises is harder when you think that you don’t have any responsibility for the situation that people are trying to resolve. Moreover, if Westerners don’t understand what Russia wants and what it fears, it will be harder to make the difficult choices that will result in the best possible deal for everyone.
POST SCRIPTUM: I slightly edited the text of the article and the title, which initially accused McFaul of “lies of omission”, because he reached out to me and convinced me that it was counterproductive. To be clear, in using that expression, I was only referring to the fact that he failed to discuss the context of Putin’s statements. I never meant to suggest that, when he claims that Putin doesn't really fear NATO expansion and that it’s not why he invaded Ukraine, he is misrepresenting his actual view and that he doesn’t really believe that. In fact, I have no doubt that he does, but this just means that we have a different interpretation of the historical record. This is a perfectly legitimate scholarly disagreement and I should have kept it professional, so I apologize for using this kind of rhetoric. Obviously, this doesn’t change anything I said about the substantive issue, but how you say something is also important. The public debate about this is just very frustrating to me because I think it lacks nuance and every time someone tries to introduce some people accuse them of complicity with Putin, but as McFaul pointed out to me, he has his own reasons to be frustrated by the debate and I shouldn’t have let this get the better of me.
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