How Russia experts only tell half the story and make achieving peace more difficult
"the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is wrong"- stopped reading there.
I guess you think Ukraine/US violating the 2014 Minsk Accords by murdering thousands of Russians and provocatively threatening to move missiles on the Russian border wasn't "wrong" as well. It's not like Putin specifically called these two actions out as "red lines" and cited them as a pretext for invading </sarcasm>. Someone like you should be privy to this knowledge, so posting otherwise is very irresponsible. You should probably stop writing this awful blog then.
I also see you called McFaul a "scholar". I wouldn't refer to our russophobe ex-Ambassador to Russia who openly bragged about not knowing Russian on Twitter as a "scholar" but that's just me. Imagine publicly declaring you aren't qualified for you job in an angry Twitter rant lol. Isn't there anyone in the American government that knows Russian?
I couldn't stand Richard Hannania's dumb takes on geopolitics, so I unsubscribed. However I see I forgot to unsubscribe here too. Don't worry, you won't hear from me again. I recommend everyone here unsubscribe and get their geopolitics from honest sources like Multipolarista or Andrew Korykbo's substack.
The points about McFaul's misleading Putin quotes, taken out of context, are well made. That said, it's worth distinguishing Russia's reasonable security concerns, such as the numbers, types, and locations of NATO nuclear weapons and other offensive weapons/troops in proximity to Russia, from the illegitimate concerns, such as NATO expansion. A sovereign nation joining NATO is like a person having a burglar alarm installed in their house. A neighbor complaining about the installation of the burglar alarm is unreasonable. That part really is straightforward. When that complaining neighbor subsequently commits burglaries (e.g., Georgia in 2008, Crimea/Donbas in 2014, the rest of Ukraine in 2022), it brings that point home even more clearly. No reasonable person would look at such a string of burglaries and suggest that the problem was the alarm company installing all of those alarms in the other, non-burglarized houses.
By all appearances, the US and NATO have been willing to engage in discussions about the legitimate Russian concerns, but quite rightly refuse on the issue of NATO expansion. I find Lemoine's point about Putin and some others truly seeing NATO expansion as a threat to be plausible. The problem is that this irrational belief inescapably flows from Putin's belief that Russian imperialism continues to be justified. It's not clear, therefore, that the US or NATO could have productive conversations with Russia on the subject until he (or whoever rules the country) drops those imperial ambitions.
Illuminating essay, which opens up balanced viewpoints far from the Western narrative. Yes, you said it right—“…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.”
The broad thrust of this article is arguing against a strawman. Nobody really disagrees that Russians might have said NATO was a threat. Anyone in the West can point that out freely and openly without fear of reproach. The issue is that NATO wasn't actually a threat in any plausible scenario in the way that Russians were describing it. Russians (or Putin specifically) typically alluded to NATO aggression either from a ground invasion or a nuclear first-strike, both of which were never in the cards given it would start World War 3 and mean a huge portion of the Earth's population from both sides being wiped out in an instant. Some Russians may have drank the propaganda koolaid and genuinely believed the West was willing to eliminate Russia in a geopolitical equivalent of a murder-suicide, but they were mostly relegated to the fringes.
What Russians/Putin were actually worried about was one of three things:
* Western cultural and economic hegemony. NATO expansion doesn't really directly impact this, but NATO expansion serves as a barometer that the West is still triumphing over the former Soviet Union.
* The West fomenting pro-democracy movements in Russia, similar to the Color Revolutions. Much of Russian society and Putin in particular have a deep antipathy for democracy, seeing it as not only a personal threat but as an invasive, enemy ideology and incorrectly blaming it for the turmoil of the Yeltsin years. Again, this doesn't really have anything directly to do with NATO expansion, but the fact that NATO is expanding at all means the West is robust enough to possibly try something like a pro-democracy coup in the future.
* Loss of their sphere of influence. Many Russians still see their country as a Great Power, and the fact that NATO even has the possibility of being extended to Ukraine is deeply insulting.
So yes, many Russians say "NATO is a threat". But no, no reasonable Russian thinks NATO is a threat in a conventional sense since Russia still has the largest nuclear stockpile in the world. Instead, saying "NATO is a threat" is used as a dogwhistle to stoke generalized anti-Western sentiment or to appeal to delusions of grandeur, i.e. that Russia should reassemble the borders of the Soviet Union.
While you may have a point that Russia opposes/fears NATO expansion I think the implication (perhaps not intended but part of the public interpretation) that somehow those fears are reasonable or that NATO expansion is to blame is unjustified, or at least unpoven in that argument..
I mean, I could equally point out that Russia believes that Ukraine belongs to Russia and arguably sees an independent Ukraine as a threat to their interests.
Generally speaking Russia has a view of it's rightful place in the world that involves getting to interfere with the freedom and self-determination of countries in it's neighborhood. So sure, NATO expansion certainly threatened that but it was correct and good to threaten that ability. Also, one needs to distinguish the legitimate concerns of the Russian people from the illegitimate concerns of elites (who may convince the ppl to have illegitimate concerns) that various organizations will threaten their ability to retain control of a country via repressive violence (this isn't very plausible but I can see Russian elites fearing it).
"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."
Its disingenuous to pretend that the rationale for invading Iraq was purely rooted in national security arguments. Humanitarian arguments pointing to the brutality of Saddam's regime and the necessity of "building democracy" in the Middle East also played a pivotal role, especially when it came to selling the war to liberals. I also believe that one could legitimately argue that Saddam's Iraq posed a greater threat to regional stability in the ME than Zelensky's Ukraine posed to regional stability in Europe (not that that justifies the 2003 invasion).
Similarly, with Russia in Ukraine, its clear that hard-headed national security concerns are (at best) only part of the explanation. Putin's deluded belief that Ukrainians are really Russians who need liberation from Neo-Nazis is at least as important. Not least because Ukraine was never going to join NATO while the conflict in Donbas was still ongoing (NATO doesn't admit countries with border disputes), and anyone who claims that NATO was planning on invading Russia needs their brain examined.
Great work and looking forward to more. One can only hope this era of deliberate obfuscation will end someday. Right now we’re in the "not only false but preposterous” stage of narrative control. A bet there are a few ex Soviets around who still remember what that’s like.
Just dropping a thank you for this carefully explained and persuasive perspective.