Small Wars Journal

Putin, Ukraine, and NATO

Sat, 10/15/2022 - 2:16pm

Putin, Ukraine, and NATO.

By James Steels


On 24th February 2022 Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine that Putin described as a ‘special military operation’. It has been promoted that one of the reasons behind the wider Ukraine conflict and this particular invasion is due to Putin wanting to absorb old Soviet Bloc countries back into Russia because he has a dream of recreating and bringing back the Soviet Union. This is not entirely true. Putin himself has said: ‘Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain’. So what is the root cause behind the Ukraine war and what has been Russia’s approach to this international security issue?

In 2014 after the Russian invasion of Crimea political scientist John J. Mearsheimer wrote a paper attributing the blame towards the West for this Russian aggression by allowing NATO to expand and encroach too far towards Russia. Despite uncomfortable reading this idea is closer to the truth. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union Western powers led by the United States have pushed for NATO expansion. This first took place in 1999 with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joining the alliance and then in 2004 another large expansion occurred with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joining from the north with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia to the south. NATO was gradually moving east towards Russian borders despite promising in the past that it wouldn’t.

This is an important geopolitical issue because despite the huge size of Russia three quarters of its population lives within an area between the borders of Europe and the Ural Mountains. Russia’s most important cities, including the capital city of Moscow, are all geographically located close to Europe. As a land power Russia’s vulnerability is its closeness to Europe and the flat expanse of land belonging to the North European Plain that divides the two is susceptible to invasion. Historically Russia has always relied on this huge land mass to act as a buffer zone between its enemies and any encroachment on this is taken very seriously by Moscow. To put this into context prior to the expansion of NATO Moscow sat behind a 1,000-mile buffer zone, this has now been reduced to just 200 miles.

So, faced with this perceived threat from NATO slowly encroaching upon the Russian border and diminishing this important buffer zone what theoretical approach to international security has Putin adopted to deal with this issue? Within international security studies ‘Realism’ theory explores the idea that the word is full of anarchy and views the world as it is rather than how we wish it to be. Despite the wishful thinking that others view NATO simply as a defensive alliance promoting cooperation between nation states the reality is that Putin views NATO as a hostile military alliance, and one that is now encroaching upon his doorstep. Under realism the only way a nation state can ensure its security is with the appropriation of power. Russia has certainly appropriated military power with nuclear weapons, the largest military in Europe and the world’s fifth biggest annual defence budget (in 2021).  

In recent years Ukraine has politically shifted away from Russia with a forced change of government that has focused more towards the West and has generated talks of joining NATO. This has caused tensions with Moscow and has struck debate among Western countries and the United States. Nation states like Ukraine should be free to join whatever political alliance they want to, but if Russia has a genuine security concern then this should be recognised and taken into consideration. Is there corruption in Ukraine, undoubtably yes, but probably no more or no less than any other average country in Eastern Europe. Are there elements of Nazism present in Ukraine, again regrettably yes. However, these issues are domestic criminal matters to be resolved by Ukraine internally, they do not give Putin ‘jus ad bellum’ (justice in war/the right to go to war) and to allow his nation state to use military force against another nation state.

Putin has securitized these issues and has socially constructed the idea that Ukraine’s military and Nazism is a security threat to Russia. Within international security studies the constructivism theory explores the idea that a nation state can ‘securitize’ an issue with another nation state to the point where it can become an existential threat compelling them to act. After invading Ukraine Putin promoted the idea that he was forced to act in order to protect the rights of people living there whilst safeguarding Russia’s security in the process. In reality, like a geopolitical game of chess, Putin’s actions were due to the fact that he would prefer to control and influence Ukraine himself rather than the West and at the same time by doing so he believes he is securing the integrity of his borders and maintaining that all important buffer zone between Russia and NATO.

So, by invading Ukraine Putin is applying the principles of realism and neorealism towards Russia’s national security policy as he feels that the use of military force is the best option open to him in order to safeguard Russia’s security from the perceived threat of NATO. Neorealism theory believes that conflict, competition, and limited cooperation are key features between nation states. This is clearly evidenced by the military action and power politics implemented by Putin resulting in the consequences of war and the limited dialogue offered to Ukraine and other members of the international community in order to resolve this

Of course, Putin could consider the liberalism approach to resolving any international security issues that he feels threatens Russia. Within international security liberalism theory explores the idea that war and conflict can be resolved by diplomacy and political alliances. Russia (and the Soviet Union) however has a history of utilising military force to protect their geopolitical and security interests. This ranges from the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Russia-Chechen wars in the 1990’s and 2000’s and its recent intervention in the Syrian civil war.

Therefore, it is an inevitable consequence, and should come as no surprise, that war and conflict will occur if ever Russia feels that its security is threatened. With Sweden and Finland now in the process of joining NATO causing this military alliance to encroach even further this issue has not yet been resolved and will remain a contentious and dangerous geopolitical flashpoint that has the potential to cause further conflict in the future.


About the Author(s)

James Steels is a British defence intelligence analyst focusing on Russia and East Asia defence analysis as well as international security. He holds a HNC in Terrorism Studies from St. Andrews University and is completing a MSc in Intelligence and Security Studies from Liverpool John Moores University.