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Kremlin’s Rage Is About Broken Imperialist Dreams, Not Security Threats

A view from the red square in Moscow, May 2016. Photo courtesy of the author.

Recently, the Israeli author and poet Mati Shemoelof has gone public with his views on the Ukraine crisis and the Russia-NATO standoff in an opinion article under the headline “The Problem Of Fortress Europe And Russia“(originally published in Ha’aretz).

Much to my surprise, it seems that the author’s conclusion is that the simplest way to resolve this situation is just to cave in to all Russia’s demands.

As for the NATO alliance itself, this is what Mr Shemoelof had to say about it:

NATO will always say that its goal is to preserve and protect democracy. But we know the laundering of the words of democracy. The United States conquered Afghanistan (with the help of European countries) and Iraq (with the help of Britain and some European countries) to establish democracy. And we saw that this was not the goal.

In this opinion article, I’d like to confront these misconceptions, and to encourage Mr Shemoelof and others who share this kind of sentiment, to reconsider their positions on this issue.

First, I’d like to point out that NATO’s declared goal is certainly not “to preserve and defend democracy”, but to protect the sovereignty of its members, as stated in the official website of the US mission to NATO:

NATO’s fundamental goal is to safeguard the Allies’ freedom and security by political and military means. NATO remains the principal security instrument of the transatlantic community and expression of its common democratic values.

The only reference to democracy that can be found has to do with the fact that NATO is an “expression of the common democratic values” of its members, but it has nothing to do with the mission to “spread democracy” as a primary goal in itself.

Even the original North Atlantic Treaty from 1949 has the same spirit:

Determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.

While the principles of democracy are certainly mentioned, they are by no means the central goal of this alliance. The real goal has always been the security and sovereignty of the nations involved.

NATO is crucial, as most of the nations in it are incapable of defending themselves on their own from nuclear powers with enormous armies such as Russia and China. For them, NATO is the only guarantee that their land will not be trampled underfoot by the boots of occupying soldiers.

It’s true, however, that ideals such as “spreading democracy” can serve as excuses for military invasions of other countries. As the author suggested, the US might be guilty of weaponizing this kind of rhetoric during its invasion of Iraq, as one example of many. Russia has also used a variety of idealistic excuses such as “peacemaking”, or “protection of Russian minorities” since the dissolution of the Soviet Union to justify the takeover of territories from smaller countries such as Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine.

All things considered, President Putin is definitely renowned for his good neighbourly relations with other ex-Soviet republics. Some of his friendly gestures include:

  • Invasion of Georgia, the bombing of its capital Tbilisi, and the takeover of 20% of its territory, resulting in Hundreds of thousands of refugees.
  • Threatening Moldova with a similar fate through massive military exercises in its separatist region Transitsitria.
  • Many repeated attempts to intervene in Ukraine‘s domestic politics, eventually resorting to the occupation of Crimea and fueling up a proxy war in the eastern regions of the country.
  • Assisting the murderous dictator of Belarus to brutally suppress a non-violent popular protest, and then exploiting his dependence on Russia to pressure him into taking further steps to integrate his country with the Russian Federation.

But there is one golden rule that has always been preserved: Russia has never attacked or tried to annex former Soviet countries that were members of NATO, and it’s pretty clear why: such a move would activate Article 5 of the Alliance, according to which an attack on one of the Allies would be considered as an attack on all of them.

Why is it surprising then, that more and more former Soviet republics suddenly desperately want to join NATO?

Considering this fact, it’s almost comical when the solution that Shemoelof suggests is to assure the Kremlin that Ukraine will never join NATO – a move that will not only fail to prevent Russia’s crawling takeover but will even encourage it.

Instead of wondering why NATO is not yielding to Russia’s demands, the question that really should be asked is quite the opposite: why isn’t NATO accepting Ukraine to its ranks faster, to deter Russia from invading? Or why isn’t the US making a clear statement that the invasion of Ukraine by Russia would certainly mean war?

Some fear that such a move will lead to a nuclear world war, but an overview of Moscow’s military decisions through the past two decades clearly proves that it knows to choose its battles well. 

Russia sends its troops only to areas where they have clear superiority and avoids confrontations from which it might emerge humiliated.

Just like his Soviet predecessors, Putin is first and foremost rational, and well aware of the risks involved in a direct confrontation with NATO.

Putin’s military and diplomatic policies may have been more aggressive recently, but his tactics are cold and calculated rather than impulsive.

To Mr Shemoelof’s credit, at least he didn’t spare Mr Putin of his criticism as well. But immediately afterwards he lost himself again in arguments that resonate with Russian propaganda.

For example, this is what he wrote about the possibility of war:

This whole war, if it breaks out, is not really a war for the protection of Ukraine’s borders, or a bending of the hand of the terrible dictator Putin who threatens the democratic fabric of Europe. This war if it breaks out is for the benefit of the military industries, NATO’s vast forces and to provide more resources to European countries.

Well, there is one small detail that Mr Shemoelof doesn’t address: joining NATO, as well as the European Union, is not coercive. NATO’s expansion is in no way similar to Russia’s expansionism, or to the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States and its allies.

NATO is a club that countries join voluntarily, and can also leave whenever they choose. Admittedly, leaving the EU does require more bureaucracy, but as Brexit has proved – this is not a Catholic wedding.

The recently common claim that Russia “has a mentality of a small country surrounded by enemies”, and that NATO missiles really threaten its sovereignty, is a lie that I doubt that even the average Russian citizen really believes in.

This is the kind of Kremlin propaganda intended only for the useful idiots in the West, for them to do what they know best: to advance its strategic and geopolitical interests.

Russia is a nuclear power whose army is one of the strongest in the world. It is also the largest country in the world, which, although was invaded a few times, has never been conquered (and therefore its citizens do not have the same trauma of losing sovereignty as countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, or Lithuania).

The Russian ethos is of invincible, unconquerable power. A country that neither Napoleon nor Hitler could conquer.

In my view, the only cause for Kremlin’s outrage is not NATO’s threat to its sovereignty and security, but the thwarting of its imperialist expansionist dreams.

Interestingly, to illustrate his point, Shemoelof chose to adopt the metaphor of a cat that climbed a high tree and now can’t get off it. At first, he likened President Putin to that cat, but then he surprised the readers when revealed that the cat on the tree is not Mr Putin at all, but rather NATO states. However, eventually, towards the end of the article it’s revealed that in fact, they are both cats that need to get off the tree and stop bickering. I would like to agree only with the second point made by this honourable gentleman:

There is no doubt that President Putin is not a cat.

After all, a cat is a (mostly) harmless creature, while the last thing that can be said about Mr Putin is that he is harmless. 

With that being said, if Mr Putin was a cat, he definitely wouldn’t be the one that got the cream. He’d rather be the cat that got Crimea.

Note: This article was originally published as a blog post on the Hebrew edition of “Times of Israel”

About the Author
Born in Soviet Belarus, but grew up in Israel. Graduate of a bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Haifa, as part of which also studied International Relations at the University of Warsaw. Lived for about two and a half years in the EU (Poland, France, Greece), and was active in European Students for Liberty.
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