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Putin’s phony grievance

It is Russia that betrayed Ukraine and the West, not the other way around.

President Vladimir Putin's ultimate goal is to make Ukraine once against a satellite of Moscow, as it was during the Soviet era.WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

Who is the aggressor in the Ukraine-Russia crisis?

To anyone with eyes to see, the answer is obvious. The emergency was caused by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has moved 130,000 troops to the Ukrainian border, readying them for the potential invasion of a country that poses no threat of any kind to Russia. The military buildup is part of a years-long Russian campaign of intimidation and violence. Seven years ago, Putin’s troops invaded, occupied, and seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Then he unleashed a Russian-backed insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, which has so far cost the lives of more than 14,000 soldiers and civilians.


Putin’s ultimate goal is to make Ukraine once again a satellite of Moscow, as it was during the Soviet era. In an article published last year, the Russian dictator rejected the legitimacy of Ukrainian independence, writing that its sovereignty “is possible only in partnership with Russia.” The confrontation that now threatens to plunge Europe into war is entirely Putin’s doing.

But to hear Putin tell it, the crisis over Ukraine is entirely the fault of the United States and its allies. For years Putin has insisted that the post-Cold War enlargement of NATO poses an alarming threat to Russia, which is now acting so belligerently only because it was left with no other choice but to defend itself. He accuses the West of trying to encircle and thereby hobble Russia. He claims that the alliance broke solemn promises it made in the 1990s that NATO would not expand to the east.

These contentions are nonsense. But they are being echoed by Western isolationists and Putin apologists, so it is important to refute them.

To begin with, the notion that NATO is bent on “encircling” Russia is laughable. Fourteen countries border Russia, which is far and away the largest nation on earth by area. Of those 14, just five are NATO allies — the three minuscule Baltic states, plus Norway and Poland — and all of them combined touch a mere 6 percent of Russia’s border.


Nothing about NATO represents a threat to Russian security. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is purely a defensive alliance. It exists to protect its members and has never launched a war of aggression against any country. There is not the faintest reason to think it would do so against Russia. Since World War II, the only military force in Europe to attack neighboring countries has been the Russian army. That is why, after the Soviet empire imploded, the liberated nations of Central and Eastern Europe lobbied so avidly to be admitted as NATO allies — not to menace Russia, but to be protected from it.

Second, Putin’s claim of a NATO betrayal is a sham.

“You promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the east. You cheated us shamelessly,” Putin fumed at a news conference in December. Again and again he has insisted that enlarging the alliance to include countries that were formerly behind the Iron Curtain violated a pledge made by the West when it won the Cold War. But if the United States and its allies made such a commitment, where is the treaty — or even the informal memorandum — saying so? At one point, it is true, US Secretary of State James Baker proposed that NATO troops would not be moved “one inch to the east” as West Germany and the former East Germany were reunited. But in the end, no ban on NATO expansion was ever agreed to.


No less an authority than Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union, has testified that the treachery Putin complains of never occurred.

“The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years,” Gorbachev said firmly in 2014. “I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either.”

For all Putin’s claims about the Western allies not keeping their word, it is Russia that has been guilty of duplicity. In 1994, together with Ukraine, Britain, and the United States, Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum. Under the agreement’s terms, Kyiv agreed to surrender its nuclear weapons — and Moscow agreed to “to respect the independence and sovereignty” of Ukraine. But Moscow shattered that promise.

Putin rages about a mythical Western betrayal, but the real betrayal is the one he has committed against Ukraine — first by annexing Crimea, now by threatening a massive new invasion. Step by step, Putin is pressing to revive the evil empire. The West must not let him succeed.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.