Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin had a number of reasons for invading Ukraine in February and starting the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II. Putin sought to portray the pre-invasion crisis that Moscow created with Ukraine as a NATO-Russia dispute, but that framing does not stand up to serious scrutiny.
Putin tried hard. In late 2021, he complained of NATO’s “rising” military threat on Russia’s western borders and demanded legal guarantees for Russia, as if the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and largest army in Europe needed such guarantees. Moscow proposed draft agreements with NATO and the United States that would have ruled out further NATO enlargement and required the Alliance to withdraw all military forces and infrastructure from members that had joined after 1997.
Washington and NATO offered to engage on other elements of the draft agreements regarding arms control and risk reduction measures, which could have made a genuine contribution to Europe’s security, including Russia. However, U.S. and NATO officials would not foreswear further enlargement. That became another grievance—along with false claims of neo-Nazis in Kyiv, genocide in Donbas and a Ukrainian pursuit of nuclear arms—that Putin cited in his February 24 explanation of his unjustifiable decision to launch a new invasion of Ukraine.
Some Western analysts continue to accept Putin’s argument that lays blame on NATO. The history does not support that argument.
In July 1997, NATO invited Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to begin accession negotiations—but only after first laying the basis for a cooperative relationship with Russia. In May 1997, NATO and Russia concluded the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, which set up a permanent body for consultation and coordination.
Among other things, the Founding Act reiterated that NATO had “no intention, no plan and no reason” to place nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states. The Act also noted that NATO saw no need for the “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” on the territory of new members. These statements reflected the Alliance’s effort to make enlargement for Moscow as non-threatening as possible in military terms.
From 1997 to early 2014, NATO deployed virtually no combat forces on the territory of its new members. That changed following Russia’s use of military force to seize Crimea and its involvement in the conflict in Donbas in eastern Ukraine in March and April 2014. Even then, NATO moved to deploy, on a rotating basis, multinational battlegroups numbering 1,000-1,600 troops in each of the three Baltic states and Poland—no more than tripwire forces.
As for advancing the Alliance to Russia’s borders, five current NATO members border on Russia or the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad (this does not include Finland, which requested membership only in May 2022). Of the five current members, the last to join the Alliance, the three Baltic states, did so in 2004. That was 18 years ago. Putin did not raise a fuss then.
In fact, in May 2002, Putin met NATO leaders in Rome and agreed to a joint declaration on deepening and giving a new quality to NATO-Russia relations. In his address at that NATO-Russia summit, Putin expressed no concern about NATO enlargement, even though the Alliance planned a second summit later that year, and the Russian president had to know that NATO then would invite additional countries, quite probably including the Baltic states, to join.
Putin has in recent years played up grievances against NATO enlargement in ways that he did not when NATO was enlarging in Russia’s neighborhood. The four countries that joined the Alliance after 2004 are all in the Balkans, quite distant from Russia’s borders. The Russian president reacted calmly to this year’s Finnish and Swedish decisions to apply to join—even though Finland’s addition will more than double the length of Russia’s borders with NATO.
As for Moscow’s concerns about Ukraine entering NATO, Russian diplomats and spies surely understood there is little enthusiasm within the Alliance for putting Ukraine on a membership track. With Russian troops occupying parts of Ukraine (even before the February attack), membership would invariably raise the question of allies going to war against Russia.
Ironically, Russia had a neutral Ukraine in 2013. A 2010 Ukrainian law enshrined non-bloc status for the country, and then-Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych showed no desire to join NATO. He was interested in concluding an association agreement with the European Union, but he came under massive pressure from Moscow not to do so in late 2013. He succumbed to that pressure, and the announcement that Kyiv would not sign the completed association agreement triggered protests that same evening that began the Maidan Revolution.
Putin’s decision to launch a new attack on Ukraine appears to have several motivations. One is geopolitical, the Kremlin’s desire to have a Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space and its fear that Ukraine was invariably moving away from Moscow. This is a broader question than Ukraine’s relationship with NATO. But nothing has done more than Russian policy and actions since 2014 to push Ukraine away from Russia and toward the West.
Russian domestic politics looks like a second key factor. For the Kremlin, a democratic, Western-oriented, economically successful Ukraine poses a nightmare, because that Ukraine would cause Russians to question why they cannot have the same political voice and democratic rights that Ukrainians do. For the Kremlin, regime preservation is job number one.
The third factor is Putin himself. Reading his July 2021 essay on Ukraine or his February 24 speech on Russia’s recognition of the so-called “people’s republics” in Donbas makes clear that Putin does not accept the legitimacy of a sovereign and independent Ukrainian state. He regards most of Ukraine as part of historical Russia.
On June 9, the Russian president voiced the quiet part aloud, implicitly comparing himself to Peter the Great on “returning” historic Russian lands to Moscow’s control. Putin said, “Apparently, it is also our lot to return [what is Russia’s] and reinforce [the country].” He said not one word about NATO or NATO enlargement.