Vladimir Putin - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009 Credit: Remy Steinegger / flickr Credit: Remy Steinegger / flickr

As tensions mount, along with fears, as a result of speculation about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, it seems appropriate to reflect on how things might have been different. 

In my view the current situation arguably owes a lot to western mistakes after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the re-unification of Germany. This is not to excuse or minimize the fact that the current situation is also due to the particular criminal traits and romantic Russian imperial goals of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it is to ask whether the West contributed to the conditions that he has so ably exploited over the years to acquire the power he now exercises, and whether the West continues to do so, for lack of acknowledgement of its past mistakes.

It was an exciting time in the early 1990’s. The Cold War had ended, and the cloud of nuclear mutually assured destruction that had been looming for about forty years had lifted. There was talk of a peace dividend and much musing about the need for, and the nature of, a new co-operative pan-European security architecture that also included Russia. NATO was suffering from an existential crisis, in an atmosphere that talked about how to see the newly emerging Russia as ally rather than enemy. Few would have thought that in 2022 there would be such an expanded NATO as there is today, facing off against Russia over the possible further expansion of NATO to include Ukraine. It was also widely felt back then that the United Nations might have an opportunity to finally live up to its potential. The unusual consensus about the first Gulf War seemed to prove such hopes were not groundless.

What happened? In general, it’s hard not to think that the moment for creating a new world was either blown, or deliberately passed up. Instead of a new inclusive security paradigm for Europe that transcended NATO, the alliance dealt with its existential crisis by admitting old Warsaw Pact countries, and the Baltic states as new members. This reinforced Russian paranoia. It was arguably reasonable for many Russians to feel that they had been dealt with in bad faith, as it seemed a newly democratic and non-communist Russia continued to be treated as an enemy despite assurances given by the West in the early 1990’s.

Canadians can be forgiven if they don’t remember much discussion or debate about NATO expansion, as the Canadian government at the time, led by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, showed a unique contempt for Parliament by being the only NATO country to not have a formal debate in their parliaments or congresses about the issue, before expansion was approved.

NATO also dealt with its existential crisis by embracing a new idea that involved NATO engaging in what are called “out of area” actions, first in the former Yugoslavia, and later in Afghanistan and Libya, for example. This activism on NATO’s part, often doing just enough to put a multilateral face on essentially American actions, also went some distance in reinforcing Russian nervousness about what the West was really up to.

The situation was not helped by the ideological gloating about the victory and virtues of capitalism over communism. I remember giving a lecture at Queen’s University in Kingston around 1991 – called Feed the Bear – in which I argued that it was in the West’s best interest to make sure the new Russia succeeded, instead of just seeing it as another market to be exploited. I also recall claiming that the gloating of the West might be misplaced in the sense that the Soviet ideological behemoth might only be the first, and not the last time such a flawed political giant crumbled. At the time I was thinking of what I saw as the dangers to democracy of the then increasingly dominant neoliberal fascination for unfettered global markets, or “globalization” – as it was often simply called – that was leading to greater inequality and hamstringing government ability to act for the common good. 

In any event, the triumphalism in the West created a situation in which the Russian people were subjected to a form of unfettered and unregulated capitalism that would not have been tolerated anywhere in the West itself. Inequality and poverty deepened, while what has been dubbed as “crony capitalism” created billionaire oligarchs whose wealth and power led to widespread corruption, and the discrediting of whatever virtues a properly regulated market economy might actually have.

Enter Vladimir Putin. Putin is one of many Russians who saw the collapse and fragmentation of the Soviet Union as a geo-political tragedy that impugned the historical glory of the mother country. But he also saw this as a political opportunity. A leader who was in tune with such an important Russian sensitivity could go far, and he did. In the meantime, if he wasn’t already corrupt, he allowed power to corrupt him, seeking not only personal wealth, but more personal political power, crushing dissent and opposition, and extinguishing the brief emergence of a democratic Russia. Which is to say that the last thing he needed was a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine on his border to provide a counterexample to his own regime, although it would be hard to argue that Ukraine is a positive contrast in terms of corruption.

The position of NATO and the White House with respect to Putin’s demand that history be rolled back to the mid-1990s is an obvious and clear no – as it should be, no matter what the argument is of how we got here. But with respect to the possible admission of Ukraine to NATO, the real positions of the White House and NATO are difficult to discern. The admission of Ukraine to NATO has seemed like a non-starter for a long time, even among the most avid promoters of NATO expansion. The Russians probably thought so too. Until the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, that is, when a Ukrainian president who wanted closer ties to Russia than Europe was overthrown. The seizure of Crimea in 2014 and Russian interference in the Donbas region of Ukraine followed shortly thereafter. All of which ironically contributed to what Putin is against – that is,  much more talk about the defense of Ukraine and its possible admission to NATO, along with an arguably uncritical tendency to retroactively justify the expansion of NATO.

At the end of the day, it seems ironic that U.S. President Joe Biden is so clear about not defending Ukraine militarily should there be a Russian invasion, when the alleged cause of the tension and possible invasion is a refusal to rule out a future Ukraine in NATO, that would have to be defended by military means. This raises at least two questions. If Ukraine is not worth defending now, why would it ever be allowed to be put in a position where it would have to be defended. Biden has said that Ukraine is not likely to be admitted to NATO in the foreseeable future. It would be a shame to have a conflict over a refusal to clearly say what everyone knows is true, but sometimes wars happen that way.

Having said this, the second question, sadly for Ukraine – but perhaps not for those who abhor the possibility of a wider war – is whether Putin already has his answer on how much Ukraine matters, despite the threat of sanctions, about the future of Ukraine and its place in the mind of the West. If he has the answer, then perhaps the real challenge is how Putin backs away from the cliff he has been peering over, without losing face.

We can only hope that diplomacy will indeed prevail. In the meantime, NATO’s existential crisis, if it wasn’t over already, is certainly over now. It seems like a whole new generation might have to live with the kind of Cold War, and planetary existential anxiety that boomers grew up with. 

A photo of Bill Blaikie.

Bill Blaikie

Bill Blaikie is a retired United Church minister, who served in the Canadian House of Commons as the MP for northeast Winnipeg from 1979 to 2008. He retired from federal politics as the Dean of the...