The Seeds of WarRoundup
tags: imperialism, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Russian history
Gregory Afinogenov is an assistant professor of Russian history at Georgetown University.
Nothing the U.S. left can do or say will change the course of the war in Ukraine, but it was still embarrassing to find DSA’s International Committee obsessing over “NATO’s militarization” in the lead up to the invasion. (A subsequent statement by the National Political Committee rightly condemns the Russian invasion but implies that NATO expansionism “set the stage” for the conflict.) There are excellent reasons to criticize NATO, and U.S. intervention abroad, both generally and in this specific context—and, of course, our primary duty as socialists is to critique the actions of our own government rather than provide left-wing versions of its own propaganda against hostile states. But it is all too easy for this kind of reasoning to turn into a form of provincialism that sees only the United States and its allies as primary actors; other countries, in this view, only act in response to U.S. aggression and not for reasons of their own. This is what happened here.
The truth is, NATO has no more devoted accomplice than Vladimir Putin. No other traditional enemy of U.S. imperialism has done more to validate the fever dreams of the most extreme hawks. Twenty years ago the alliance was a Cold War relic whose relentless expansion at Russia’s expense was a transparent U.S. attempt to cement unipolarity while its rivals were weak. More recently, it has been riven by internal crises, from Turkish aggression in Syria and Armenia to Donald Trump’s clear contempt for the organization. Yet each time Putin has escalated a political conflict into a military one, or a local military conflict into a larger one, both leaders and citizens of NATO states have been reminded that there are, after all, some benefits to living under the Article 5 umbrella. In Ukraine, only a small minority supported NATO accession a decade ago; today, after years of Russian-instigated conflict and territorial losses, a clear majority does. Traditionally, the alternative favored by NATO opponents has been “Finlandization,” in which smaller states agree to a neutral role in great-power politics in exchange for guarantees of sovereignty and internal noninterference. Thanks to Putin’s actions, this option is now evaporating: Finland itself now supports hardline sanctions on Russia and has joined other European states in sending military shipments to Ukraine.
So if Putin’s principal motivation is to resist uncompromising NATO expansionism, why has he behaved in a way that guarantees that his neighbors will see him as a growing security threat? His own speeches and writings offer an answer to this question. For Putin, resisting NATO is in fact secondary to the larger goal of reuniting Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians under Russian rule—or, failing that, at least ensuring that Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union are either in a secure alliance bloc with Russia (as in the case of Belarus and Kazakhstan, which have significant Russian-speaking populations) or are governed by it directly. Putin sees Russian statehood and Russian national and linguistic identity as inextricably connected, and he is willing to spill Russian and Ukrainian blood to protect this nationalist vision. He also seems to believe that the clock is ticking—younger generations of people in the post-Soviet world are less likely to see the region’s political boundaries as a problem in need of fixing. Hence the desperate, fatal urgency of Putin’s moves in 2013–14 and again in 2022.