The Dilemma for NATO in Ukraine

Of Expansion, Defense, and Nuclear Arms

Credit: Joep Bertrams, The Netherlands

The editorial titled “Putin’s Fear of People Power” was “spot on” in its descriptions of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s fear and loathing of anything vaguely reminiscent of a free and open society. Many ordinary Russians know this because they’ve witnessed President for-life-Putin’s two-decade assault on any quasi-independent broadcast or print outlet, to say nothing of the jailed dissidents and newly-arrested protestors locked up since the first tanks rolled into Ukraine. 

However, author Cynthia Kaplan misspoke when she said NATO had not expanded since 2004. And that the EU and U.S. had done nothing to further fuel Russia’s sense of grievance. 

In September 2017, Montenegro, a tiny country (pop. 640,000) with a deep-water port of critical strategic importance to Russia’s naval ambitions on the Adriatic, joined NATO, much to Putin’s vocal condemnation, anger, and chagrin. The Republic of Northern Macedonia joined NATO in 2020. (See: Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) July 2018).

Putin lobbied for years against the inclusion of Montenegro into NATO, and between 2012-2014 orchestrated a massive dis-information campaign to foment anti-western sentiment, and to stop this tiny but strategic country’s accession into NATO, according to FPRI.

Working with like-minded Serbian and Montenegrin extreme nationalists, Russia was also behind a foiled coup attempt during the 2016 presidential elections.

The writer also failed to note the importance of the bloody implosion and breakup of the country once called Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and how that series of murderous secessionist wars played into Putin’s own fears of both NATO and of internal foment among some of Russia’s own restive regions.

When NATO — led by the U.S. — began its March 1999 bombing war on Serbia to stop atrocities in Kosovo, it was seen by Russia and Putin as proof positive that the West and NATO could not be trusted.

Why? NATO was founded in 1945 as a strictly “defensive” alliance. Its charter said it would come to the aid and defense of another member country, in the event that it was attacked, or under imminent threat. It was never envisioned as offensive alliance, but this is precisely how many Russian military analysts, and certainly Putin, saw the 80-day bombing war against its Orthodox buddy Serbia.

And because this 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia was NATO’s first-ever out-of-theatre offensive action — where neither the U.S. nor Europe were under any threat by the heinous, murderous para-military thugs unleashed by Serbia’s then president Slobodan Milosevic — Putin, who plays a long game — saw this 1999 air war — and NATO’s subsequent quick addition of some 12 countries — as a looming existential threat to Russian hegemony just east of Yugoslavia.

Finally, pure and simple: NATO would not have bombed Serbia in 1999 if it had nuclear weapons. Conversely, Russia would not have audaciously dared to roll into Ukraine or to try its fiendish slaughter or indiscriminate shelling of clinics, critical infrastructure, and the electrical grid had Ukraine been part of NATO.

I wouldn’t trust Putin as far as I can spit. But the West has not always been consistent with its stated values.

One possible slender thread of light: Serbia, a non-NATO country who fought with the Allies in both WWI and WWII, but since 1999 has edged more closely toward China and Russia — nevertheless voted to severely condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when it came to a vote at the UN on March 3.

Joan McQueeney Mitric grew up in Santa Barbara and now is a freelance journalist/editor and former media trainer in the Balkans.


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