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Why does Russia want to block Ukraine from joining Nato?

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Tensions continue to mount along Russia’s border with Ukraine, where Moscow has been building up its military presence, estimated to amount to around 106,000 soldiers.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has denied he has any intention of invading the neighbouring state but has presented the West with a series of demands, including an end to the eastern expansion of Nato membership to ex-Soviet states and the curtailment of US and Nato military activity on Russia’s doorstep.

Nato has said it is sending additional ships and fighter jets to its deployments in eastern Europe, while the US and UK are withdrawing diplomats’ families from Ukraine.

Moscow has moved troops and materiel into neighbouring Belarus for military drills, and Washington is considering sending thousands of US soldiers to Nato allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, according to media reports.

Mr Putin has meanwhile been warned off even thinking about crossing the border into Ukraine by his US counterpart Joe Biden.

“I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin,” Mr Biden said last week. “He has no misunderstanding. If any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion. Let there be no doubt at all that if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.”

Scandal-hit UK prime minister Boris Johnson has likewise warned that any Kremlin move against its neighbour would “be a disaster for not just for Russia, it would be a disaster for the world” and said “the UK stands squarely behind the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine”.

US secretary of state Anthony Blinken meanwhile met his Russian opposite number Sergey Lavrov in Geneva last week for urgent talks about the situation, having already met with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev and Nato alliance leaders in Berlin.

While Mr Blinken warned against a revival of Cold War tensions and a return to “dangerous and unstable times”, Mr Lavrov’s deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, played the tough guy in Moscow, posturing: “We’re not afraid of anyone, even not of the US.”

After the talks finished, Mr Blinken warned that the US and its allies would deliver a “swift, severe and united response” if Russia attacked Ukraine.

The issue of Ukraine’s exclusion from Nato has been a long-standing obsession for Mr Putin, who bitterly remembers the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s as “a decade of humiliation” in which Bill Clinton’s US “imposed its vision of order on Europe (including in Kosovo in 1999) while the Russians could do nothing but stand by and watch”, according to diplomatic relations expert James Goldgeier.

Mr Yeltsin did write to Mr Clinton in September 1993 expressing similar concerns, however, saying: “We understand, of course, that any possible integration of East European countries into Nato will not automatically lead to the alliance somehow turning against Russia but it is important to take into account how our public opinion might react to that step.”

To address those anxieties, the Nato-Russia Founding Act was signed in 1997, a political agreement explicitly stating that: “Nato and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries.”

The formation of the Nato-Russia Council followed in 2002.

But Mr Putin is nevertheless said to begrudge what he regards as the alliance’s gradual extension eastwards, which saw ex-Soviet satellites Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland join in 1999, followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004.

He chooses to interpret the recruitment of these nations as the US breaking a promise allegedly made by its then-secretary of state James Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev during a visit to Moscow in February 1990 to discuss German reunification following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“There would be no extension of Nato’s jurisdiction for forces of Nato one inch to the east,” Mr Baker is supposed to have pledged to Mr Gorbachev, according to Russian officials, although the quote is heavily disputed and the latter denied the topic was ever discussed in an October 2014 interview with the Kommersant newspaper.

Mr Putin has nurtured his grudge ever since regardless, no doubt keen to foster anti-Western sentiment at home and consolidate his powerbase, and has strongly opposed both Georgia and Ukraine joining the alliance.

“It is obvious that Nato expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe,” he said at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. “On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.”

The following April, attending a Nato summit in Bucharest, he was even more emphatic: “No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward Nato membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia.”

Four months later, Mr Putin invaded Georgia, destroying the country’s armed forces, occupying two autonomous regions and humiliating a president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who had openly courted Nato membership, actions that brought fresh international condemnation.

Russian president Vladimir Putin (AP)
Russian president Vladimir Putin (AP)

For its part, Nato’s official stance remains that “a sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security”.

It points out that its associations with the country date back to the disintegration of the USSR and that cooperation has had to be intensified in light of Russian regional aggression in 2014, when it annexed the Crimea Peninsula and supported a separatist insurgency following the ousting of Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych, a fight that has claimed 14,000 lives in the intervening years.

For the US, Ukraine’s path to Nato membership is less clear cut.

Mr Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as recently as 8 June 2021 that “we support Ukraine membership in Nato” but his deputy, Wendy Sherman, was cagier when she addressed the issue on Wednesday, saying only: “Together, the United States and our Nato allies made clear we will not slam the door shut on Nato’s open door policy - a policy that has always been central to the Nato alliance.”

Mr Biden, the former top Democrat and later chair of that same committee, had previously believed that turning former Soviet republics into Nato allies marked “the beginning of another 50 years of peace” but has since pivoted to scepticism about US involvement in far-flung “Forever Wars”, hence the hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer after 20 years of peace-keeping occupation.

He is also known to be determined to see political and judicial corruption stamped out in Ukraine and reluctant to further provoke the Russian bear, having lived much of his life through the era of mutually-assured destruction, especially given that the security threat posed by China is a current priority that cannot be ignored.

Without Ukraine being part of the alliance, the US and Nato are under no treaty obligation to come to its aid should Russia attack, whereas those security assurances are extended to nearby Baltic states like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since they signed up with the 2004 induction.

All three could become potential future targets for Russian annexation, incidentally, if current aggressions are allowed to proceed unchecked and leave Mr Putin feeling emboldened.

That said, Mr Biden’s sabre-rattling rhetoric strongly suggests he is prepared to intervene in some form, even if that does not mean American boots on the ground.

The US provided Ukraine with $200m in defensive military aid on Wednesday (and has given $2.5bn since 2014) while the Pentagon has said it already has 200 National Guard troops stationed in the country already.

Tough economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation could follow.

If it were to offer more direct defensive resources, the US would be in a position to provide Ukraine with a broad range of assistance free of charge, from air defence, anti-tank and anti-ship systems, electronic warfare and cyber defence systems to supplies of small arms and artillery ammunition.

“The key to thwarting Russian ambitions is to prevent Moscow from having a quick victory and to raise the economic, political, and military costs by imposing economic sanctions, ensuring political isolation from the West, and raising the prospect of a prolonged insurgency that grinds away the Russian military,” Seth Jones and Philip Wasielewski wrote in an analysis of the situation for the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week.

But the only man who really knows what will happen next is Mr Putin.

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