Russia’s buildup of troops at its border with Ukraine has created a diplomatic standoff between Russia and the US, the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
For a better understanding of how we got to this point, and what could come next, I talked to Michael Kimmage, a professor at the Catholic University of America. He specializes in US-Russia relations and is a voice for engagement with Russia and a more nuanced view of the country.
The difference between now and the Cold War
WHAT MATTERS: Let’s start with a very general question. If the Cold War was about US capitalism vs. USSR communism, what is the standoff between Russia and the West about today?
KIMMAGE: It is less sweeping than the Cold War. It is, at its core, a contest for influence in Eastern and Central Europe. The Cold War, by contrast, was defined by the Iron Curtain. The military situation was mostly settled after 1949. That is why ideological conflict (over capitalism and democracy) was so intense; it was the real arena of competition.
Today, there is no Iron Curtain in Europe. There is no clear line dividing Russia from Europe, or Europe from Russia. And in this ambiguous situation there is a stark difference of vision or of worldview.
The United States sees the individual states of Europe as entirely sovereign and as entitled to make their own decisions about security, trade, alliances, etc.
Russia sees itself as having a privileged zone of interest along its western border. For reasons of security and of prestige, Russia demands in this area a combination of influence and deference, and Russia is willing to employ military force where it sees itself as thwarted in this privileged zone.
Ukraine falls right in the middle of this contest, and since 2014 both Moscow and Washington have come to see Ukraine as a barometer of Europe’s future.
Is this the end of the West?
WHAT MATTERS: Much has been written about a potential fraying of the Western alliance. Germany wants to complete a natural gas pipeline from Russia. France is seeking a more independent Europe. Is this the beginning of the end of the post-World War II NATO alliance?
KIMMAGE: Not at all. The alliance has always been a bit unruly.
For a while, France formally distanced itself from NATO — during the Cold War. And the early 1980s witnessed massive protests in Germany and elsewhere about US missile deployments in Europe. Both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars elicited major differences of opinion among the many NATO member states. So there’s nothing new about differing agendas and approaches within NATO.
Taking a step back, the NATO alliance has really been quite unified since December 2021, when the current crisis kicked into high gear.
It has done three things together: provided a measure of military assistance to Ukraine through training and the contributions of individual NATO states to Ukraine’s military preparedness; indicated in no uncertain terms that the war between Ukraine and Russia (now in its eighth year) does not directly concern NATO, since Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, and therefore that NATO itself will not be fighting in Ukraine; and taken seriously the new set of anxieties of Poland, Romania and the Baltic republic, some of which stem from the prospect of a wider war in Ukraine and some from Russia’s deployment of troops and hardware in Belarus.
In addition, NATO has communicated to Russia that it will not make concessions. It will not move back to where it was in 1997, as Vladimir Putin has demanded of NATO. It will not close the open-door policy on membership, and it will not rule out the possibly of accepting Ukraine into the alliance. On the substantive issues, NATO has shown an impressive degree of unity in the last three months.
What should NATO look like in the future?
WHAT MATTERS: The US and NATO countries formally rejected Russia’s demand that Ukraine be barred from entering NATO. Should NATO still be in the business of expanding into Eastern Europe?
KIMMAGE: In my opinion, NATO should no longer be in the business of expanding into Eastern Europe. This is already NATO’s de facto policy regarding Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus, which are the three Eastern European countries that could conceivably join NATO.
Moldova features a frozen conflict, and in Moldova there is a Russian military presence.
Belarus has effectively been annexed by Russia in the last few months; the Belarusian and Russian militaries have long been integrated. There is no way Belarus could enter NATO under these conditions. And Ukraine includes Crimea and a segment of its territory in the East that is under Russian military occupation. These are the practical difficulties with which expanding NATO in Eastern Europe collides.
In a different sense, the alliance already has 30 members. It has a massive, jagged and unstable eastern border. With each new addition come new military commitments, and the alliance will face serious challenges in the future defending those countries that are already members.
Setting limits can be painful. It entails saying no to partners and friends. It carries its own risks. But it is time for NATO to limit itself — not for Russia’s sake but for the sake of its own coherence and for its own capacities of self-defense.