Why Vladimir Putin is so hung up about Nato

Ukraine is not joining the alliance – but the prospect has the Kremlin worried

Vladimir Putin attends the Olympic Games in Beijing
Vladimir Putin fears greater Nato expansion to the east
(Image credit: Carl Court/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Weeks after Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of the “real risk for a new armed conflict in Europe” following the breakdown of talks with Russia, the world remains braced for Moscow to launch an invasion of Ukraine.

Yet while US officials have cautioned that Russia could attack at a moment’s notice, analysts are puzzling over the paradox of why Vladimir Putin is risking war over something that the military alliance has no plans to do.

“Ukraine has long aspired to join Nato,” said the Associated Press (AP), “but the alliance is not about to offer an invitation, due in part to Ukraine’s official corruption, shortcomings in its defence establishment, and its lack of control over its international borders.”

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So what is the Russian president’s big issue with the military alliance – and is a compromise achievable?

Security guarantees

Moscow’s complaints in talks with Nato “go beyond the question of Ukraine’s association” with the Western alliance, AP reported. But “that link is central to his complaint that the West has pushed him to the limits of his patience by edging closer to Russian borders”.

Putin’s major concern is that “Nato expansion years ago has enhanced its security at the expense of Russia’s”, the news agency continued. So he wants “a legal guarantee that Ukraine be denied Nato membership, knowing that Nato as a matter of principle has never excluded potential membership for any European country – even Russia”.

Although the alliance is refusing to give such a guarantee, the absence of any plans to offer Ukraine membership either has left many experts “optimistic that the situation can resolve without what could be Europe’s first major land war in decades”, Vox reported.

Mark Galeotti, a professor of Russian security affairs at University College London, told the site that “Russians themselves have no enthusiasm for any kind of a war”. But the current dispute is “not about Russia”, he said. “It’s about Putin.”

The Russian president is “worried about the thought of Nato’s forces being based in Ukraine and often “talks about missiles near the [Ukrainian] city of Kharkiv that could hit Moscow in five minutes”, Galeotti explained.

“In reality, these are very, very implausible scenarios,” he added. But “the last thing he wants is for his legacy in the history books to be the guy who lost Ukraine, the guy who rolled over and let Nato and the West have their way”.

Putin’s fears have been exacerbated by Nato’s “existing military presence in Eastern Europe, which includes a regularly rotating series of exercises” in former Soviet states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, AP said.

He also “opposes Nato’s missile defence presence in Romania, a former Soviet satellite state, and a similar base under development in Poland”, the agency reported, and has argued that “they could be converted to offensive weapons capable of threatening Russia”.

In other words, Putin’s issue with Nato is founded in the threat that the alliance could represent to Russia in the future.

Strategic error?

On the same day that Nato’s Stoltenberg warned of a “real risk” of war in Europe, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin was quoted in Russian state-owned media as saying that relations with Nato were at a “critically low level”.

All the same, leaders of Nato member states, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have maintained an open line with the Kremlin. And Moscow has lent heavily on Germany, a country seen by many as “Nato’s weakest link”, according to Peter Rough, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

“Not only do the majority of Germans view military power as antiquated, but they draw a red line around actions that could lead to Russian deaths,” Rough wrote in an article for The Wall Street Journal. “Any war with Russia, German historical memory teaches, will lead to ruin.”

For Putin, “separating the most important country in Europe from America is never far from his mind”, he warned. And through his escalations over Ukraine, the president has “has driven a wedge” between Berlin and other Nato nations.

In 2008, Nato decided against giving countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, both of which have voiced an interest in joining the alliance, “a Membership Action Plan” that would have provided “a pathway to eventual membership”, AP reported.

Germany and France “strongly opposed moving Ukraine toward membership”, the news agency continued, and the “broader view within Nato was that Ukraine would have to complete far-reaching government reforms before becoming a candidate for membership”.

Some analysts argue that Putin’s aggression has strengthened the alliance’s resolve. Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group political risk research firm, tweeted that Russia’s president has helped “to create a strong, more aligned” Nato.

“Russia’s military build-up has also revived talk in Finland and Sweden of joining Nato,” Voice of America reported. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has stressed his country’s “room to manoeuver and freedom of choice” when it comes to joining the alliance.

Given this result, aggression over Ukrainian membership could prove to have been a strategic misstep by the infamously difficult to read Russian leader.

After all, said AP, “while Nato’s door is open” to new members, the reality is that “Ukraine won’t fit through anytime soon”.

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