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18 February 2022updated 20 Feb 2022 3:32pm

The Ukraine crisis is about more than just Nato membership

Russia's security demands betray a deep-seated view of its neighbour as a satellite state, rather than fully separate.

By Emily Tamkin

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, visited Moscow and Kyiv this week to engage diplomacy to stave off a Russian invasion of Ukraine. During his travels Scholz assured the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, that Ukraine would not, in the near term, join Nato. For Putin, however, this was not enough.  

Yet, what if Nato did agree to never admit Ukraine as a member? If there was a way to make such an assurance, would that end the crisis between Russia and Ukraine?

Timothy Frye, a professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University, told me that the framing of the current problem with Ukraine’s potential Nato membership is “a very good one for Russia”. This statement makes sense, as if the issue is only Nato then Russia is not the aggressor but rather a country concerned about its own borders. 

The security issue, however, goes beyond Ukraine’s Nato membership potential. Consider, for example, that in its reply to the United States’ security proposals, Russia called for a cessation of sending arms to Ukraine; a withdrawal of those arms that have already been provided; and a withdrawal of forces from central and eastern Europe and the Baltic States. Russia seemed to say that its demands needed to be met all together. Those security demands, for Ukraine and the region, clearly go beyond just Ukraine becoming a member of Nato.

What’s more, the issue isn’t only about security. “That the Kremlin goes so far out of its way to deny the legitimacy of the [President Volodymyr] Zelensky government, and even at times the Ukrainian state, [suggests] this is about more than Russia’s security,” said Frye. “Even if there was no military threat from Ukraine, Russia would still be very interested in the domestic political arrangements in Ukraine”.

For example, consider that when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the catalyst was not Nato membership but a potential trade pact between Ukraine and the European Union. (Though to conclude that that means the European Union was the sole problem would also be too simple; as Frye said, “The EU is in some ways the crystallisation of this broader trend and a good example of Ukraine’s evolution away from Moscow”.)

“Russia has a particularly neuralgic attitude towards Ukraine, one in which it’s genuinely difficult even for some very liberal Russians to see Ukraine as fully separate,” Olga Oliker, the Europe and central Asia director at the Crisis Group think tank, wrote in an email. “They don’t want a neutral Ukraine, they want a Ukraine that acts towards Russia like a Warsaw Pact member did towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I don’t know what it would take for them to give that up.”

Again, that isn’t to say there aren’t real security concerns. There are. “We have seen a real build-up of forces and activities from both Nato and Russia since 2014. This was driven, from Nato’s perspective, by Russia’s actions in Ukraine. From Russia’s perspective, which sees its actions in Ukraine as having nothing to do with the rest of Europe, it was driven by that Nato build-up,” added Oliker. 

“Obviously both [the political and the security elements] are important and resolving the security question would be helpful in allowing Ukraine to continue its evolution,” said Frye. “But it’s not going to be sufficient.”

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