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Sorry Farage, Putin is provoked by Ukrainian independence — not NATO

Did NATO enlargement trigger Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? This has long been the official Kremlin narrative, with Moscow portraying the decision as a direct response to decades of NATO expansion into Central and Eastern Europe.

Since the invasion, many outside Russia have also pointed the finger at NATO, with U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump and Reform UK party leader Nigel Farage recently becoming the latest high-profile personalities to echo these claims.

It’s easy to understand why significant numbers of Western politicians, academics and commentators find Russia’s NATO narrative so persuasive. After all, NATO’s growth following the collapse of the Soviet Union is a matter of historical record, with virtually all of the alliance’s new members drawn from the Kremlin’s Cold War-era empire.

But while this would certainly seem to support Russia’s allegations of Western encroachment at first glance, Moscow’s efforts to blame the invasion on NATO don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s central argument has always been that NATO enlargement poses a grave security threat to the Russian Federation. However, his own actions convincingly demonstrate that he doesn’t actually believe this himself.

When Finland and Sweden responded to the invasion by announcing plans to join NATO, Putin said Russia had “no problem” with this Nordic expansion — despite the fact that it would double Russia’s existing border with the alliance, while also transforming the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake. Furthermore, Putin has since underlined this complete lack of concern by unilaterally demilitarizing its Finnish border and withdrawing approximately 80 percent of Russian troops. 

The Russian ruler’s evident indifference toward Finnish and Swedish NATO membership makes a mockery of his claims of feeling existentially threatened by Ukraine’s far weaker ties to the alliance. If Putin genuinely felt NATO posed any danger to Russia, he would have vigorously protested Finland’s decision to join and taken steps to strengthen Russia’s military presence along the country’s new border with NATO. Instead, he did the exact opposite.

Even if one were to suspend disbelief and imagine a future NATO invasion of Russia, there’s no practical reason to view Ukrainian membership as some kind of definitive military redline for the Kremlin. The three Baltic states, which have been NATO members since 2004, also border western Russia, and are just as close to Moscow and other major Russian cities as Ukraine is. If NATO harbored plans to seize the Kremlin or bomb St. Petersburg, it could do so from bases in the Baltics just as easily, without requiring a Ukrainian springboard.

The argument that NATO forced Russia to invade Ukraine also wildly exaggerates the country’s membership prospects. Anyone who listens to Putin would come away with the impression that Ukraine was on the cusp of joining the alliance — but nothing could be further from the truth.

NATO members have been sidestepping Ukraine’s calls for a membership action plan since 2008. And despite a decade of escalating Russian aggression against the country, the alliance has consistently refused to revise this position. Even the outbreak of the Continent’s biggest conflict since World War II has failed to convince skeptics within the alliance that the time to embrace Ukrainian integration has come. Indeed, it speaks volumes that there are zero expectations of any major breakthroughs regarding Ukraine’s membership ahead of NATO’s 75th anniversary summit in July.

Vladimir Putin’s central argument has always been that NATO enlargement poses a grave security threat to Russian. | Nhac Nguyen/Getty Images

Even the language Russia uses to promote its claims against NATO is misleading. By repeatedly criticizing “NATO expansion,” the Kremlin conjures notions of an expansionist empire seeking to acquire new possessions through real or implied aggression. But nobody has ever been forced to join NATO. Rather, the alliance’s post-1991 enlargement has come almost exclusively at the initiative of new member countries, which have clamored to join the organization. And understandably, these new members now view Russia’s invasion as proof that they were right to pursue membership when they did.

Russian resentment over NATO’s post-1991 growth isn’t entirely artificial, of course, but this displeasure has little to do with genuine security concerns. Instead, the Kremlin is bitter over its dramatic loss of influence in nearby countries, which are now no longer vulnerable to Moscow’s traditional methods of coercion. While NATO represents no plausible threat to Russian national security, it does create substantial obstacles for Russian imperialism.

In other words, NATO prevents Russia from bullying its neighbors.

An understanding of Russia’s imperial agenda is essential for anyone seeking to make sense of its invasion of Ukraine. Putin prefers to lecture the international community on the alleged injustices of NATO expansion, but he adopts a strikingly different tone when addressing domestic audiences, often portraying the war in openly imperialistic terms. He has repeatedly claimed to be returning “historically Russian lands” and has compared his invasion to the eighteenth-century imperial conquests of Czar Peter the Great.

It’s no surprise to learn, then, that on the first day of the invasion, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly quipped that Putin has only three advisors, “Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Catherine the Great.”

Putin’s decision to invade was the product of imperial ambitions deeply rooted in Russian history that predate NATO’s foundation by centuries. He wasn’t provoked into invading because of NATO enlargement, which he sees as posing no discernible threat to Russia’s national security. He was provoked by the steady consolidation of Ukrainian statehood prior to 2022, and the prospect of becoming the first Russian ruler to lose control over Ukraine in over 300 years.

Russian resentment over NATO’s post-1991 growth isn’t entirely artificial. | Pool Photo by Evelyn Hockstein via Getty Images

By amplifying Putin’s bogus claims of NATO’s responsibility for today’s war, Western politicians like Trump and Farage risk legitimizing Russian imperialism, while obscuring the true causes behind the invasion. This will only embolden the Kremlin and lead to further aggression in Ukraine and beyond.

Instead, the message to Moscow needs to be clear and consistent: Ukraine is here to stay as an independent European country and is on a historic path toward integration into the wider Western world. The sooner Russia comes to terms with this, the sooner Europe can begin moving toward a sustainable peace.