Putin’s “Nightmare” Threat to Europe

Russian troops
Photo by Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
December 6, 2021

Ukraine’s national anthem is called “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished,” which, considering recent Ukrainian history, is both apt and brave, like a country stubbornly and continually willing its existence into existence. It’s also a useful summary of what’s happening on the border between Ukraine and Russia, where Russian troops and materiel continue to accumulate as the Russian propaganda machine kicks into full, anti-Ukrainian gear, much to the alarm of Washington and Ukraine.

Since I last wrote about the situation, Russia still hasn’t reinvaded Ukraine (thankfully), and we still don’t know if it will, but it’s ratcheting up tensions every day. Now President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are stating openly what, until now, they’ve been communicating mostly behind the scenes: Russia wants a guarantee by the West that Ukraine will never join NATO. But this is not the West’s to give. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has reiterated, that is a decision that can only be made by the country seeking to join NATO and the alliance’s 30 member states. 

There is a deep irony to the evolution of this dispute. For many years, Putin was obsessed with NATO, regularly naming the alliance as the No. 1 threat to Russia. But NATO, which was created to counter the U.S.S.R., barely paid attention to its old archnemesis after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After 1991, Russia was a pale imitation of its former superpower self. Russia was so unthreatening, in fact, that it was given representation at NATO. The security alliance even conducted regular joint military drills with Russia. Besides, there were other things to pay attention to, like a civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The American-led invasion of Afghanistan was the first and only time that Article V of the NATO charter—which declares an attack on one member state is an attack on all—was invoked by the alliance, and it wasn’t against Moscow.