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Opinion

Putin's claim that NATO threatens Russia is a self-fulfilling prophecy

Moscow's actions have only solidified Ukraine's desire to join Western alliance

| Russia & Caucasus
A demonstrator waves a NATO flag in front of the Georgian Parliament's building in Tbilisi in July 2019: bing part of the Western alliance was the best hope of defending the country's sovereignty.   © AP

Andrew North is a journalist who covers Afghanistan and the Caucasus. He is based in Tbilisi.

The NATO flag, with its muscular-looking four-pointed star, is an unlikely protest symbol. So, too, the logo of that other cornerstone of the Western politico-economic alliance: the European Union's yellow stars on blue.

But whenever the main opposition parties in Georgia demonstrate on the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, you can be sure that NATO and European Union flags will figure prominently among their banners and placards.

The reasons why are worth understanding as the world waits to see whether Russian President Vladimir Putin rings in the new year by invading nearby Ukraine using his neighbor's desire to join NATO as his casus belli. Though that may now be delayed as he responds to a new challenge on his eastern flank, as mass protests in oil-rich Kazakhstan threaten to topple its autocratic and Russian-aligned government.

With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops now lined up along Ukraine's eastern borders, complete with field hospitals and other logistical backup, Putin's narrative is that he has to defend his country against the threat of NATO encirclement if Ukraine's membership request is accepted. And he is demanding not only that Ukraine's request be denied but that the Western military alliance closes itself to new members for good.

Some might say that Russia's president has a point. There are already four NATO states bordering Russia, though all of them relatively small: Norway and the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. If Ukraine becomes the fifth, the U.S.-led alliance would be positioned along 2,000 km of the frontier with Russia, giving it effective control of the Black Sea, taking into account that NATO-member Turkey is on the other shore.

But this is an invented victim narrative. What Putin will not say, especially to audiences back home, is that the NATO members already on Russia's borders voted to join of their own free will. Having prosperous democracies on his doorstep making their own choices poses a direct challenge to his autocratic rule.

With its similar style of government, Kazakhstan is a more preferable neighbor for the Kremlin, providing a mirror rather than a contrast. And the Russian-led alternative to NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) - of which Kazakhstan is a member - may now intervene.

Rather than being forced by U.S. pressure, as the Kremlin information machine tries to claim, the NATO countries next to the Russian frontier decided that being part of the Western alliance was their best hope of defending their sovereignty. And the chief threat they see to that sovereignty is Russia.

That applies just as much to those other nations still trying to join, like the small Caucasian nation of Georgia. Recent media reporting on the tensions stoked by Putin in relation to Ukraine usually includes some context about his 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and subsequent support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. More often than not, however, Russia's invasion of Georgia six years earlier is overlooked.

A column of Russian troops prepares to leave the checkpoint at a bridge over the Inguri River in Western Georgia in October 2008: Russia's invasion six years earlier is overlooked.   © Reuters

That is a mistake because there is a clear pattern dating back to that brief war, because it came soon after a 2008 NATO commitment to grant Georgia and Ukraine membership. More than a decade later, Russian troops still occupy around a fifth of Georgian territory, often seizing additional land by pushing out their unrecognized frontier line. More prescient voices said at the time that this was Putin's dress rehearsal for the much larger Ukraine.

Yet far from deterring Georgia's aspirations for NATO membership, Russian actions have only solidified them. A poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-funded NGO, in May 2021 showed that 78% of Georgians want to join NATO, and 83% the European Union. Officially at least, the current Georgian government also seeks to join both bodies. But pro-Western opposition parties say this is just a show and accuse it of deliberately stalling to please Moscow. Hence the flags at their protests.

Ukraine has seen similar political dynamics as a result of Russian pressure, with majority support for joining NATO. An essay Putin wrote last year claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people" has instead further strengthened efforts to differentiate their culture and history.

The same story played out in the Baltic states, but earlier. After their firsthand experience of Russian rule under the Soviet Union, they made an early bid for NATO membership soon after becoming independent. Georgian politicians now talk admiringly of the foresight and focus of Baltic state leaders in getting their countries under the Western defense umbrella so quickly.

Many Georgians also voice frustration at the lack of movement on their membership bid, which dates back to 2006, even after the country deployed thousands of troops to Afghanistan to help NATO fight the Taliban.

Therein lies a cruel irony. Because, if anything, NATO has been dragging its feet over acceding to Ukraine and Georgia's requests for fear of provoking Putin's wrath. But as his saber-rattling continues, the effects are spreading more widely.

Finland -- another country bordering Russia -- recently indicated that it may ask to join NATO. Nearby Sweden could follow suit. Both are Western-oriented but nonaligned militarily. Russia's increasingly aggressive behavior in their region, as well as Ukraine, has changed their calculus. In his new year address, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto even warned of the risk of encouraging Russia if the West did not show it was prepared to use force.

Niinisto also made a point of saying that applying for NATO membership was Finland's decision alone. Russia's foreign ministry reacted by warning of "serious military and political consequences" if the Western alliance grants the request.

But the more Vladimir Putin complains about NATO expansion, the more it seems to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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