Commentary: Putin’s Mistake Has Exposed NATO’s Passivity


It’s not a great combination—war and nuclear power plants.

Unfortunately, Russia didn’t get the memo. Even worse, this war is one of Europe’s most significant wars since World War Two. Even worse, this plant—the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant—is the largest power plant on the continent. And Russian troops were directly assaulting it, setting it ablaze, shooting grenades and blocking firefighters. Because what could go wrong with that?

Reckless? Undeniably. But this ill-advised concoction pales in comparison to the recklessness of the Russian Federation’s actions over the last thirty years. The Russian Federation has engaged in a reckless foreign policy that threatens world peace, centered around bullying and annexing other nations, in order to rebuild a dead empire and satisfy Putin’s goals.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in the waning days of 1991, the consequence of irreconcilable social changes and political decay, it fractured into 15 pieces, 15 newly independent nations. Russia’s borders and influence receded, the Cold War ended, and the West arrogantly celebrated the “end of history,” waxing poetic about the dawning of a new, democratic age, free of war. NATO fell asleep at the wheel and ignored the Russian Federation.

Meanwhile, Russia was forced to adapt to the loss of superpower status, to the growing pains of a major shift in government. While Gorbachev is lauded in the West for curtailing the human rights abuses of the Soviet Union and for trying to democratize it, he is actually despised in Russia, and not without reason. His successor, Boris Yeltsin, facilitated the unequal transfer of wealth to a small number of oligarchs, “ushering in the most cataclysmic peacetime economic collapse of an industrial country in history.” This collapse precipitated an economic depression in Russia, and unemployment skyrocketed. In 1993, Russia very nearly rent itself apart with the advent of a constitutional crisis, with troops shelling the Russian White House. 

When Vladimir Putin rose to power in 2000, he was welcomed by many as a fair, legitimate change from the corruption and instability which plagued the government of his predecessor, President Yeltsin.

Putin, of course, was none of these things. He’s a run-of-the-mill autocrat who cares only for making himself richer, constructing lavish palaces worth just under a billion dollars, all the while a supermajority of Russians living under the poverty line are children. He does, however, care about seeing Russia’s territory and international influence grow. 

Enter the last thirty years of Russian foreign policy.

The Puppet States:

Georgia was the first target, in large part because of its lack of attention from the international community, and its preexisting instability. Sure enough, in 2008, the first European war of the 21st century broke out, and Russia successfully set up unrecognized puppet states like South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This tactic—creating Russian-dependent puppet states to fight Russia’s wars—was foreshadowed in the Russo-Georgia War, and was used again in Ukraine.

In the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, which rebuked the government’s then-growing ties to Russia, Putin exploited the chaos. He seized Crimea, and invaded eastern Ukraine, using anti-revolution sentiment to create two more puppet states, Donetsk and Luhansk. Through these de facto nations, Putin has continued to wage his war in Ukraine, with Russian-backed separatists doing his dirty work. Puppet states allow Putin to act without accountability, to invade and fight nations indirectly and reap the benefits of war, but not the consequences.

The Warnings:

Ukrainian politicians—and other post-Soviet states not controlled by Russia like Belarus is—have been trying ever since to warn the West of Russia’s territorial ambitions, and its imperialistic bullying. Ukraine applied to join NATO way back in 2008, back before Russia was doing anything on its borders. Instead, NATO proved deaf and blind to these warnings, dragging its feet and bowing to Russia’s baseless opposition to Ukraine joining NATO. Little more than strongly worded letters were sent to Russia for its actions, and the international community ignored the threat.

The Aftermath:

Fast forward to 2022, and the shocking invasion of Ukraine.

International outrage against Russia, accompanied by crushing sanctions. The highest recorded support for joining NATO in Finland and Sweden’s history. Even Switzerland—Switzerland!—has joined in on punishing Russia for its invasion. The polarized and divided United States has managed to rally around Ukraine, and NATO has recovered from its post-Cold War identity crisis. In a matter of weeks, Germany has become the third largest military spender in the world, ending eight decades of steadfast pacifism in the wake of the Second World War—a tectonic shift in German foreign policy difficult to overstate. Putin has gone from a joke to universally despised with blinding speed. Europe’s leaders are right to herald the Ukrainian invasion as a turning point in modern history. Political norms that have stood for decades have been overturned, and the abject failure of Russian appeasement is clearer than ever.

NATO committed a grave miscalculation, the same mistake Neville Chamberlain committed in the 1930’s, displaying comparable wanton arrogance and ignorance. What did they do? They passively ignored the threat of Russia. Despite warnings from across the continent, despite provocative military actions spanning three decades, and despite a regime which casually espoused irredentist nostalgia for the dead Soviet empire, the West remained blind to the danger and refused Ukraine’s application to NATO. The invasion of Ukraine–and indeed, all of Russia’s wars of aggression, threatens world peace by inciting conflict and creating instability within entangling alliances. An invasion of the wrong country would legally bring the entire force of the US army upon Russia. In essence, Putin is waving a blazing torch around in a room drenched in gasoline.

Today, it is too late to add Ukraine to NATO or the European Union—accepting them into these organizations would immediately spark World War Three, as member states could be legally obligated to come to Ukraine’s aid militarily. But it wasn’t too late in 2008, when Ukraine wisely moved to protect themselves from Russian aggression. Putin wouldn’t have dared to attack Ukraine were it in NATO or the EU. The war in Ukraine absolutely could not have happened without NATO’s negligence, and this diplomatic misstep directly provided Putin the opportunity to invade. 

NATO must learn from their mistakes, and admit more nations into the alliance that seek to be a part of it. Follow Finland and Sweden’s public support, and take Russian aggression seriously. Putin’s regime poses a grave threat to the precarious global peace, and the consequences of not seeing that have been, thus far, the invasion and illegal annexations of two sovereign states, reported war crimes spanning two continents, and the displacement of 10 million individuals, or about one in four Ukrainian people.

The greatest danger to world peace isn’t coming, it’s already here.