According to US officials, ‘Russia has in place 70% of military needed for full invasion’ .

A former Ukraine defence chief has described this number as already sufficient for taking Kyiv.

In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a set of demands, including that: ‘Ukraine not be admitted into NATO, and that NATO not deploy forces to member states close to Russia like Poland and the Baltic states.’

This has led to intense speculation that Ukraine’s possible NATO membership is the cause of Russian troops at its border. Some have even suggested that the response is understandable, given the objectionable prospect of nuclear weapons on Russia’s doorstep. 

A Justifiable Fear?

Russia has deep-seated concerns of a European invasion, which are cemented by history and can only be heightened by NATO expansion. The country was invaded by Napoleon in the 19th century and famously by Hitler’s armies during the 1941 Operation Barbarossa. Historians compare these failed campaigns and Russia’s successful response to ants eating away at a mighty elephant.

NATO’s expansion in recent years ‘has affected Russia’s perception of its security. Thirty years ago, Russia had a buffer zone of satellite states to its west. Now it has only the unimpressive presence of Belarus’.

The former buffer zone of satellite states allayed Russia’s concerns of potential western aggression. The move to prevent Ukraine crossing into NATO territory is largely a tactical one in the face of what Russia sees as a NATO takeover, tipping the balance of power in favour of the West.

Perspectives on Ukraine

To get a better sense of the situation, I consulted with historians and analysts in the know who had other ideas about Russia’s security concerns.

Matthew J. Schmidt, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor in National Security at the University of New Haven. According to him: ‘the claims that having Ukraine in NATO is somehow more of a security threat to Russia are baseless. This is not 1941. In modern war, the kinds of distances between potentially having NATO forces in Ukraine and already existing NATO forces in the Baltics or Poland mean little’.

So what is it about modern warfare that counters the ‘NATO threat’ claim?

Dr Andrew Duncan, a military historian currently teaching with the Open University, argues that the claim is ‘a bit of a red herring’. According to him: ‘All of the major nuclear powers and most of the minor ones have the capacity to launch nuclear weapons from submarines. This means missiles can be fired from only a few miles off a country’s coastline and thus hit their targets very quickly indeed, which makes the precise location of land-based nuclear weapons less important’.

There are other interesting details that potentially undermine the argument that Russia is motivated by fear of an expanding NATO. For instance, the Russian city of Kaliningrad is situated between Lithuania and Poland. Dr Schmidt explains that: ‘Kaliningrad houses nuclear weapons (unlike the Baltics) [and] is far closer to major NATO targets and European cities than any forces would be in Ukraine’. Dr Duncan puts that distance at ‘roughly as close to Berlin as Ukraine is to Moscow’.

Further points were raised against Russia’s concerns about Ukraine’s potential NATO membership. Firstly, any NATO aggression that Russia fears would in fact go against NATO policy and the organisation’s raison d’être. As Dr Duncan explains:

‘NATO is a defensive alliance, and so its eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War is not a prelude to an aggressive attack on Russia. There is simply no mechanism within NATO that would allow that. Article 5 of the NATO treaty means members pledge to treat an attack on any member as an attack on all members. This is defensive and applies if a NATO member is attacked — not if a NATO member attacks another state’.

Furthermore, according to Dr Schmidt, ‘there is no meaningful advantage to be gained by putting nukes in Ukraine. None. […] Putting weapons systems like that against Russia’s border only increases NATO’s risk, which is why they don’t, and won’t in the future, do that.’

Other Sticking Points

What about Russia’s threats to cut off power supplies?

According to Dr Duncan, it would lead to Russia putting itself out of the energy market.

‘[Russia has] become increasingly reliant on revenue from the sale of fossil fuels. The question of who will prove better able to tolerate the economic consequences of a Russian suspension of gas exports is linked to the politics; in other words, which political leaders would be more determined to tough it out? The European economies are wealthier than the Russian economy — often considerably wealthier — and so this would give Europe other options; not least buying the gas they need from other suppliers, even if it might cost more’.

As well as this, any threats to turn off supplies could catalyse Europe towards ceasing to use Russian power. As Dr Schmidt explains:

‘Europe has expanded its LNG (liquefied natural gas) buying and its LNG storage capacity. Over the next 5-10 years, Europe could wean itself off a large chunk of Russian gas altogether in favour of importing LNG. The long-term cost to Moscow is much higher than the short-term to Europe.’

What’s the Real Motive for Militarisation?

Reflecting on the times, Albert Einstein once said: ‘… it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice’.

Remainers still insist that Brexit was conducted under falsehoods, ‘post-truths’ and misunderstandings. We also know that false news spreads faster and more successfully than informed reports.

Could good old-fashioned prejudice be driving Russia’s response? The danger is that this may be enough to provoke action based on suppositions rather than facts. In any event, Russia’s fear of countries falling to western values feels like The Domino Theory — only in reverse.

Note on Contributors

Dr Andrew Duncan is a military historian who currently teaches at the Open University. He previously worked at the University of Birmingham, where he taught modules on military medicine and on strategy. He has also taught military history to officer cadets at RAF Cranwell.

Matthew Schmidt taught strategic and operational planning at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. Currently, he is the Director of the International Affairs Program, and Associate Professor of National Security and Political Science at the University of New Haven. He has appeared on CNN, NBC, and other media outlets.

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