“For 20 years, we’ve basically dismissed Putin. We've treated Russian security interests as essentially a problem to be waved away. And we've continued in the direction that brought us here right now,” argues Posen. Rademaker disagrees, and explains that “what changed in Ukraine was a consequence of Russian policy, Russian bullying, and Russian mishandling of the relationship with their closest neighbor. That is not America's doing, that is not NATO's doing, that is Russia's doing.”
Prior to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, talks between Vladimir Putin and Western leaders largely centered around NATO’s eastward expansion: the Russian leader demanded that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization deny membership to Ukraine and Georgia and roll back troop deployment in countries that joined after 1997. These demands were ultimately rejected, and Russia’s response was a military assault on Ukraine that has shattered longstanding peace in Europe and weakened the post-soviet liberal international order. Some experts argue that the US-led NATO expansion in the late 1990s and early 2000s must bear some of the blame for the current crisis. Welcoming the likes of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, all once part of the Soviet sphere of influence, was an unnecessary provocation towards Russia when it was still reeling from a humiliating defeat. The Russians viewed this expansion near their border as an existential threat, made worse by Ukraine’s decision to pivot westward towards the EU in 2014. The west, especially the US, must be held partially responsible for the current disaster.
Other foreign policy experts argue that NATO expansion is a deflection of the real cause behind this conflict: the machinations of a paranoid autocrat with imperialist ambitions who is using war to deflect from domestic political and economic unrest. Putin, these experts warn, is using the threat from NATO to distract from the real reason he started a bloody war with Ukraine: a ruthless desire to strengthen his power at home and re-establish waning influence in the region. All blame for the current crisis must rest on Putin’s shoulders, and his alone.