Some context for Putin's paranoia
A brief history lesson with maps and charts, offering a fairly simple explanation for Putin's obsession with Ukraine in the light of post-Cold War NATO expansion.
Glen Greenwald recently published an essential essay on the Russian-Ukraine war, and the USA’s involvement in contributing to and now perhaps escalating that war: “War Propaganda About Ukraine Becoming More Militaristic, Authoritarian, and Reckless.”
To quote Greenwald’s own tag-text:
“Every useful or pleasing claim about the war, no matter how unverified or subsequently debunked, rapidly spreads, while dissenters are vilified as traitors or Kremlin agents.”
I’ve caught a bit of that already elsewhere — and I no doubt chose my words poorly, for which I do apologize. But before I get to my relatively simple claims, let me also recommend “Before We Start Another War Let's Figure Out Why We Lost The Last One”, by former CIA officer Sam Faddis. He states:
“We just lost a war. Before we start bumbling our way into another one, we ought to figure out why.”
This makes sense to me, but I note that our current mood treats any lack of raging commitment as possible cowardly appeasement and borderline treason.
Finally, and I will discuss his work more below, John Joseph Mearsheimer, former US Air Force officer and the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, predicted our current situation back in 2015. His lecture “The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine Crisis,” available on YouTube, has aged frightening well: a modern-day prophecy of unerring depth and detail.
In particular, he expressed his concern (roughly, minute 44) that
“the West is leading Ukraine down the primose path — and the end result is, Ukraine is going to be wrecked.”
How so? Explained in his talk, and also his earlier (2014) essay in Foreign Affairs, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” which held:
The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West. At the same time, the EU’s expansion eastward and the West’s backing of the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine—beginning with the Orange Revolution in 2004—were critical elements, too.
Professor Mearsheimer, no one’s hippy-dippy peacenik and a world-renown expert who lives up to his billing, has made thoughtful, detailed, and nuanced arguments that I wish our MSM pundits and senior decision-makers would bother learning about.
My Turn Begins
I want to show and explain fairly simply why Putin seems paranoid about NATO. NATO began in 1949. Six years later, the USSR countered with the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Warsaw Pact — the USSR counter to NATO — dissolved in 1991. The Cold War was over.
Let’s have a look at NATO shortly after the Warsaw Pact ended, and the Soviet Union likewise. The different colors show when the member nations joined NATO.
The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the central reasons for NATO’s existence, no longer existed. This true as of 1991. The nation of Russia itself was considerable weaker. A cratering life expectancy and a trashed economy. But Russia was still understood as a threat to many of the newly independent nations formerly coerced or colonized by the Soviet Union.
So the West at the USA’s urging decided to expand NATO, in no small part to offer some protection to the eastern European nations of Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania; the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; and newly formed republics of Slovenia and Slovakia. This accounts for the wave of expansion that took place in 1999, and 2004, under the USA presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush respectively.
A distinct third wave of NATO expansion took place from 2009 to 2020, largely under the Barrack Obama presidency. It escapes me entirely why the USA entered into NATO article 5 agreements with the Balkans nations of Albania (2009), Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017), and North Macedonia (2020).
None of these nations can contribute meaningfully to our defense — and I am at loss as to why we should be on the hook for their conflicts. I need further proof that the Balkans will not be the Balkans.
NATO as of 2022
So NATO now has 30 member nations, and a total population somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 billion people. Our maps exclude the USA and Canada, because again our focus is on Europe. Russia claims that conventional military power concerns them more than our “over-the-horizon” capability. The best path for any such military force from the West is through Ukraine firstly, and Belarus secondly.
The Russians — not just Putin, although he has directly stated so — are concerned with defending Russia’s Western border. In other words, an invasion from Europe — with which they have considerable historical experience.
We will get to shortly why Russia might think that West might want to invade them, but let’s a current look at the lead-up to the war: the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO.
If Ukraine were to join NATO, Russia’s western borders would be indefensible. The Cold War ended, the Warsaw Pact ended, but NATO led by the USA continued to encircle Russia.
The USA is the major NATO player, but let’s keep it in Europe anyway. How has Russia been doing in comparison to the major European NATO partners? In terms of population and military strength, we should surely include Turkey and Poland. But my comparison here concerns economic power along with population size— so I will keep it old school: Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Likewise, since Belarus is essentially part of Russia for political and military purposes, I will add that to the Russian side of the ledger.
Let’s have a look at Life Expectancy (data set from Gapminder.org, CC-BY 4.0).
The major European NATO nations significantly outperform Russia and Belarus. Indeed, Russia is plagued with public health issues.
Let’s have a look at the economic data. We will use a PPP indexed version of Per Capita GDP (also, CC-BY 4.0). As the source indicates: “The unit is in international dollars, fixed to 2017 prices. The data is adjusted for inflation and differences in the cost of living between countries, known as PPP dollars.”
So we’re comparing purchasing power parity (PPP) and not just raw dollar amounts.
Once again, the major European NATO nations significantly outperform Russia and Belarus.
Russia does have a larger population than any of the other European nations. But of the seven nations listed above — and NATO has many European partners, Russian and Belarus both account for about 153,499,000 people; the five NATO nations, an estimated 324,750,000 people. And we could just quickly toss in Poland, for example, for another estimated 37,950,000 people on the European NATO side.
All the advantages are heavily on the side of the European NATO nations.
Russia is a weak nation, albeit with nuclear weapons. Putin surely knows this — and as he has repeatedly stated, he does not want NATO all across his western border.
Who Would Invade Russia?
Well, some Russians think we might. The USA was behind the 2014 coup in Ukraine that deposed a leader favorable to Russia. Ukraine then immediately began cracking down on ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.
We effectively had a simmering civil war in Ukraine.
Genuine Neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian National Guard repeatedly committed acts of violence. In fact, US Congress in 2016 removed a ban on funding them: so our tax-payer dollars contributed to the mayhem. Read about it in the Nation (January 16, 2016). But in 2018, the US Congress imposed a ban on directly supplying the same militias with US weapons. Read about that in the Hill (March 27, 2018). So money, yes, but direct military support: no longer, or not yet.
Still, ethnic Russians in Ukraine were being terrorized and killed, and the USA was facilitating that process — even if unintentionally. I acknowledge also that some of these of Russians were separatists — but not all. And targeting civilians is questionable under nearly every circumstance.
What else was going on? High-ranking Ukrainian nationals were making contacts and friends with high-raking American nationals. As the Wall Street Journal reported in “Clinton Charity Tapped Foreign Friends” (19 March 2015). Between 1999 and 2014 — the year of Ukrainian coup, well-connected Ukrainian nationals made donations totaling $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. In fact, grouping donors by nationality, Ukraine led all other nations — with Saudi Arabia for comparison behind at $7.3 million.
Given that Hillary Clinton was a US Senator from 2001 to 2009, and then US Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, this raised in the USA some obvious concerns about possible conflicts of interest. Even the hard-left VOX took notice, albeit over a year after the WSJ: “4 experts make the case that the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising was troubling” (25 August 2016).
If this was “troubling” to four of the VOX’s handpicked experts, one can only wonder how Russia understood Hillary’s fund-raising in Ukraine.
What else? What more?
The USA, as John J. Mearsheimer correctly noted in 2019, had “been at war for two out of every three years since 1989, fighting seven different wars.”
A brief reminder. The USA under the Bush (W) and Obama administrations, as Mearsheimer (2019) notes, took aim at five countries:
“Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. It used its own military to help topple the regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya but did not do so in Egypt or Syria. Nevertheless, regime change worked twice in Egypt, although not for the better. In Syria, it helped produce a bloody and disastrous civil war.”
We lacked beneficial outcomes, but we did not lack hubris. As Mearsheimer (2019) correctly observes:
“It is quite striking how much confidence Washington’s leaders had in their capacity to transform the politics of those five countries, and the region more generally. But they failed every time, bringing killing and destruction to the greater Middle East and committing the United States to what appear to be endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.”
So for the past few decades, we have been all about that “Regime Change” and “Promoting Democracy” — and not about respecting national sovereignty. And we have been involved with “Regime Change” and “Promoting Democracy” in a nation right on Russia’s western border.
So is Putin paranoid — or is Putin paying attention? No need to choose. He’s almost certainly sociopathic as well. But Russia does have legitimate national security concerns — despite what we may rightfully think of their leader. I do not believe and am not arguing that Russia invading Ukraine is an effective way to deal with those security concerns. But I do think Putin in his mind believes otherwise.
Finally, let me restate the obvious. I am providing an analysis not a justification: these are not the same. Russia violated international law and norms when it invaded Ukraine. This war is evil. This war is wrong. I hope and pray this war ends quickly, with Ukraine’s independence and neutrality restored.
But I do also agree with John J. Mearsheimer’s remarks in 2015 that “the West is leading Ukraine down the primose path — and the end result is, Ukraine is going to be wrecked” (roughly, minute 44). Right now, Ukraine is getting wrecked.
Mearsheimer (2019) holds that we must abandon the pursuit of liberal hegemony and adopt a foreign policy based on realism. Sounds like a start to me. As I stated before, I am an unapologetic nationalist, not a globalist. Two words: America first.
Let’s get out of the “Regime Change” and “Promoting Democracy” business. We take care of business at home, starting with our southern border, inflation, and our current energy-dependence. We engage internationally based on our national interests — on what is best for the people of our republic.