First: Russia is not a country, it is an empire.
Exactly 300 years ago, Russian forces first took Latvia and Estonia and called them their own. Seven years later, Peter the Great officially proclaimed Russia an empire and himself its emperor. Today, the Russian Federation contains 83 federated states, 23 of which are nominally autonomous constitutional republics.
Historically, countries were kingdoms, and kings were appointed by God. And emperors told kings what to do. Even when constitutionally prevented from being Russia’s prime minister from 2008 to 2012, Vladimir Putin still directed Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s actions. Putin is, in his mind, Russia’s emperor.
Second: Russia has a love-hate relationship with Europe. It considers itself European, but hates that Europe doesn’t see it that way. Geographically, Europe is indistinct from Asia. It is a single landmass whose only boundary is a cultural one that exists along an amorphous line drawn somewhere between the Vistula River and the Ural Mountains. Just last month, you saw evidence of this continental divide during the Olympics: Russia considers the Caucasus, the mountain chain that played host to the Winter Games, to contain Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus. Yet most Western Europeans consider Mont Blanc, on the French-Italian border, to be Europe’s tallest mountain, even though it is nearly three-thousand feet shorter than its Russian cousin.
Simultaneously being excluded from Europe in the minds of many Europeans, while recognizing that Europe’s cultural traditions are often superior to its own, Russia has cultivated a long-running inferiority complex. The further west the Russian Empire pushes its boundary, the more indisputable its claim that Russia is a European power and the greater it is able to demonstrate Russian superiority to Europeans.
Third: for much of the last century, Western Europe was incidental in a global contest between Moscow and Washington. Germany, France, and England, even if united, were all underlings incapable of self-protection without American might. The Soviet Union could easily have dominated Europe (or so they thought) were it not for those pesky Americans.
NATO, therefore, has always been a sore spot for Russia: it is the one entity that has been able to keep together the formerly warring West European tribes for more than sixty years. They still see the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as its first secretary general did — a means of keeping “The Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” And since Germany was allowed into NATO in 1955, only the first two of its original three goals of NATO still remain.
This means that if America is out, Russia is in. Or at least, that’s the hope of Moscow. NATO has to die if Russia is to take its rightful place as a major European power. And, furthermore, if without NATO, Berlin, Paris, and London resume their triangulating ways, imperial Russians believe that Moscow becomes Europe’s preeminent power. NATO is the immediate obstacle to the Russian Empire’s long-hoped for subjugation of Europe.
Do not mistake that to mean Russia intends to conquer Europe militarily. Better than any other country, Russia understands the tyranny of distance, and knows that it can no more hope for a successful military conquest of the Continent than could Napoleon or Hitler hope to hold Moscow. Imperial Russia simply wants to call the shots, just as Putin told Medvedev what to do for four years.
Since NATO stands in the way of the Russian Empire, Putin has spent much of his reign chipping away at it. With the 2008 invasion of Georgia, he effectively stopped NATO’s growth. Between 1989 and 2009, NATO grew from 16 to 28 countries, with six of its new members coming from the former Warsaw Pact, and three (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) coming from the former USSR itself. When in 2008 Georgia was promised future membership, it portended NATO’s deepest penetration yet into the Russian sphere of influence.
While Putin viewed that expansion as a threat, he also saw it as an opportunity. The South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia are ethnically Russian and nominally Georgian. Militarily, taking it would be easy — especially since one of Georgia’s five infantry brigades (and its best trained one) was then engaged in the Iraq War. Putin recognized that the ethnically Russian provinces offered an opportunity for Russia to be seen as liberators at home while portraying NATO abroad as unwilling to support its friends and future members.
Ukraine took notice. The traditional “bread basket” of Russia was on its way to being the next new NATO member after Georgia. A year-and-a-half after NATO’s non-response to the Russian invasion of Georgia, Ukraine — which had been on the verge of kicking the Russian Navy out of Crimea — signed a 25-year lease allowing the Russian Black Sea Fleet to base in its country.
While the treaty was narrowly ratified with 52% of the vote in the Ukrainian parliament, it was proof that NATO’s promises carried less weight than Russia’s threats. Four years later, NATO has continued its non-response to the Russian re-aggregation of ethnically Russian exclaves.
So what’s next?