Memo to Macron: Russia doesn’t need security guarantees but Ukraine does

French President Emmanuel Macron sparked controversy in early December by calling on European leaders to provide Russia with security guarantees. During an interview with French TV channel TF1, Macron said Europe needs to prepare the continent’s future security architecture and must consider “how to give guarantees to Russia.” Critics slammed the French leader’s comments as misguided and irresponsible, with some accusing him of legitimizing false narratives used by the Kremlin to justify the invasion of Ukraine.

In the run-up to the February 2022 invasion, Moscow sought to frame the coming offensive as a rational response to decades of NATO expansion into regions of Central and Eastern Europe formerly dominated by Russia. Kremlin officials declared that Russia felt threatened by NATO and demanded far-reaching security guarantees from the West. These protestations of innocence have continued since the invasion began, with Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials claiming that the growing NATO presence in their neighborhood left Russia with no choice but to respond militarily.

The NATO expansion narrative has been widely embraced by self-styled foreign policy realists and Western apologists for the Putin regime, who have used it to argue that the United States and other NATO members must accept their share of the blame for the carnage in Ukraine. They typically claim that Western encroachment into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence was unnecessarily provocative and inevitably led to a violent reaction.

This argument is superficially persuasive but does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Its most obvious flaw is the assumption that NATO poses any kind of security threat to Russia itself. Far from being a plot to encircle Russia, NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement was driven by defensive considerations on the part of new member states in Central and Eastern Europe, who scrambled voluntarily to join the military alliance in order to protect themselves from the imperial ambitions of a resurgent Russia. In other words, the key factor behind the expansion of NATO was fear of renewed Russian aggression among countries that had only recently gained independence from the Kremlin. Their membership bids required no prompting from Washington, London, or Berlin.

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Opponents of NATO enlargement tend to assume the alliance seeks some kind of military confrontation with Russia. However, this is not supported by the facts, to put it mildly. Indeed, beyond the dark fantasies of the Kremlin propaganda bubble, the entire notion of a NATO attack on Russia is widely recognized as absurd.

Since 1991, NATO officials have sought to build trust with Moscow and have created numerous bodies to promote bilateral dialogue. In the early 2000s, Putin himself even expressed an interest in exploring possible Russian membership. Until this year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the alliance had adopted a highly conservative approach toward the deployment of troops and armor in new member states located closer to Russia, and had made significant efforts to maintain transparency. These are not the actions of an army preparing to attack.

The ultimate proof that NATO poses no military threat to Russia can be found in Putin’s own actions. During summer 2022, Finland announced its decision to end decades of neutrality and join the military alliance. With a shared border of over 1000 kilometers, news of Finnish NATO membership should have sparked a major security crisis in Russia and led to a rapid military build-up to counter this emerging threat. Instead, Putin actually withdrew most Russian troops from the Finnish border zone and redeployed them to Ukraine. Clearly, he understands perfectly well that NATO has no intention whatsoever of invading Russia.

Russian protests over allegedly mounting NATO involvement in Ukraine are similarly unfounded. The alliance famously refused to grant Ukraine a Membership Action Plan in 2008, opting instead for deliberately vague promises of future membership. Since the onset of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, NATO has made no effort to change its cautious stance on Ukrainian membership. On the eve of the current invasion, it was obvious to advocates and opponents alike that potential Ukrainian NATO membership was still decades away.

If NATO has no intention of invading Russia or offering Ukraine membership, what is all the fuss about? Russia’s displeasure over NATO expansion is genuine enough, but it is not based on any sense of insecurity. Instead, Moscow objects to the fact that it is no longer able to openly intimidate its NATO neighbors. With virtually no soft power tools at its disposal, Russia has traditionally used its military might to project influence throughout the wider region. NATO membership makes this impossible and is therefore bitterly resented.

Russian complaints over NATO enlargement are not only a reflection of Moscow’s frustration. Crucially, these complaints also serve as a highly effective smokescreen for imperial aggression. While Kremlin efforts to portray the attack on Ukraine as an anti-Nazi crusade or a war on Satanism have invited ridicule, attempts to blame NATO have proven far more effective. International audiences conditioned by decades of Western geopolitical dominance have been all too willing to believe that the West must also be somehow responsible for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine.

While it is perhaps more convenient to point the finger at NATO and the West, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is in fact the most brazen act of unprovoked international aggression in Europe since the days of Hitler and Stalin. Putin himself has repeatedly denied Ukraine’s right to exist and has compared his war to the imperial conquests of eighteenth century Russian Czar Peter the Great. He has attempted to annex four Ukrainian provinces and has declared that Ukrainians are in fact Russians (“one people”).

This helps to explain why so many people were upset by President Macron’s talk of security guarantees for Russia. For years, the Kremlin has cynically exploited imaginary security threats as a means of justifying its own acts of international aggression. With his recent comments, the French President risked validating these fake concerns. In reality, of course, it is Ukraine and not Russia that is in desperate need of security guarantees. Echoing the Kremlin’s deliberate disinformation merely serves to embolden Russia and prolong the war.

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Graves of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the war with Russia at a cemetery in Kyiv. (Photo by Oleksii Chumachenko / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)