On Tuesday, July 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the Iranian capital, Tehran. It was Putin’s first visit outside the former-Soviet sphere since Russia’s February 24 all-out invasion of Ukraine.
Khamenei threw his support behind Putin, falsely framing Russia’s war as a preventative strike to contain the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“#NATO is a dangerous entity. The West is totally opposed to a strong, independent Russia. If the way is opened for NATO, it will recognize no limits. If it hadn’t been stopped in #Ukraine, it would have later started a similar war in #Crimea,” a tweet from Khamenei read.
That language mirrors Putin’s own false claims that the West wants to destroy Russia, even as Russia carries out an actual campaign to destroy Ukraine.
There is no evidence to support the claim that NATO, a defensive alliance, sought war with Russia.
Even after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO largely pursued de-escalation with Moscow, although talk of Ukraine joining NATO picked up after Russia launched and carried out a proxy war in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine first sought a Membership Action Plan (MAP) – the formalized accession process to join NATO – in 2008. However, according to NATO, “participation in the MAP does not prejudge any decision by the Alliance on future membership.”
Qualifications for joining NATO include “a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; fair treatment of minority populations; a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully; an ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.”
All 30 NATO members must endorse admission of a new member. At NATO's 2008 summit in Bucharest, Romania, the alliance decided not to offer Ukraine a MAP but did agree that Ukraine could eventually become a NATO member. Still, without a MAP there was no concrete path for Ukraine to actually join the alliance.
In May 2010, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, officially dropped Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership. The following month, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law affirming its status as a military non-aligned country – a move that prevented NATO membership.
According to the Pew Research Center, that ban against joining NATO did not come “without a base of public support.” The previous year, a survey by the center’s Global Attitudes Project found that about half of Ukrainians (51%) opposed joining NATO and only 21% supported it.
Yanukovych was ousted in early 2014 after protests, then came the Russian invasions. Under attack, Ukraine passed legislation scrapping the non-aligned status, stating that it had “proved to be ineffective in guaranteeing Ukraine's security and protecting the country from external aggression and pressure.”
The legislation also expressed Ukraine’s desire to meet “the criteria which are required for membership in the [NATO] alliance.”
By invading Crimea and Donbas in 2014, Russia flagrantly violated its commitments under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, a post-Soviet diplomatic agreement, to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Kyiv giving up its nuclear arsenal.
In June 2017, Ukraine’s parliament passed additional legislation “reinstating membership in NATO as a strategic foreign and security policy objective.”
Under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine approved a National Security Strategy in September 2020 that provided for the development of a “distinctive partnership with NATO with the aim of membership in NATO.”
Still, despite increased support and cooperation, NATO never offered Ukraine a MAP.
In June 2021, U.S. Republican Sen. Rob Portman argued that giving Ukraine and Georgia (another neighbor that Russia invaded in 2008) a formal path to NATO membership could have prevented war.
“I understand NATO's concern about the prospect of integrating with a country where there is an ongoing conflict. But, frankly, if Ukraine and Georgia had received the MAP in 2008, I don't think there would have been a conflict at all,” Portman told Radio Free Europe, a sister U.S.-funded news organization to the Voice of America.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States, European Union and other allies adopted targeted sanctions against some Russian individuals and businesses. NATO also broke off “practical cooperation” with Russia, although it “kept channels for communication with Russia open.”
NATO also began deploying, “on a rotating basis, relatively small multinational battle groups in the Baltic states and Poland,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington, D.C.
He noted that “from 1997 to 2014, NATO deployed virtually no troops or equipment in new member states.”
Writing the same day that Russia officially annexed Crimea, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who served as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations in 2017-19, said the United States “studiously” avoided “any suggestions of military response to Putin’s military aggression.”
Volker said allies sought to prevent NATO from taking action to “avoid ‘escalating’ the crisis.” That, Volker argued, would embolden Putin, who viewed the acquisition of territory as permanent.
“As Russia gobbles up territory and conducts major exercises on the borders of the Baltic States and Ukraine, the United States talks about off-ramps, Washington and Brussels lumber toward phased, underwhelming sanctions, and NATO cuts back on cooperative activities,” Volker wrote.
“NATO seems to be stuck operating in the logic of partnership, rather than the logic of defense and deterrence.”
Volker said that NATO deterrence was necessary "to prevent further Russian incursions into Ukraine and other areas of Eastern Europe."
None of his suggestions would have placed “U.S. or NATO ground troops in Ukraine.” He noted that Germany, a NATO member, “sought to minimize NATO’s military engagement, political role, and any push-back on Russia.”
Germany “aggressively” pushed ahead with the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which bypassed Ukraine’s gas infrastructure, up to the eve of Russia’s 2022 invasion. The pipeline would have doubled Russian gas exports to Germany.
There is no evidence NATO has ever considered military action against Russia. There is abundant evidence that Russia’s war aims are imperial.
In a speech last month, Putin compared himself to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, “equating Russia's invasion of Ukraine today with Peter's expansionist wars some three centuries ago and making his strongest acknowledgment yet that his own war is a land grab,” the BBC reported.
In July 2021, Putin gave a speech in which he called modern Ukraine the brainchild of the Soviets, adding: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
Putin reiterated that point on the eve of the invasion, after he recognized the independence of two Russian-controlled breakaway "republics" in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, which is now the focal point for Russia’s war.
“So, I'll start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely and completely created by Russia, more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia,” Putin said in a February 21 speech.
Russia falsely claims it is halting genocide in eastern Ukraine, and that claim was recently further undermined by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who signaled that Russia’s expansionist goals were extending to southern Ukraine.
“Now the geography has changed. It's not just Donetsk and Luhansk (in eastern Donbas), it's Kherson, Zaporizhia, and several other territories. And this is an ongoing process, consistent and insistent,” Lavrov said.
On February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel argued in a piece published by Just Security, an online analytical forum, that the invasion was “essentially not about NATO.”
“The larger objective is to re-establish Russian political and cultural dominance over a nation that Putin sees as one with Russia, and then follow up by undoing the European rules-based order and security architecture established in the aftermath of World War II,” they wrote.
“Given these goals, Ukrainian neutrality is a woefully insufficient concession for Putin.”
Pundits on Russian state media have appeared to promote genocide, denying Ukraine’s right to exist and comparing Ukrainians to “worms” that need to be removed.
Modern Russia’s eliminationist rhetoric against Ukraine goes back more than a decade. In May, more than 30 independent analysts said Russia was responsible for inciting genocide in Ukraine, The Washington Post reported.
On July 20, members of the U.S. Senate introduced legislation “recognizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a genocide.”
The senators accused Russia of “killing Ukrainian civilians en masse,” indiscriminately targeting civilian infrastructure, “heinous acts of sexual violence and forcibly deporting hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia,” and “trying to eliminate the Ukrainian language, Ukrainian history and Ukrainian culture.”