What is the difference between NATO enlargement and the expansion of Russia? While the first takes place on voluntary terms and with the agreement of its members for the sake of defending democratic countries, the second shows an authoritarian nuclear power in the grip of nostalgia for its empire trying to extend its limits (of influence) through a brutal breach and self-serving interpretation of international law. In all this, Russia has not been provoked by the enlargement of NATO, which has created a peaceful and stable neighbourhood around the Russian borders, but rather by the pain of losing a totalitarian empire and witnessing the success of its former vassals in building democratic and free societies. And that poses an existential threat to the authoritarian regime in Russia.

Some days ago, between meetings in Moscow, I took a moment to lay flowers on the spot where one of the best known democrats of modern Russia – Boris Nemtsov – was killed on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge in the shadow of the Kremlin. Boris had been a good friend of mine and we had always had fascinating discussions about the present and the future of Russia. His miss is profoundly felt in Russia today. The authorities are doing everything they can to erase Nemtsov from the popular memory because a country with totalitarian leanings cannot allow the existence of freedom of expression or debates about alternative routes to development among its citizens.


Through the decades, Russia has painted the democratic Western countries as a scary enemy figure who is trying to obtain access to its riches and destroy the “thousand year old civilisation”. People have been told since childhood that the United States and NATO are trying to surround Russia on all sides and annihilate its nationhood. This lie has been used to manipulate millions at home and abroad to justify Russia’s aggressive foreign policy vis-à-vis the democratic West. 


Historical parallels offer us food for thought. Just like in the 1930s, Russia has come to the realisation that the situation in Europe is ripe for changing the current status quo. In addition to restoring the empire, the totalitarian Russia dreams of forcing its rules on the democratic West, setting up new zones of influence, and marginalising the role of the United States in global politics. To this end, even the nuclear button is not out of bounds, at least in words.   


One question has been asked repeatedly of late: why has Russia been amping up the tension now of all times? Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said at a press conference last year that it was all the fault of the West who had set out to destroy the architecture of international relations that is based on the Charter of the United Nations, and had no consideration for Russia’s security fears or honouring its own promises. Lavrov reiterated the Kremlin’s narrative of how NATO had broken its promise and enlarged, and how the “coup” in Ukraine was a threat to Russia’s security. As expected, not a word about Russia’s own aggressiveness, using force to move borders, or neutralising internal democratic institutions and dismantling the civil society, which has pressurised Russia’s democratic neighbours into seeking a security guarantee by joining NATO.


Those who have witnessed the advance of the Russian war wagon with their own eyes, are probably keenly aware that it cannot be stopped by gentle words alone. As a young journalist covering the First Chechen War (1994–1996), I learned what Russian authorities were capable of. The carpet bombings of Grozny killed thousands upon thousands of citizens. For what? To stop the empire from disintegrating and the free will of the people from becoming the norm.


Just like the destruction of the Chechens benefited from the mass dehumanisation campaign of the entire nation back then, the current propaganda is attempting to obliterate the Ukrainian independence and nation. The Kremlin’s appetite has only grown in 30 years and has not been thwarted by Western diplomacy, which is built on good will and hope for peaceful coexistence. In all this, NATO’s enlargement has not been directed against Russia, but against threats to use total force and surround us on all sides. Russian society has been taken hostage by its own history and has not succeeded in breaking free, for objective or subjective reasons, from the repressive grip of the deeply rooted authoritarian regime. 


As the Kremlin’s intention to destroy the democratic Ukraine is only a part of its quest to erode the European security architecture, it makes it particularly hard to find even a somewhat sustainable modus vivendi in the relations between Russia and the West. Russia’s leaders seem prepared to escalate the relations to the maximum. This is done through direct threats of war, use of force, as well as by permitting a public belittling rhetoric towards one’s partners in diplomacy. 


What is to be done? Russian authorities are in fact fully aware that NATO is not a threat. Just like no democratic neighbouring country is a threat to Russia’s security or territorial integrity. If Moscow has even the slightest wish to step back from the edge of the cliff, this is the last moment to do so. Cutting out the threats of violence and ending the aggression against Ukraine would prepare the ground for a functional dialogue. However, the alternative road leads to the deepening of the dangerous confrontation and the closing of a new curtain, which certainly feels like iron.


Absolutely no country can have the right to hegemony in Europe, nor the veto right when the security of the continent is shaped. The European security architecture has withstood the test of time well and there is no good reason to bring it down. Instead, there are always opportunities to fortify it.

This Op-Ed was published by The Moscow Times.


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