Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revived many old tropes about NATO’s successive enlargements in Eastern Europe. Critics allege that expanding NATO was provocative and humiliated Russia. Bringing Eastern Europeans into the fold also supposedly broke earlier pledges given to Soviet and Russian leadership by the George H.W. Bush administration.
The “blame NATO first” framing, apart from aping Vladimir Putin’s own messaging about the war, fails to account for the present situation in Ukraine—a country that does not have a clear path toward NATO membership. Worse yet, it is ahistorical in misrepresenting both the role played by Eastern Europeans—who were leading the effort to open up NATO membership—Americans, and Russians.
The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was not only a moment of liberation but also one of serious uncertainty. Some in the region, such as Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia and later of the Czech Republic, had initial hopes of rejoining, as Havel put it in his 1990 speech to the Polish Sejm and Senate, “a Europe as a friendly family of independent nations and democratic states, a Europe that is stabilized, not divided into blocs and pacts, a Europe that does not need the protection of superpowers, because it is capable of defending itself and building its own security system.”
Yet, it quickly became clear, including to Havel himself, that such a Europe was not an option. The collapse of communist totalitarianism laid bare myriad national antagonisms that had been frozen for decades. Havel’s own country, Czechoslovakia, disintegrated in an unexpected “velvet divorce” of 1992. Yugoslavia’s more complex breakup took a violent turn and led to the Bosnian genocide. Throughout the region, questions of ethnic minorities, language rights, and old grievances resurfaced in a dangerous fashion.