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Fear of NATO lies at heart of Russian invasion of Ukraine

By Dan Gorry
On March 2, 2014

In the sleepy, early hours of Feb. 27, 60 Russian-speaking armed men in unidentifiable uniforms laid siege to Crimea's parliament building and orchestrated a forced vote of no-confidence to replace Crimea's Prime Minister, Anatolii Moyhliov, with Sergey Aksyonov, a member of the Russian Unity party. The next day, Russian MI-24 assault helicopters carried hundreds of Russian soldiers into Crimea where they subsequently seized Simferopol and Sevastopol International Airports, which was followed by the arrival of a Russian missile boat in Ukrainian waters and an additional 2,000 soldiers. As of now, Russia's military has been mobilized under the pretense of an emergency drill and Russia's parliament voted unanimously to grant authorization for Putin's request to formally deploy troops into Ukraine. Though the EU and the United States have threatened Putin with potential consequences, there is little the west can do to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine besides address Russian concerns over the continual eastward expansion of NATO, which forms the crux of this conflict.
Russian fears of NATO stem all the way back to the beginning of the Cold War and were the motivation behind the 1955 formation of the Warsaw Pact. On Sept 12, 1990 Soviet Union premier Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Two Plus Four Agreement-a center-piece of his perestroika reforms-which allowed for the reunification of Germany in return for assurances that Germany would remain demilitarized and that NATO would not expand any further.
Yet, as Gorbachev remarked in a 2008 interview, "The Americans promised that NATO wouldn't move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War but now half of central and eastern Europe are members, so what happened to their promises? It shows they cannot be trusted."
This expansion included the installation of approximately 20 nuclear warheads in Germany under NATO's nuclear weapons sharing policy and the construction of two missile defense systems within Poland.
Russia's impending invasion of Crimea bears striking similarities with its 2008 Georgian invasion. Whereas Ukraine would become a de facto member of NATO under the EU Association Agreement, Georgia was in the process of formally applying to the security alliance. Crimea's population, however, is at least 60 percent ethnically Russian, just like South Ossetia, which is the now semi-autonomous province of Georgia that Russia invaded and continues to occupy. Crimeans, like South Ossetians, are unnerved by the thought of their states hosting weapons with the purpose of intimidating their native Russia, and the internal strife that results between the population and the state is what provides Russia with the opportunity for a "peace-keeping" invasion.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations Security Council, has attempted to justify Russia's unilateral invasion by claiming that the provisional government constructed by the Euromaiden protestors is illegal and illegitimate. Russia, however, has inarguably committed a grave violation of international law by ignoring its obligations to states' self-determination under the UN Charter and breaking the provisions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that granted Ukraine independent sovereignty from Russia, in addition to disarming it of Soviet nuclear weapons. The problem is Russia will undoubtedly veto any UNSC resolutions that attempt to punish it, and even if western powers had the military capability to combat the invasion, Russia's nuclear deterrent remains an ominous threat.
This Russian invasion has been fearfully anticipated for years as evidenced by an Oct. 5, 2009 cable in which Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko rhetorically questions then-NATO Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow about whether security consultations alone will dissuade Russia after the international community had failed to punish Russia for its 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Four days later, Ukrainian National Security Advisor Volodymyr Horbulin remarked that whoever wins the Ukrainian election-which we know ended up being pro-Russian Yakunovych-would have to "follow in the wake of Russian policies" because, "Since the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, Russian military action against Ukraine is no longer unthinkable."
Instead of seeking to dialogue with the seemingly unstoppable Russians, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reaffirmed that "Ukraine is a valued partner for NATO" and added "We support the right of people of Ukraine to determine their own future without outside interference," which is important to keep in mind because as Horbulin pointed out to Vershbow in 2009, "70 percent of Ukrainians are currently opposed to NATO membership."
If the west truly wants to stop Russia's invasion, it should alleviate Russian fears by respecting Ukrainians' wishes and not expand NATO any further east. 

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