36

The current Russian troop buildup close to Ukraine and the exercise in Belarus are partially justified by Russian security interests which, in particular, mean that Russia very much opposes NATO membership of Ukraine.

It seems clear that NATO would not admit Ukraine in the foreseeable future. But assuming Ukraine joins at some point: How would that affect (harm) Russian security?

  • Having NATO troops in Ukraine would of course facilitate a ground attack. Does anybody in Russia or NATO seriously consider that remotely plausible, even in the future? (I'd have thought that that was exceedingly unlikely given nuclear deterrence and the lack of any interest in starting a direct war with Russia.)
  • Would Ukraine offer a particular advantage for stationing ballistic missiles or anti-ballistic defense (or something similar) that current NATO territory does not?
  • In that sense, is the situation similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis? (Here, my understanding is that at the time, missiles in Cuba (and Turkey, for the US missiles) posed a serious threat in addition to the existing delivery systems.)
  • Is there some other aspect?

Edit: Another question (Why would Russia care about NATO troops on its borders if it has nuclear weapons?) asked about similar aspects, but is not quite the same because it does not consider any non-invasion harm to Russia's security.

15
  • 25
    Someone voted to close without explanation. I think this question is legit and well formulated, and it should remain open.
    – Evargalo
    Feb 21 at 8:56
  • 4
    I don't understand the question. The answer seems fairly obvious to me - it's for the same reason Ukraine feels threatened by the Russian forces massed across the border. It doesn't matter if the hostile forces are actually going to invade; their very presence is scary.
    – Allure
    Feb 21 at 9:43
  • 3
    @Allure I guess that's an answer, but I don't really understand it: AFAICT Ukraine feels threatened because Russian invasion is considered a real possibility; Ukraine doesn't feel threatened by NATO forces in Poland. So part of the question is whether Russia does thin an invasion is at least a possibility.
    – Toffomat
    Feb 21 at 9:51
  • 11
    @Toffomat as for whether Russia does think an invasion is at least a possibility - it's always going to be a possibility. In the Russian point of view NATO promised not to expand, but they did; they claim to respect other's territorial sovereignty, but they violated Serbian sovereignty by supporting Kosovo independence claiming it is "sui generis"; they claim to be a defensive alliance, but they effected regime change with their intervention in Libya. Do you trust NATO?
    – Allure
    Feb 21 at 10:02
  • 7
    @Allure It's not so much about trust; rather it seems clear to me that an invasion of Russia would be so obviously stupid that no one would seriously think about it, and so the "security interests" are more likely to be about something else (e.g. missile defense). But your answer seems to be that an invasion is seen as a significant risk?
    – Toffomat
    Feb 21 at 11:43

7 Answers 7

34

One key question is the plausibility of a preemptive, conventional or nuclear counterforce strike against the Russian nuclear force. For much of the Cold War, there was a commonly held belief that both sides possessed a survivable second strike capability, like nuclear missile submarines, mobile missiles, and hardened silos, and that even after a preemptive strike there would be more than enough Soviet missiles left to inflict unacceptable damage on the United States.

Now the US is working on both ballistic missile defenses and conventional strike capabilities. Back during the Cold War, it was agreed that missile defense was destabilizing, hence the ABM Treaty. As of now, US missile defense plans are on a much smaller scale than pre-ABM-Treaty. I would say that on paper, Russian concerns are unfounded for now and for years to come. Russia might have different ideas than I have about

  • the American understanding of acceptable damage in a war against Russia,
  • the numbers and readiness of Russian SSBNs,
  • the resilience of the Russian early-warning and command-and-control systems.

If those points are worse than I believe, then Russia would be threatened by small numbers of US interceptors and missiles near their border.

Russia might also be looking two or three decades ahead, and worrying that it cannot afford an arms race against the West. A simplistic interpretation of the end of the Cold War might be that President Reagan threatened to develop and deploy SDI (aka Star Wars) and that Gorbachev knew that the Soviet economy would be unable to keep up.

You might note that Russia is not just demanding political control over Ukraine, but also a rollback of the NATO enlargement of recent decades. NATO forces in the Baltics or Romania are as bad as potential NATO forces in Ukraine in this regard.


A different perspective might be that the Putin regime (as opposed to Russia itself) is threatened by a Western-style democracy in a society that is culturally close to Russia -- the Russian people might demand the same. Russia claims that the string of Color Revolutions were Western-engineered regime change, not the will of the people.

5
  • 9
    Your last point seems spot-on to me, that's why I was sceptical about the justification put forward. Regarding missile defense and counterforce strikes: Does Ukraine offer that much of an advantage, i.e. is the Russian nuclear force concentrated close by, and/or would (most/enough?) ICBMs fly such that they can be intercepted from Ukraine?
    – Toffomat
    Feb 21 at 7:02
  • 17
    @Toffomat, it isn't an all-or-nothing question, it is a cumulative effect. If there are radars in Poland and in Ukraine, they are surely more effective than radars only in Poland. That might be enough to turn unacceptable damage into acceptable damage for a future American President. Or at least allow that President to bluff and blackmail.
    – o.m.
    Feb 21 at 7:07
  • 2
    (+1) for the last point. I am sure this is the main point for Putin.
    – user
    Feb 25 at 20:14
  • The difference is that while Cuba being "in the Soviet camp" caused concern in Washington, and even an attempted, but poorly supported invasion by exiles, actual deployment of Soviet missiles there caused a much more serious confrontation between the superpowers. I'm sure Russian leadership can appreciate the difference, but whether they choose to admit in public that it exists, after they have predicated their whole political careers on waving the NATO scarecrow at home for decades.... is a different matter.
    – Fizz
    May 10 at 15:41
  • I'm pretty sure that if the US chose, post INF scrapping, to fill the Baltics, and/or Poland with medium-range nuclear tipped missiles, Russia would have much more real concerns than they presently have. There is a question here in which answers assert that a ground invasion is easier to do from Ukraine than from the Baltics, but "as the missile flies", the distance to Moscow is about the same. (And Finland, which seems intent on joining NATO, isn't much further in that regard.)
    – Fizz
    May 10 at 15:58
23

The situation is definitely similar to the Cuban missile crisis, but this is not the main point. The more important point is the historical view. The conflict between Russia and the West didn't start with the Cold War, it goes back centuries. During that period the West tried to invade Russia many times, the last such attempt was in 1941. This was a very traumatic experience for all Russians and is still present in their minds. From that point of view NATO troops on Russia's borders are associated with the Western troops on the borders of 1941. From that point of view Russia sees the West as an aggressor, while the West has exactly the opposite view. Some actual events, like intervention in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, confirm that Russian point of view.

When talking about history, one should also keep in mind that Ukraine, other than the Baltic states, was a core part of Russia for centuries. Kiev was even one of the first capitals of Russia and is an important place for the Orthodox Church.

By including Ukraine and Georgia NATO would get control over the whole Black See and Russia would loose access to it.

28
  • 25
    There's a lot of disinformation presented in this answer. (e.g. West invasions). But the worst disinformation is the one that Kiev was one of the first capitals of Russia. It was the capital of the state Kiev and of the Kievan Rus' (a thousand years ago). Claiming that the sole successor of Kievan Rus' is nowadays Russia is like Romania claiming Rome as the sole successor of the Roman Empire. Romania, as well, as Italy and many other countries (including Russia) claim succession of the Roman empire, but I don't see Romanian troops trying to recapture Rome. Will we see Russian troops though?
    – Andrei
    Feb 21 at 16:13
  • 15
    @Andrei, I believe it is a good description of the view of many Russian decisionmakers. In politics, perceptions are just as important as the objective truth.
    – o.m.
    Feb 21 at 16:59
  • 16
    @Andrei: Not sure what else you should call Germany's Operation Barbarosa besides a western invasion. Just because the Germans of the time were led by the modern era's premier bogyman doesn't make them "non-western". Feb 21 at 22:36
  • 13
    The two main points made are quite true: Russia has been repeatedly invaded from the West (different forces, but all western/european) and WW2 (I think they call it the great motherland war or great patriotic war) is still very fresh in russian memory, due to the unimaginable toll it took on the country. We tend to forget that when we see our politicians sable-rattling.
    – Tom
    Feb 21 at 22:46
  • 9
    Using "The West" to describe the source of an invasion is deliberate weasel wording. "The West" did not attempt to invade Russia. No such event ever took place, nor will it ever take place. A specific western country invading other countries, including other western countries, cannot possibly be considered "The West" invading.
    – barbecue
    Feb 22 at 18:29
22

The Russian heartland (Moscow, Saint Petersburg, etc) is on the famously flat European Plain. Most of Ukraine is also on that plain, and there's no natural barrier like mountains or a river along the Russian-Ukrainian border. This means that it is (relatively) easy to invade Russia from Ukraine. If Ukraine were to join NATO, it would mean NATO weaponry and troops at a shorter distance to Moscow than before, separated only by easily-traversed terrain, and now covering most of the western Russian border. Ukraine is also too close to the so-called "Volgograd gap". The Russian state has an existential fear of being invaded again, and so they of course see this as a threat. Also there is a financial aspect: the closer NATO is to Russia, the more expensive it is to be able to defend against them.

Note that this isn't limited to Ukraine. If you look at a map of the European Plain you may notice a striking similarity to the European part of the old Soviet sphere of influence. That's no coincidence: Russia has long desired, and used to have, a buffer zone on the European Plain, so that hostile powers would have to traverse, say, East Germany, Poland, and Belarus or Ukraine before getting to Russia proper, rather than being right at Russia's "doorstep" so to speak. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the following events, a lot of that buffer zone has gone, and that makes the Russians nervous.

Reasonable or not, this seems to be how the Russians see it and, in my opinion, it explains their actions in general.

(Disclaimer: I am not a geopolitics expert. Most of what I know on the subject is from the YouTube channel Caspian Report, which I can recommend if you want a fuller explanation.)

9
  • 2
    What is the Volgograd gap? I can't find anything defining it.
    – neph
    Feb 22 at 16:58
  • 3
    @neph The strip of land between the Black and Caspian Seas is mostly the Caucasus and the southern Kuban. The Volgograd gap is a not-so-precisely-defined region in the northern Kuban, where Ukraine and Kazakhstan are 'closest' and Russia is 'narrowest'. The Don and Volga pass through here, controlling Russia's access to the Caspian and Mediterranean, as well as the Caucasus.
    – user42116
    Feb 23 at 20:52
  • 2
    Sorry, have to DV. Do you know how many Western troops there were in the Eastern European part of NATO, before Putin invaded Ukraine? Or even how many there are now? Compared to how many troops Russia has on its Western border. Countries like Poland, Hungary, or Romania have poor quality military that is no real threat to Russia, certain not in an offensive manner.
    – Fizz
    Mar 10 at 23:42
  • 3
    Russia acts based on who is a potential threat tomorrow, not who is directly threatening it today.
    – Andrea
    Mar 13 at 8:50
  • 4
    @Mayou36 The Russian leadership aren't happy about the Baltic States being in NATO either, but it's perhaps manageable for them so long as no more states join. Ukraine's border with Russia is twice the length of Latvia and Estonia's combined!
    – Andrea
    Mar 14 at 22:04
10

A membership in NATO would enable Ukraine to be a country that is prosperous, democratic, and allied with the West militarily and economically. It would then serve as an example to the Russian people that they, too, can accomplish such a feat with a popular uprising similar to Maidan. Putin prefers to stay in power until his death, so that option is not suitable for him - for reasons that are only too obvious.

Ukraine as a member of NATO means viable non-Putin’s Ukraine. It does not affect Russian security. But it affects the security of the current dictator of Russia, former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. The so called NATO threat is a lie that serves to conceal Putin’s true motives.

References/sources provided on request.

[EDIT, May 10 2022]

REFERENCES:

According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Russian military leaders view the "colour revolutions" (Russian: «цветные революции», romanized: tsvetnye revolyutsii) as a "new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties."[47]

Government figures in Russia, such as Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (in office from 2012) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (in office from 2004), have characterized colour revolutions as externally-fuelled acts with a clear goal to influence the internal affairs that destabilize the economy,[48][49] conflict with the law and represent a new form of warfare.[50][51] Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that Russia must prevent colour revolutions: "We see what tragic consequences the wave of so-called colour revolutions led to. For us, this is a lesson and a warning. We should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia".[52]

The 2015 presidential decree The Russian Federation's National Security Strategy (О Стратегии Национальной Безопасности Российской Федерации) cites "foreign-sponsored regime change" among "main threats to public and national security," including[5][53]

'the activities of radical public associations and groups using nationalist and religious extremist ideology, foreign and international non-governmental organizations, and financial and economic structures, and also individuals, focused on destroying the unity and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, destabilizing the domestic political and social situation—including through inciting "color revolutions"—and destroying traditional Russian religious and moral values'

Colour revolution - Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colour_revolution


New members must uphold democracy, including tolerating diversity.

Minimum Requirements for NATO Membership. Fact sheet prepared by the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs, June 30, 1997. https://1997-2001.state.gov/regions/eur/fs_members.html


  • Abkhazia is considered a puppet state that depends on Russia.[34][35] The economy of Abkhazia is heavily integrated with Russia and uses the Russian ruble as its currency. About half of Abkhazia's state budget is financed with aid money from Russia.[36] Most Abkhazians have Russian passports.[37] Russia maintains a 3,500-strong force in Abkhazia with its headquarters in Gudauta, a former Soviet military base on the Black Sea coast.[38] The borders of the Republic of Abkhazia are being protected by the Russian border guards.[39]
  • Donetsk People's Republic – is considered to be a puppet state which is supported by Russia[40][41]
  • Luhansk People's Republic – is considered to be a puppet state which is supported by Russia[40][41]
  • South Ossetia has declared independence but its ability to maintain independence is solely based on Russian troops deployed on its territory. As South Ossetia is landlocked between Russia and Georgia, from which it seceded, it has to rely on Russia for economic and logistical support, as its entire exports and imports and air and road traffic is only between Russia. Former President of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity claimed he would like South Ossetia eventually to become a part of the Russian Federation through reunification with North Ossetia.[42]
  • Transnistria – is sometimes considered a puppet state supported by Russia.

Puppet state - Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puppet_state

17
  • 4
    "References/sources provided on request." -> Please, I do request them.
    – Evargalo
    Feb 23 at 9:21
  • 7
    So where are References/sources? NATO is not making a country democratic, Turkey is the best example and if going back in history there are much more such examples.
    – convert
    Feb 28 at 20:46
  • 2
    @Evargalo & convert: I will add references right after the war ends, which means ASAP. Sorry for any delays. convert, good point about Turkey, I agree. But then a whole bunch of Eastern European countries became democratic, joined NATO, which allowed them to keep their democracies and not be ripped apart by the military arm of FSB that co-rules Russia. And, by contrast, look at the territories that Russia ripped out of Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine - all non-NATO countries. Are they democratic? Of course not! And yes, Turkey is an exception, while the other examples are the rule. Mar 1 at 3:06
  • 2
    @prosfilaes Sorry my bad english, by curent events I was not tallking about events hapening right now, they are already something like 1 year old.
    – convert
    Mar 11 at 15:38
  • 2
    Why NATO membership was not offered to Russia in 1990s? No 'example' would be necessary.
    – Tauri
    Mar 13 at 17:23
7

Addition to @o.m.

Moscow itself is very important for Russia. One Missile defence region allowed by the ABM treaty was guarding Moscow (USA's one guards one of their complexes with silo-launched ICMB). Missiles from Ukraine leave too little time to react and order counter-attack. This means that the central command could be destroyed before it could react.

One possible solution for the loss of the high command is Perimeter / Dead Hand (Система Периметр). There were tests of its components. There are no clear confirmations on anything related to it. Main idea is if there is possibility of attack, it's put in 'danger' mode. If its computer systems decide there is no high command anymore, special command missiles will be launched. Those missiles will transmit launch permissions for all nuclear forces. Except it is only a partial solution.

NATO missiles in Ukraine could mean that Perimeter should be kept in danger mode constantly, it's unclear how reliable its 'danger' mode is.

10
  • 2
    Nobody wants to nuke Moscow. Whatever for? If Putin's forces stay within their own borders we don't even think about them. This is the 21st century. Civilised people do not invade their neighbours any more.
    – RedSonja
    Mar 14 at 7:39
  • 1
    @RedSonja, Cold War heritage. Too much trust issues. Logic behind this is that it's better that nobody have ability to do so, without paying for it dearly.
    – Tauri
    Mar 14 at 7:51
  • But that's the issue of Russia. The west long left the cold war. As RedSonja correctly pointed out: the west doesn't even think about invading Russia, why? But more on your answer: Latvia is about the same distance to Moscow (and very close to SPB). Isn't that posing the same threat? Also, I really don't understand your answer overall, what exactly are you telling? Also, are you suggesting that Russia is having its central command in the middle of Moscow? I really don't understand what you are trying to say, maybe you can expand a bit?
    – Mayou36
    Mar 14 at 12:45
  • 2
    @Vikarti somebody's been Putin some crazy ideas in your mind. A land invasion of Russia would be madness for any nation on Earth. We just want to get on with our lives and not have to worry about Russian tanks rolling down our streets blowing up our homes, hospitals and schools, like is happening in Ukraine. Mar 15 at 8:36
  • 2
    @Vikarti leaders often promote these ideas of imaginary enemies to pull their populations closer to them. Mar 15 at 9:18
6

NATO is a defensive alliance. Nobody in the West wants war. It exists only to prevent the expansion of dictatorship westwards via force.

The only security being affected, is the security of Putin's thieving regime. Preventing Ukraine joining the EU is Putin's real goal here. Imagine if Ukraine (Europe's largest country) becomes as prosperous as Germany through free and fair trade without gangsters controlling everything of value by force. It would become increasingly clear to Russians over the border, who are getting their wealth leeched away into Putin and his friends' pockets, just how damaging Putin's kleptocratic regime is to them and to Russia. That could destabilise Putin's control of the country.

11
  • 2
    Europe's largest country is Russia.
    – dosvarog
    May 9 at 21:19
  • 2
    @dosvarog I have no particular desire to disagree with you - one could equally argue large parts of Russia are in Asia, and parts are in the Arctic. The point I thought salient when describing it thus, is it's larger than Germany, France, etc. and therefore in terms of resources, it has the potential to be economically larger that Germany if free from dictatorship and corruption. May 9 at 21:35
  • Size of a country has nothing to do with its economy even in Europe. Netherland are smaler then Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, but have a much larger economy.
    – convert
    Jul 5 at 18:04
  • @convert "nothing to do with it", really? Tell me when the GDP of the Falkland islands exceeds that of China. Jul 11 at 8:39
  • @samerivertwice Falkland islands is not even a country. What I said is that size of a country is not always proportional to its GDP.
    – convert
    Jul 11 at 10:03
0

Probably it would not

NATO itself is a defensive organization and cannot call all its members, hey, let's go after Russia today. As such, it does not posses lots of threat by itself, even if some of its aggressive members would. These aggressive members cannot direct all NATO to attack the target they point the finger to. Who choose to join, it is they choice.

When countries just sign an agreement to provide protection to one another in case when somebody attacks, only the aggressor seriously planning to invade them in the future would object. By seriously opposing NATO Russia recognizes itself it has exactly these plans.

And, finally - how much more support for NATO the current Ukraine would provide in addition if accepted as NATO member? Would it not allow NATO troops on they (not yet occupied) territory otherwise? Unlikely. Nuclear weapons? Even Poland now does as much as asking NATO to bring these into they territory. I am under impression, Ukraine would now provide any assistance NATO asks for anyway. Rusia have assured this itself, by starting the invasion. Now Russia can only scare with nuclear war against this scenario, but this possibility would remain in any case.

4
  • 2
    "NATO itself is a defensive organization and cannot call all its members, hey, let's go after Russia today." In Yugolavia, Iraq and Lybia it has worked, as that countries have not ataced any NATO member.
    – convert
    Oct 17 at 18:06
  • @convert You've never heard of Pan Am flight 103? Or of Iraq shooting at US planes? Oct 18 at 0:08
  • 1
    I don't think you will be happy if I am from Russia will go into your 30-y house and pick one room to protect it as peaceful organization against your non-democratic home usage. Historically, Ukraine should not join any block as it has been wroten in his "Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine". If it will, Russia can cancel its Sovereignty and pull everyting legitly back.
    – Egor
    Oct 18 at 19:59
  • @Egor I think that part of the whole issue here is that Ukraine does not consider themselves "a room in Russia's house." If your neighbour decided to tell you who could and could not visit you in your house, would you be fine with that?
    – cjs
    Nov 2 at 13:28

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .