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Rumors are that in Italy parts of the public opinion are accepting the view that the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was justified by a previous NATO expansion.

What are the (given) arguments (with references) for and against this view?

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    Since it's objectively demonstrable that NATO expanded, the key to debunking the argument lies in the use of that expansion as justification for war, not in questioning the reality of NATO's expansion. Would you consider changing the title question? (To use a recent pop culture analogy, it seems that you're seeking to assert that Will Smith shouldn't have hit Chris Rock because Chris Rock didn't make a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith; the conclusion may be correct, but the reasoning is both fallacious and based on a falsehood.)
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 11:50
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    Could you add the links to the polls confirming that the majority of Italians thinks so?
    – Morisco
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 12:02
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    What's the point of "justifying" or "not justifying" someone else's war? Do you think people in Russia justified wars in Iraq and Libya?
    – alamar
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 12:13
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    Somewhat related: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/23382/… Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 13:22
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    @MayoDancer I'm Italian, I've spent some time looking for hard and I found no reliable sites supporting the position you mentioned. "Part" of the public opinion can mean 5% or 10%, in that case your statement is probably right and also irrelevant. I follow the news, and no public figure has come out supporting Putin's position. Anecdotally I know only one person who believes the "NATO expansion" justification.
    – Vorbis
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 7:11

5 Answers 5

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First, let's concede that many people will "justify" whatever they have chosen to justify. Giving support to Ukraine and oppossing Rusia involves some risks and cost.

I have met some of those "theorists"(*) and to me it seems a mix of plain old anti-Americanism (including some who still consider Rusia to be somewhat of a Socialist country) with some people who do not want the effects/risks of the sanctions but want to oppose them with "a clear conscience" (it is not that they are ignoring an unlawful aggression, it is that Ukraine had it coming because of US/Western machinations).

Points to consider:

  1. Ukraine, as an independent country, is free to pursue its own international politics. Period. Even if Ukraine was about to join NATO in February, that would not allow Russia to invade it. The only point in international law that would allow an aggression would be to defend from a clear and imminent threat of aggression from Ukraine, which clearly is not the case.

  2. In any case, Ukraine wanting to join NATO would have been more than justified by previous aggressions by Russia (mainly the annexation of Crimea, but also support for breaking regions).

  3. There was no indication that NATO membership was imminent. Some countries had held off any possible talks in order to, among other issues, avoid antagonizing Russia. The possibility that Ukraine would have been able to join NATO while in direct conflict with Russia over Crimea was always very remote.

  4. NATO is a defensive alliance and, as discussed everywhere else, even in that aspect it does not imply many actual obligations (the wording about what a member is required to do in case of aggression against another member is not very explicit). To claim that Ukraine joining NATO would be a first step towards a future aggression is dubious, at best.

  5. Since the end of WWII, one of the rules of international politics was disavowing "wars of conquest" by which a country would forcibly take over territory from other countries. While there have been some (Cyprus, Palestine), those have been mostly rejected by the international community. Yet Russia wants to use the war to legalize its control over Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk, despite having recognized the current borders in 1991(**).

    To be fair, NATO has not been completely consistent on this point, and someone could think that the current stance about Kosovo points do a double standard.

  6. In my opinion the claim that Russia's security was at risk is not credible, as it still held a sizeable nuclear arsenal, including nuclear weapons on submarines that would give them a considerable retaliatory potential even in the case that they actually feared a first strike by Western countries.

*: There are some, but in my opinion they are more "very vocal" than actually represent the whole of the population.

**: To add into this point, that treaty saw Ukraine renouncing the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union. Allowing this treaty to be violated means that more countries may feel the need to have its own nuclear arsenal in order to ensure their safety; in fact, even in Spain some far right MPs have asked to start producing nuclear weapons.

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The "expansions" were not results of military conquests. They were results of mutually beneficial treaties. In fact, new member nations had to apply, and be considered, before they were allowed to join. No country has ever been compelled to join NATO. And since the Alliance is defensive in nature, and has never attacked Russia, there is no justification for treating it otherwise.

In theory, that should end the argument that a NATO creep is an offensive maneuver. No argument made in support of Russia's excuse of fearing NATO stands up to scrutiny. They are all provable lies.

But given that Russia is using NATO's enlargement as an excuse to launch actual hot wars, which clearly have other goals, further evidence is needed.


  • Until the near-complete breakdown of international relations due to Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine (2022), NATO cooperated with Russia in the areas of terrorism prevention and space exploration. To a certain limited extent the cooperation in the areas of space exploration are still continuing. It remains to be seen for how long.
  • During the Kosovo War(1998-1999), NATO entered into the already-in-progress civil war in Yugoslavia, with the aim of ending the hostilities, which had already gone on for years. During that war Boris Yeltsin, then President of Russia, ordered Russian forces to occupy Pristina Airport and deny NATO its use. This resulted in a tense stand off. Despite NATO's obvious military advantage and no clear military reasons for Russia to be present there (because Russia was not a party to the hostilities), NATO chose to abandon the objective rather than engage Russian troops.

Cold War(1949-1991).

The reason that NATO and the USSR were in a Cold War from the day of NATO's inception, until the collapse of the USSR, was that NATO, while pursuing the strategy of containment of the USSR, did not want to attack the USSR. This was not due to any general peaceful attitude towards the world at large. A number of regional wars were fought by NATO's member states. However, no NATO member state's army had ever crossed the Soviet border, or the border of any Warsaw-Pact state.

  • In Vietnam War(1963-1972), during the bombing campaign of 1965-1968, the US dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than it did on Nazi Germany during WWII. President Johnson would personally approve all bombing targets to ensure that no Soviet civilian or even military targets would get hit.
  • Cuban Missile Crisis(1962). This was a stand off which did not result in any military actions. But a US U2 spy plane was shutdown and the pilot was killed over Cuba. A conversation between RFK and Soviet ambassador Dobrynin, quoted in Wikipedia went as following:

You have drawn first blood ... . [T]he president had decided against advice ... not to respond militarily to that attack, but he [Dobrynin] should know that if another plane was shot at, ... we would take out all the SAMs and antiaircraft ... . And that would almost surely be followed by an invasion.

So NATO avoided firing on a USSR installation even in Cuba, which is 90 miles off the coast of Florida, even when a response was militarily justified.


The natural question then is why would Russia lie?
Well, the somewhat expected answer is that Russia is using the excuse of fear of NATO's expansion to advance its other goals.

Georgia

Under the guise of "peacekeeping," while throwing the red herring that it was really just afraid of NATO, Russia pursued a purely commercial goal. The main aim of the invasion was to destroy the US-built oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Turkey. The pipeline allowed for excluding Russia from the oil business in Kazakhstan.

Ukraine

Again, under a number of made up excuses, Russia has invaded Ukraine while circulating the "alternative" explanation that it was really done out of fear of the NATO "expansion."

While Ukraine has many natural resources, there is only one resource which Russia lacks severely. And it is the contention over this resource which makes this war irreconcilable.

After the collapse of the USSR, both Ukraine and the Russian Federation saw their birth rates collapse. The generation, which would have been born in the 90s, is very small both in Ukraine and in Russia. While the birth rates have recovered, both countries still grapple with the problems of shrinking populations.

This is a temporary problem for Ukraine, but it is a catastrophic problem for Russia. Russia's population already can barely defend and service the territory which Russia has.

Once the population shrinks further, there will be no way for Russia to maintain its administrative hold on its Eastern provinces. As far back as 2010, the opinion has started to form that the Chinese population bordering those provinces will be able to treat Russia's East as freely-accessible wilderness.

As late as 2019, Russia was still attempting to encourage immigration from former Soviet republics as a way to increase its Russian-speaking population.

Adding Ukraine's population would increase Russia's Russian-speaking population by 25%-30%.

Russia is attempting to ensnare Ukraine's population to Russify it a la the Soviet model. Had Ukraine remained corrupt, it would not have been an issue. This would have been a change over from one dictator to another. But Ukraine's rebellion against corruption Euromaidan has made this task insurmountable for Russia.

The fact the Ukrainians chose affinity to Europe over affinity to Russia, despite the fact that majority of Ukrainians speak Russian, is an utter rejection of the easier corrupt path for the sake of the more difficult democratic path. Russia simply has failed to make the argument despite speaking the same language. War is all it has left.

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  • You are not wrong, but somewhat incomplete. The NATO bombings in Yugoslavia had no legal mandate, and it is easy to speculate about secondary motives in NATO. Somehow it comes to no surprise that specifically Ariel Sharon of Israel would condemn these bombings -- precedent arisen.
    – Maarten
    Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 13:02
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Below is the "for" argument.

1. NATO promised not to expand

See this question on History SE. NATO leaders verbally promised then Soviet Premier Gorbachev that NATO would not expand, and Gorbachev was naive enough to believe them and not get it in writing. Then NATO expanded anyway, over Russian objections.

2. NATO refused to deny Ukrainian membership of NATO in writing

NATO is once again only offering words when it comes to denying Ukrainian membership of NATO. They have refused to put it into writing. As they say, once bitten twice shy.

3. NATO expanded because the US wanted to expand the alliance

In other words, NATO expanded not because other countries really wanted to join (although they were willing enough), but rather because the alliance wanted to expand and invited the other countries to join. See what then US President Bill Clinton said about why he made NATO expansion a key goal in his foreign policy. See also what NATO said about letting Ukraine and Georgia join in 2008 (note the year - this was well before Euromaidan in Ukraine).

4. NATO does not have to let Ukraine join

One commonly cited argument is that "Ukraine, as an independent country, is free to pursue its own international politics", ergo, Ukraine ought to be allowed to join NATO if they want. However, the premise only implies that Ukraine is allowed to apply to join NATO. NATO does not have to accept the application. NATO is capable of denying membership to Ukraine, they are just refusing to do it. (But they did decline to consider admitting Russia into the alliance.)

5. NATO had ample warning not to expand, but they did so anyway

Here are several US politicians warning about NATO expansion well before the current war. The US administration never listened. The impression given, at least to Russia, is that the US decided that they don't need to listen to Russian objections because Russia lacks the power to oppose the expansion.

6. NATO is an aggressive military alliance

They might see themselves as a defensive one, but they also imposed regime change or attacked Libya, Afghanistan, and Serbia. Chances are they would have not just intervened, but also imposed regime change on Russia if not for the Russian nuclear deterrent. Note these calls for intervention have happened even though Russia has not attacked a NATO country, and NATO's collective defense clause has not been invoked.

7. The US is an aggressive country

The US heads NATO, all the interventions above cannot have happened without US approval (see Suez Crisis for what happened the last time the UK/France tried to wage war without US approval). And the US has waged illegal aggressive wars over objections from its NATO allies (see Iraq).

8. The US cannot be trusted

Iran tried trusting them. The US unilaterally pulled out of that treaty in spite of world condemnation and re-imposed sanctions. The US's so-called allies were 1) unable to stop the US and 2) not willing to really help Iran circumvent US sanctions.

9. US foreign policy is anti-Russia

There are plenty of US headlines about how so-and-so isn't being tough enough on Russia, but no headlines about how so-and-so is too tough on Russia. The US does not offer concessions, they take what they want, and they actively attempt to sabotage Russia when they try to form their own alliances while simultaneously claiming to want good relations with Russia.

tl; dr: an aggressive, untrustworthy and hostile military alliance is about to expand right to your borders. They claim they want to talk, but when you try to talk they claim your opinion doesn't matter. What do you do?

See this for a comparable reaction by two countries that apparently think Russia should tolerate NATO expansion in Ukraine.

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    Afghanistan attacked the United States. Article 5 was justified. You don't need to bring the counterarguments. I am aware of what they are. I don't buy them. But you also haven't answered the question. You have NOT provided a justification for a war. You made statement which you think are true, but even if they all true, they don't amount to an act of war. So there is no justification provided for the war. Many things can be dangerous. That doesn't make them harmful.
    – wrod
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 4:10
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    Afghanistan attacked the United States They didn't. al-Qaeda did, and Afghanistan =/= al-Qaeda.
    – Allure
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 4:12
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    I told you that I am aware of the counterarguments. It's too weak. And I don't buy it. Afghanistan attacked the United States certainly to a much, much, much greater degree than Ukraine attacked Russia.
    – wrod
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 4:14
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    " ... NATO promised not to expand. See this question on History SE. ... " The answer to the question is No. Some representatives may have hinted at that, but there was no official agreement. Sorry, this part of the answer is highly misleading. Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 9:43
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    For anyone wondering about wrod's comment about how Afghanistan attacked the US more than Ukraine attacked Russia - it misses the point, because the argument isn't that Ukraine attacked Russia and therefore Russia is justified in attacking Ukraine, or that "the US did it so Russia is justified in doing it too". The argument is that by attacking Afghanistan, the US demonstrates that it is an aggressive country, and therefore an aggressive country heads NATO.
    – Allure
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 13:02
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The US/NATO position is that NATO is a mutual defense treaty, and their decision to add or not add any other country is between them and that country.

Putin has explained his position with the idea that NATO is a military alliance, and there are no strictly defensive alliances. Belgrade, Iraq, Libya and Syria were mentioned in his speech. He believes that the closer NATO bases are to Moscow, the more likely it is to eventually risk an attack on Russia.

Neither point of view can be conclusively proven or disproven. No one knows who will lead Russia, the US, or maybe NATO in 20, 30, or 50 years, and no one can possibly know what they will think, want, or do. Such risks are used as a justification for the war for the Russian people.

If NATO remains dedicated to mutual defense and not aggression, there is no justification for an attack over any country attempting to join it. As the international law stands, expecting an unspecified future attack is not a valid casus belli.

If you want to convince someone who supports Putin, I would suggest conceding the first point, recognizing that Russia does have reasons to be worried about NATO expansion. Having an opposing military bloc so close to one's capital is a big deal.

The point to address should be other ways Putin could have dealt with these grievances. Most of the time, such conflicts are resolved through diplomacy, deals, sanctions, economic pressure. Starting a full-scale invasion over it is highly unusual and goes against the spirit and the letter of international law.

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    If you are providing excuses from Putin as to why he was forced to invade you should label it as such. As it stands this appears to be a non answer as it just says different things without any real explanation.
    – Joe W
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 13:54
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    @Bobson Guess you're right. It's really a package. I think Putin's point is that there are no strictly defensive alliances - he mentions Belgrade, Iraq, Libya and Syria as examples.
    – Therac
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:43
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    "Having an opposing military bloc so close to one's capital is a big deal." Other than their border with Austria, Switzerland is completely surrounded by NATO. Do they feel threatened by NATO? Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 0:56
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    @ZOMVID-21 My point is that simply being surrounded by a military bloc is not sufficient to feel threatened. If Russia feels that NATO is an "opposing" bloc, why is that? Could it be that NATO has a problem with Russia's penchant for taking over other countries? Isn't there something rather perverse of taking over another country, and then presenting one's safety concerns over an anti-taking-over-other-countries-bloc as a justification? Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 6:43
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    @ZOMVID-21 Besides that there being important differences between Turkey's actions and Russia's, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey in response to their actions. Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 18:50
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Putin invaded Ukraine to annex Ukraine, as a part of restoration of Soviet Union. The rest is just pretext and propaganda. NATO has nothing to do with it. A fable from a 19th century Russian writer illustrates it perfectly:

Ivan Krylov The Wolf and the Lamb

A weak one 's always guilty towards the strong. In history, one finds a lot of illustrations. Here, we proceed with these investigations, And by a fable show, the thesis is not wrong.

A Lamb, in a hot day, came to a brook to drink, But, who could think, A hungry Wolf was wandering around. He saw the Lamb, at once began the chase, But then, to give the case An ample lawful ground, He shout, "Insolent fellow! how you dare Here, By your dirty snout To roil my water clear With silt and sand. For such a sauce and Impudence, I will tear Off your head.

"And yet, If Gracious Wolf would let Me note that I'm drinking up the stream Some fifty yards from him, From which he could Conclude, His water can't roil I."

"So, do I lie?! Well, such an impudence, yet, First time I met. Harsh punishment for that You'll have to undergo. Oh, I remember, here, two years ago You also spoke to me extremely rude."

"But how I could?! I'm only six months old."

"And already that bold! Well, then it was your brother."

"I haven't any!"

"Then, your uncle or father. You have so many Of kin. Your dogs and your herdsmen, Each one, I've ever seen, You all wish me just evil, And do whenever can. But, trust me, soon, we shall be even."

"But why am I to blame?!"

"Shut up! I'm tired to hear. Do I have any time Your puppy faults to prove?! I really want to dine: This is your fault, my dear."

The Wolf then caught the Lamb And dragged him to the grove.

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