NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) members met in Vilnius, Lithuania on July 11th to decide how to modify NATO’s peacetime military organization to deal with the possibility of more Russian aggression. One of the proposals was to create a NATO force of 400,000 troops from member nations that would be ready to move to locations near the Russian border if there was another threat of Russian aggression. Similar force mobilization plans have been made in the past but none were ever implemented. Meanwhile, Russia has demonstrated that it is a threat.
During the last two decades Russia has become more aggressive about restoring the Russian Empire that dissolved in 1991. That was when half the population of the Soviet Union had an opportunity to free themselves from Russian rule and took it. This disappointed a lot of Russians because Russia has been an empire since about 1500. That was when Russians freed themselves from Mongol rule and began expanding in self-defense. For Russians, the Mongol Empire had been a surprise and very frightening. Starting in 1206, the Mongols began conquering everything in sight. The Mongols began as a collection of tribes composed of mounted warriors armed with powerful weapons, strong discipline and leaders who united the Mongol tribes into a conquering army that, by 1368, controlled most of the great plains of Eurasia. At its peak the Mongols controlled or dominated about a third of the (pre-discovery of the Americas) world population. The Mongol forces were more mobile and moved faster than any modern army. As long as their horses had access to adequate pasture, the Mongol forces were seemingly unstoppable. The Mongols were disciplined, adaptable and determined empire builders. All empires eventually fall apart and the Mongols were no exception.
Russians considered the Mongols an inspiration when it came to empire building and Russia sought to create its own empire after the Mongol empire collapsed. By the 1700s Russia was on its way to creating an empire that rivaled that of the Mongols. This was the Imperial Russian Empire that was proclaimed in 1721 and lasted until 1917 when civil war destroyed it and a smaller communist empire succeeded it.
The Imperial Russian Empire was the third largest in history, exceeded only by the British and Mongol empires. By the late 19th Century, a census showed that this empire contained 126 million people and covered 22,800,000 square kilometers (8,800,000 square miles). This area was about equal to that of North America (US, Canada and Mexico). In the 20th century the Russian empire was destroyed and revived as the communist Soviet Union. This empire lasted from 1922 to 1991 and had a peak population of 286 million. The communists proclaimed they had invented a more productive economic system. That was not true and economic mismanagement was the primary cause for the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991. Westerners often referred to the Soviet Union as the “prison house of nations” and that proved apt because half the Soviet population chose to become independent in 14 new nations.
The remnant of the Soviet Union became the Russian Federation and remained as corrupt and economically crippled as the Soviet Union was. After less than a decade of democracy, Russia reverted to dictatorship, hostility towards NATO and revival of efforts to rebuild the Russian empire. That led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and enormous military and financial support for Ukraine from NATO nations. While Ukraine was not yet a member of NATO, it was considering it because NATO was all about mutual defense against Russian aggression. Russia invaded Ukraine in part because the Ukrainians were seeking to join NATO. Even though Ukraine was not yet in NATO, the NATO nations supported Ukraine as if it were a NATO member. NATO sent everything except troops. NATO troops fighting Russians in Ukraine risked a nuclear war with Russia. Nearly a hundred billion dollars of military and economic aid from NATO nations to Ukraine was another matter and Russia was not willing to go nuclear over the material aid. Russia feared and respected NATO military capabilities. NATO members collectively constitute the largest economic and military organization on the planet.
After 1991 Russia feared that NATO would somehow become a military threat. That was never NATO’s intention and the coalition lasted so long because it stuck to its role as a defensive alliance. Some Russians, like Vladimir Putin, saw NATO’s ability to constrain Russian attack options as a form of coercion and hostility towards Russia. Similar misconceptions are common throughout history and often a cause of war. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Russian justification for that is one such example of this perverse logic. The expansion of NATO membership after the Cold War ended was seen as essential for nations near Russia to survive and that assessment proved correct. That’s why long-time neutrals like Sweden and Finland suddenly sought to join NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine. Collectively, NATO is a huge organization in terms of population and military capabilities and becomes more useful the larger it becomes. As a defensive organization it reduces military spending for members and increases national security. The cost of running NATO is miniscule, as is the annual cost to members.
Russia did not fear being invaded by NATO because NATO was a defensive coalition of independent nations. What Russia did fear was the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty. If one NATO member was attacked, all NATO members were obliged to join in dealing with the threat. Before the 2022 invasions most Ukrainians were undecided about joining NATO because it would anger the Russians. Ukraine already had several treaties with Russia that guaranteed Ukrainian independence and Russia made it clear that Ukraine joining NATO would be considered a hostile act. Fear of Ukraine joining NATO was one of the major reasons for the Russian invasion. There was some truth to those Russian fears, because the enormous NATO material support for Ukraine has been a major reason for the failure of the Russian invasion to succeed.
By 2023 the Ukrainians were attacking Russian forces inside Ukraine and pushing them out. The Russians seem unsure of how to respond to this. Ukraine and NATO have agreed that once the Russians are gone from Ukraine, joining NATO will be possible. Ukraine and NATO have already agreed to this and Russia does not like it but seems unlikely to risk nuclear war to prevent it. Russia has enough internal economic and political problems because of failures by Russian forces in Ukraine. Large scale economic sanctions were imposed on Russia because of the invasion and those sanctions hurt Russia economically and politically enough to get its attention.
While voluntarily withdrawing from Ukraine was always an option, it was not considered politically acceptable until recently and not by the most senior Russian leaders, like Vladimir Putin, who seems willing to see Russians continuing to suffer rather than admit defeat. A growing number of Russians want out of Ukraine but Putin calls that treason. Few Russians want a civil war over the issue but a coup against Putin is attractive to many Russians. Most Russians are angry over Putin’s failures in Ukraine and the impact that is having on all Russians. Putin, like the Czars and commissars before him, has to go for Russians to survive. Losing Putin does not mean Russia would thrive because Putin continued the Russian tradition of betrayal and broken treaties. Several generations of frustrated Russian reformers have muttered “what is to be done” and that is one Russian tradition that always survives.