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In recent weeks, everything has been said, especially in Italy, about the role and responsibilities of NATO in the explosion of the Ukrainian crisis. The most widespread thesis (supported by the pacifist movement, by the CGIL, by the leadership of the ANPI, by ancient historians, equidistant scientists, former diplomats and geopoliticians more realistic than the king) is that Russia invaded Ukraine because NATO it was too close to its borders, endangering its former security. Putin also affirms this, even if his motivations (clearly expressed in the speech of February 21, on the eve of the invasion) have a not only defensive but also neo-imperial flavor: these countries (Ukraine, Baltic states, Belarus, Georgia, even Poland) must “Return to the Russian sphere of influence”. All this explains in part, the unleashing of a devastating war of aggression, poorly prepared and conducted, which can never really be won. But the NATO question must also be considered from the other point of view.
I cannot help but think of the historian of the Middle Ages Bronisław Geremek (Benjamin Lewertów, 1932-2008) who was one of the most important intellectuals and opponents of Poland. From 1997 to 2000 he was Minister of Foreign Affairs and fought with all his energies so that, on March 12, 1999, Poland would be admitted to NATO (while the entry into the European Union took place later, on May 1, 2004). Having been lucky enough to have had him as a professor, and a friend, we often spoke. When he was awarded the title of Knight of the Grand Cross of the Italian Republic on March 14, 2000, we met in Rome and took a long walk. Knowing my rather lukewarm ideas about NATO, he told me: “If we and the other countries of the East do not join the Atlantic defense alliance, Russia will take us all back by force within ten years.” For him, NATO was the guarantee of being able to stay in Europe: that this fact, to which the Poles and other Central European countries had aspired for many years, would no longer be questioned by Russia. That Central and Eastern Europe was not kidnapped again, as Milan Kundera wrote (A kidnapped West or the tragedy of Central Europe, in: “New Topics”, n. 9, 1984).
That familiar Europe described so well, in 1959, by the Polish exile poet Czesław Miłosz (My Europe, Adelphi 1985), according to Geremek it was a great opportunity for Poland, as the enlargement to the East was for all of Europe. Geremek believed a lot in Europe: he wanted “Europeans to be made”; the divisions between the East and the West of the continent were overcome (that iron curtain that is still in the heads of many); he worked to consolidate political Europe. He reasoned with convinced passion, but he had the ways of thinking of a historian. He thought about long times, argued about profound processes, and reflected as much as possible in a comparative perspective capable of embracing the entire European continent.
Since he had studied medieval society from below (very important are his books and studies on the poor, the vagabonds, the beggars …) he fervently hoped that in building ever greater unity social Europe, that is peoples and peoples, would not be forgotten. He believed that Europeans needed living symbols of their identity. Symbols projected forward, not necessarily backward. For example, he had repeatedly proposed that European acts (elections to the European parliament, referendum on treaties) should take place simultaneously, at the same time throughout Europe and not on different dates in different countries. In the same way he asked for the creation of European centers of excellence (a European university, a European MIT). All this needed to be protected and defended, if so even militarily. As a seasoned politician, who had been miraculously taken out of the Warsaw Ghetto as a child and suffered Communist prison, this was obvious to Geremek.
Today, Ukraine, which has never joined NATO, nor had officially asked to join, has been invaded by Russia, which had already taken over Crimea and, with the help of illegals, had created two “autonomous” regions in the Donbass, Geremek’s words seem very prophetic to me. Russia wants to regain control of the countries that belonged to it “before the catastrophe of the collapse of the Soviet Union” or that were under its “sphere of influence”. However, taking back Poland and the Baltic countries, which are part of NATO, would be even more difficult and risky for Russia.
The nuclear blackmail that Putin continues to flag is a gamble that, sooner or later, Westerners will be forced to unmask. Otherwise deterrence becomes impotence, and Russia will be able to continue its expansion policy with impunity. Being a totalitarian state, the Russian leadership can afford to threaten to trigger a third nuclear world war, knowing that democratic countries have a much harder time even imagining that they can make such a decision. But the Russian leaders are not crazy: they know very well (and certainly do not want to experience it) that a nuclear conflict, even if limited, would have no winner and only enormous, mutual destruction.
We came very close, by mistake, a few years ago and thanks to the common sense and courage of a Soviet soldier this did not happen: the officer in charge of missile surveillance Stanisláv Evgráfovič Petróv who, on September 26, 1983, did not believe at the false alarm of the computer and did not press the button of the missiles that could have triggered an atomic war. Although Petróv was later recognized as a mistake, he was considered a disobedient and degraded.
Of course “World War III”, with the involvement of Russia and the United States and their respective allies, does not necessarily mean atomic conflict. The arsenal of the great powers is so exaggeratedly and damagingly large, varied and sophisticated that it can have devastating destructive effects even without the deadly aftermath of radiation.
Regarding relations between Russia and Ukraine, it seems to me that we have forgotten that in 1994, three years after the independence of Ukraine, the “Budapest Memorandum” was signed: Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom guaranteed the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for the transfer to Russia of the post-Soviet nuclear arsenal located in Ukraine. It handed over the nuclear weapons deployed on its territory to the Russian Federation. In return, Ukraine was to receive guarantees of security, inviolability of borders and territorial integrity. The intention of the West, in 1994, was to reaffirm the obligations that already derived from the previously accepted universal principles and norms of international law, in particular the Charter of the United Nations (San Francisco 1945), as well as the Final Act of Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki 1975). In the case of Ukraine, it was a question of adapting these general principles to the specific situation that had arisen after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Three former republics (Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus), which became independent in that period, had nuclear weapons on their territory. Kazakhstan and Belarus renounced it without question. Ukraine, on the other hand, which had the largest number of warheads, asked for additional guarantees and obtained them. First in Moscow, on January 15, 1991, Russia and the United States worked out and signed such guarantees with Ukraine. Then, in December 1994, in Budapest, under the auspices of the OSCE, the United Kingdom also signed the memorandum followed by the other two nuclear powers (France and China). The memorandum was registered as a UN Security Council document (doc S / 1994/1399, December 19, 1994). It didn’t help.
If Ukraine had been under NATO’s defensive umbrella, invading it would have been much more risky and therefore inadvisable. That Russia invades a large and proud country like Ukraine because “forced to defend itself from the threats of NATO missiles and secure the Russian-speaking minority” (as well as to “denazify it”), is an unsustainable thesis: with defense systems that exist today (the so-called “space shields”) no enemy missile at the borders can constitute a threat of aggression for a great power (even Israel has been living for years with missiles a few kilometers from its borders which are intercepted as soon as they fly off and killed).
Even some US scholars, such as Russia expert George Kennan and realist political scientist John J. Mearsheimer, have argued that NATO’s eastward expansion was a strategic mistake, and therefore a large part of the blame for what we stand for. witnessing must be attributed to the United States. But today’s Russian expansionism is nothing new, Stalin’s expert David Remnick told them (The Weakness of the Despot, in: “The New Yorker”, 11/03/2022). Putin’s policy is no surprise. It is consistent with a historical model of Russian imperialism. For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by ambitions that surpassed the country’s capabilities: “Since the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, Russia has managed to expand at an average rate of forty square miles per day. for hundreds of years, to cover one sixth of the earth’s mass. The Russian rise had three moments: the first during the reign of Peter the Great, then Alexander I’s victory over Napoleon and finally Stalin’s victory over Hitler. As early as the nineteenth century, Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat; had repression; he had militarism; he had a suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is the Russia we know, and it is not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the 1990s. It is not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that explain where we are today ”.
I don’t think blaming the West is the right analysis to understand the dramatic situation we are in. The West is a set of institutions and values, it is not a geographical place. Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European. “Western” means the rule of law, democracy, private property, open markets, respect for the individual, diversity, pluralism of opinion, and all the other freedoms we enjoy, which we sometimes take for granted. Sometimes we forget where they come from. But the West is this. As argued by former Polish Foreign Minister (in Marek Belka’s government, 2004-2005) and member of the advisory council of the UN Secretary for Disarmament (ABDM), Adam Daniel Rotfeld (Two worlds colliding, in: “Gazeta Wyborcia”, 5-6 / 03/2022): “That West, which we expanded in the 1990s through the expansion of the European Union (and NATO), has now been reborn, and has held its own to Vladimir Putin in a way that neither he nor Xi Jinping expected. If the West was supposed to fold, because it was in decline and fled Afghanistan; if the Ukrainian people were supposed not to be real, they were not a nation; if Zelensky was supposed to be just a television actor, a comedian, a Russian-speaking Jew from eastern Ukraine: if all this was supposed, then perhaps he thought he could catch Kyiv in two or four days. But these assumptions were wrong ”.