From Teutonic Knights to NATO: Understanding Russia’s invasion paranoia



[ The author is a veteran journalist who specializes in Turkish foreign policy ]


The international community is concerned about the developments taking place in the seventh year of the partial occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas basin by separatist forces backed by Russia. As things stand now, the issue is not so much a territorial struggle between Russia and Ukraine as it is whether Ukraine can become a NATO member. Millions of people are trying to foresee the magnitude of the disturbance that Ukraine would cause in Moscow if it were to join NATO these days when the winds of the Third World War are blowing and there are even concerns about a nuclear conflict. It will not be possible to comprehend the military activity in the north of the Black Sea today without first traveling through the 800-year history of this issue.

“Those who come to us in peace will be welcome as guests. But those who come to us with a sword in hand will die with that very sword!” This aphorism, attributed to Novgorod and Kiev Prince Alexander Nevsky, one of the historical figures who laid the foundations of today’s Russia, summarizes Russia’s perspective on threats from the West for nearly the last 800 years. Soviet-era director Sergey Eisenstein, in his 1938 film “Alexander Nevsky”, pointed out the threat posed by Nazi Germany in the West, and by equating them with the “Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”, he warned that any attempt at an invasion (as in the war fought on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus) would result in disaster for the Western invaders. This epic film by Eisenstein was not shown at the time of its production due to the close alliance between Hitler and Stalin. The film was eventually released in 1941 when Germany started to occupy the USSR with Operation Barbarossa.

Today, NATO’s effort to admit Ukraine as a member has a similar meaning considering the re-release of the movie “Alexander Nevsky” at the Kremlin Palace. During his reign, Prince Nevsky fought not only the Teutonic Knights, who were the Germans’ armed forces, but also the Swedes, Finns, and the Lithuanians.

Russia’s trouble accessing open seas

Long before Russian efforts to access the Mediterranean were launched –dubbed in Turkey “Russia’s quest to access warm seas”–, Russia aimed, as early as its period of principalities, to dominate international trade routes by reaching the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The principalities of Novgorod, Kiev, and Moscow waged war against the Baltic nations, Sweden, Finland, and the Teutons, beginning in the 13th century. In the 15th century, Poland also became involved in this conflict. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was added to the list of those who fought Moscow as a result of the Russian Empire’s expansion efforts. The Tsardom of Russia’s desire to expand westward and engage in direct trade with Britain led to the founding of the city of Saint Petersburg as well. With the founding of Saint Petersburg, Tsar Peter the Great laid the foundations for the Russian navy. The Russian Tsarism’s superiority in the Baltic Sea grew after the city was founded in 1702. This navy, based in Saint Petersburg, would enter the Mediterranean by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in 1769, reach Anatolia in 1770, and destroy the Ottoman navy off the coast of Cesme. With the soldiers he landed in the Peloponnese peninsula (then called the Morea), Count Alexey Grigoryevich Orlov, the commander of the Russian navy, not only established Russian naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and Aegean, but also sparked a Greek revolt against the Ottomans.

As a result of the struggle with its Western neighbors for five centuries, the Russian Tsardom was reorganized in Saint Petersburg, which became a symbol of the Russian Navy and its modernization, and achieved a geopolitical position that would unite the Gulf of Bothnia, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel, the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Dardanelles Strait. But its tests with the West were not yet over.

The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s Russian expedition in 1812 demonstrated the Russian Tsardom’s vulnerability. After such a major battle as Borodino, Napoleon entered Moscow in 82 days with his horse-drawn cannons. Despite its armored units and airpower, Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, would not be able to repeat the same success 130 years later. Although Napoleon’s expedition to Moscow resulted in a disaster for him, it went down in history as an unrepeatable military feat. But this expedition opened the eyes of the Russians. Examining Napoleon and Hitler’s Moscow expeditions can help us understand Russia’s use of force in Georgia and Ukraine in the face of a possible NATO expansion today. To avoid a repeat of World War II’s nightmare, Josef Stalin built the “iron curtain” (a term coined by Winston Churchill) as far as possible from the USSR’s borders, effectively extending Moscow’s sphere of influence as far as Berlin. When the Cold War ended, the distance between Berlin (NATO’s easternmost border) and the USSR was 1,200 kilometers. With the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War, NATO started to bridge the gap.

Convincing Gorbachev that NATO is not a threat

When Mikhail Gorbachev, the secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party, spoke of “Perestroika and Glasnost” (Reconstruction and Openness) in 1986, not only the peoples of the Soviet Union but also the rest of the world sensed that the Cold War was coming to an end, the Berlin Wall would fall, and the Warsaw Pact would be history. Nobody could have predicted that this would happen in only five years. Gorbachev was well aware that the Soviet system, with its collapsing economy, had failed to keep up with the electronic revolution, was incapable of structural reforms, and thus would not be able to survive in its current state. He hoped to avoid bankruptcy with the least amount of damage possible. Likewise, keeping NATO away from Russian borders was high on the priority list. According to documents released by the National Security Archive at George Washington University on Dec.12, 2017, the Soviet leader discussed NATO’s non-enlargement with almost all of his Western counterparts.

Gorbachev and other Soviet officials discussed this issue with US President George H. W. Bush, Foreign Minister James Baker, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, French President François Mitterand, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and NATO Secretary-General Manfred Wörner. All of the Western officials promised to their Soviet counterparts that NATO would not expand towards Russian territory. Yes, you did read it correctly. On such a sensitive issue, Western leaders could only give verbal assurances to the Kremlin, and the Soviet Union had to swallow hard and accept all developments that would bring the Warsaw Pact to an end, including the fall of the Berlin Wall. H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Malta in December 1989 at a summit. By declaring that he did not “intend to posture over East Germany,” the US president assured his Russian counterpart that he would not use the changes in Eastern Europe to further his country’s expansionist ambitions. These words have the potential to go down in history as a geopolitical joke.

However, there was no need for the US and NATO to climb over the Berlin Wall. The wheel of history was turning, NATO was embarking on a journey across Eastern Europe to the Ukrainian border and even to the Caucasus.

Why is NATO moving east? Is the main target Germany or Russia?

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact followed by the collapse of the USSR, it was no longer necessary to keep what were merely verbal pledges made to Gorbachev. With the election of the US Congress in November 1994, the issue of NATO’s expansion to the east became a hot topic. In 1995, members of the Republican Party, which had won a majority in Congress, began to put pressure on the White House for the accession of Poland, Hungary, Czechia and Slovenia to NATO. An article by former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, published in the New York Times on Dec. 28, 1994, provides some interesting information on the subject.

The article, titled “NATO — Expand or Die?”, explained why the Alliance needed to move east, citing the Chechen and Bosnian Wars as examples. Traces of fear could also be felt, but they were not explicitly expressed in Brzezinski’s article. We gather from the article that the Washington intelligentsia was concerned that if NATO did not act quickly to fill the void left by the Soviet Union, Germany would gain dominance in Central and Eastern Europe on its own. Reading this article again today, in light of the US efforts to stop the Nord Stream-2 pipeline project and prevent Russia-Germany energy cooperation, may help us make greater sense of Brzezinski’s vision. In fact, during the 1996 presidential election in the United States, the likely membership of Central European countries in NATO became a domestic policy issue. Former US President Bill Clinton used this card to win re-election by giving a speech in Detroit to voters in the states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, which are heavily populated by Eastern European immigrants. Clinton stated in his Detroit speech that, on the 50th anniversary of NATO’s founding, it was critical to admit new members to the Alliance. After his speech, Clinton had lunch at the Polish Village Cafe, which is known for its Polish products, as part of a charm offensive aimed at the region’s Central and Eastern European-origin voters, making a significant contribution to US political history. In his campaign speeches, Clinton’s opponent, Republican Bob Dole, accused Clinton of dragging his feet on the issue of admitting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to NATO since 1993. The fate of Central European countries and a geopolitical issue had become a campaign issue for the sake of getting the votes of Eastern European immigrants in the US.

However, after the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined the alliance in 1999, Moscow had an unexpected reaction to the US efforts to include Russia in the Atlantic security umbrella while keeping Germany under control. In March 1999, these three countries joined NATO, and in August, Russian Federal Security Service President Vladimir Putin was elected prime minister of Russia. Putin ascended to the top of the ruling ladder and became Russia’s leader on Dec. 31, the same year, with Boris Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation from the presidency. This also meant that the political elite in Moscow at the time, who advocated for a more cooperative relationship with the North Atlantic Alliance, would withdraw from the stage of history.

Russian-speaking minorities as Trojan horses

With Putin’s takeover, the change in the Kremlin’s power structure did not lessen but further whetted NATO’s appetite for enlargement. The West sought to bring NATO to its widest borders as quickly as possible, without giving Russia enough time to recover economically. In 2004, the Alliance gained complete dominance in the Balkans, Central Europe, and the Baltic region with the accession of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria. As a result, a 2,300-kilometer solid frontier with Russia was established, stretching from Estonia to the Turkish border. While NATO drew dangerously close to Russia’s border in the Baltics, the distance between Moscow and the closest NATO member shrank to 800 kilometers. But expansion was not likely to stop there, either. All eyes were on Georgia and Ukraine at this point, and the Kremlin, on the other hand, was no longer standing idly by.

In 2004, Russia launched a counterattack. First, a crisis over energy prices was started with Ukraine, which became embroiled in the “Orange Revolution”. Simultaneously, the Russian Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly, passed resolutions in support of the regions that wanted to separate from Georgia: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. By Aug. 8, 2008, thanks to the example of Georgia, the world had seen what could happen to a former Soviet republic that wanted to join NATO. The Russian army attacked, by supporting the separatist demands of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Georgian army’s defense crumbled in five days, and international diplomatic pressure was only able to stop Russian soldiers 40 kilometers from the capital, Tbilisi. As a result, the decision to admit Georgia to NATO made at the Bucharest summit on April 2-4, 2008, has not been implemented until today.

On the other hand, in Ukraine, the crisis that Russia started over energy prices was paralyzing the political system. The election of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine in 2010 threw the calculations of NATO and the EU into disarray. Yanukovych’s attempt to repeal EU agreements in 2013 added fuel to the fire. The political crisis devolved into street clashes. It formed the basis for Russian military intervention in Crimea under the guise of “protecting” the Donbas region and Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in Crimea. And in 2014, the same strategy used against Georgia in South Ossetia and Abkhazia was replicated in Ukraine with the invasion of Donbas by Russian separatists and Russia’s direct annexation of Crimea. Russia’s justification was to protect its cognates whose mother tongue is Russian. It was quickly realized that this new method, which had been implemented in Ukraine, would also be used in the Baltic states and Belarus. Russia’s insistence on the continuation of the existence of the Russian communities in the republics that had left the USSR after its dissolution thus came to light. Belarus, Latvia and Estonia (due to the proportion of the population whose native language is Russian) are now potential targets of Russian military intervention or hybrid warfare tactics. Russia reintroduced this hybrid intervention method with the support it gave to its ally, Alexander Lukashenko, after the presidential election in Belarus in August 2020.

Ukraine is on the counterattack

The Georgian War, the invasion of Donbas and the illegitimate annexation of Crimea slowed but did not stop NATO’s enlargement policy. Albania and Croatia joined the Alliance in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020. In March 2021, on the seventh anniversary of the illegal occupation and annexation of its territory, Ukraine launched a counter-offensive. In fact, this diplomatic attack came after a long period of military preparation. In September 2016, General John Abizaid, who had retired as the commander of the US Central Forces (CENTCOM) in 2007, was appointed by then-US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to advise then-Ukraine Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak. Until Abizaid was appointed as Ambassador to Riyadh in November 2018, he worked systematically to bring the Ukrainian army up to NATO standards. During this time, the US provided the Ukrainian army with communication systems, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and armored vehicles. Although Ukraine is not officially a NATO country, it has attained NATO standards in the last five years thanks to support from Turkey, the US, the UK, and Poland. Ukraine enacted a strategy document in March to reclaim its occupied territories after realizing it had completed its military preparations. Despite the fact that this document aimed to reclaim Donbas and Crimea through diplomacy and dialogue, it resulted in unprecedented military activity along Russia’s Ukrainian border: in Donbas, Crimea, Belarus, and the Black Sea. While the parties are beefing up their military build-up, they are also pushing the limits of psychological and propaganda warfare to avoid armed conflict until the last possible moment.

War of diplomats and sanctions

In response to the rising tensions, the US and its allies imposed a slew of sanctions on Russia, including the expulsion of its diplomats. This quickly escalated into a mutual tsunami.

In addition to deporting 10 Russian diplomats, the US added 32 Russian organizations and individuals to its sanctions list, citing the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russia’s interference in the 2020 presidential elections, and the “SolarWinds Cyber Attack.” The SolarWinds cyber-attack, which was disclosed at the beginning of 2021, has Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) at the top of the suspect list. In that attack, the American software company SolarWinds’ Orion network monitoring and management platform was targeted. The departments of Treasury, Trade, Foreign Affairs, and Energy, as well as the National Nuclear Security Agency, are among the organizations that use Orion affected by the attack. The UK, NATO, the EU, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have all blamed Russia for the attack on the US. Poland decided to deport three Russian diplomats from the Russian Embassy in Warsaw on the same day as the US imposed sanctions.

In response to the accusations and sanctions, Russia deported ten US diplomats and barred the entry of eight US officials. The director of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Christopher Wray, and US Attorney General Merrick Garland are among those barred from entering Russia. In addition, Russia has decided to expel five Polish diplomats.

These were not the only things that happened on April 16. The closure of the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, by Russia for six months on the same day added a new dimension to the discussions about the Black Sea’s military status. The move, according to US Secretary of Defense John Kirby, is part of Russia’s effort to restrict access to the Black Sea and poses a threat to freedom of navigation.

The struggle to mutually deport diplomats spilled over into the Moscow-Kiev conflict on April 17. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Ukraine’s Saint Petersburg Consul General Alexander Sosonyuk during a meeting where he was having dinner with a Russian citizen. Sosonyuk was accused of obtaining from the Russian citizen in question confidential documents relating to state security. Ukraine responded the same day, requesting that the Russian Ambassador in Kiev leave the country within 72 hours, effective April 19.

Czechia became part of this showdown on the same day. It announced that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) was responsible for the 2014 blowing up of an ammunition depot and ordered the deportation of 18 Russian diplomats. It was announced that Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, who took part in the sabotage organized by GRU Unit 29155, were being sought. According to the Czech intelligence, both suspects had visited the city of Vrbetice, where the warehouse and ammunition factory were located, before the ammunition depot was blown up, killing two people. The names of Mishkin and Chepiga were also on the list of suspects in the 2018 poisoning case of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian secret service member who had taken refuge in the UK. In retaliation for this decision of the Prague administration, Russia decided to close the Czech Embassy in Moscow.

While mutual reprisals raise concerns in the international community, a controlled tension is being maintained through mutual sanctions and decisions to deport diplomats rather than firing missiles, keeping the NATO-Russia crisis sustainable for the time being. We can already predict that with the UK’s decision to send a warship to the Black Sea, sanctions and mutual diplomat deportation decisions may give rise to more serious developments. In the short term, this diplomatic and economic behavior aimed at isolating Russia will have harsher consequences for Turkey, Germany, India, and Iran, countries that have developed close defense and economic ties with Russia.

The lessons learned after the Second World War demonstrated the impossibility of militarily removing Russia from a zone it had occupied with military force. The US and NATO allies appear to have chosen the path of preparing the ground for Russia’s socioeconomic destruction by forcing it to increase defense spending, as they did in the 1980s. However, the pressure being applied to Russia, combined with the global economic slowdown that began in 2019 and the COVID-19 epidemic, portends potential consequences that will cause economic destruction in a much wider area.

*Translated from Turkish by Baran Burgaz Ayaz

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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