The fact that Ukraine finds itself fighting for its survival geographically sandwiched between two nuclear giants in a geopolitical turf war should come as no surprise.


No one notices when we are being provoked. They only notice when we retaliate.

Part I Introduction

In 1950, John Herz coined the idea of a security dilemma as a vicious cycle of security and power accumulation among neighbors in constellation with each other. Those who share geographical borders walk a security tightrope to remain sovereign and conflict-free. As Herz conceived it more than 70 years ago, the security dilemma theory helps analyze the Russia and Ukraine war. Set against the backdrop of Russia-Ukraine historical border tension, security experts on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean should have seen America and its NATO allies' eastward creep over two decades as fermenting a spiral of mistrust and uncertainty. The Russian Federation's President's public pronouncements against NATO's growing post-Cold War membership and Ukraine's potential application to join the Western Alliance articulated the "security dilemma" from Russia’s perspective. The fact that Ukraine finds itself fighting for its survival geographically sandwiched between two nuclear giants in a geopolitical turf war should come as no surprise.

Part II Argument

On February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation attacked Ukraine from multiple vectors. A seemingly unprovoked act of aggression on the part of the Russians. Or was it? In the simplest terms, a security dilemma arises when states decide to defend themselves by enlarging their militaries or joining alliances making other states feel threatened. Robert Jervis underscores that fear, once aroused by the uncertainty of others' intentions, is a powerful driver of the security dilemma.1 Fear and uncertainty often lead to one state discounting another state's peaceful gestures and adopting more adversarial policies in a spiral of mistrust. An escalating security dilemma can push two states with a contentious past, like Russia and Ukraine, into actual conflict with tragic consequences for the populace.2

The spiral of mistrust, uncertainty, and fear between Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and NATO didn't happen overnight. For over two decades, the alarming progression of NATO inserted America and its allies into Russia's sphere of national interests and eventually on its geographical doorstep, contrary to earlier Western promises made in 1990 at German reunification. According to those present at the time, Americans, British, and French did agree that there would be no deployment of non-German NATO forces on the territory of the former GDR.3 “Article 5 of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany was signed on September 12, 1990, by the foreign ministers of the two Germanys, the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France; contained three provisions:

  1. Until Soviet forces had withdrawn from the former GDR, only German territorial defense units not integrated into NATO would be deployed in that territory.
  2. There would be no increase in the number of troops or equipment of U.S., British, and French forces stationed in Berlin.
  3. Once Soviet forces had withdrawn, German forces assigned to NATO could be deployed in the former GDR, but foreign forces and nuclear weapons systems would not be deployed there.”4

In recent years, former Soviet president Gorbachev has criticized NATO enlargement calling it “a violation of the spirit of the assurances” given to Moscow in 1990.5 According to declassified documents in 2017, Secretary of State James Baker gave “iron-clad guarantees to Shevardnadze” that NATO's jurisdiction or forces would not move east. On the same day in Moscow, Baker famously told the Soviet General Secretary that the Alliance would not move "one inch to the east.”6

NATO's Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina provoked the Russian authorities in 1995, breaking the assurances made in 1990. Then Russian President Yeltsin decried the action, "NATO expansion would mean the return of 'the flames of war" to Europe."7 NATO threw salt in the wound when the Alliance accepted Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the fold in the Spring of 1999. Moscow's objections have only grown louder and more insistent with each subsequent Alliance expansion viewing them as a betrayal and a provocation.8

As NATO attacked the former Yugoslavia in the Spring of 1999, the Russian military and the Kremlin reacted angrily, halting their NATO relationship. As the fighting ended, Russia aggravated NATO by sending its soldiers into Kosovo ahead of the Alliance's peacekeepers. When those tensions eased, the Kremlin expressed irritation over a symbolic 1999 NATO meeting in Ukraine. Since 1995, Kremlin officials have vigorously maintained their opposition to any NATO inclusion of former Soviet republics noting Western promises that the Alliance would not move "one inch to the east.”9

In 2000, Vladimir Putin expressed interest in Russia joining Nato. Still, he did not want his country to have to stand in line "with a lot of countries that don't matter," according to George Robertson (1999-2003), a former secretary general of NATO. "They wanted to be part of that secure, stable, prosperous west that Russia was out of at the time,” he said.10

Before his first election in 2000, acting Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested in a television interview that his country could join NATO if the Western Alliance treated Russia as an equal partner. "Why not? Why not?" Putin said when asked by the BBC's David Frost asked about joining NATO. "I do not rule out such a possibility . . . in the case that Russia's interests will be reckoned with if it will be an equal partner. Russia is a part of European culture, and I do not consider my own country in isolation from Europe and from what we often talk about as the civilized world," He continued. "Therefore, it is with difficulty that I imagine NATO as an enemy."11 US President Clinton rebuffed Putin's suggestion of NATO membership by instead offering a special partnership instead.12

After the Orange Revolution street protests in Ukraine in 2004, Putin became increasingly suspicious of the West’s motives and actions. The Russian President blamed the West for funding pro-democracy NGOs, stirring anti-Russian sentiment. The Kremlin's anger expanded further as Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania chose to join the NATO alliance in 2004, putting NATO and its infrastructure on the Russian state border.13

Formed in 1949 from the Washington Treaty, NATO is an alliance to safeguard the member's freedom and security by political and military means. “Conceived as a defensive alliance, NATO is the principal security instrument of the transatlantic community, permanently tying together the security of North America and Europe.”14 Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Alliance's membership has grown eastward, consuming old Soviet satellite states under the banner of security and democratic self-determination.

In a March 10, 2007, speech at the Munich Conference on Security, Russian President Putin articulated a festering security dilemma with NATO when he said, “I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”15

Putin further challenged the North Atlantic order without pulling punches, "One state and, of course, first and foremost, the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural, and educational policies it imposes on other nations”16 Putin paints NATO as an instrumentality of the United States' influence. According to the Russian President, unilateral actions taken by the United States rip at the seams of international law, making the entire world less safe. "It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasize this – no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them.”17

In his memoir, Duty, Robert Gates, who served as secretary of Defense in the Bush and Obama administrations (2006-2011), said, “trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching...recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their vital national interests.” 18 Ignoring the wisdom of former Defense Secretary Gates, the Bush administration escalated their lobbying campaign for Georgia and Ukraine’s NATO membership. Fortunately, the Germans and French pushed back, citing the risk of escalation with the Russian Federation.

In early 2014, Russia annexed the region of Crimea as Russian President Putin articulated his version of a "security dilemma." In his March 18, 2014, Kremlin speech, Putin said, "... they [Western leaders] have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed before us an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO's expansion to the east, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders." Putin adds, "would have meant that NATO's navy would be right there in this city of Russia's military glory [Sevastopol], and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.”19

In the wake of the annexation of Crimea, Western leaders (especially the US) stepped up their efforts to meddle in Ukraine’s internal political affairs to overthrow Ukraine’s elected pro-Russian president and then funneling arms to the country like a military client state. “The extent of the Obama administration’s meddling in Ukraine’s politics was breathtaking.” according to the Cato Institute’s Ted Carpender.20 Russian intelligence intercepted and leaked Western telephone calls and emails to the media. In one telephone intercept, the US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt discussed their preferences for specific personnel in a post-Yanukovych government.21 According to bi-partisan observers, it would be a grotesque distortion to characterize the Maiden revolution in Ukraine as a purely indigenous, popular, or groundswell uprising.

Part III - Conclusion

A security dilemma is a vicious cycle of security and power accumulation among neighbors in constellation with each other. Once fear is aroused by the uncertainty of others' intentions, a spiral of mistrust ensues. The seeds of the Russia-Ukraine war began with the demise of the Soviet control of East Germany in 1990. A treaty was struck between parties harboring decades of mistrust based on the Soviet state receiving NATO member assurances to calm their uncertainty. Despite those assurances, the defensive Alliance escalated the tension by taking chunks of eastern Europe into its membership over two decades under the banner of security and democratic self-determination until its troops and infrastructure arrived on Russia’s doorstep.

Sharing a 1,426-mile border with Russia, Ukraine sits wedged between two nuclear giants caught in a cascading conflict. Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, and the United States backed the elected Ukrainian government as a proxy for direct US troop involvement. The security dilemma, decades in the making, between old cold war foes ignited a bloody conflict on Ukrainian soil. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the US and its allies had pressed their advantage into the new global paradigm sensing the West's ideological triumph, Francis Fukuyama’s proverbial “end of history narrative.”22 America and its allies operating under the defensive cloak of NATO ignored "the spirit" of their 1990 promises to the old Soviet order. But history had not ended. “Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has ended Americans’ 30-year holiday from history,” Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates concluded in March of 2022.23

Finally, questioning the prevailing narrative of the events leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not an attempt to justify Russia's wicked choice to shed innocent blood.  The Russians can never justify their aggression and lack of decency in their warring conduct.  This paper asks why, after two decades of provocation by the western powers and NATO, anyone is surprised at the Russian Federation's actions.

1 Jervis, Robert. (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.  

2 Tang, “Shipping Fear in International Politics: Two Positions,” International Studies Review, September 2008, Vol 10, No. 3 pp 451-471
3 Pifer, Steve, Did NATO Promise not Enlarge? Brookings November 6, 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2014/11/06/did-nato-promise-not-to-enlarge-gorbachev-says-no/

4 Ibid

5 Ibid

6 How Gorbachev was misled over assurances against NATO expansion January 2, 2018 https://natowatch.org/newsbriefs/2018/how-gorbachev-was-misled-over-assurances-against-nato-expansion

7 Allen C. Lynch, “The Realism of Russia’s Foreign Policy.” Europe - Asia Studies 53, no. 1 (2001): 7–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/09668130124714.

8 Carpenter, Ted Galen, “Did Putin’s 2007 Munich Speech Predict the Ukriane Crisis?” Cato Institute January 24, 2022 https://nationalinterest.org/search/node/Did%20Putin%27s%202007%20speech

9 Hoffman, David, “Putin Says 'Why Not?' to Russia Joining NATO,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2000 https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2000/03/06/putin-says-why-not-to-russia-joining-nato /c1973032-c10f-4bff-9174-8cae673790cd/

10 Rankin, Jennifer, “Ex-Nato head says Putin wanted to join alliance early on in his rule” The Guardian November 4, 2021 www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/04/ex-nato-head-says-putin-wanted-to-join-alliance-early-on-in-his-rule

11 Hoffman, David, “Putin Says 'Why Not?' to Russia Joining NATO,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2000 https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive /politics/2000/03/06/putin-says-why-not-to-russia-joining-nato/ c1973032-c10f-4bff-9174-8cae673790cd/

12 “NATO expansion not to blame for a Russian invasion, Bill Clinton says” Politico September 18, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/09/18/bill-clinton-nato-russia-putin-ukraine-00057353

13 Hoffman, David, “Putin Says 'Why Not?' to Russia Joining NATO,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2000https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2000/03/06/putin-says-why-not-to-russia-joining-nato/c1973032-c10f-4bff-9174-8cae673790cd/.

14  https://nato.usmission.gov/about-nato/

15 TRANSCRIPT: 2007 Putin Speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy https://russialist.org/transcript-putin-speech-and-the-following-discussion-at-the-munich-conference-on-security-pol icy/

16 Ibid

17 Ibid.

18 Gates, Robert, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” Vintage 2014.

19 The Kremlin website http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20603

20  Carpenter, Ted, “America’s Ukraine Hypocrisy” Cato Institue August 6, 2017. https://www.cato.org/commentary/americas-ukraine-hypocrisy

21 Ibid

22 Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16, 1989, pp. 3–18. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184. Accessed 8 Oct. 2022.

23 Gates, Robert “We need a more realistic strategy for the post-Cold War era” Washington Post, March 3, 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/03/why-ukraine-should-force-a-total- overhaul-of-our-national-security-strategy/