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NATO Russia

NATO troops take part in an Estonian-led exercise about 60 miles from the Russian border on May 27, 2021. (Photo: Raigo Pajula/AFP via Getty Images)

As Putin Asserts Russia's Right to Defend Against NATO, US Urged to Avoid 'New Cold War'

While the Biden administration vows to "stand up for Ukraine," one expert implored U.S. leaders to "recognize our own provocations and aggressions" and to "make an effort to understand Russia."

Brett Wilkins

As Russian President Vladimir Putin responded Wednesday to NATO provocations along his nation's western frontier by warning that his country reserves the right to defend itself, peace advocates stressed the need for U.S. self-awareness and restraint in order to avoid a "new Cold War."

"We can see Russia as a partner rather than an adversary in Eastern Europe."

Following U.S. vows to "stand up for Ukraine"—including by sending combat troops and sanctioning Moscow—in the event of Russian aggression, Putin said during a press conference with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis that "Russia has a peaceful foreign policy, but has the right to defend its security," according to Agence France-Presse.

The remarks were Putin's first in public since he and U.S. President Joe Biden met during a two-hour virtual summit on Tuesday. U.S. leaders are alarmed by Russia's concentration of troops within striking distance of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists have been fighting government forces since 2014.

Putin is seeking a guarantee that NATO will not expand further eastward, as it has done nine times since 1999. He called NATO enlargement a "very sensitive" issue for his country and "one of the key questions in preserving Russia's security," while citing the Biden administration's "open door" policy of potential membership for Ukraine and Georgia—both of which border Russia and were former Soviet republics—as cause for alarm. 

"We cannot but be concerned about the prospect of Ukraine's possible admission to NATO," Putin said, "because this will undoubtedly be followed by the deployment of appropriate military contingents, bases, and weapons that threaten us."

Russian troops invaded Georgia—home to pro-Moscow separatist enclaves—in 2008, and Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which Russia subsequently annexed with the support of a majority of the local population, in 2014. Crimea was previously part of Russia from 1783 to 1954.

Biden followed Putin's remarks by saying that "the idea that the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not... in the cards right now," according to Defense One.

Appearing on Democracy Now! Wednesday, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation, said that "this escalation is not new."

"We have a one-sided narrative in this country, which is a problem because we haven't followed the growing mass of NATO troops on... Russia's border," she explained. "The escalation is neither in the United States' national interest nor security interest at a time when politics, [a] political solution, [a] diplomatic solution, is the only way forward."

"History matters," vanden Heuvel asserted. "In 1990, Gorbachev presided over the reunification of Germany and [then-U.S. Secretary of State] James Baker promised... NATO would not expand one inch eastward. That promise, which is documented in the National Security Archive, in [former Secretary of State] Condi Rice's book, in other materials, was violated. I think that is the original sin of what we witnessed today."

NATO—formed in 1949 as a mutual defense pact against the Soviet Union—has long been condemned as a provocative anachronism in the post-Cold War era, with many critics arguing that the trans-Atlantic alliance should be dissolved.

Instead, NATO has steadily expanded eastward and currently counts 10 former Soviet or Warsaw Pact nations as members. NATO's eastern boundary is now less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city.

Writing for Responsible Statecraft Tuesday, Worcester State University professor Joseph Preston Baratta urged U.S. leaders to "recognize our own provocations and aggressions" and to "make an effort to understand Russia."

"We can see Russia as a partner rather than an adversary in Eastern Europe," he said. "We can ask for a 'generous act' on the part of European leaders, like bringing Russia back into the Group of Eight, rather than continuing to hurt her people by sanctions."

When Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman mentioned the House of Representatives' approval Tuesday of a $778 billion U.S. military budget—more than the next 10 countries combined—vanden Heuvel called the development "such a tragedy."

"We have seen a revival of this national security strategy where we have made Russia and China the grave enemies," she said. "They are not going to be friends but mutual interests demand a working partnership."

Vanden Heuvel stressed that the U.S. "must wake up and understand... that we need to sort out a relationship with Russia."

She said that means recognizing that policies and actions like Biden's Summit for Democracy—which is taking place this week and has angered Beijing and Moscow—are provocations that have "a kind of Cold War feel."

"But the one-sided coverage, and it is not even commentary, in the U.S. media about U.S.-Russia, is I think debilitating and dangerous for our security and thinking," vanden Heuvel added.

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