by Miceál O’Hurley
DUBLIN — The clever twists with which Fintan O’Toole engages in reconstructionism to characterise NATO as being tantamount to a belligerent is bewildering. In all, his latest Opinion/Editorial, Fintan O’Toole: Putin bad and Nato expansion good is not a binary we have to accept – Nato’s eastward expansion broke the West’s promises and played on Russia’s fears (Irish Times, Saturday, 19 February 2022) is a feeble appeal to the ill-informed who confuse propaganda with fact and opinion with truth. O’Toole falls into the trap of being a Kremlin apologist, distorting facts to justify Vladimir Putin’s latest aggression that threatens European security. It is a worthy exercise in wordsmanship, but that does not save it from being a poor appeal to reason.
From the outset, O’Toole errs in asserting that Ireland’s military neutrality relieves it from its moral responsibility to identify aggression, condemn it and work to defeat it. Neutrality is neither pacifism or passivism. While Ireland may not want to wield the force of arms it nevertheless has a proud history of standing firm on the principles of sovereignty, democracy, freedom and human rights. Ambassador Geraldine Byrne-Nason’s Statement in the United Nations Security Council last week is exemplar of Ireland’s great tradition of coming down on the right side of history and humanity by reiterating the principles upon which true security is achieved:
... European security is built on a series of essential commitments and obligations. It is the fundamental right of a sovereign and independent State to chart its own path in the world; to choose its own foreign policy and to make arrangements for the security and defence of its territory. The Helsinki Final Act, one of the foundational documents of the OSCE, confirms the obligation of States, and I quote, to ‘respect each other’s sovereign equality … and the right of every State to juridical equality, to territorial integrity and to freedom and political independence.’ Subsequent agreements, including the Charter of Paris and the Charter of European Security agreed in Istanbul in 1999, reaffirm the core principles underpinning collective European security.
Of note, Ambassador Byrne-Nason does not describe the use of force and threat to achieve political goals as playing any part in European security. Indeed, Putin’s use of Russia’s immense military forces to threaten Ukraine (an estimated 70%-75% of its entire conventional military forces being staged within a few kilometers of Ukraine’s borders) can only be characterised as a threat and violation of European security. Any attempt to justify or defend it, as does O’Toole, is itself indefensible.
While O’Toole does admit, “There is no ambiguity about the malignity of Vladimir Putin. He is a murderous kleptocrat bent on the destruction of democracy in Europe and America,” he falls into the perennial trap of declaring ‘Pox on both of your houses’ by levelling criticism at NATO and the West for having to defend themselves against Putin’s admitted desire to destroy democracy in Europe. And here is where he and too many others wade chest-deep into the pool of the absurd.
Russia’s paranoia should not be conflated with justification. The propensity of Russia’s apologists to claim that Putin’s fears are well-founded can only be attributed to either ignorance of facts or a wholesale misunderstanding of history. Yes, Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia did strike fear into the general population. The French paid the price of their ill-advised expedition. Except for Putin and his boone-companion Alexander Lukashenko, today’s Europe is devoid of imperialists or militarists with expansionist ambitions. Europe is deeply rooted in democracy and peace. All this was 200-years ago and resorting to the Napoleonic era as being a justification for Russia’s paranoia about a European invasion is a bit like the United States claiming they have a justified fear of the British re-invading North America.
As for the assertion that Russia’s “horror was renewed and redoubled by Hitler’s invasion in 1941,” a better understanding of history and context is absent from this argument.
Hitler and Stalin freely entered into the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact so that each might collaborate in invading, occupying and dividing Europe between themselves. That Hitler then turned-on his partner-in-crime, Stalin, and invaded Russia should have come as no surprise as Hitler’s tome, Mein Kampf, had specifically devoted 2-chapters to the this very plan. It is difficult to marshal understanding for Russia’s sense of betrayal when they willingly crawled into bed with someone who had told them of his bloodthirst and desire to acquire the Russian homeland for Lebensraum.
One would think an Irishman would understand this dynamic as the Irish author Bram Stoker explained, “Vampyres do not dwell where they are not invited.”
Russia’s fear of another invasion must be put into the context that what the Nazis did to Stalin, Stalin himself had planned to do to them. National Socialism had a long history of intolerance for communism that devolved into unjust imprisonments, torture and mass murder. Stalin was well aware of this when he joined in league with Hitler. Likewise, communism could not abide National Socialism and Hitler too was acutely aware of this fact. That Hitler beat Stalin to the punch in breaching their treaty to divide Europe between themselves should have been no surprise.
What remains surprising is that after all this has been well known to the world for more than 75-years people still offer it as a justification for Russia’s demands. Today’s demonstrably peace-loving Europe is so vastly different than the regime over which the arch-villain Hitler presided that to sustain this argument is contemptuous of both history and fact.
Any appeal to appreciate Putin’s unreasoned fears and paranoia that NATO poses a threat to Russia is simply not rooted in reality. There is no proof, whatsoever, that NATO is anything but a purely defensive organisation. NATO exists for the very reason that Russia continues to act as a belligerent to its neighbours. NATO members such as Germany cannot even bring themselves to declare that should Putin invade Ukraine they will kill the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. The notion that such nations would vote for NATO to actually invade Russia tests the limits of credulity.
Putin’s biography made abundantly clear that he feels personally compelled, if not ‘ordained’ to recreate what had been the Russian Empire and/or Soviet Union. Putin’s objections to NATO are not existential (though Putin’s objections to NATO are). Putin’s concerns are not at all rooted in fear of invasion by the West, as symbolised by NATO, but of the existence of a voluntary collective of nations who are capable of thwarting his territorial ambitions.
To blame States like Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and even Ukraine from wanting to be part of a sorority of nations committed to mutual defense in order to create the security architecture for peace in Europe is such a myopic view of reality that it beggars belief. Each of these States know only too well the misery and inhumanity of coming under the thumb of Russia. Their recent history is replete with the Kremlin’s attempts to eviscerate their language, culture, history and heritage to complete their subjugation. That each of these nations joined, or seeks to join NATO, cannot by any reasonable judgment be construed as “advancing” on Russia.
The imputation that NATO poses a threat to Russia must be seen in the context of recorded and notorious conduct. It is Russia, not NATO, who has a demonstrated history of invading and occupying neighbours, poisoning and killing opponents, murdering journalists and imprisoning democratic opposition figures. Blaming countries at risk of Putin realising his imperial and territorial expansion at their expense is a bit like blaming a homeowner for buying an alarm and putting better locks on their doors during a crime spree. Sure, the burglar and thief would complain. But law-abiding, peace-loving citizens would only call such actions prudent and reasonable. Seeking to lay any responsibility on the West for wanting to secure their borders so as to avoid becoming yet another victim to Putin’s voracious territorial conquests is misguided.
Moreover, we need to stop blaming Ukraine for simply agreeing not to give up their rights of free association, defense and security as a way of resolving this crisis. Russia has partitioned 3-countries (Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine) and remains the only European country to invade and occupy another since World War II. Ireland understands more so than others the evils of partition. Asking Ukraine to renounce the right to apply to join NATO, and rolling-back NATO’s membership to exclude Poland, Hungary and the Baltics in order to obtain a mere pledge of de-escalation from a man and country notorious for breaking agreements is an overt appeal to the willingly gullible. O’Toole is more than aware that Putin has stated, repeatedly, his goal is territorial expansionism. His Foreign Minister even calls sovereign nations on their borders “orphans” that need to be brought back under the authority of the motherland. None of these nations consider themselves orphans and they are acutely aware that if Putin gets his way with Ukraine, they will be next.
O’Toole writes that those who truly have “Only the slightest acquaintance with history” do not understand why reassurance is necessary. As Her Excellency Ms. Larysa Gerasko, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Ireland told the Foreign Affairs Committee only last week, it is not Russia’s words, but their actions by which it should be judged. I posit that it is those with only the slightest acquaintance with history that fail to correctly understand the security reassurance is a fools errand.
NATO, erected in the aftermath of World War II, was designed to create a security architecture in Europe to prevent the very things Russia has done repeatedly – invade, occupy and attempt to illegally annex the sovereign territory of another European State. NATO has not done these things. Russia has. NATO does not poison dissidents, imprison journalists who dare criticise it or see them meet frightenedly violent deaths. Russia does. NATO does not seek to murder then imprison democratic opposition leaders. Russia does. NATO does not invade and occupy territory where they are not invited to be present for self-protection. Russia does.
Russia’s fears, many created because of their own actions, are more tantamount to a gangster’s fear they will be caught than they are for a peace-loving citizen to feel threatened. Subsidising Russia’s paranoia can only lend credence to legitimising it, despite its irrational basis in fact.
As for the West breaching its supposed pledges not to expand Eastward, here again O’Toole wholly fails to contextualise such matters. If George H.W. Bush made overtures that NATO would not expand Eastward Russia then we need to redefine the definition of overtures as being guarantees (they are not synonymous and both O’Toole and Russia know this). As any negotiator knows, when agreements are reached the terms and conditions are recorded for clarity and absent a recording of the same, offers in negotiation that do not result in agreement are not enforceable. As for Hans-Dietrich Genscher, stating there would be ‘“no extension of NATO territory to the east, ie, nearer the borders of the Soviet Union” if the Soviets allowed reunification,’” O’Toole is aware that the Soviet Union did not allow the reunification. Reunification was an act of the will of the German people that made it happen contrary to the East German government and USSR’s objections.
Selecting such quotes out-of-context as a justification for Putin’s paranoia and offering them as proof of subterfuge by NATO and the West is grossly disingenuous. NATO has not engaged in any “monumental breaches of faith” with Russia. Any assertion of the same is simply an apologist’s repetition of Russian propaganda and historical reconstructionism.
As for accepting formerly Soviet-aligned States, and NATO not “… having to accept these new members,” this too is an appeal to the irrational. NATO did not accept these States because “Russia was so weak under Yeltsin in the 1990s”. NATO accepted these members because it made sense to strengthen Europe’s security architecture. Russia itself signed the Partnership for Peace programme with NATO and subsequently signed many more agreements with NATO. George Robertson, who led NATO between 1999-2003 is famously on-record saying that Putin wanted to join NATO. The exchange between Robertson and Putin is instructive:
‘When are you going to invite us to join NATO?’ And [Robertson] said: ‘Well, we don’t invite people to join NATO, they apply to join NATO.’ Then [Putin] said, ‘Well, we’re not standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter.’”
It is difficult to embrace the idea that Putin sees NATO as a threat advancing on his borders. After taking office in 2000, Putin made clear that Russia wanted to be invited to join NATO. Putin does not see NATO as a threat. Putin sees NATO as having rejected his advances and leaving him jilted. Animosity, not security is what drive’s Putin as much as his territorial ambitions. Coupled with a functioning democracy on his borders with European values, such as Ukraine, acts as a mirror by which Russians can see the reflection of their former beauty and fortunes having faded in contrast to Ukraine’s beauty and vibrancy.
If Russia has complaints (all nations do) they have access to the United Nations, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, European Court of Human Rights, United Nations and countless other forums and formats where their concerns can be vetted and resolved. However, knowing their complaints are baseless, and their fears unfounded, Putin has commanded Russia to extract what they want from the point-of-a-gun. There is no other way of looking at this. Russia is so adverse to a diplomatic solution that they tried to use their position on the UN Security Council to keep the briefing on their illegal occupation in Ukraine from even taking place. And here the words of Plato should be recalled, “We can forgive a child for being afraid of the dark. What we cannot forgive is a grown-up being afraid of the light”.
Ireland should remain militarily un-aligned. This is the obligation of a truly neutral State. Ireland must not, however, shirk its responsibility to its commitment to peace in Europe, human rights, the rule of law and its international obligations as rooted in the UN Charter and with the EU. Being neutral does not relieve a nation of actively supporting those in need, those under threat or those to whom we owe moral and legal obligations.
Condemning Russia for their latest, needless military threat, or for the thousands of lives they ended with their invasions and occupations in Moldova’s Transnistria, Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, Ukraine’s Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk, not to mention the millions of Europeans they have made internally displaced, is not an affront to neutrality. Indifference and inaction, however, are anathema to our humanity.
Ireland must decide if we are good and moral actors or simply apologists for thugs with guns in the age where a rules-based-world-order should prevail. To date, the Irish government has threaded that needle supremely well, justly preserving its cherished neutrality while exercising its voice and votes for the good of European peace.
Let us be truly glad that Mr. O’Toole and the Irish Times’ plea to appreciate the delusions and paranoia that rage wild in both Putin’s mind, and Russia’s psyche, receive the scorn they so richly deserve.