During the so-called "Two plus Four Talks" that paved the way for German reunification, Russia was given guarantees by western politicians that NATO would not expand eastward. That was in 1990.
I've posted this
before, but again: Some feel there was no official guarantee.
And perhaps even IF one assumed there had been... Then, many of the (formerly Soviet) parties that made it changed heir own composition so much after the talks, and undid so many of the things some of their former leaders or members had said earlier -- after they assumed quite different constituents and borders that were not subject to Nato discussion at all -- that one might wonder how to keep the spirit of whatever was said earlier. (There is some discussion of that angle in the same link.)
I don't think it's all that much about feeling threatened, but a lot about feeling deceived and being sidelined, because you only tell someone something to their face and then do the opposite if you think you can get away with it. And you only think you can get away with it if you think the other side is too weak to do anything about it.
Well, I do think at least part
of what people who support Putin sometimes say (and perhaps well enough what Putin thinks too), is that the US in particular applies its rules for international order quite selectively when it likes. And there is something to that. People should be very clear when they are really reacting to just that, and how exactly
they feel Russia should
react to it. Usually they aren't very clear about what kind of order they do want. In the Crimea case, Putin's supporters tend to mention this problem more after the fact. It gets used as an excuse for what has already happened just lately, rather than as part of some alternative model for foreign policy that everyone could argue about or agree to follow.
I would be more impressed with it if they had some positive alternative... Is this supposed to be Russia now 'taking over' where the UN has failed the world, or what? And how exactly? Or is this a more "every country should have certain regional exceptions" sort of policy... But then, well, why can't just anyone in the South Pacific decide to militarize the South China Sea, if everyone gets to do what they feel like in their backyard? Etc. Whatever it is, IF you think Russia claims to be making a positive model everyone can follow... Tell me what that model is.
What I tend to suspect is really happening is: Russia applies simple realpolitik, takes as much as it can by force, and
makes flimsy pseudo-idealist excuses that the West is no better. Or even, excuses that the West (mainly the US) did "worse" things in the past -- but if you look at this, it means "worse" deeds under much the same
principles that Russia seems to be actually following now. If that's what you want everyone to do all the time, okay... But then spare me the excuses and false, self-serving waves to idealism.
The more common pro-Putin version right now -- I mean, using "The US did it too" more as an excuse
-- oftens end up in self-contradiction. There are so many cases where the supporters echo Putin and say on one hand, "There was no invasion" when there obviously was --- and almost in the same breath, many also say "But the US has done much the same or worse at some points, so Russia should be allowed to do whatever it feels is right for its own security." To be consistent, they should pick one or the other. If it's a better model, then give me the model. Not just the excuse that Russia should act as badly as anyone else ever has.
I'll paraphrase Noam Chomsky here, in a way I think is 1) appropriate given how people define Russia's national security as requiring physical ownership of Crimea and 2) incidentally, very ironic given how much Russia has droned on about fears of neo-Nazis. Chomsky once said of the American neoconservatives such as Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, "If you're going to be a Nazi, at least be honest about it." He was referring to their overall sense of exceptionalism, particularly in how they defined US national security in ways that allowed interference in other countries' affairs. Almost the same phrase can be used in the Crimea case, with very slight changes: Whatever you're actually doing... If you're going to take a buffer zone by force... Or perhaps with Yanukovich, if your'e going to enforce Ukraine having a corrupt, puppet government... Or if you're going to invade to protect separatists before
they have a referendum, such that your troops already control all the official buildings... Whatever you're going to do, call it what it is. "Be honest."
Something that I think is often overlooked in situations like this is that political actors are just people. And sometimes people do things for reasons that may not be entirely logical, or are based on emotional logic. And they all see things through their own lense.
It's true in a way perhaps. But recently, many Americans are fed up with our own courts saying oh, corporations
should be allowed to act that way in politics. We want some level of reason and accountability in our process. There is an idealism that says: Things should be done somehow cleaner and better. Of course, others -- including quite a few of them on the Supreme Court -- think there is really no way to improve much and maybe we should just let the big money talk. (Or in the case of Crimea, perhaps it's let the guns
and first foreign army to hop in and occupy, talk.)
Sometimes they act more for the "home audience" than one might think when looking at a conflict like this from th outside. A lot of what Putin says or does is addressed at Russians, just as a lot of what Western politicians say and do is formulated in a certain way to send a message to their own nationals. Just ascribing the actions of one politician or another to a single reason is easy, but I think it might sometimes miss the mark.
I wouldn't deny some of it is for a domestic audience. But Russia has a reputation for restricting and manipulating its own media, so we may wonder how much that home audience is perhaps being led along, instead of leading events. It's even possible that in the process of feeding them what he wishes them to hear and making himself out to be a strongman, Putin has backed himself into a corner where he has to make a show
of sending the troops, or he won't look 'tough' enough to match his own prior rhetoric in this situation.
And back to that question of who exactly are
Russians, or perhaps 'Russian enough' to count then? If Moscow starts issuing passports to officially 'Russify' the secret police fleeing Kiev, or to give instant citizenship to people of Crimea -- all obviously established just for this specific situation, legislation changed overnight -- then who else will be defined as Putin's consituency or audience in the future? Russian speakers in Lithuania? Moldova? Poland? Alaska? New York? Are all Chinese speakers in Siberia also potentially 'Chinese nationals' who must be protected? (I feel like people keep avoiding this question.)
There's no clear international agreement about how long a group of people have to live somewhere, before they supposedly "belong to" that territory. Putin's supporters have made much of the history with Crimea being assigned to Ukraine as a choice of Kruschev: According to them, this made it a potentially illegitimate, Soviet era
action. But if that is the case... Then wasn't it also a Soviet era action that placed many, many ethnic Russians and other Russian speakers even, in Crimea, the Baltics and other regions across the former Eastern Bloc countries in the first place? One might use the same logic to say those people don't legitimately belong there in the first place -- so Putin has no right to be using their presence as an excuse to invade or interfere. It's more likely that he's following a Soviet mentality, wherein they were placed
there precisely in order that Russia would make such an excuse
to interfere later.