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Ukraine, NATO expansion and a new cold war 

Published 09 Jun 2024

On Tuesday 28 May, AIIA NSW hosted Tom Switzer, executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies. Switzer’s address concerned the future of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the relationship between Russia’s initial attack and NATO enlargement. Switzer made reference to the analytical approach of prominent Australian realist Owen Harries, who emphasised “the parochialism of the present” – the assessment that events occurring in the moment are of prime importance. Switzer challenged the application of this to the Ukraine situation, stressing the need to consider the broader historical context. Russia’s attack on Ukraine cannot be divorced from that broader context, and Putin’s complex motivations must be considered.

Switzer cited NATO expansion since the 1990s as a significant point of tension for Russia. Since Hungary, Czechia and Poland began NATO accession talks in 1997, following the Soviet Union’s collapse and the beginnings of the post-Cold War era, prominent academics and political commentators had warned about the consequences of NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, comparing Russia’s concerns with the concern that Americans would feel if Russia were to cultivate military alliances with countries neighbouring the US. Switzer emphasised the analyses of three scholars in particular: George Kennan and Pat Buchanan in addition to Owen Harries. Amongst other political thinkers in the 1990s, these three commentators had emphasised the danger of “rubbing Russia’s nose” in its Cold War defeat by extending a western military alliance throughout its neighbouring countries.

Also key to Switzer’s argument was former US Secretary of State James Baker’s assurance to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward” in Europe. Despite this assurance, NATO expansion continued throughout the following decades. This assurance was informal, and Switzer considered that not creating a formal agreement was a major mistake on Gorbachev’s part. The US had broken this informal understanding; Switzer argued that this betrayal, with the continuing pressure of NATO expansion, was interpreted as aggression from the Russian perspective in a post-Cold War context.

Switzer argued that complexity was lacking in discussions surrounding the Ukraine war and Putin’s motivations for invasion. Though dominant perspectives placed the decision to invade as an extension of Putin’s desire to reclaim previous Soviet territories, Switzer stressed the importance of considering Russia’s interpretation of and response to NATO expansion as an important factor. He assessed that the US, the UK and their western allies had prolonged a war that has now continued for over two years, leading Ukraine to continue the fight without being able to protect itself sufficiently. The average age of a Ukrainian soldier is now 43, and the country has lost a third of its population and a fifth of its territory. Switzer argued that this level of devastation could have been avoided if NATO’s critics were listened to in the 1990s.

Questions from the audience raised the role of other countries, including Australia. Switzer responded that the time and resources that Australia has committed to defending Ukraine’s cause would be better directed towards assessing and mitigating the risk posed by China. According to Switzer, China is a far more threatening force to Australia than Russia, and Australia’s involvement in Ukraine is largely due to a tendency to support what Robert Menzies called our “great and powerful friends”.

Another question contrasted the reactions of the US to the International Criminal Court arrest warrant issued for Putin in March 2023 and the application for arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month: both warrants involve war crimes; but Biden supported the warrant made against Putin while he called the application for a warrant against Netanyahu “outrageous”. Switzer argued that the US is hypocritical in advocating the “rules-based liberal-democratic international order” that the Americans claim Putin breached when invading Ukraine: after all, at various stages of the post-Cold War era – most notably the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 – the US has failed to live up to the principles of that order.


Report by Isabella Crowe, AIIA NSW intern 

Tom Switzer (right) with AIIA NSW intern Isabella Crowe (centre) and president Ian Lincoln