Top level Russian government officials have reacted angrily to the Ukrainian parliament’s recent vote to seek NATO membership. But what did they expect after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, supported Russian secessionists in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and threatened to cut off gas supplies unless Ukraine pays what Moscow claims Kiev owes as if nothing untoward had happened? Indeed, each one of these actions could reasonably be expected to induce Ukraine to seek NATO membership. All of them together were practically guaranteed to do so.
If Moscow had really not wanted Ukraine to seek NATO membership, then it never should have seized Crimea from it in the first place. Instead of regarding the downfall of Russia’s dubious ally, President Yanukovych, as a Western plot, Moscow could have recognized it for what it was (a popular uprising against an unpopular autocrat) and sought to establish good relations with the new government in Kiev.
Even if Moscow had insisted on seizing Crimea, it might have then sought to prevent Ukraine from seeking NATO membership by trying to assuage Kiev and those residents of Crimea who objected to the Russian annexation by offering to compensate them generously and by forswearing any further ambitions in Ukraine.
And even if Moscow went ahead (as it did) in supporting Russian secessionists in Donetsk and Luhansk, it could have made clear that these were the only regions where it would do this, and offer compensation to Kiev (including in the form of guaranteed petroleum deliveries at a reduced price). Instead, though, Putin and his allies have indicated that they might well seek to protect Russian-speaking populations elsewhere in Ukraine as well as other Soviet republics if they do not behave how Moscow wants them to.
In short: if Moscow really did not want Kiev to seek NATO membership, it would have sought to reassure Kiev (and everyone else) about the limits of its ambitions in Ukraine as well as offered compensation as a way of giving Ukrainians some incentive not to seek NATO membership.
Moscow, of course, has not done anything like this. Indeed, it does not seem to even have occurred to Russia’s current leaders to do so. They truly seem to think that they can take as much as they please from Ukraine, and that both the West and Ukraine should declare that Ukraine will never join NATO in response.
Moscow sees the Western imposition of economic sanctions on Russia in reply to its actions in Ukraine as completely unreasonable. Russian leaders seem to believe that they should be able to take what they want from Ukraine, and that the West should simply accept this and continue doing business as usual with Moscow.
The truth, of course, is that Putin’s actions have pushed the Ukrainian government and public to seek NATO membership. Putin seems to believe that by making others fear Moscow, they will respond by seeking to mollify Russian wrath through altering their behavior to please Moscow. Predictably, though, this has backfired. Instead, Putin’s making others fear Moscow has resulted in their seeking to work with others (including NATO) to constrain Russia.
The claim by Putin and Russian nationalists that Ukraine and other former Soviet states joining NATO is somehow a threat to Russia appears paranoid. It is simply not credible to believe that NATO is planning to attack Russia. But if Moscow genuinely fears this, then the best way for Putin to prevent Ukraine and other former Soviet states from seeking NATO membership would be to reassure them that they have nothing to fear from Russia. Threatening Russian behavior, by contrast, is what drives them to seek NATO membership.
Putin, though, seems not just unwilling to understand this, but unable. If so, then he has condemned Russia to a vicious cycle in which its hostile responses to cooperation between its neighbors and the West only leads to further such cooperation between them and isolation for Russia.