By Kim Michaels
I assume that by now most people are aware that Russia has troll factories in which people are employed to spread Russian propaganda across the internet, especially on social media. I personally have removed several trolls from my Facebook page since the invasion of Ukraine started. One of the primary targets for these trolls is NATO, and they claim that the eastward expansion of NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union was a mistake because it provoked Russia. I have even seen this claim in some mainstream western media. So let me give you my personal revelation about NATO.
I grew up in Denmark during the cold war, and I learned in school about Nazi propaganda and Hitler’s propaganda minster, Joseph Goebbels. I also learned about Soviet propaganda and the goal to turn the entire world into a communist society. I was ten when I became aware that if someone in Russia pressed a button, it would take eight minutes for the nuclear missiles to reach Denmark and obliterate my country and way of life. I knew that for a small country like Denmark to avoid being occupied by Russia, NATO was our only option. So I was brought up with the common view that NATO is a military alliance designed to defend democratic nations from totalitarianism.
It wasn’t until I moved to Estonia in 2009 that I realized this view isn’t entirely correct. As I grew up, I didn’t learn much about the three Baltic countries, given that they were part of the Soviet so-called Union and that little information was available. Yet I did know that they had not always been in the Soviet Union but had been forced into it by Stalin. It was only when I moved to Estonia that I became aware of how the Estonian people had experienced this. I learned that on one night in March 1949 over 20,000 people had been arrested by Stalin’s henchmen, stuffed into cattle cars and railroaded to labor camps in Siberia, most of them never to be heard from again. And this wasn’t the only such wave of deportations, with over 200,000 people deported from the three Baltic counties. This amounts to almost ten percent of the population in these small nations. Basically anyone considered even a potential risk to the Russian occupation was deported in order to squash the emergence of any kind of resistance movement. This amounts to people being arrested and condemned to death on suspicion alone and without any kind of trial. There was simply a knock on the door at four o-clock in the morning and the people, including children, women and the elderly, were gone.
How did people in Estonia experience this? Naturally, as an almost unfathomable trauma—at least unfathomable to those of us from free nations who have never experienced anything like it. Yet these people did experience it, and the occupation lasted for almost 50 years. Now, we may have ideas about this being caused by the Soviet Union as some amorphous entity, but the Estonians have no doubt about what kind of people occupied their country and deported their family members: It was done by Russians. Clearly, the Russians were in charge of the Soviet Union and they were the ones planning and executing this inhumane act. Also, the Estonians felt their country was occupied and suppressed by the Russians who acted as if they didn’t consider Estonians to be human beings. They also experienced how their country was brought into a decline during the Russian occupation. As one person said: “Before the occupation, we were ahead of Finland in all ways, but after the Soviet Union collapsed, we were far behind them.”
The result of this is very clear. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Estonians wasted no time distancing themselves as much as possible from Russia. Why? Because after 50 years of occupation they realized very clearly that the Russian state apparatus is an expression of a lack of humanity that is very far below the level of humanity of the Estonian people. The Estonians knew that there is no way they could ever have done to other people what the Russians did to them. The primary goal for a free Estonia was to make sure that they would never again by subjected to the inhumanity of the Russian state apparatus. I am deliberately not saying the Russian people because Estonians have lived with the 300,000 ethnic Russians that Stalin forcefully relocated to Estonia. So the Estonians know that not all Russians have the lack of humanity that they see in the Russian state apparatus.
So what was the primary motivation for the Estonians wanting to join NATO? Did they have imperial dreams of joining a military alliance and affecting revenge on the Russians? Nay, they simply wanted to be left alone so they could develop their own country without interference from their eastern neighbor. And this is my point. The Estonian motivation for joining NATO was purely humanitarian:
- They didn’t want to be occupied or destroyed by the Russian military.
- They didn’t want to have built a prosperous a nation only to have the most talented ten percent of the population deported to labor camps.
- They didn’t want to lose their cultural heritage and literature (Estonians read more than most other people).
- They didn’t want to strive to build a viable economy only to have it set back by having most of their production forcefully “exported” to Russia (as during Soviet times).
- They didn’t want to lose a free press and the ability to speak their minds publicly and privately.
- They wanted to be able to build a better life for themselves, their children and their nation. And they didn’t want to have this taken away from them ever again.
Quite frankly, are these unreasonable desires? Can we not say that they are an expression of what we might call basic humanity, the kind of humanity we tend to take for granted in western countries? Thus, is it not obvious that the eastward expansion of NATO was an expression of the humanity upon which all democracies are based?
Let’s just be straightforward here. The old members of NATO did not force any eastern European nation into NATO. They all rushed to join as soon as they met the requirements, and they all joined for the same reason as the Estonians: They never again want to be exposed to the inhumanity and brutality of the Russian state apparatus. Keeping human beings free from this inhumanity is not a military goal; it is an expression of humanity.
Now, I know very well that if I had written this article before Putin sent his military machine into Ukraine, some people would have vehemently reacted to me saying that the Russian state apparatus is inhumane and brutal. Yet how can anyone object to this based on the news reports of the Russian military machine systematically targeting civilians, bombing hospitals and shelters and leveling entire towns?
For those who do acknowledge the inhumanity of the Russian war machine in Ukraine, just imagine what would have happened if NATO had not expanded eastwards. Based on Putin now having exposed his intentions, do you think Ukraine would have been the beginning? Don’t you think that when Putin had solidified his power, he would have taken on one small nation at a time and forced them into the Russian fold? And where would it have ended? Ask the Polish people about their experience with Russian brutality and whether they want to become part of Putin’s Russia.
What about the claim that the expansion of NATO provoked Russia and made them feel threatened? Can anyone really believe this, now that Putin has showed his hand? Putin knows NATO is a defensive alliance. Sure, he feels threatened by it because in order to attack one country, he has to go up against all of them instead of taking over one at a time. Yet if he had no aggressive intentions, why would he feel threatened? In other words, NATO was created to defend humane nations against the inhumanity of the Russian state apparatus. Claiming that defending yourself against aggression is an act of aggression doesn’t make any sense—unless you are the aggressor.
The claim that NATO’s expansion was a mistake is simply propaganda to divide the West, and up until the invasion of Ukraine, we were remarkably divided and indifferent. Putin had committed many acts of aggression, but had managed to keep them at a level where we didn’t feel we had to react. He has now blown away that advantage, and I am impressed by the unified response. I hope we will continue to be unified and not allow ourselves to be divided by propaganda again.