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A New Détente

By threatening Ukraine with a mass mobilization of military forces, Russian President Vladimir Putin has both exposed vulnerabilities in the post-Cold War European project and unwittingly strengthened NATO's position. The conditions are ripe for envisaging new security arrangements.

PRINCETON – The prospect of the first large-scale war in Europe since 1945 invites an obvious question: What went wrong? Particularly, in what ways did the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union sow the seeds of a new conflict today?

So far, the debate in Europe and North America has focused on NATO’s eastward expansion after the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his many apologists and self-declared “understanders” claim that NATO expansion violated a previous understanding in the early 1990s. There has been a drip feed of new revelations about various Western policymakers who sympathized with the idea that NATO should have stayed put.

True, for a time, the German government even toyed with the idea that the former East Germany should be excluded from NATO (a position that strategists in Washington, DC, considered absurd). But this debate is misleading, because it evades the key issue: Putin’s abiding fear of democracy taking root in Ukraine, which has fueled his efforts to destroy Ukraine’s territorial integrity.