Replaying history is a difficult, and often pointless, exercise. I recently read an article by Tom Friedman arguing, among other things, that NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet states was a major mistake because it unnecessarily alarmed Russia. He sites George Kennan in the article saying pretty much the same thing. Tom Friedman is a smart man and George Kennan is clearly a genius, particularly with respect to Russia and the Soviet Union. But smart people and even geniuses are not always right. It is possible that Russia, absent NATO expansion might have evolved into a less aggressive state. Who knows? It seems, to me, that the more likely scenario would have been a Russia, under Putin, just as aggressive and malevolent, but with a larger menu of defenseless Eastern European states to turn into puppet states or to invade and annex. If Putin did not have NATO to use as a pretext to foment his toxic form of nationalism, he would have done what lots of other despotic rulers do and created some other false pretext for promoting his fantasy of reviving the Russian empire.
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