NATO member countries, Europe
NATO member countries in Europe (displayed in light blue). Photo credit: NATO

Former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff shoots down the claim that NATO expansion eastward caused this crisis.

A number of foreign policy “experts” have been saying that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is the fault of the US and Europe for expanding NATO too far East. My guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Michael Ignatieff — former Canadian Liberal Party leader and author most recently of On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times — flatly rejects that notion.

He argues that the expansion of NATO was not only essential but actually demanded by Eastern European states.

Ignatieff also lays out some of the errors the US made after the former Soviet Union fell, and talks about why encouraging democracy should have been the first priority instead of the rapid “liberalization”of the Russian economy.  

In the current war, Ignatieff worries that despite our determination to help the people of Ukraine, he has yet to hear a full-throated commitment to keeping Ukrainian democracy intact.

He also urges Western governments to put aside any self-doubts about democracy and to ensure that authoritarian regimes in the region do not continue to practice expansionism. He wonders if we have to go back to the anti-Soviet containment strategy that worked so well after 1945.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Putin’s assault on Ukraine, while it has captured the public imagination as perhaps the first good war of the 21st century, does not exist in a vacuum. Like all of history, it exists on a continuum of events, some of which are forgotten by the public for sure and often by the media as well. To understand where we are, we need to think back to Russia’s actions, some long before Putin, in Budapest, in Prague, Warsaw, as well as Georgia and Crimea.

My guest, distinguished Canadian politician and world-renowned academic Michael Ignatieff in a recent essay for Persuasion looks at the past 70 years of Russian history and lays bare the folly of the claim that NATO expansion eastward caused the current crisis. As Ignatieff says, “Eastern Europeans have always understood that an authoritarian Russia, whoever rules it, has never tolerated a free state on its borders. Mr. Putin’s brutality has a pedigree.”

Equally powerful is how these current events play out in the war that exists today between real democracies in the world and what might be called faux democracy, the likes of which are being practiced by actual authoritarian leaders, like Viktor Orbán in Hungary and even like Donald Trump, and captured by the extreme right in America.

Michael Ignatieff served as an MP in the parliament of Canada, where he was the leader of the liberal opposition. He’s a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada and holds 13 honorary degrees. He served as Centennial Chair of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He was the Edward R. Murrow Chair of Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and he was until recently the rector and president of Central European University in Budapest. He is currently the rector emeritus of Central European University in Vienna, and his most recent book is On Consolation: Finding Solace in Hard Times. It is my honor to welcome Michael Ignatieff here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.

Michael Ignatieff: Nice to be here.

Jeff: Well, it’s a delight to have you here. When we look at the current situation, there’s still so much talk about this relating to NATO expansion, and this is what triggered Putin. And that in a real politic sense, the West should consider themselves responsible, but as you lay out in a recent article you’ve written, the history of this goes back much, much further.

Michael: Well, it’s important to say that the West made plenty of mistakes. I mean, we were slow to wake up to Putin’s actions in Georgia, the takeover of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, so we made plenty of mistakes. That’s not the burden of my argument. The burden of my argument is that if you go back to NATO expansion in the 1990s, it was a passionate demand by the Poles, by the Czechs, by the Baltic states, by the Hungarians, who felt on the basis of their knowledge of history that they couldn’t be safe next to the Russians unless they had a NATO security guarantee.

In other words, they couldn’t be democracies unless we were prepared to step up and defend them. And my criticism of a lot of American thinking about this is that Americans do have a tendency to think that everything they do makes the world happen, and they ignore the extent to which these Eastern European countries were historical agents themselves. They had something to say about NATO’s expansion, and they pulled NATO east. Instead of NATO being pushed westward on top of unwilling Eastern Europeans, they absolutely demanded it as a condition of their democracy because many of them had no illusions about the Russians. They had no illusions about Putin.

And now we are where we are. And if you’re a Pole today, you are absolutely hoping that the NATO guarantee of your security holds because you’re right next to Putin, and his missiles are landing seven kilometers from your frontline, from your border.

Jeff: One of the other things you talk about is Putin’s speech back in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, which laid out pretty clearly what his thinking was at that point.

Michael: Yes. And I think one of the models that we should adopt in relation to Mr. Putin is that when Mr. Putin says something, it pays to believe him. If he says he feels that Russia has no place in the post-Cold War order, that it’s been distant, lax, not been treated with respect, that it is threatened and all this stuff, you can be pretty sure he means it, and he will put in train a strategy to do something about his resentments. And it’s also clear that there are lots of Russians who believe him for deep historical reasons, that Russians have often believed in a very paranoid way that the West is out to get them.

And that’s one of the reasons why this NATO expansion story feeds into the paranoia of the Russians. And Putin has perfect pitch for the resentments and paranoias of his people.

Jeff: So much of this goes back to 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Michael: Yes. And I think there, there’s no question. We made some serious mistakes. There was a historic opportunity to move Russia towards a democracy. The West can’t make that happen, but I think the critical mistake was that we thought that economic liberalization should come first, and so the right thing to do is to dismantle the socialist command economy, and just let prices complete liberalization of the market. And this produced a catastrophic fall in the living standards of most Russians while allowing a certain number of people, these famous oligarchs, to get very, very rich very quickly. And so the Russians’ first encounter with democracy was capitalism red in tooth and claw.

And what we should have done is say, “Let’s take the economic liberalization much more slowly because it’s so disruptive, and instead build democratic institutions, get a couple of electoral cycles under our belt, get some new democratic leaders trained up and ready to step up to the plate.” That was a much better sequence. And then but only then begin to liberalize the economy. Well, this wasn’t the path that was adopted. The advisers who flooded in to advise Mr. Yeltsin urged him to put market liberalization first, and the consequences we’re still living with because remember what happened?

By 1999, Yeltsin was done, and who takes over but Vladimir Putin, and he’s been in power ever since. And that was a historic missed opportunity for which we will continue to pay the price as long as this regime survives.

Jeff: What could the West have done differently at that moment? You talk about the decisions that Yeltsin made. What could the West have done differently that might have reshaped those events?

Michael: It’s hard to see looking back, exactly. I think the academic advisers who flooded in, the economists, particularly, thought that instant liberalization, freeing up of the market would do the trick, and we’d get market capitalism, and then we get democracy. We should have gone for democracy first and market liberalization much later. I think that’s what should have happened. We should have done a lot more work with the Russians as best we could to liberalize. But I think it’s also very important, Jeff, not to assume that the West can always make outcomes happen the way we want.

Russia is a huge, big place with a huge ancient political tradition. And there may not have been much we could have done that would have changed the outcomes, but I do think we got our sequence badly wrong.

Jeff: Has the current crisis created opportunities that we’re not yet seeing? As you look at where we are now, how this is playing out, are there opportunities that Europe in general, the West in particular, perhaps could take advantage of?

Michael: Every crisis does throw up opportunities. Right now, I just see a nightmare unfolding. The opportunities that we’ve seized, and we’ve seized them already, has been to revivify NATO to give it a new raison d’etre. Europe and the United States are more united than they’ve been in 30 years. The other opportunity that is being seized is the Germans have had a frightening wake-up call. They’re so dependent on Russian oil and gas that they’ve got to think hard about how they get energy sovereignty, and energy sovereignty is going to be a magic word across Europe for the next 10 to 15 years.

I’m talking to you from Vienna. When you go to the airport in Vienna, you pass by this enormous refinery in this place where they store natural gas for the whole of Vienna, the whole of Austria. Well, it’s owned by the Russians. And so the Austrians are suddenly discovering that the Russians have them by the neck, and I think all of Europe has discovered that. So there’s an opportunity here for Europe to source natural gas and oil, hopefully, from democratic states like the United States and possibly even from my own country, Canada. And then in the long term to accelerate this transition out of fossil fuels.

From my money, they should be going back to nuclear and they should be accelerating everything they can do with the alternative energy sources. These are clear opportunities, but let’s be honest here. It’s going to take 5, 10 years for Europe to reorder its energy systems. And in the meantime, everything we’re doing is, unfortunately, making Vladimir Putin richer every day. So that link has to be broken, but it’s going to take a while.

Jeff: The other aspect of this, which goes to something you’ve talked about and written much about is how the way the world is looking at Ukraine today. How that is going to impact how we view democracies today. There seems to be at least a kernel of reappreciation for democracy in Europe. Talk a little bit about that.

Michael: Well, I spent five years in Hungary running an American-accredited university called Central European University which was thrown out of Hungary by a nominally democratic regime run by Victor Orbán. And we discovered that these nominally democratic regimes are actually single-party autocracies. They’re single-party authoritarian states. So the first wake-up call within Europe is to take a long hard look at these places like Hungary that tell you they’re democracies but actually aren’t. Serbia is another example. There is some other place. Poland is a democracy, but it is constantly pushing at the edges of the rule of law and has problems with Europe.

That’s the first thing that I think the Ukrainian crisis is. I think force is a much tougher look at the democracies within the European Union, and making sure that they really are democracies and not, as I say, single-party states. I think the second issue which is much more urgent and is coming at us in the next couple of weeks is whether we, meaning the United States, NATO and Europe, make a public commitment to the survival of a democratically elected regime, namely Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government in Kyiv. This is a thing coming right at us.

We have not said so far that we’re committed to maintain that government in power. But we’re going to get to a moment if the Russians encircle Kyiv and begin lobbing artillery shells at the presidential palace when the decision will have to be made: Do we evacuate Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who’s been heroic, and set up a government of exile outside of Ukraine, or do we tell the Russians and reinforce it if necessary? No. That this is a democratically elected government. You’ve got absolutely no business taking it apart, and we’re going to stop you if you try.

Now, I’m well aware of how risky this is. I don’t have a military strategy of how you do it, but this would be for my money the key red line decision that President Biden and his advisers and NATO and Europeans are going to have to decide: Do we let Volodymyr Zelenskyy be bombed out of the presidential palace and sent into exile? I think before the war started, that was, I think, the game plan. We assumed that the Ukrainians would be easily defeated. Here we are in week four, and they’re still standing. But as this gets more brutal, and as it goes on, I don’t exclude the possibility that Putin will go for the kill and try and take out the government.

And when he does, we’re going to have to decide what democracy means to us in Ukraine because if the Zelenskyy government falls, then basically Ukraine will fall, and we will have watched the destruction of a democratic state in Europe. And that will be, I think, incredibly dangerous for our security because I can’t really see why Putin wouldn’t then consolidate his authority and begin to potentially menace the security of the democratic states on his frontier. We’re at a real hinge moment in history, as I think everybody can feel.

Jeff: Where is the nexus between this and this world perception today that authoritarianism, in general, is on the rise? That democracy is under siege around the world?

Michael: Well, I think it’s been tempting to believe that because we’ve got Xi Jinping in China, we’ve got the steady consolidation of an authoritarian single-party state there that’s very brutal. It’s a police state, it’s a surveillance state, and it also has territorial designs on Taiwan. It’s not only authoritarian and repressive, but it may be expansionary in a way that will threaten the security of the Pacific region. I think it’s China above all that’s giving us the sense that authoritarianism is on the rise. It’s making friends and creating alliances in Africa and Asia and Latin America. It is the rising rival power to the United States, and it’s clearly authoritarian.

But I think the last month, it’s begun to be a really pretty serious fight back because the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, national independence and democracy is so awful, so violent, so inhuman. I’m talking to you on a day when they’re fighting hand-to-hand in Mariupol on the Azov Sea, and 300,000 people are trapped in this godawful shelling and street battles. This is just unprecedented in Europe, at least since the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, but it’s considerably worse than the siege of Sarajevo. So this is a new chapter. A new, terrible chapter in European history.

But I think the fight back against this authoritarian expansionism has proceeded from an understanding that we took some time to get into our systems, which is that authoritarian states are dangerous. It’s one thing to have an authoritarian state that lives at peace with its neighbors and just has an antidemocratic or nondemocratic system inside, but the tendency of these authoritarian states is to be expansionist and aggressive towards their neighbors. This is what Putin is proving in Europe, and I hope and fear that Xi Jinping will do the same.

Once these are expansionist states, they need to be contained, and the United States did this successfully after 1945 by containing Soviet expansionism. And Europe is free because of it, and we’re free because of it. And I think we’re just going to have to go back to that as our strategy. And I also think the final point I’d make, Jeff, is that there’s been, I think, a lot of self-doubt inside democracies. We’ve told ourselves a story that we’re soft, we’re divided, we’re polarized, we can’t agree on anything, we don’t believe in anything, our kids are going to hell. We’ve told ourselves a story about how weak and feeble we are.

Well, the minute a really serious enemy raises its head as Putin has done, it puts a lot of trivial arguments and debates aside. And we begin to discover that across the polarized divides of our politics, there are some things we agree with, which is democracy is better than tyranny. Freedom is better than authoritarianism. And so it’s time for all of us to stand up. It doesn’t mean I want to start the Third World War here, but it just means we’ve all discovered what the hell we believe.

Jeff: But, of course, we also have members of the political class in the United States that are going to go visit Victor Orbán and pay homage to him.

Michael: Oh, sure. And it’s an amazing spectacle if you’re a democracy lover to see people who have been freely elected by ordinary citizens in the United States coming to a place where Orbán runs basically a single-party autocracy. And just so everybody listening to this understands what I mean here, just consider the following fact about the current Hungarian election that’s being conducted as we speak. The election is on 2 April and Mr. Orbán faces a challenger. Well, the challenger is given five minutes on Wednesday at eight o’clock in the morning, five minutes on the state-controlled media. The state-controlled media is basically the entire media in Hungary.

Can you imagine an American election in which of two candidates, one candidate has unlimited access to the media, and the opposition candidate gets five minutes? That’s all you need to know about the state of democracy in Hungary. And any conservative Republican politician who treks over to Budapest to cozy up to Victor Orbán is basically saying, “I like that system just fine.” That conservative politician is being complicit in a rigged democratic process. It will destroy democracy itself, so stay clear from it. And let’s make this more precise. I’m a liberal, I’m a signed-up liberal, I’m too late to change.

But I spent my political life with conservatives who love democracy just the same as I do, who oppose authoritarianism, just the same as I do, who respect and believe in the constitutional order. With those conservatives, we can disagree till the cows come home, but we’re in the same democratic camp. But if you go to Orbán, or you make nice as President Trump has made with Putin, you really are going over to the dark side.

Jeff: Talking about the dark side. Before I let you go, I want to talk about your new book, On Consolation, that really looks at how great thinkers over the years have looked at dark times in the world. And it is consolation for all of us as we face some of the crises that we have today.

Michael: Yes. I began this book before COVID and before this terrible crisis in Ukraine. But its message is relatively simple, which is that if we go back to the past, if we take, and I’m just choosing almost at random here a great figure, like Michel De Montaigne, the great French 16th-century essayist, the thing we need to remember about Montaigne, who wrote funny, wise, witty, incredible essays that can still be read with pleasure, and I hope are being read in colleges, and read in bookstores across the United States. What we need to remember about him is that he wrote them, and this is in 1586 to ’88, in the middle of a plague, which was killing people all around him.

A devastating plague for which there were no remedies at that time. And in addition to the plague, in the middle of a civil war in which people were killing each other within sight of his house. So we need to remember, I think, that great wise men have kept their heads, kept their cool, kept their wisdom and sense of humor in the middle of unimaginably difficult circumstances, and in some sense, that’s the message of the whole book. Case after case after case, I just have these essays about people who in darker times than our own have managed to find a way to stay calm, serene, focused, humorous, and in deep touch with reality, which is what I think we all need to be at this point.

Jeff: And is your sense that we have the kind of leaders, thinkers that make any of that possible today?

Michael: Oh, sure, I don’t. And leaders are so surprising. In, say, September, October last year, if you’d asked Ukrainians about their president, Mr. Zelenskyy, he had poll ratings at about 30%. Everybody said he’s not up to it. He’s not serious. Well, look at him now. He’s risen to the occasion. I just think that’s the thing about human beings, and it’s the thing about leadership. People can surprise you. They can rise to the occasion. I don’t want to get into evaluating the leaders we’ve got, but I’m not seeing anybody who’s failing the moment. I’m seeing people who are rising to the moment.

And the issue is whether citizens rise to the moment. We’ve got lots of opportunities to assist the Ukrainians. We’ve got lots of opportunities to get our minds straight about the threats we face to our democracy. And so I think you get good leaders when you’ve got good citizens. And so we’ve got a job to do as well.

Jeff: Michael Ignatieff, thank you so much for spending time with us today on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Michael: Always a pleasure. It was good to talk to you, Jeff. Great questions.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening, and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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