Of course, the NATO enlargement process went a bit far when it proposed Ukrainian and Georgian membership, but the idea that Russia has little choice but to conquer parts of Ukraine is just dumb. Why? It ignores some basic realities:
- Putin has engaged in much behavior that is similar to, if not identical, what Russia was doing in Transnistria, Abkhazia and elsewhere before the first rounds of NATO/EU enlargement. Supporting separatism in neighbors, using various stalking horses to destablize those that do not submit, and so on.
- Russia only grabbed Crimea and started fomenting separatism in Eastern Ukraine after they lost their favorite guy in Kiev. Last winter, there was no immediate likelihood of Ukrainian membership in NATO as Germany and France and others were dead-set against it despite the occasional rhetoric. What does it matter for Russian security for Ukraine to be friendly with the European Union?
- Russia has a boodle of nuclear weapons. Mutual Assured Destruction is the status quo, and it is not going anywhere. Russian security is not dependent on whether neighbors join NATO or not, but on the reality that the US and its allies will not attack Russia. I still am confused about what balancing means in a nuclear world since countries really don't need buffer zones or allies if they have a nuclear arsenal that can survive a first strike.
So, please, if you think that Russia is in a corner, you have a very limited view of the situation and of International Relations in general. Absolving Putin and his pals of responsibility and agency may be your choice, but I have enough agency to suggest otherwise.