BY RICHARD TAYLOR
NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage threats provoked by its enlargement.
—Historian Richard Sakwa
As Americans, we must ask: Did U.S. policy inflame the crisis that led Russia to invade Ukraine? To answer, let’s examine key events in Europe from 1989 to 2022.
1989 promised to usher in a new era of peace and cooperation in Europe. After the Berlin Wall fell, Soviet President Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush (B1) sought to overcome the Cold War. When B1 agreed not to move NATO “one inch to the east,” Gorbachev dismantled the Warsaw Pact and brought home Soviet troops.
B1 honored the agreement. President Bill Clinton did not. Disregarding the objections of the normally compliant Russian Federation (RF) President Boris Yeltsin, Clinton fulfilled a promise made to Polish voters in 1996 by bringing Poland and Hungary into NATO—not without objections from senior American statesmen such as George Kennan, the architect of the containment doctrine aimed at the USSR. In 1997 Kennan wrote that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” Nonetheless, Poland and Hungary were admitted.
The RF again objected when President George W. Bush (B2) added the Baltic states, Romania, and Bulgaria in 2004.
Tensions spiked in 2008 when B2 declared at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest that “Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO.” RF President Vladimir Putin denounced the move, insisting that Moscow would never accept it. Privately, French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel also opposed this move, telling B2 that Putin would see it as a declaration of war. They gave in when B2 wouldn’t budge.
Echoing Kennan’s warning, William Burns, ambassador to the RF in 2008 (and today’s head of the CIA), dashed off a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It read: “Ukraine’s entry into NATO is the brightest of red lines to all of the Russian elite, not just Putin. In more than two and a half years of conversation with key Russian players from knuckle draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I am yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a threat to Russia’s interest. NATO would be seen as throwing down the strategic gauntlet. Today’s Russian will respond.” But B2 persisted.
In 2014, political upheaval in Ukraine spurred efforts to admit Ukraine to NATO. The Maidan uprising sent Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych packing, to be replaced by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the American favorite. Alarmed by Kyiv’s embrace of Washington, Putin ordered his military to seize Crimea. At the same time, Ukraine’s military clashed with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Tensions rose further in 2014 after NATO matched its words with deeds. With a pro-U.S. regime in Kyiv, Obama began shipping advanced weapons to Ukraine’s military. Equally threatening to Moscow, the U.S. started training 10,000 Ukrainian troops per year. Dismissing legalisms about Ukraine not yet being in NATO, Putin asserted that these moves showed that Ukraine had become a de facto member of the alliance.
He had company. After the invasion, a headline in the Wall Street Journal celebrated this de facto status. It read: “Secret of Ukraine’s Success: Years of NATO Training.” President Zelensky of Ukraine agreed, stating that, “We are a de facto member of NATO; we would like to be de jure.”
Let’s interrupt the chronology and mention two broader points. First, it’s no surprise that the entire spectrum of the Russian political class opposes NATO membership for Ukraine. Russians bitterly remember that twice in the 20th century, in World War I and World War II, Germany had invaded, devastated, plundered, and seized vast territory. In both cases, millions of people perished, with 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians losing their lives in the struggle against the Nazis. In both cases German control over Ukraine served as a springboard for an assault on the Russian heartland.
Several experts on this topic have urged American officials to do a thought experiment where they imagine that twice in the 20th century Germany had made an alliance with Mexico, one that allowed Germany to invade the western half of the U.S., inflicting losses similar to those just mentioned. The experts concluded that the experiment might make U.S. policy makers more receptive to Russian security concerns.
Or they might dismiss—do dismiss—Russian concerns on the grounds that NATO is purely a defensive alliance. Not everyone agrees. Reviewing NATO’s record since 1991, Noam Chomsky concluded that NATO is “the most violent, aggressive military alliance in the world today.” He points to NATO’s aerial assault on the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, its bombing of Belgrade in 1999, its 20-year assault on Afghanistan begun in 2001, its fracturing of Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. In Moscow, NATO’s warlike deeds impressed more than its peaceful intentions.
And after Poland and Romania joined the alliance, the U.S. placed anti-missile radars and missiles in each country, allegedly to destroy missiles from Iran and North Korea. It wasn’t lost on the RF that this defensive posture disguised the fact that the launchers can be easily changed to carry offensive nuclear weapons.
Returning to the chronology, after Biden took office in January 2021, NATO’s actions reflected its aggressive reputation. Biden stepped up military exercises in the region. In July 2021, Washington and Kyiv sponsored Operation Sea Breeze, military exercises in the Black Sea aimed at Russia that included the navies of 32 countries. In September, Ukraine led Rapid Trident 21, an operation intended to increase “interoperability of weapons of allied and partnered nations.” Moscow also watched as NATO carried out live-fire rocket exercises in Estonia aimed at tracking the RF’s air defense radars.
Political moves accompanied this military activity. Zelensky, elected on a platform that included negotiations with Putin, copied Biden’s stance of no negotiations. In August 2021, the U.S. and Ukraine signed the Strategic Defense Framework, a bilateral agreement that accelerated massive shipments of weapons to Ukraine whether it was in NATO or not. Three months later the two countries signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership which reaffirmed the 2008 Bucharest Declaration asserting that Ukraine will become a member of NATO, this time through an expedited process.
Throughout 2021, Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov kept objecting. Putin reiterated the Russian position: 1. Ukraine couldn’t join NATO; 2. No offensive weapons could be placed near the Russian border; and 3. NATO should honor its agreement with Gorbachev and move its weapons back to Western Europe.
Almost plaintively, Putin decried the placement of weapons on “the doorsteps of our nation; we have no further place to retreat to.”
Lavrov focused on the pivotal point: “The key to everything is that NATO will not expand eastward.”
U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken repeated the American mantra: “There is no change. There will be no change.”
On February 23, 2022, Russia invaded, setting off the horrors that continue.
This chronicle of events is intended to explain, not excuse. International law rejects preventive war, so by invading Ukraine, the RF executed naked aggression, the “supreme international crime,” according to the U.N Charter. That makes the RF legally accountable for the pain, suffering, death and damage inflicted on Ukraine and its people.
However, as to the question posed at the top, the U.S. did connive to provoke the invasion, one that might have been avoided had Biden been willing to negotiate over Russian security concerns. None other than Pope Francis spoke for many when he said that NATO “had been barking at the gates of Russia” and had “either provoked or not prevented” the war.
This conclusion leads to two other topics worth exploring in future issues: Who are the winners and losers? What are the prospects for peace?