Map of NATO expansion by year. Image Credit — Patrickneil (Wikimedia Commons)
Should we really blame NATO for the Ukraine war? The answer to that question is, "Yes!" Blame for the conflict in Ukraine can be laid at the doorstep of the U.S. and its NATO allies.
This article was originally published in Liberation, Newspaper of the Party of Socialism and Liberation
In his State of the Union address President Biden stated that nothing could have averted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: that it was “premeditated and unprovoked.” He asserted that repeated “efforts at diplomacy” were rejected by the Russians, the upshot being that there was no possibility that war could have been averted, and, by implication, the claims made by many that NATO’s actions set the stage for war is false.
Since the war began, the view expressed by Biden has become an article of faith in Western media and political circles. “Blaming NATO,” is now akin to treason or genocide denial. This, of course, serves a few important purposes. Most importantly it fits perfectly with the attempts of NATO to justify its existence. If Russia is marching inexorably westward, determined to drop a curtain of tyranny across Europe from Brussels to the Urals, then NATO must continue to exist. According to this argument NATO’s role as a defensive alliance is as relevant, perhaps more so, than in the Cold War days.
Secondly, and relatedly, it marginalizes any resistance to U.S. and NATO actions by setting-up a framework that puts any anti-escalation or anti-sanctions arguments on the back foot by framing Russia as the aggressor and NATO as a legitimate forum for self-defense.
The reality, however, is much different. In fact for nearly 40 years the implications of NATO’s eastern expansion, in particular up-to and into Ukraine, have been crystal clear, and warned against by voices from across the political spectrum including numerous “eminent” voices in the West. In fact, it was so clear that in retrospect it’s hard to understand the actions of successive administrations in any other way than as a stance designed to provoke conflict, or capitulation – not build peace or partnership.
Russia chose the Winter of 2021 as its moment to make its implicit “red lines” clear to the entire world. What needed to be done explicitly to resolve the conflict was not only known but easily within reach. It would, however, have required a significant shift in the U.S. posture towards Europe. The United States was and is unwilling to make such a shift, making build-ups and wars inevitable.
Most of those conducting an uncritical defense of Ukraine bristle at the idea that Russia has a legitimate interest in the broader region in which it is situated, and that this should play any role in evaluating the conflict. From their point of view any idea that Russia does, or should have any influence in its Western border regions is endorsing a form of “Russian imperialism.”
This, clearly, ignores almost all the relevant facts. Most notably being the long shared history of the various post-Soviet nations as part of the USSR and before that the Tsarist empire. In fact, Russia as a country has a “Ukrainian” origin. Most of these nations, Ukraine included, have strong cultural, religious, personal, economic and political ties to Russia. Russia also tends to host, by far, the largest diasporas of the various former Soviet republics. And Russian is widely spoken across various countries. That the countries are interlinked is unquestionable, and that their politics and views of “security” would be tied to this history is undeniable.
Add to that, Russia has been invaded through its Western borders more than once. This includes the two most “iconic” invasions, that of Napoleon and that of Hitler, both of which left indelible impacts on the psyche of Russia and near environs.
Taken as a whole – whether one accepts or rejects Russia’s specific negotiating positions – it’s clearly logical that Russia would assume a military alliance of those with declared anti-Russian sympathies that view the country as not just an enemy state but an enemy culture moving along the routes of traditional invasion directly into a zone of great historical, cultural and economic relevance would be a topic of great sensitivity to Russia.
Why NATO after 1991?
Knowing the above facts and considering Russia’s status as a nuclear power, if U.S. strategists actually wanted to avoid war then that would be taken into account when determining policy. However, looking back at the historical record from the George HW Bush administration onwards the United States knowingly pursued a policy of NATO expansion and clearly misrepresented their position to Russia. In other words, they pursued a war-like policy knowing full-well that it was exactly that.
The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the unraveling of the Soviet Union created both “risks and opportunities” for the United States, as then-National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft wrote to then-President Bush. The opportunities could only be seized, in his mind, by making sure NATO was “vital in these new circumstances.”
He further told the President that there was room for a more “robust” role for the United States in Central Europe, later asking his staff how the US could “get between Germany and the USSR.” This was a common theme among U.S. planners in their views of the post-Cold War era, the need to make sure a new security architecture centered on the Soviet Union – or else a German (Western European) axis outside U.S. influence could emerge. Indeed, in 1990, the State Department planning staff was writing to their top leadership noting that the United States, through NATO, could create an “active buffer” and “organize the region.”
There was significant discussion of the issue of the U.S. role throughout 1990. Just after German reunification, high-level discussions took place at the National Security Council and the State Department where one scholar states interest was “pervasive” in NATO enlargement into Eastern Europe.
Despite the interest, however, the United States had cold feet about making the issue public, specifically because it would be seen as a majorly aggressive move by the Soviet Union. National Security Advisor Scowcroft wrote to the President that it was critical to broader U.S. goals of defeating the Soviet Union to avoid “steps that could push the Soviets to change course,” on the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, noting that moving forward in this way was “risking a lot.”
The European Strategy Steering Group (ESSG), the high-level interagency task force on European issues, sought to tamp down similar discussion in early 1991 by noting that even talking behind closed doors around allies about NATO expansion would be “certain” to “increase Moscow’s anxieties” akin to “poking…Soviet hardliners with a sharp stick,” putting in jeopardy “the complete end of Soviet hegemony.”
And, indeed, publicly the United States and other Western nations went out of their way to assure the Soviets that they were not planning any major moves. Secretary of State James Baker, for instance, told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction,” in early 1990. This was part of what the National Security Archive, in its review of classified documents, noted was a full-court press of Western leaders looking to reassure the Soviets: “Declassified documents show security assurances against NATO expansion to Soviet leaders from Baker, Bush, Genscher, Kohl, Gates, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Hurd, Major, and Woerner.”
In other words expanding NATO, in the minds of U.S. policy planners, was a big enough threat to reverse the ongoing dissolution of the socialist camp. And thus, they sought to deceive the Soviets about wanting to move east. To the extent the issue was spoken about publicly, the United States cloaked its rhetoric in “liaison programs” and other non-NATO security structures. Feigning due deference to Soviet positions, President Bush told Gorbachev: “we tried to…take account of your concerns…We conveyed the idea of…new institutions in which the USSR can share and be part of the new Europe.”
As might be expected, the full collapse of the Soviet Union became a game changer, opening the floodgates to NATO expansion as part of the U.S. attempt to exercise total hegemony in the post-Cold War-era.
A new world order
The new post-Soviet geopolitical environment was seen as highly challenging to the United States because of the movement by France and the newly reunified Germany to press for further European integration. To the United States, this portended the possible end of the U.S. role as a “European Power” – something the ESSG stated as a “principal challenge” to U.S. “interests.” A briefing for President Bush additionally noted that this would challenge the U.S. ability to “harness European power in support of our broader alliance of values and global interests.”
As the National Security Advisor put it in a memo to the President, the United States had to avoid an “independent European security identity” that would “reduce our influence in Europe and weaken domestic support for our European presence.” NATO was seen as the “foundation for Atlantic cooperation in addressing political and security concerns.” And, to underline how imperial the thinking in Washington was, the National Security Council staff noted that the United States had to determine “what limits…to place on the development of a common European foreign and security policy in order preserve a vital North Atlantic alliance.”
The general point is driven home by the Department of Defense “Defense Strategy for the 1990s” (the public version of the infamous “Wolfowitz doctrine”) which noted that the principal goal of U.S. engagement with Russia and former Soviet states was to “reduce their [military] forces,” through “military budget cuts” and “conversion…[of] military industries,” and, more bluntly, “demilitarization.” In other words, Russia and any potential post-Soviet Eastern European alliances must pose no actual threat to U.S. hegemony.
In short, enlarging NATO in Eastern Europe was seen as key to preventing the consolidation of rivals to American unipolar power by preventing pan-European cooperation – including with Russia – that stood as its own pole. While the United States would become more open about NATO expansion, it attempted to continue the rhetoric begun in the Soviet days, cloaking their aggressive orientation behind the rhetoric of peace and cooperation.
The eastward push
Risks aside, the United States committed to a policy of NATO expansion in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a matter of central importance. Keeping the risks in mind, however, the United States would embark upon a “smoke-and-mirrors” sort of strategy, steadily expanding NATO eastward while pretending it was not about the obvious goal of containing not just Russia but the possibility of European-Russian cooperation that could rival U.S. hegemony. This was done very much in the face of clear warnings.
The Clinton administration would pick up on the policy of the H.W. Bush administration, presenting NATO expansion as being done in partnership with Russia, and even created a framework for such: the “Partnership for Peace.” The real challenge, and what ultimately placed the two nations at odds, was Russia’s unwillingness to completely knuckle under to the West.
While then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin had played a key role in dismantling the USSR and was more or less selling his own country for parts, he thought that the rise of the capitalist kleptocracy would open the door for the United States and Russia to cooperate as “superpowers” and shape the post-Soviet era together. Yeltsin, for instance, wrote to Clinton on the eve of the G7 meeting in 1994 – now dubbed the G8 as “a symbolic gesture to keep Yeltsin engaged” – that he hoped that the United States and Russia would “set the pace and thrust,” in terms of major issues from European Security to nuclear proliferation in North Korea. On Europe he expressed a desire for “a model which would co-opt in a natural way the European Union, the Council of Europe, NATO, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, the West European Union, and the C.I.S.”
Later in 1994 Yeltsin would write to Clinton that “There should exist a basic understanding that Russian-American partnership constitutes the central factor in world politics” and that he felt the relationship must exist “on the basis of equality.”
This was antithetical to the United States, which, as laid out in the 1992 Defense Strategy, wanted Russia to be the opposite of a great power. Instead, the United States was seeking for Russia’s military power to be totally extinguished as a companion to a smash and grab raid on the powerful former Soviet economy. Capitalist Russia was only welcome to play a role in the U.S.-led club if it accepted a totally subordinate position.
The United States, however, kept using phrases like “inclusion not exclusion,” “no surprises,” and that the Partnership for Peace was “for real,” to make it seem like it was interested in addressing Russian concerns. There were a series of misunderstandings, however, in 1994, over the issue of NATO setting a timetable for when and how to admit new members. This was something the United States had previously told Russia it would not do.
Combining that with “U.S. press reports, and European complaints” the Russians were feeling that the United States was “pushing harder” for NATO expansion than the partnership language they pushed in official government-to-government interactions with Russia. Clinton implicitly admitted the US designs were deliberately misleading when he asked Nicholas Burns, one of his top advisors on Russia, if they needed to be “more frank” with the Russians.
The United States did not end up being more frank and quite a bit of work went into reassuring the Russians that the obvious was not true, including sending signals they would delay any NATO expansion until after the Russian elections in 1996. A key issue was that the idea of total surrender to U.S. designs for Europe was the subject of “strong domestic opposition across the political spectrum.”
Ultimately, however, the Russians were correct that the United States was set to expand NATO, a central part of its vision of global “leadership” (read: dominance). This was something confirmed by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who wrote a memo to the President advising him on how to handle Yeltsin given that U.S. policy was: “that the NATO expansion track will proceed even if the Russians refuse to permit progress on the NATO-Russia track.” And, in fact – just three days after Clinton pledged to Yeltsin that he was pursuing a path of partnership in European security – Vice-President Gore briefed Secretary of Defense William Perry that Clinton was “committed to a rapid expansion of NATO right after 1996, rather than taking the much slower route through the Partnership for Peace.”
That this was likely to lead to conflict with Russia was clear enough. As mentioned earlier, fears of the obvious negative reaction from the Soviets to NATO expansion caused the Bush administration to smother its own discussions about the issue. And, in conjunction with its erstwhile allies, went out of their way to reassure the Soviets they’d never do such a thing.
When testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1997, Jack Matlock, U.S. ambassador to the USSR from 1987 to 1991, told Senators NATO expansion would “go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War,” and “could produce the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed.” In later remarks Matlock clarified he feared the possibility of a nuclear stand-off.
William Perry, Secretary of Defense during a critical phase of the expansion, related in later years that he had pushed back in internal meetings against expansion, saying he felt so strongly it was wrong and dangerous that he “in the strength of my conviction … considered resigning.” And that, in retrospect, “I regret I didn’t fight more effectively.”
Also in 1997 a letter of prominent foreign policy voices including three former senators called NATO expansion a “policy error of historic proportions.”
In 1998 George Kenan, the chief architect of the Cold War, stated that NATO expansion into Eastern Europe was a “tragic mistake,” that “no one was threatening anyone else,” and that “of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.”
In his 2015 memoirs Robert Gates, former CIA Director and Deputy National Security Advisor in the Regan and H.W. Bush administrations, noted that he met with President George W. Bush after the 2007 Munich Security Conference where Putin criticized the West, saying of NATO expansion that it: “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?”
Gates stated that he gave an assessment to W. Bush noting that Russia had deep resentments at U.S. “arrogance” in attempting to direct all elements of Russian domestic and foreign policy during the Yeltsin era. Amazingly, Gates notes he withheld from Bush his judgment that a significant amount of the expansion agenda had been a “mistake” and a “needless provocation.” Omissions aside, Bush likely sought Gates counsel as someone somewhat outside the “neocon” circle and his spoken judgements about U.S. hubris clearly could only be read as warning. But it was a warning that Bush ignored, moving forward with what Gates would deem a “monumental provocation” – stating that Ukraine would become a candidate for NATO membership.
And indeed, in the same year Bush made his statement – 2008 – U.S. Ambassador to Moscow William J. Burns would write via cable that top Russian officials made it clear that:
“Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat. NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains “an emotional and neuralgic” issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene.”
Burns would double down in another memo calling Ukrainian entry into NATO as the “brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin.)” Saying that even among Putin’s “sharpest liberal critics” he had not found anyone who “views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
In a 2014 op-ed, Henry Kissinger stated clearly “Ukraine should not join NATO.” Clearly there was no doubt that NATO expanding eastward generally, and especially including or seeking to include Ukraine, was likely to become a serious conflict between NATO and Russia.
Road to war
President Obama, known to be partial to the “realist” philosophy pushed by people like Gates and Kissinger, did not initially push to fulfill Bush’s vision of Ukraine as a NATO member. In fact, he tried to, infamously, “reset” relations between the two countries. In the context of the “pivot to Asia” rearranging U.S. power to confront China, Obama sought to keep Russia engaged with the West and prevent the formation of a powerful Eurasian bloc of the two nuclear powers. This was advice shopped around by Kissinger.
Obama was, in fact, widely considered by “Russia hawks” to be “soft” on Russia, particularly as it came to Ukraine. After interviewing Obama on the subject, Atlantic Magazine writer (now editor) Jeffery Goldberg stated “Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one.”
Obama also notably resisted calls coming from both within his administration from various “Russia hawks” and the “foreign policy community” like the Atlantic Council to start massively arming Ukraine after the Maidan coup in 2014. When a documentary filmmaker asked arch-neocon Robert Kagan in 2016 about Obama’s Ukraine policy he responded: “[Obama] said to me [that he wouldn’t arm Ukraine because] he doesn’t want a nuclear war with Russia,” he added, rolling his eyes dismissively.”
Obama did, however, provide key backing to the post-2014 Ukrainian governments. The Maidan events totally changed the status quo between Ukraine and Russia. It brought the ascension of extremely anti-Russian governments, rising to power with the aid of the United States and Europe. After the signing of the Minsk II accords, which froze the civil war that broke out in Ukraine, the Obama administration gave political support to the Ukrainian-side as they dithered about implementing the deal.
This support was critical because it buttressed the position of two successive Ukrainian governments to avoid the key implementation issue: autonomy for two breakaway republics in Eastern Ukraine. As one European diplomat told Politico at the time: “The implementation of Minsk now is more or less frozen. Unfortunately, the Ukrainians are now actually carrying a big part of the responsibility of the blockage.” When the Ukranian parliament tried to consider measures to implement Minsk in the summer of 2015, far-right (including Nazi) forces rioted outside the legislative building, killing several and injuring over 100.
For Russia, even though Ukraine was not a NATO member it was not only now NATO adjacent, but governed by an extremely anti-Russian government. backed diplomatically by the United States. Even if the U.S. government was holding back on the most lethal weaponry, it was also willing to provide material support of other kinds in addition to imposing sanctions on Russia.
Further, the Ukrainian government, in addition to prolonging a civil war with forces that could be deemed “pro-Russian,” was also shaping the internal political environment in the most nationalistc and anti-Russian of ways, including giving large sums to Nazi groups to train the population both to fight and in far right ideas. In other words, Ukraine was clearly becoming something of an anti-Russian garrison state.
As regimes changed in Washington and Kyiv, however, it seemed things might pull back from the brink. President Trump was far less resistant to sending lethal military aid, something he began in 2018. That said, Trump too, seemed not terribly enthusiastic about a conflict with Russia over Ukraine, and clearly shared Obama’s core conviction that Russia was a lesser threat, potentially even an asset, in a greater conflict with China.
In 2019, President Zelensky won a landslide election in which a major campaign promise was to resolve the conflict in the East. This, ultimately, did not come to pass. While Zelensky did expend some effort, by 2020 the effort was bogged down. Ultimately Zelensky was not able to bridge the gap around the key issue of what level of autonomy the breakaway eastern regions would have in a new political dispensation.
It is in this context, that things truly began to shift in terms of our current moment.
On the brink
Zelensky, in early 2021, shifted gears, leaning into a more aggressive nationalistic stance in an attempt to shore up his political position. He moved to sideline his opposition, closing down television networks, charging the leader of the largest opposition party with “treason” and even leveling charges against previous President Petro Poroshenko for being involved in illegal schemes with Russia despite Poroshenko’s demonstrated hostility to the Russian government and their positions vis-a-vis Ukraine.
At least one report detailed that the United States played some role in this crackdown, potentially implicating the United States in what was clearly an attempt to silence opposition media and parties deemed “pro-Russia.”
This sparked a small Russian troop build-up near Ukraine in March. Shortly thereafter NATO launched one of its largest exercises in decades, Defender Europe 2021, involving nearly 30,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen from across NATO countries. The exercises were, in the words of the Pentagon, to show NATO’s “readiness, lethality and interoperability,” as a method of “deterrence.” In other words, it was aimed at sending an intimidating message to Russia. The start of the exercises prompted Russia to increase its troops from a reported few thousand to reportedly over 40,000 in an obvious counter signal from the Russians.
At the same time, both Ukraine and the Donbass People’s Republics were trading claims of increased attacks on either side, further increasing tensions. The situation was clearly a tinderbox and by May the United States was warning that a Russian invasion was a “real threat.”
Then, on September 1, the United States and Ukraine issued a joint communique where the US pledged to “support” Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO, reaffirmed Ukraine’s status as a NATO partner, announced a new U.S.-Ukraine joint defense framework and pledged to help Ukraine work around the existing roadblocks to joining NATO. Just about a month later Russia started to harden its negotiating position, beginning the escalation of the war of accusations that ran from November 2021 to the invasion in February of 2022.
Who is to blame?
It is beyond dispute that Russia did in fact invade Ukraine, they themselves argued that their “special military operation” was a preemptive defensive move. In that narrow sense it is easy to blame Russia for everything that has happened since. As the above history details, however, from 1989 on the United States and NATO more broadly moved in only one direction: escalation.
At no point was there an attempt to do anything other than lead us to this moment. As the documents from the early 90s clearly prove, the entire U.S. strategy and approach is about using military force to contain Russia’s influence, basing any possibility of partnership on capitulation to U.S. unipolar hegemony.
U.S. policy has been deliberately provocative, it has moved forward in an environment that any observer could see was potentially leading to conflict, and thus can only be interpreted as a move designed to test Russia: either give up on its “red lines” or to fight. Obviously, Russia has chosen to fight.
Whether one agrees with that decision or not, it is impossible to deny that the entire context in which the decision took place was set up by the United States. The U.S. government and NATO more or less constructed the bomb, placed it, lit the fuse, and then acted shocked and surprised when it exploded. This has deep implications for how the conflict can potentially be solved.
Escalation by NATO, from the 90s on, only hardened the sense of bitterness towards the West across the Russian political spectrum. It seems likely that escalation now, via sanctions and military shipments, is likely to do the same. To many Russians, the situation is bound to appear as deeply unfair and instigated by NATO, meaning Russia is more likely to pursue a course of deeper confrontation. This may be what some in NATO want, but it raises the danger of all out war in Europe and nuclear war.
Everyone from the Wall Street Journal to the British Labour Party is pushing the idea that the West should try to “defeat Russia,” in Ukraine. This the final and logical stage of NATO’s eastward expansion, a direct attempt to engender regime change in Russia, and force it to comply with the NATO vision of Europe (and the world) – all at the expense of Ukrainian lives. While this is extolled as righteous in the West these days, it should be seen for what it is: reckless war-mongering.
- Joshua Shifrinson, “Eastbound and down: The United States, NATO Enlargement, and suppressing The Soviet and Western European Alternatives.” (Journal of Strategic Studies, April 2020)
- Perry, W. J. (2015). My journey at the nuclear brink. Stanford Security Studies.
- https://www.politico.com/story/2016/02/obama-ukraine-russia-putin-219783; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34105925
- https://www.politico.eu/article/ukraine-zelenskiy-coup-akhmetov-russia/; https://time.com/6144109/russia-ukraine-vladimir-putin-viktor-medvedchuk/
Eugene Puryear is the host of The Punch Out podcast and co-host of Breakthrough News. He is the author of Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America.