Can America and NATO Avoid a Broader War Over Ukraine?

Can America and NATO Avoid a Broader War Over Ukraine?

By supplying Ukraine with weapons, ammunition, and intelligence the United States and NATO are waging a proxy war against Russia.

Regardless, this clearly was a neuralgic issue for the Kremlin. As Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—who aimed at ending the Cold War and instituting liberalizing reforms—said in 1990: “Regardless of what is being said about NATO now, for us it is a symbol of the past, a dangerous and confrontational past. And we will never agree to assign it a leading role in building a new Europe.” Similarly, Russian president Boris Yeltsin—in whom the U.S. placed great hope as a democratic reformer—said: “For me to agree to the borders of NATO expanding towards those of Russia – that would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people.”

In a February 1997 New York Times article, Kennan, America’s leading Sovietologist and Russia expert—and the architect of the Cold War “containment” strategy—warned “that expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” Russia, he said, would be “little impressed with American assurances that it reflects no hostile intentions.” Kennan was prescient.

The Clinton administration officials who dreamed up NATO expansion said it was a benign policy of enlarging the zone of democracy (the “democratic zone of peace”) by helping to consolidate the fledgling free-market democracies of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. As President Clinton said:

We want all of Europe to have what America helped build in Western Europe—a community that upholds common standards of human rights, where people have the confidence and security to invest in the future, where nations cooperate to make war unthinkable. That is why I have pushed hard for NATO’s enlargement and why we must keep NATO’s doors open to new democratic members, so that other nations will have an incentive to deepen their democracies.

Washington believed the Cold War’s end presented the United States with the opportunity to build a post-Cold War Europe based on America’s liberal political and economic ideals. As Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe put it: ‘We have the possibility to build a system in Europe—and indeed the entire world—organized on the model of what we used to call the Free World—that is, liberal market democracies living in peace with their neighbors.”

The Clinton administration argued that NATO expansion was not a threat to Russia. As Slobombe said,

NATO is a defensive alliance created to ensure more security and stability for Europe as a whole, Russia included, whatever its formal or informal relations with the alliance. NATO is not an alliance against Russia. NATO’s basic principles—collective defense, democracy, consensus and cooperative security—are no threat to the Russia of today or, we trust and hope, of the Russia of tomorrow.

As Clinton put it, “NATO will promote greater stability in Europe and Russia will be among the beneficiaries. Indeed, Russia has the best chance in history to help build that peaceful and undivided Europe, and ... to define themselves in terms of the future, not the past; to forge a new relationship with NATO as enlargement moves forward.”

Why the Clinton administration believed all of this is an open question. Why it—even for a moment—thought that Moscow would believe it betrayed an astounding naivete; a naivete born of ignorance of the enduring realities both of great power politics and Russian history. The Clinton administration’s disclaimers notwithstanding, NATO expansion obviously was a security threat to Russia: it transformed an anti-Soviet Cold War military alliance into a post-Cold War anti-Russia alliance. An anti-Russian alliance that now includes territories that were part of the Soviet Union itself (and, before that, of the Tsarist empire). Moreover, NATO expansion also was seen by the Kremlin as a blow to Russia’s status and prestige as a great power—two things that great powers value as much, and sometimes more, than security.

The George W. Bush administration—arguably the most strategically inept in American history (the Iraq War, nation-building in Afghanistan)—also contributed to the Ukraine war. Apparently unaware of (or simply unconcerned about) the implications of Ukraine’s NATO membership for Russia, at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, the administration pushed for Ukraine’s admission to the alliance. France and Germany were aghast and vetoed that. However, the summit enabled the U.S. to save face by issuing a communique that stated that Ukraine would become a member at some (indefinite) point in the future.

The American architects of NATO expansion were intoxicated by the “unipolar moment,” and victims of the liberal internationalist assumptions that undergirded their approach to foreign policy. Moreover, unlike Kennan, they had little sense of Russian history. Phrases like the “post-Soviet space” roll easily off U.S. policymakers’ tongues. But they never seem to acknowledge that the post-Soviet space was the pre-Soviet space: for centuries the territory of the Tsarist Empire, and places in which Moscow had security interests, and economic and cultural ties. Moreover, Russia’s “instinctive and traditional sense of insecurity”—and distrust of other great powers (including the United States)—is well-founded historically. In the Russo-Japanese war (1904/05), the U.S. tilted toward Tokyo; American troops fought on Russian soil against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War; Russia fought costly wars with Germany in both World Wars (and, in World War II, for three years single-handedly bore the brunt of fighting Nazi Germany while waiting for the Anglo-Americans to open a serious second front in Western Europe).

Washington casts the Ukraine war as solely the result of the actions of an aggressive “autocrat.” In all statements and articles about the war, it’s always “he” (Putin), never Russia (or Moscow, or the Kremlin). As important as “he” is, however, it is also “they.” On NATO expansion, as already noted above, “he” is following the same line as his predecessors, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. When the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union was in the throes of geopolitical and economic collapse. Desirous of financial support from the West, Gorbachev could not press harder for either a firmer understanding about NATO expansion, or for a new post-Cold War European security architecture that would replace NATO and the Warsaw Pact. During the nearly yearlong build-up to the Ukraine war, the Kremlin made it clear it was seeking a revision of the post-Cold War settlement. Putin made it clear that if the United States refused to engage in serious discussion of this topic, Russia would resort to a “military-technical” solution; that is, war. While offering to negotiate on arms control issues, Washington refused to negotiate on the core issue of greatest importance to Russia.

The Kremlin’s war aims have been apparent for some time: (1) neutralization of Ukraine, and a guarantee that it will never become a NATO member; (2) recognition of Russia’s annexations of Crimea, and the Russian-speaking areas in eastern Donbass. For its part, Kyiv’s bottom line is the preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty. In recent days, the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia have met three times. Although no agreement has been reached as of yet, both sides indicated that progress has been made, and that there was some reason for optimism. Some key issues have yet to be nailed down, including meaningful security guarantees for post-conflict Ukraine, and a firm commitment by Moscow to make a major contribution to re-constructing Ukraine. Also, as part of a peace agreement, the Kremlin likely will insist that the sanctions imposed on Russia be lifted, which would require Washington’s assent.

According to press reports, the outlines of a possible agreement are coming into focus. Ukraine will pledge to abjure membership in NATO, and to accept a non-aligned—neutral—status. On this latter point, the Cold War examples of Finland and Austria are the models for post-war Ukraine. Finland fought the Soviet Union in the Winter War of 1939-40, and again (on Nazi Germany’s side) in World War II. After the war, in exchange for its neutrality, and for refraining from following an anti-Soviet foreign policy, Finland was able to remain independent with respect to its domestic governance. Austria was annexed by, and incorporated into, Nazi Germany in 1938. When World War II ended, the victorious Allies (the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain, and France) divided Austria (and Vienna) into four occupation zones (similar to what was done with Germany and Berlin). In 1955, the four Allies agreed to the Austrian State Treaty, and withdrew their occupation forces. Pursuant to the treaty, Austria regained its independence in exchange for its pledge to remain neutral, and to refrain from joining either NATO or its Soviet-dominated counterpart in East-Central Europe (the Warsaw Pact).

Even as Russian and Ukrainian officials continue talks aimed ending the war, there is a puzzle that needs explaining about America’s share of responsibility for this conflict. If the press reports are correct, the crisis almost certainly could have been resolved on the terms now being discussed before the fighting started. The question is why this did not happen. U.S. intelligence about Russia’s preparations for war was (apparently) pretty much bang on. Five days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine, President Biden said Putin had already given the order to attack. Armed with this knowledge Washington could possibly have avoided the outbreak of hostilities by indicating a willingness to engage seriously with Moscow on the issue of Ukrainian NATO membership. Yet during the run-up to war, the Biden administration (and NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg) steadfastly refused to alter the alliance’s so-called open-door policy. This raises the question of why the United States rigidly adhered to its position. After all, American officials surely knew that if war began, Ukraine would bear the brunt of the costs in both human terms and physical damage.