Western Experts Warned for Years that Adding Ukraine to NATO Was a Bad Idea
21:05 GMT 12.10.2022 (Updated: 20:57 GMT 19.10.2022)
When Russia presented its security red lines and proposals for respecting them and deescalating the situation in Eastern Europe in late 2021 and early 2022, US leaders dismissed them out of hand as “non-starters.” However, their own experts had been warning for decades about the risks of such maneuvers, including trying to add Ukraine to NATO.
On February 24, Russia responded to a rapidly collapsing situation in eastern Ukraine by launching a special operation to end the Ukrainian assault on the Russian-speaking Donbass region and end the possibility that Kiev might enter the NATO alliance. Such a situation would bring NATO weaponry right up to Russia’s borders, and turn the former Soviet republic into a staging ground for an assault on the Russian heartland.
While Western leaders have cast this as an unprovoked attack, in fact, their own leading diplomats and geopolitical thinkers had been warning for years of the dangers of expanding NATO eastward, most of all of trying to include Ukraine in the anti-Russian alliance. We have collected a few choice examples of this ignored wisdom.
A former ambassador to the Soviet Union and to socialist Czechoslovakia, Matlock was called upon to testify before the US Senate in 1997
as part of a discussion on the eastward expansion of NATO. Aside from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), which formed part of a reunited Germany in 1990, the alliance of Western capitalist powers did not yet include any former Soviet allies or republics. Matlock warned that doing so “may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War.”
“Far from improving the security of the United States, its Allies, and the nations that wish to enter the Alliance, it could well encourage a chain of events that could produce the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed,” Matlock said.
“Adding members to NATO will do nothing to protect us from the real threat I have described,” he later said, referring to the possibility that a weapon of mass destruction from the leftover Soviet arsenal might fall into the hands of a rogue actor. “But it does convey to the Russian nation, and particularly their military, that we still consider Russia at least a potential enemy, unsuited for the same security guarantees and the same degree of cooperation that countries in Central and Eastern Europe are being offered.”
US President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense from 1994 until 1997, Perry so opposed a rapid eastward expansion of NATO that he considered resigning over the proposal. Speaking at a forum hosted by The Guardian in 2016
, Perry said that “in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame” for the growing hostility between Washington and Moscow.
“Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia. At that time we were working closely with Russia and they were beginning to get used to the idea that NATO could be a friend rather than an enemy ... but they were very uncomfortable about having NATO right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.”
Perry said his view was strongly opposed by some in the Clinton administration. “Basically the people I was arguing with when I tried to put the Russian point ... the response that I got was really: ‘Who cares what they think? They’re a third-rate power.’ And of course, that point of view got across to the Russians as well. That was when we started sliding down that path.”
The former US ambassador to the Soviet Union and architect of the US' Cold War policy of “containment” against communism, George. F. Kennan knew that there were limits to which the West could press Russian interests before it would respond decisively.
''I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,'' Kennan told journalist Thomas Friedman for the New York Times in 1998, amid the finalization of a massive eastward expansion of NATO to include the former Soviet allies of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
''I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.''
'It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history,” he added. “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.''
Among the most eminent of US diplomats, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made many of his most infamous political deals based on his theory of “triangulation,” or playing the USSR and China off one another. This required a keen perception of both nations’ interests and concerns, what could be bargained away and what could not.
Writing in the Washington Post
on March 5, 2014, a week after the US-backed coup in Kiev brought a far-right nationalist group to power, the elder statesman warned that “the West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”
“Russian history began in what was called Kievan Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil. The Black Sea Fleet - Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean - is based by a long-term lease in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.”
He went on to say that “Ukraine should not join NATO
, a position I took seven years ago when it last came up.” Kissinger has reiterated that point throughout the present crisis, including most recently last month
In 2015, the eminent American political scientist John Mearsheimer, who is not known for his anti-Kiev bent (he once advocated for Ukraine to keep its nuclear weapons it inherited from the USSR), blasted Western policy toward Ukraine
, saying it was leading Kiev “down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”
Instead, he said, “neutralizing Ukraine and then building it up economically” was the best policy for stability.
“What we’re encouraging is for the Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians. We’re encouraging the Ukrainians to think that they will ultimately become part of the West, 'because we will ultimately defeat Putin and we will ultimately get our way. Time is on our side.’ And of course, the Ukrainians are playing along with this. The Ukrainians are almost totally unwilling to compromise with the Russians, and instead, want to pursue a hardline policy. As I said before, if they do that, the end result is the country’s going to be wrecked. What we’re doing is, in fact, encouraging that outcome … It would be in our interest to bury this crisis as quickly as possible.”
The leftist critic, political scientist and scholar Noam Chomsky gave similar warnings in 2015, telling Democracy Now!
that "the idea that Ukraine might join a Western military alliance would be quite unacceptable to any Russian leader" and that Ukraine's desire to join NATO "is not protecting Ukraine, it is threatening Ukraine with major war."
“There’s a background we have to think about,” he said. “The Russians have a case and you have to understand the case … The background begins with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, 1990. There were negotiations between President [George H.W.] Bush, [Secretary of State] James Baker, and [Soviet President] Mikhail Gorbachev about how to deal with the issues that arose at the time.”
“A crucial question is ‘what happens to NATO?’ Now, NATO had been advertised since its beginning as necessary to ‘protect Western Europe from the Russian hordes.’ Ok, no more Russian hordes, so what happens to NATO? Well, we know what happened to NATO. But the crucial issue is this: Gorbachev agreed to allow a unified Germany to join NATO, a hostile military alliance. It’s a pretty remarkable concession if you think about the history of the preceding half-century … but there was a quid pro quo: that NATO would not move ‘one inch to the east.’”
That, he noted, didn’t happen. Instead, NATO expanded up to Russia’s western border in 1999, and even more so in 2004.
The current head of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), William Burns also served as deputy secretary of state for political affairs and as the US ambassador to Russia. In his 2019 memoir “The Back Channel,”
Burns recalls a memo he wrote in 1995 while serving as counselor for political affairs at the US embassy in Moscow.
“Hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here,” Burns wrote at the time.
In another memo, he wrote in 2008 to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that "Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).”
“In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests,” Burns noted.
Somehow that wisdom didn’t make its way to the rest of the Biden administration.