Right Again, Unfortunately, On Russia
As Russia began its drive into Ukraine on several fronts overnight, neoconservatives and right-liberals tried to lay the blame for the invasion at the feet of American nationalists and paleoconservatives. They’ve labeled restrainers Russian stooges, or variations of the term, and preemptively impugned them for what some already describe in terms of an impending Holocaust. Their deep well of historical analogies never ceases to impress.
While the hawks would like you to believe that recent developments in Ukraine have discredited the paleoconservative position, it has proven quite the opposite. For decades, this magazine and a coalition of foreign policy restrainers have warned that our reckless, irrational, and incoherent strategy toward Russia in Europe would lead to a Russia more antagonistic towards the West, and distract from other geopolitical arenas. All the tragedies that come with the reality of war will surely transpire in the coming days, but today that position has been vindicated.
Political Twitter was ablaze in Washington, as establishment types offered their condemnations of the Russian invasion in the strongest possible terms, each seeming to try to outdo the rest. Meghan McCain, never missing a chance to remind us who her father was, tweeted, “Dad was nicknamed one of the godfathers of the Ukrainian revolution. He supported and protested alongside Ukranians [sic]. He was so beloved there, a street in Kiev was named after him. There was decades of warnings about Putin. But weak leadership continued to ignore it. SHAME on us.” Indeed, there were decades of warnings about Putin. Warnings men like her father—who, as she proudly admits, actively encouraged the Euromaidan protests that further destabilized the region—did not heed.
What Americans are witnessing now, half a world away, is the result of decades of misguided policy towards Russia. In the twilight of the Soviet Union, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker allegedly promised the Soviets that NATO would move “not one inch” eastward. While some point out this promise was never codified in subsequent negotiations, this makes it all the more shameful. A “take back” on an issue of such strategic import for both parties should hardly be considered serious diplomacy. Somewhat understandably, the Russians felt sorely betrayed in 1999 when NATO added the former Warsaw Pact countries of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to its ranks.
At the same time, NATO—mirroring the foreign policy attitudes of the U.S. in its hegemonic moment—courted Russian cooperation on the alliance’s newfound mission as a micromanager of stability in Europe and beyond. Russia entered into NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, and the pair followed that up with the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security in 1997. In 2002, despite NATO breaking its promise not to move eastward, Russia agreed to form the NATO-Russia Council to further deepen the cooperation between the alliance and its former antagonist.
But the temptation to portray Russia as Europe’s next Hitler was too much for the U.S. and NATO to withstand. In 2004, NATO followed through on the alliance’s biggest single enlargement in its history. Overnight, NATO grew by almost a third in terms of member states, three of which, Latvia Estonia, and Lithuania, shared a border with Russia.
Those who claim that NATO’s expansion has not been a threat to Russia betray their ignorance. From its founding, NATO’s raison d’être was to counter whatever territorial ambitions the USSR might have had in Western Europe. Those who cling to the NATO-expansion narrative respond that NATO was a defensive alliance. But so was the Warsaw Pact. If the Soviet Union had attempted to court Yugoslavia, or Austria, or Switzerland, how could the West not have perceived this as a threat? What’s more, many of NATO’s actions since the end of the Cold War—like intervening in wars in Bosnia and Kosovo—have not been defensive in nature.
Either NATO has served its original purpose as a defensive alliance to balance against the Soviet bloc—making it redundant and outdated—or NATO’s policy of intervention and expansion post-Cold War has been warranted even if that policy poses a clear threat to Russia. You can’t have it both ways. Nevertheless, America’s political elites insist they can have their cake and eat it too. For a month, Western diplomats had the opportunity to bring serious bargaining chips to the table to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine they claim to hold so dear, while America’s borders are habitually violated to the south. Yet the U.S. and its allies made no offer to place a moratorium on NATO membership for Ukraine, no proposal to revivify Minsk II, no motion to draw down U.S. troop levels in Eastern Europe, no bid to reenter the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty.
To expect zero repercussions from such a contradictory, benighted foreign policy is a direct consequence of the contradictions intrinsic to the liberal idealism that permeates the Washington foreign policy establishment. It’s precisely the warning The American Conservative issued all along. To avoid another war of choice, now would be a good time to start listening. TAC was right about endless wars in the Middle East, right about the dangers of a rising China, right about the culture of zero accountability for our war-making class, and have, disappointingly, tragically, been proven right again.
This piece has been updated to reflect that Lithuania also shares a border with the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad.