The American Origins of the Russo–Ukrainian War
Its causes are complex, but they originate in decisions made in Washington as far back as World War II.
Washington’s explanation for the Russo–Ukrainian war is simple. As President Biden told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2023, “Russia alone, Russia alone bears responsibility for this war.” As we demonstrate, this simply is not true. To understand why the Russo–Ukrainian war began, and the obstacles to ending it, it is necessary to examine the war’s American origins. These are: the George H.W. Bush administration’s failure to give more economic assistance to support Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic reforms; the failure, at the Cold War’s end, to dissolve the two hostile alliance systems it spawned and replace them with a new post–Cold War European security architecture; the decisions of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations to undertake NATO expansion; Washington’s specific promise, first made at NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit and repeatedly reaffirmed, that Ukraine would become a NATO member; and the strategic and ideational underpinnings that have guided U.S. grand strategy toward the Soviet Union/Russia since the 1940s.
The Biden administration and the broader foreign policy establishment dismiss the notion that the causes of this war are complex. Rather than multiple causes, they believe the Russo–Ukrainian war’s cause is simple: Vladimir Putin. Discussions of the war are framed solely around Putin as an individual. An example is the frontpage headline in the December 18, 2022, New York Times promoting an eponymous special section of the paper: “Putin’s war.” The U.S. foreign policy establishment apparently has forgotten that Russia is a state, the policies of which are shaped by its history, geography, and political culture. Indeed, it would not be a surprise to learn that the denizens of the foreign policy Blob have removed the word “Russia” from their maps and rechristened that geographic space “Putinania.” As Washington sees it, the Ukraine war stems solely from the actions of an aggressive autocrat. This view neatly fits the Biden administration’s narrative—deeply rooted in America’s foreign policy tradition—that international politics are reducible to a struggle of “good” states (democracies) versus “bad” states (non-democracies).
The focus on Putin as the sole driver of events misses a lot of the story. To be sure, as Russia’s leader, his decision to greenlight the all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 (and the 2014 seizure of Crimea and support for the Russian separatist uprisings in Donbas) is indeed the conflict’s proximate cause. He makes a convenient villain, though nothing like the overwrought comparison some make with Adolf Hitler. However, as important as Putin is, his views are not anomalous among Russians. By pinning the blame for the war on Putin alone, in effect personalizing the conflict, American and European policymakers have shorn the war of its geopolitical and historical context. The exclusive focus on Putin as a causal agent also distorts how the American foreign policy establishment thinks about both the war’s conclusion and Russia’s future. This was evident during the June 2023 Prigozhin mutiny, which raised short-lived hopes that Putin would fall from power and the door would be open to the emergence of a liberal democratic Russia.
Even if Putin were removed from power in the Kremlin—which seems to be one of the Biden administration’s unstated war aims—Russia’s foreign policy would not change much. As Georgetown University professor Angela Stent, who was national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia in the George W. Bush administration, wrote in her book Putin’s World (2019), singling out Putin as the necessary and sufficient cause of Moscow’s foreign policy “oversimplifies how Russia is ruled. Behind the new tsar stands a thousand year-old state with traditions and self-understanding that precedes Putin and surely will outlast him.” For these reasons, Stent writes, “it is an illusion to believe that Russia will markedly change in the course of the twenty-first century.”
That Russia and Ukraine came to blows will not have surprised anyone with knowledge of the tumultuous period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the Soviet Union’s breakup in December 1991. The potential for war was foreseeable, and foreseen, in Moscow, Kyiv, and Washington. The details of the Soviet Union’s demise have been brilliantly chronicled by Vladislav Zubok, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, in his deeply researched new book Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union (2021).
Gorbachev’s domestic reforms were catalyzed by the Soviet Union’s failing economy. Instead of reviving the Soviet economy, his policies accelerated its collapse. The economic crisis had important geopolitical consequences: it hastened the weakening of the Kremlin’s central authority, which fueled rising nationalism and separatism in the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, especially Ukraine and the Baltic states. This created openings for ambitious and opportunistic politicians like Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk, who became the first presidents of the Russian Federation and of an independent Ukraine. Here, Russia was the victim of what turned out to be a Faustian bargain struck by Yeltsin. To remove Gorbachev from power, thereby clearing the path for him to take command of the Kremlin, Yeltsin supported the Soviet breakup and Ukrainian independence. As Stent notes, he did not think through “the security implications of ushering in an independent Ukrainian state.” In short order, Yeltsin had the geopolitical equivalent of buyer’s remorse.
The failed August 1991 coup against Gorbachev fast-forwarded events. Kravchuk, a longtime Soviet functionary, recast himself as a champion of Ukrainian nationalism, as did other senior Ukrainian apparatchiks. They used the coup as an opportunity to declare Ukrainian independence, which was proclaimed by the Rada (Ukrainian parliament/Supreme Soviet) and confirmed in December 1991 by a referendum and by Kravchuk’s election as president.
Throughout this process, Yeltsin and top Russian leaders around him voiced concerns about the fate of Crimea and the Donbas, and even Odessa, which they viewed as historically Russian territories. Dark allusions to the Yugoslav breakup were made. In November 1991, when told by a top adviser that the upcoming Ukrainian referendum would result in a strong pro-independence vote, Yeltsin was disbelieving. “It cannot be true!” he exclaimed. “This is our fraternal Slavic republic… Crimea is Russian! All the people who reside eastward of the Dnieper gravitate to Russia!”
Watching these events from his perch as the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Ronald Braithwaite observed that “perfectly sensible Russians froth at the mouth” at the notion of Ukrainian independence. Relations between Russian and Ukraine, he said, were “as combustible as those in Northern Ireland: but the consequences of an explosion would be far more serious.” In a memo, Gorbachev aide Georgy Shakhanazarov urged the Soviet leader, still clinging to power in the Kremlin, to declare that Crimea, Donbas, and southern Ukraine “constitute historical parts of Russia, and Russia does not intend to give them up, in case Ukraine leaves the [Soviet] Union.”
The George H.W. Bush administration has been praised for skillfully navigating the geopolitical turbulence caused by the Soviet Union’s disintegration. A closer look reveals that in key respects its Soviet policy was deeply flawed. To his credit, in his August 1991 “Chicken Kiev” speech, Bush recognized the risks of “suicidal nationalism” and attempted to dissuade Ukraine from breaking away from Moscow. Similarly, Secretary of State James A. Baker III was concerned that Ukrainian independence could lead to conflict over Crimea and Donbas. NSC staffer Nicholas Burns (now U.S. ambassador to China) warned that the independence of the Soviet Union’s republics would create a “crazy quilt” of geopolitical hot spots, including Crimea. However, having diagnosed perceptively the dangers of a Soviet breakup, the administration failed to take steps that might have forestalled these dangers.
The Soviet Union’s economic crisis was inextricably linked to its unraveling, because the “sense of economic doom became the main driver of separation,” Zubok writes. Washington knew that the Soviet Union faced a grave economic crisis. At the December 1989 Malta summit, Gorbachev told Bush that the Soviet Union needed loans from the West to avert economic collapse. Zukok argues that Gorbachev had a “window of opportunity” to implement economic reforms successfully. That window quickly shut, and one of the key reasons was the “lack of tangible Western support.”
At the July 1990 G-7 meeting in Houston, Bush ruled out large-scale U.S. economic assistance for the Soviet Union. In a May 11, 1991, telephone call with Bush, Gorbachev lamented the lack of tangible American help for Soviet economic reforms: “The best the U.S. president could offer was to place the Soviet Union on the fast track for special associate status at the IMF and World Bank.” At the July 1991 G-7 meeting in London, notwithstanding the lobbying of key U.S. allies, the administration again opposed a large-scale aid package for Moscow. Zubok says “the Americans killed off” European proposals to help Gorbachev. Washington’s policy remained unchanged even after the August 1991 coup, notwithstanding that America’s major European allies once again urged Washington to support the Soviet economy. U.S. Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs David Mulford killed a West German proposal to cancel the Soviet Union’s debt. In September 1991, Mulford, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, and Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan flew to Moscow to inform Gorbachev that while some humanitarian assistance might be forthcoming, the U.S. would not support a major bailout of the Soviet economy.
The Soviet Union’s dissolution put both Ukraine and Russia on a path that ultimately culminated in the war they are fighting today. If the U.S. had done more to support Gorbachev’s reforms, the Soviet Union might have held together and war between Ukraine and Russia could have been avoided. Zubok compellingly argues that in 1990–91, the George H.W. Bush administration stood at a crossroads: “Had the U.S.-led West tried to ‘preserve’ the Soviet Union, there was a chance of survival.”
The last word on this subject belongs to President Ronald Reagan, who in 1985 said, “I don’t know if Gorbachev will succeed, but none of us should have on our conscience the responsibility of not helping.” The “responsibility of not helping,” and the ensuing consequences, fairly can be laid at the George H.W. Bush administration’s feet.
U.S. policymakers and foreign policy commentators routinely assert that NATO expansion has nothing to do with the Russo–Ukrainian war. This disregards the historical record, which establishes that NATO’s post–Cold War expansion, and specifically the prospect that it would incorporate Ukraine as a member, contributed importantly to the war’s outbreak. In a real sense, the Russo–Ukrainian war’s origins trace back to the 1990 negotiations on German unification and, even farther, to the origins of the Cold War itself.
NATO expansion was part of a flawed American approach to building a post–Cold War security order in Europe. Major wars, including cold ones, can end with either vindictive settlements or magnanimous and far-sighted ones. The classic example of the former is the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, which left Germany justly aggrieved and vengeful. On the other hand, there have been high-minded peace accords like the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic wars, and America’s enlightened policies toward Germany and Japan after World War II.
The U.S. did not deal with Russia in the same spirit as it dealt with Japan and Germany. Instead, Washington drew a new dividing line in Europe that isolated Russia, ignored its legitimate security interests, and sowed the seeds of future conflict. As Stent writes, Russia felt doubly humiliated by the Cold War’s outcome. The Kremlin lost sway in places that historically had been part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and Moscow was expected to conform to an international order based on America’s unipolar power. Washington should have been more sensitive to the historical, political, and cultural dynamics that shape Russian foreign policy. Instead, the United States brushed aside Moscow’s concerns in what Samir Puri, a security affairs expert at King’s College London, has dubbed “Operation Ignore Russia.” This was an avoidable policy blunder that predictably created a resentful “Weimar Russia.”
In foreign policy, there invariably are paths not taken, forks in the road where decision makers choose a course of action in preference to available alternatives. This was true for the U.S. in World War II’s immediate aftermath. It also was true as the Cold War came to an end. When the Berlin Wall fell, there was no a priori reason to believe that, as Soviet power receded from East Central Europe, the U.S. would retain its military presence in Europe. Specifically, there was no reason to believe that NATO would survive the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution. Nor was it preordained that a reunited Germany would be tied to an American-led alliance rather than being non-aligned.
To the contrary, both while the Cold War was ongoing and later as it was drawing to a close, many observers believed that retraction of both U.S. and Soviet military power from Central Europe were necessary preconditions for ending the continent’s division and for Germany’s reunification. Thirty years ago, there were voices—for example French president Francois Mitterrand and West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher—arguing that the Cold War’s legacy could be overcome only by constructing a new European security architecture that transcended the U.S. and Soviet led blocs. They believed, correctly, that Moscow would always view NATO as an instrument of American power designed to rein in and weaken Russia and, perforce, a threat.
As we know, a new security architecture for Europe was not constructed after the Cold War. The question is why not. After all, since its 1949 founding, most people have believed, wrongly, that NATO was created specifically as an instrument for checking Soviet aggression in Europe. As such, it reasonably could have been anticipated that when the Cold War ended that NATO would go out of business, mission accomplished. Instead, the alliance not only remained intact but expanded its territorial reach.
Scholars of international politics have a compelling explanation of why NATO outlived the superpower conflict: for great powers, intentions and policy are driven by their capabilities relative to their rivals. The greater a state’s relative power, the more expansive its grand strategic aims will be. Consequential changes in the distribution of power in a state’s favor cause it to broaden both the definition of its interests and its security requirements. As the preeminent international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz used to say, “The problem with a state having lots of capabilities is that if it has them, it’s going to want to use them.” American policy since the Cold War’s end is a case in point.
The Soviet Union’s disappearance at the end of 1991 represented a massive shift of the international system’s balance of power in America’s favor. The bipolar superpower competition was replaced by the “unipolar moment” of U.S. ascendancy. At the Cold War’s end, the United States was in the seemingly paradoxical position of simultaneously being both a status quo and a revisionist power. U.S. policymakers readily embraced the post–Cold War status quo: an international system in which, as Washington never tired of repeating, the United States was the “sole surviving superpower.” America had a huge advantage in relative power over the rest of the world. In Waltz’s words, the U.S. had lots of capabilities. And it used them to gain even more relative power. The U.S. used its enhanced capabilities to buttress its dominance by extending the scope of its geopolitical and ideological ambitions. NATO expansion is Exhibit A.
During the 1990 negotiations on German unification, based on the diplomatic records that so far have come to light, it is clear—as the United States has consistently asserted—that the Soviet Union did not receive an explicit, formal, written commitment from Washington that NATO would not extend eastward. However, that is only part of the story, and not the most important part. There are two key points here: what the Soviets were told, repeatedly, by the U.S. and others; and the grand strategic goals that were harbored behind closed doors by the George H.W. Bush administration.
The historical record shows that the Soviets were given repeated verbal assurances at the highest levels that, as Secretary of State Baker famously put it, NATO would not move “one inch” to the east. Summarizing a batch of declassified documents it released in December 2017, the National Security Archive based at George Washington University stated:
The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels.
In the initial stage of the German reunification talks, the Soviet position was that either NATO and the Warsaw Pact should both be dissolved, or a unified Germany should be a member of both alliances. Neither option was acceptable to the Bush administration, which was determined that a unified Germany would be a member of NATO only. To win the Kremlin’s acquiescence to this, numerous verbal representations were made to the Soviets that the U.S. would not exploit a unified Germany’s membership in NATO to undermine Russian security interests. Washington talked the game of (as it then was called) “cooperative security” by stressing the following, among other things: NATO would be transformed from a military alliance into a political organization; the Soviet Union’s security would be bolstered by the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which took effect in November 1992, reducing the numbers and capabilities of American and other NATO troops deployed in Europe; and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) would emerge as the primary pan-European security mechanism on the continent.
As Baker told Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the U.S. position that a unified Germany should be a NATO member “would not yield winners and losers. Instead, it would produce a new legitimate European structure—one that would be inclusive, not exclusive.” These assurances to Moscow were crucial in the German unification process. The Soviets could have blocked German unification. Under World War II agreements among the wartime Allies, the Soviet Union had residual legal rights over the fate of the German Democratic Republic (not to mention over 300,000 Soviet troops still deployed on GDR territory). Given the implications of NATO eastward expansion for Soviet security, it is inconceivable that the Kremlin would have assented to German unification without having received representations from the United States that the alliance would not move to the east.
The Bush administration’s promises to Moscow were a grand strategic example of bait and switch. In 1990, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer published an article in the Atlantic with the eye-catching title “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” As it turned out, his premise was misplaced. The Cold War has not been missed even for a moment by the American foreign policy establishment, because, for it, the Cold War never really ended. In this respect, Washington’s strategy masked the fact that America’s Cold War strategy was superimposed on a pre-existing set of hegemonic objectives that Washington had formulated even as World War II was being fought.
During World War II, the term unipolarity had yet to be coined, but in essence American policymakers aspired to create a unipolar postwar international system with the U.S. as the dominant power. To achieve this goal, the U.S. sought to diminish all the other prewar great powers. Germany and Japan were to be crushed and prevented from ever reemerging as great powers. The U.S. flexed its economic muscle, both at Bretton Woods and with the terms of its postwar loan to the United Kingdom, to reduce Britain’s great power status. France had been knocked out of the great power ranks by its humiliating defeat in 1940. And, as discussed below, Washington also wanted to neuter, or even remove, the Soviet Union as a postwar rival.
This vision of postwar American preeminence also encompassed other goals. To assure its own postwar prosperity and restore political stability in Western Europe, the United States aimed at creating an open and integrated market on the continent. To accomplish this, America had to take on the role of postwar Europe’s “pacifier,” as the German journalist Josef Joffe put it. By providing for Germany’s security, and by enmeshing Bonn’s military and foreign policies into an alliance that Washington dominated, the United States contained its erstwhile enemy and prevented its “partner” from embarking upon an independent foreign policy. This stabilized relations among the states of Western Europe. By controlling Germany, the United States reassured its neighbors that Germany would not return to its warlike ways of 1870, 1914, and 1939.
Washington believed that NATO, by banishing power politics and nationalist rivalries, essentially protected the states of Western Europe from themselves, allowing them to cooperate and integrate politically, militarily, and economically. Indeed, for Washington, protecting the Europeans from each other was far more important than defending them from the Soviet Union. Moreover, while the United States wanted Western Europe to recover economically, it also wanted to ensure that no new great power challenger emerged from Western Europe’s postwar ashes. To accomplish all of these goals, the United States established its hegemony over Western Europe. It would have done this even if there had been no Cold War.
The alliance became the central instrument for exercising America’s preponderant power in Europe and ensuring Western Europe’s geopolitical subordination to Washington. This is the fundamental reason why neither the George H. W. Bush administration nor its successors ever contemplated seriously the idea that NATO could be disestablished, dismantled, or duplicated by actual, as opposed to purely rhetorical, European “strategic autonomy.”
When the Cold War ended, NATO’s continuing salience in U.S. policy quickly became evident. At a Brussels press conference immediately following his December 1989 Malta summit with Gorbachev, Bush was asked if the Cold War was over He replied: “[If] I signal to you there’s no cold war, then it’s what are you doing with troops in Europe? I mean, come on.” The president never wavered on his bottom line: “NATO must stay.” Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow, then members of the National Security Council staff, articulated the reasoning underpinning this stance:
The American troop presence… served as the ante to ensure a central place for the United States as a player in European politics. The Bush administration placed a high value on retaining such influence, underscored by Bush’s flat statement that the United States was and would remain ‘a European power’... The Bush administration was determined to maintain crucial features of the NATO system for European security even if the Cold War ended.
Even as the administration was trying to sell the Kremlin on the notion that Europe’s security architecture would be based on “cooperative security,” it categorically rejected the diminishment of NATO’s role in post–Cold War Europe. As National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said, “Whatever developed with respect to the Cold War,” America “had to continue to play a significant role in European security” and “the vehicle for that role must be NATO.” In plain English, the administration’s stance was simple: the Cold War might be over but America’s Cold War grand strategy would remain in place. And, notwithstanding its verbal assurances to Moscow, the administration already was looking ahead to establishing U.S. dominance in Central and Eastern Europe.
The failure of the Bush administration and its successors to understand that Russia would view NATO’s move east as a serious security threat is a staggering example of grand strategic myopia. It is not surprising that Russia, or any other great power, would react strongly to the intrusion of a rival great power into what it regards as areas key to its security. When it comes to Russia, Washington has forgotten—or simply chosen to ignore—Kennan’s insight about Russian foreign policy. In his February 1946 “Long Telegram,” Kennan analyzed the drivers of Soviet policy for the State Department. He pointed first not to ideology or the nature of Stalin’s regime but to “the instinctive and traditional Russian sense of insecurity.”
While ignoring Russian security concerns, the United States has been hypervigilant about the encroachment of other great powers into areas it regards as its own sphere of influence. Consider a hypothetical: How would the United States respond if China and Mexico entered into an alliance and Chinese forces were deployed south of the Rio Grande? There is no need to speculate. The U.S. reacted forcefully in 1962 to the Soviet Union’s deployment of missiles in Cuba (notwithstanding that the actual strategic impact was negligible). In early 1917, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann proposed to Mexico that, if it entered the Great War on Germany’s side, it would be rewarded with the return of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. British intelligence intercepted this message and leaked it to the press. The resulting public uproar played a big part in America’s decision to enter World War I. In June 2023, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the revelation that China is building an electronic intelligence gathering facility in Cuba—not an actual military base—“sparked alarm within the Biden administration because of Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. mainland.”
Beginning with Gorbachev, every Soviet and Russian leader has regarded NATO expansion as a menace. As Gorbachev 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 fall 1993, the U.S. ambassador to Russia during much of Yeltsin’s presidency, Thomas Pickering, noted that “the one constant we have heard from all Russian interlocutors has been extreme sensitivity about the role of NATO.”
At the 1997 Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin said:
I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, 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? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them. But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr. Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.” Where are these guarantees?
Putin’s speech was greeted with puzzlement and hostility. As Samir Puri has observed, “No heed was paid to Russia’s disquiet, not even treating it as part of the puzzle that needed to be solved to engender lasting European security.” In time, Washington’s willful disregard of Russian views on NATO expansion came to have profound consequences.
Perceptive analysts understood that NATO expansion would be a recurring cause of friction in U.S. relations with Moscow. In a February 1997 New York Times op-ed, Kennan 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, but his concerns were dismissed by the Clinton administration officials who dreamed up NATO expansion (what were they smoking?).
Turning a blind eye to Russia’s apprehension about its security, the Clinton administration engaged in rhetorical sleight of hand to downplay NATO expansion’s geopolitical implications. They sold the alliance’s extension as a benign policy that would not adversely affect Russia’s security. The U.S. was merely enlarging the “democratic zone of peace” by helping the fledgling free-market democracies of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. The Clinton administration asserted in so many words that NATO’s eastward push posed no threat to Russia. Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe said, “NATO is not an alliance against Russia.” Easy to say in Washington. Impossible to believe in Moscow.
Nevertheless, Moscow acquiesced grudgingly to the alliance’s various rounds of expansion, including to the Baltic states. Ukraine was always going to be a different matter. After the Soviet breakup, Russian policymakers envisioned that an independent Ukraine would remain closely linked to Moscow. “The consensus among most of the Russian elite,” Stent observes, “was that some form of reintegration with the post-Soviet space was inevitable because, without the former Soviet space, Russia could not be a great power again.” Even after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russian leaders believed that Moscow would retain paramount influence over what is now known in the parlance of American policymakers as the “post-Soviet space,” which, of course, was also the pre-Soviet space (i.e., the tsarist empire). It should have been apparent that Ukraine inevitably would remain a core interest for the Kremlin.
Washington had other ideas. The expansion of NATO and the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics were part of a strategy to pull these areas out of Moscow’s orbit and embed them instead in Euro-Atlantic structures like NATO and the European Union. Ukraine was, and is, at the heart of this competition for influence.
There were plenty of indications that there would be trouble if NATO offered membership to Ukraine. Two events in the political tug-of-war between Washington and the Kremlin contributed directly to the current Russo–Ukrainian war: NATO’s 2008 formal indication that Ukraine would (at some indeterminate point) become a member; and the so-called Euro-Maidan revolution in 2014 that resulted in the ouster of Ukraine’s legally elected president, Viktor Yanukovich.
At NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit, the George W. Bush administration proposed that Ukraine and Georgia be admitted to the alliance. German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicholas Sarkozy were appalled and managed to sidetrack it with a kicking-the-can-down-the-road compromise. Kyiv was not offered a membership action plan or a firm date for joining the alliance, but NATO declared that the door was open for Ukraine to join in the future. This led the Kremlin to conclude that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was inevitable.
The second event began with the European Union’s offer to Kyiv of an association agreement. This agreement would have precluded Ukraine from joining Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union, a high priority for the Kremlin. Initially, President Yanukovich favored the agreement with the E.U. However, the Kremlin made an economic offer to Ukraine that was far more generous than the E.U.’s. Reversing course, Yanukovich decided to accept Russia’s offer. That sparked a chain of events leading to the Euro-Maidan protests against Yanukovich and ultimately to his decision to flee Kyiv. These events remain murky. But the historian Adam Tooze has convincingly demonstrated that the E.U.’s approach to Ukraine was driven much more by geopolitics than by economics. There is also circumstantial evidence that the United States was actively, if semi-covertly, attempting to promote regime change in Kyiv by destabilizing Yanukovich. When the U.S. diplomatic archives are opened years from now, it is likely that we will learn Yanukovich was removed from power by a U.S.-engineered coup.
President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and many American commentators describe Russia’s February 2022 attack on Ukraine as “unprovoked.” The timeline of events from the April 2008 Bucharest summit to February 2022 demonstrates otherwise. Moscow’s brief August 2008 war with Georgia was clearly a reaction to the Bush administration’s attempt to bring Tbilisi into NATO. Similarly, Moscow’s actions against Ukraine in February and March 2014—annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of fighting in the Donbas—followed closely on the heels of the events in Kyiv that drove Yanukovich from power. However, no one in Washington is willing to be accountable for America’s policy decisions that were the precursors for the Russo–Ukrainian war or even to acknowledge that there are any actions for which it needs to be accountable.
Washington was well aware of Russian concerns about Ukraine becoming a NATO member. In February 2008, on the eve of the Bucharest summit, then U.S. ambassador to Russia (now C.I.A. director) William Burns warned the Bush administration that the Kremlin would not accept Ukraine’s membership in NATO. As Burns said, “Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat.” Burns went on to observe, “Russia’s opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is both emotional and based on perceived strategic concerns about the impact on Russia’s interests in the region…. While Russian opposition to the first round of NATO enlargement in the mid-1990’s was strong, Russia now feels itself able to respond more forcefully to what it perceives a s actions contrary to its national interests.”
In February 2008 email to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Burns warned:
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.
Given the depth of Moscow’s opposition, why did the George W. Bush administration press forward on offering Ukraine NATO membership at the Bucharest summit? Burns says “there was a kind of geopolitical and ideological inertia at work” in Washington behind putting Ukraine on track for NATO membership, including the “strong interest” of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader of American foreign policy (our term, not Burns’s), and “large parts of the interagency bureaucracy,” that is, the Blob.
During the run-up to Russia’s February 24, 2022, attack on Ukraine, Moscow forcefully restated its concerns both about Ukraine’s potential NATO membership and with the post–Cold War European security order. On December 17, 2021 the Kremlin conveyed a draft treaty on European security to the United States. A key provision of the draft stated:
The United States of America shall undertake to prevent further eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and deny accession to the alliance to the States of the former Union of Soviet administration Republics.
Another provision would have barred the U.S. from establishing military bases in Ukraine or engaging in bilateral military cooperation with Kyiv.
This is where the sequence of events leading to the war’s outbreak becomes interesting. Prior to Russia’s February 24 attack, U.S. intelligence about Moscow’s intentions was excellent. Five days before Russia launched its bungled drive on Kyiv, President Biden declared Putin had already given the order to attack. Put simply, the Biden administration knew war was coming. Washington also knew why. The United States might have staved off the war had it made a serious diplomatic effort to engage Moscow on the issue of Ukrainian membership in NATO and the broader question of reconfiguring Europe’s security architecture. However, it did not do so. Instead, during the run-up to war, the Biden administration and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg steadfastly reaffirmed the alliance’s so-called open door policy, notwithstanding that they knew this would lead to war between Russia and Ukraine.
This is just the most recent example of how, since the Cold War’s end, the United States consistently has dismissed the Kremlin’s oft-voiced concerns about NATO’s post–Cold War role in European security affairs and, especially, Ukraine’s inclusion in the alliance. It also raises a serious question about the nature of the objectives that underlie Washington’s Ukraine policy.
From the moment the Soviet Union began to implode, Washington discounted Moscow’s concerns because it could, thanks to the huge disparity in power between America and Russia. As Waltz’s version of offensive realism predicts, the U.S. has flexed its muscles to enhance and extend its power relative to Moscow. George H.W. Bush’s reaction to Moscow’s insistence that a reunified Germany be excluded from NATO was an early example: “To hell with that! We prevailed, they didn’t.”
By insisting on a reunified Germany’s membership in NATO and on the alliance’s continued centrality in Europe, the George H.W. Bush administration aimed to drastically reduce Moscow’s influence. As U.S. policymakers recognized, they were taking advantage of America's vastly increased relative power to achieve “a fundamental shift in the strategic balance” by compelling Moscow to accept an American-imposed settlement as if it had “suffered a reversal of fortunes not unlike a catastrophic defeat in a war.” Indeed, the United States was so determined to have its way on German reunification that it was prepared to risk a backlash within the Soviet Union against Gorbachev and his reforms. Moreover, the Bush administration was favorably disposed to the idea of NATO expansion, which became a topic of discussion at the highest levels in Washington almost immediately after the Berlin Wall fell. The administration’s successors made it happen. From the moment the Cold War ended, the overriding U.S. objective has been “neo-containment” of Russia.
What are Washington’s objectives in the Russo–Ukrainian war? There are two. First, a significant reduction of Moscow’s power. Second, regime change in the Kremlin. In April 2023, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that the United States wants to see Russian military power permanently weakened so that it will pose no future threat to Europe’s geopolitical stability. Austin’s comments were seen as strong evidence that the Biden administration had dramatically raised the stakes in the Russo–Ukrainian war and was waging a proxy war against Russia. President Biden’s July 2023 speech in Vilnius during the NATO summit, the outcome of the summit itself, and comments by U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg all suggest that Washington sees Ukraine as part of a long-term struggle to reduce Russian power.
Washington’s aspiration for regime change in the Kremlin can be inferred from circumstantial evidence. First, speaking in Warsaw in March 2022, Biden said Putin “cannot remain in power.” Reiterating U.S. support for Kyiv, Secretary of State Blinken asserted that an independent Ukraine “will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene.” The massive sanctions imposed on the Kremlin by the U.S. and NATO following Russia’s February 2022 invasion have been far less effective than Washington and Europe hoped. When they were implemented, they were expected to crash Russia’s economy. As the New York Times reported, the draconian sanctions “ignited questions in Washington and in European capitals over whether cascading events in Russia could lead to regime change, or rulership collapse, which President Biden and European leaders are careful to avoid mentioning.” Even if officials have refrained from voicing that objective, it reasonably can be inferred that many in the Biden administration and broader foreign policy establishment were, and are, thinking about it.
Early in the war, some European officials were less reticent and openly called for regime change. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the U.S. and Europe were “waging an all-out economic and financial war on Russia” to “cause the collapse of the Russian economy.” A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the sanctions were “intended to bring down the Putin regime.” Moreover, by calling Putin a war a “war criminal” and a “murderous dictator,” Biden has circumscribed U.S. diplomatic options. Diplomacy requires give and take, an ability to understand the other side’s interests and motives and an ability to make judicious compromises. Once the adversary is characterized as the epitome of evil, that all goes out the window. This suggests that the U.S. is not seriously interested in a negotiated, compromise peace.
The antecedents of the Biden administration’s neo-containment policy directed at Russia can be traced back to U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. Since 1945, Washington consistently has disregarded Moscow’s security interests. When the war ended, Washington was unwilling to grant Moscow a sphere of influence in East Central Europe, a region in which Moscow since the tsars had unquestionable strategic interests and in which the United States had none. Roosevelt, Truman, and their senior advisers all recognized—at least up to a point—that the Soviet Union had legitimate security interests in Eastern Europe. Moreover, even as World War II was being fought, policymakers in Washington understood that when the war ended the Soviets would control the region and the United States would have limited leverage there. Yet, when the war did end, the United States wanted Eastern Europe to remain open to American economic and ideological penetration.
Washington and Moscow defined Soviet interests in East Central Europe very differently. The United States acknowledged, or so the argument has been made, that the Kremlin had a legitimate interest in ensuring that the East Central European states followed external policies consistent with Soviet security concerns. However, Washington did not believe that Moscow’s security needs required the Soviet Union to exercise control over the region’s domestic political systems. Hence U.S. opposition to granting the Soviets an “exclusive,” closed sphere of influence in the region. On the other hand, Moscow believed that its external security could be guaranteed only by maintaining firm internal control over the East Central European states.
For U.S. policymakers, Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe became a “litmus test” of the
Kremlin’s postwar intentions. This test was one that Moscow could not pass, because American and Soviet interests in East Central Europe conflicted. For the Soviets, exercising control over postwar East Central Europe was a security imperative, and “control” meant putting in place friendly governments that would be subservient to Soviet policy. Based on Russian experiences in the two world wars, the Kremlin feared that an “open” East Central Europe once again could become a platform for an attack on the Soviet homeland.
The Americans, of course, didn’t see it the same way. For Washington, the Soviet Union’s refusal to allow free elections, open trade, and liberalism’s other accouterments to take hold in East Central Europe suggested that the Kremlin was committed to following an ideologically driven, expansionist, and aggressive postwar policy. Moreover, as the hard-line “Cold War consensus” took root in Washington in 1946, East Central Europe came to be seen as an integral part of America’s strategic aim of eliminating the Soviet Union as a peer competitor. Washington hoped that an open Eastern Europe would be a springboard for bringing about regime change (“de-Bolshevization”) in the Soviet Union. U.S. policymakers had concluded by 1946 that “the very existence of the Soviet Union threatened American security.”
The continuities between America’s Soviet policy in the early Cold War years and its post–Cold War Russia policy—especially the Biden administration’s objectives in the Russo–Ukrainian war—are striking. During the first post–World War II decade, America’s policy toward Moscow aimed at much more than mere “containment” of Soviet expansion. Then, as now, the United States aspired to degrade Soviet/Russian power significantly and effectuate a change in its domestic political system. In 1948, NSC 20/4 stated that America’s peacetime policy aims with respect to the Soviet Union were:
To reduce the power and influence of the USSR to limits which no longer constitute a threat to the peace, national independence and stability of the world family of nations [and] bring about a basic change in the conduct of international relations by the governments in power in Russia, to conform with the purposes and principles set forth in the UN charter.
In the event of war, NSC 20/4 declared that the United States would seek to dismantle the Communist Party’s control of the Soviet Union and create postwar conditions that would “prevent the development of power relationships dangerous to the security of the United States and world peace.” NSC 20/4 was about rolling back Soviet power, not containing it. This was not mere rhetoric. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Washington provided active covert assistance to anti-Soviet forces in Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States—and Ukraine, to nationalist groups affiliated with the notorious Stepan Bandera, which had aligned with Nazi Germany during World War II.
The objectives of fomenting regime change in the Kremlin, retracting Soviet power from East Central Europe, and neutering the Soviet Union as a peer competitor were forcefully restated in NSC 68 (1950). Rather than being employed simply for the “negative” purpose “of resisting the Kremlin design,” NSC 68 declared that U.S. power would be used “to attain the fundamental purpose of the United States, and foster a world environment in which our free society can survive and flourish.” To accomplish this, it said, the United States would adopt a policy that “would check and roll back the Kremlin’s drive for world power.” The American policy must “be such as to foster a fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet system.”
Behind the facade of George H.W. Bush’s prudent diplomatic approach to the Soviet Union’s collapse, key members of his administration endorsed policy objectives similar to those enunciated in NSC 20/4 and NSC 68. The administration’s leaked 1992 Defense Planning Guidance reflected the continuing hold of Cold War thinking on U.S. foreign policy. Given that it was prepared while Cheney was Secretary of Defense and drafted by the neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, its hawkishness is unsurprising. Like NSC 20/4, and NSC 68, the DPG set as America’s grand strategic goal the permanent reduction of Russian power: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.”
As Zubok writes, “For many in the U.S. administration the Cold War had continued and some were happy to see the Soviet Union collapsing.” This is why economic support for Gorbachev’s economic reforms was not forthcoming. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady argued that, rather than propping up the Soviet economy, the real U.S. interest was “changing Soviet society so that it can’t afford a defense system.” Defense Secretary Cheney and his Pentagon advisers also supported the Soviet Union’s breakup and regarded Ukraine’s independence as a bulwark against a possible post-Soviet Russian resurgence. Indeed, as Robert Gates, then deputy national security adviser, has written, Cheney wanted to see the dissolution of the Russian Federation itself (as do current Ukrainian policymakers).
Today, the world’s two most heavily nuclear armed powers, the United States and Russia, are locked in a proxy war in Ukraine. Some have described this as a new Cold War. During the original Cold War, Europe remained stable because Moscow and Washington quickly came to accept Europe’s postwar division. The first Cold War was largely played out in the Third World, in regions that were far from the homelands of either superpower and were not vital to their security.
This new Cold War is different. Since the early 1990s, the United States has steadily pursued a policy, NATO expansion, that has pushed America’s purported security frontiers to Russia’s doorstep. By enfolding states that were for centuries in Russia’s sphere of influence, Washington has concretely defined its vital interests to be in direct opposition to Moscow’s. The United States has extended security guarantees, backed by nuclear force, to these states. This means that the U.S. security frontier along NATO’s eastern border, actually is a frontier of American insecurity because NATO has become a potential transmission belt for war—nuclear war—that could devastate the American homeland. This is something most Americans do not realize, because the foreign policy establishment does not encourage discussion about what U.S. security guarantees actually mean.
Many of the states to which the U.S. has extended security guarantees, putting its own survival potentially at risk, are dubious partners. Some are far from being robust democracies. Others, including Ukraine and the Baltics, had (to put it charitably) questionable records during World War II. All harbor—indeed, in some respects their national identities are defined by—longstanding hatred of Russia. Each has a powerful diaspora arguing that their homeland’s historical grievances should become America’s.
Given Russia’s durable conception of its security interests and Washington’s expansive foreign policy ambitions, embraced by both parties and pretty much across the ideological spectrum, this new Cold War will remain a fixed and dangerous feature of world politics. Russians attach nothing less than existential significance to the possibility of Ukrainian membership in NATO and to the loss of Crimea. Given the stakes involved for Russia, and the volatile politics (and questionable rationality) of some NATO states when it comes to Russia, this new Cold War will almost certainly prove more precarious than the first.
Early in the Iraq War, in a conversation with the Washington Post correspondent Rick Atkinson, then Maj. General David Petraeus famously asked, “Tell me how this ends?” With respect to the Russo–Ukrainian war, this question remains unanswered. One possibility is that it could peter out into a messy and inconclusive stalemate. That would mean the creation of a new Alsace-Lorraine, a festering geopolitical wound on the continent that could reignite at any time. Another possibility is that the NATO-led coalition will crack because of clashing interests among its members (the dispute between Poland and Ukraine is just the tip of the iceberg), “Ukraine fatigue,” and domestic political changes in the U.S. or Europe.
A third possibility is a negotiated settlement. By adopting maximalist war aims that can only be achieved through something approximating Russia’s unconditional surrender, Washington and Kyiv have boxed themselves into a corner from which it will be hard to escape. The policy being followed by the U.S. and Ukraine is unrealistic. More importantly, it is dangerous.
U.S., NATO, and European officials have repeatedly stated that only Kyiv can decide the terms on which this war will end. Ukraine’s main war aim—recovery of “every square meter” of its territory seized by Russia since 2014, including Crimea—appears to be set in stone. This can be attained only if Ukraine decisively defeats Russia, which can happen only if the U.S. continues its open-ended commitment to shovel endless amounts of arms and money into the conflict. By outsourcing the war termination process to Kyiv, the Biden administration is abdicating its responsibility to safeguard America’s national interests. Given the risks of escalation, to say nothing of the financial costs, Washington has every right and responsibility to tell Kyiv when, and on what terms, the war must end.
Both official Washington and the broader foreign policy establishment believe that the United States must “do whatever it takes” to ensure that Ukraine “wins” the war—or that Russia “loses,” which is pretty much the same thing. Even the normally timorous West Europeans seem to want an unambiguous Russian defeat. The Wall Street Journal reports that many European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, “have increasingly come to the view that no deal on Ukraine can be struck until Putin is routed on the battlefield or leaves power.” Camille Grand, an analyst with the Brussels-based European Council on Foreign Relations, says, “There is a growing belief in Europe that the defeat of Russia needs to be super clear.” This is certainly Kyiv’s view.
Washington’s policy is based on a triple paradox. First, Ukraine’s interests are at odds with the United States’s. Kyiv wants to escalate the war by attacking targets in Russia, and trying to take back Crimea. Though no one in the Ukrainian leadership will say it, inwardly they know their chances of prevailing militarily are much better if the U.S. and NATO are drawn more directly into the war. Second, were the U.S., Ukraine, and NATO to draw near their goals, they would risk catastrophe. If the Kremlin believed a crushing reverse was imminent, Moscow likely would escalate the war, even by using nuclear weapons, rather than accept defeat. Many in the foreign policy establishment discount the dangers of escalation. This is a mistake.
Third, Washington’s determination that post-conflict Ukraine will become a NATO member serves to prolong the war and thus keeps the escalation risk in play. As National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan affirmed following the alliance’s July 2023 Vilnius summit, “Ukraine’s future is in NATO. We meant it. That’s not up for negotiation.” This overlooks the very reason this conflict started in the first place: Moscow’s belief that Ukraine’s admission to the alliance would be a grave menace to its security. No matter how many times American officials deny it, it is precisely the U.S. goal of bringing Ukraine into NATO that was the casus belli for the Russo–Ukrainian War. As long as Ukrainian membership of NATO is on the table, Moscow has strong incentives to continue fighting.
The following points should be part of any agreement for ending the war now: (1) No NATO membership for Ukraine; (2) Ukrainian neutrality, similar to Finland and Austria during the Cold War; (3) Crimea remains under Russian control; (4) an internationally supervised transportation corridor across Ukrainian territory linking Russia to Crimea; (5) a significant Russian contribution to Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction; (6) talks among the U.S., Russia, and Europe about creating a new European security architecture; and (7) creation of a Europe-only mechanism to guarantee Ukraine’s postwar security.
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Adopting the playbook of the first Cold War, President Biden depicts the Russo–Ukrainian war as a Manichean struggle between democracy and dictatorship.The Judith Millerization of the American press means it has become a cheerleader for Kyiv and has skated around the questionable origins and associations of Ukrainian nationalists. The U.S. press also has been less than zealous in pursuing evidence of Ukrainian war crimes. What the American press and political class fail to note, however, is that Ukraine’s own democratic credentials are, to put it mildly, less than stellar. That has not stopped Ukraine’s President Zelensky from asserting that the future of democracy in America hinges on the outcome of the Russo–Ukrainian war.
There are a lot of erroneous claims being made about why the U.S. must risk conflict with Moscow to ensure Ukraine “wins” its war. Some see this as an example of the Mackinder geopolitical paradigm: a hostile power dominating the European (or Eurasian) “heartland” would pose a mortal threat to America’s security. Quite apart from the fact that Russia lacks the military and economic power to attain this goal, the nuclear revolution (still not properly understood by strategists) has rendered the “Mackinder nightmare” obsolete.
For America to avoid a possible strategic disaster over Ukraine, it is necessary to have a searching and honest debate about U.S. foreign policy decisions, going back not only to the end of the Cold War but to the end of World War II. There is no indication that such a reexamination will occur. The foreign policy establishment does not want such a discussion. Aided by a docile press, its (admittedly sophisticated) perception management machine will frame the debate on Ukraine and U.S grand strategy more generally by depicting the conflict as a moral crusade and universalizing the magnitude of the stakes in a way that will stifle real discussion rather than promoting it. We have seen this before—in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Kosovo, the Iraq War, and Afghanistan. The watchword for Americans now is: Don’t be fooled again.