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Ukraine Should Not Be Allowed to Join NATO
The "NATO Question" is what started this war, and now it looks like it will make diplomacy impossible.
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This is a long post but an important one.
Ukraine’s prospective NATO membership is once again in the spotlight after discussions took place at the 2023 Vilnius Summit on Tuesday. Diplomats stopped short of announcing a definitive timeline that includes specific steps and milestones for conventional ratification and instead agreed to issue a communiqué affirming that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” while Biden and Zelensky agreed that “Ukraine’s accession to NATO would come only after the war ended.”
These inflammatory assurances, which will only serve to exacerbate tensions between Russia and the West and prolong the war in Ukraine, are incredibly misguided. To understand why, you must first understand why this war could have, and should have, been prevented, and how the U.S. played a key role in instigating it.
The prevailing wisdom is that blame for the war falls entirely on Russia and its autocratic mad man of a president, who repeatedly rebuffed Biden’s diplomatic overtures, and whose irredentist aspirations and vendetta against the West drove him to invade Ukraine. This is how the conflict has been framed by the mainstream media since the very beginning.
As just one example, on February 24th, the day of the invasion, Politico described Putin as “the steely-eyed strongman” who proved immune to “traditional tools of diplomacy and deterrence” and had been “playing Biden all along.” In this telling, the U.S. had thoroughly exhausted itself of diplomatic efforts and Russia’s invasion was going to happen one way or another.
But nothing could be further from the truth. While Putin may have lit the match when he ordered Russian troops to invade, it’s not enough to simply claim that his diabolical mind was the only contributing factor, that this was a war of choice and realpolitik concerns had nothing to do with his decision. The reality is that Putin had been warning of this invasion for years as one development after another left Russia, a country with a long history of being invaded, increasingly isolated by the West.
Despite what the mainstream media would have you believe, a long list of strategic thinkers cautioned that war was likely if the West continued down the path it’d been following since the fall of the Soviet Union, and they argue that the U.S. could have prevented the breakout of war by offering to retract support for Ukraine to one day join NATO. For even the briefest review of history reveals it was evident Russia was willing to go to war over Ukraine’s NATO status, which it perceived as an existential national security threat. Putin himself cited this factor as fundamental to his rationale for invading Ukraine.
The period immediately preceding the invasion capped off what had become a familiar theme: Poking the bear. In September 2021, the U.S. came out with a strong policy statement calling for enhanced military cooperation with Ukraine, which was widely considered the next logical step in joining NATO.
This new “Joint Strategic Partnership” dramatically heightened tensions between Kyiv and Moscow, leading to the steady Russian military build-up of over 150,000 troops along the Ukrainian border. In December, Putin blamed the U.S. and NATO for failing to consider Moscow’s concerns and for entertaining Kyiv’s NATO membership application, which fomented a hostile security situation in Europe. Less than two months later, Russia invaded.
One could easily conclude that our new “partnership” with Ukraine in September may have been the final straw. We were essentially moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests—a point that Putin made repeatedly.
Consider the implications here: It was crystal clear that Putin was serious about an invasion, to the point where U.S. intelligence agencies were practically giving play-by-play updates to a disbelieving Zelenskyy, and yet the U.S. still didn’t table the NATO status question. Because of our obstinacy and reckless flirtation in dangling this carrot to Ukraine, we crossed a red line for Russia without even committing to Ukraine’s defense. The promise of future NATO membership comes with no security guarantees.
But had the U.S. sought a compromise with Russia on Ukraine’s future, it would’ve required the West to stand down and acknowledge that its power and influence only go so far.
“It was the desire of Western governments not to lose face by compromising with Russia,” Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft told MSNBC’s Zeeshan Aleem. “But it was also the moral cowardice of so many Western commentators and officials and ex-officials who would not come out in public and admit that this was no longer a viable project.”
Nobody Should’ve Been Shocked That Russia Invaded
In 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed not only to the reunification of Germany, whose division was the focus of the Cold War, but also, at the urging of his Western “partners,” that the new Germany would be a member of NATO. Gorbachev made the decision after the West — and especially President George H.W. Bush — assured him NATO would never be expanded “one inch eastward” toward Russia.
But this famous assurance and other equally emphatic guarantees weren’t honored.1 NATO has since nearly doubled its member countries to include the Baltic states, so that the world’s most powerful military alliance sits next to Russia’s western border.
“It is the broken promise to Gorbachev that lingers as America’s original sin,” Russian studies scholar Stephen Cohen observed in 2018.
NATO’s expansion has been no small matter among strategists, and a long list of influential voices have dissented.
George Kennan, widely considered one of America’s greatest ever foreign policy strategists and the architect of the U.S. cold war containment policy, called it “a strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions,” later adding, “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 anyone else.”
Jack F. Matlock Jr., U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987-1991, said that expansion “may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War.”
International relations scholar John Lewis Gaddis observed that “historians — normally so contentious — are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-conceived, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”
Widely considered America’s most prominent foreign policy columnist, Thomas Friedman declared it the “most ill-conceived project of the post-Cold War era.”
Malcolm Fraser, 22nd prime minister of Australia, warned that NATO’s eastward movement is “provocative, unwise and a very clear signal to Russia: we are not willing to make you a co-operative partner in the management of European or world affairs; we will exercise the power available to us and you will have to put up with it.”
Just as head-shaking is the number of top strategic thinkers who warned that moving to add Ukraine to NATO would trigger a war.
In 2015, the philosopher Noam Chomsky told an interviewer “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.”
A few days before Russia’s invasion, famous economist Jeffrey Sachs averred that “NATO enlargement is utterly misguided and risky. True friends of Ukraine, and of global peace, should be calling for a U.S. and NATO compromise with Russia.”
Current CIA director William Burns wrote in his memoir, The Back Channel, 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.”
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates wrote that “Moving so quickly [to expand NATO] was a mistake,” and “Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching [and] an especially monumental provocation.”
Sir Roderic Lyne, vice-chairman of Chatham said in an interview a year ago that it “was a massive mistake on the Western side trying to push Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. It was stupid on every level at that time. If you want to start a war with Russia, that’s the best way of doing it.”
Analysts rang the warning bell for years. Nobody listened.
Meddling With Ukraine
I’m a proponent of John Mearsheimer’s great-power politics theory, a school of realist international relations which assumes that, in a self-interested attempt to preserve national security, states will preemptively act in anticipation of adversaries. For years, Mearsheimer argued that in pushing to expand NATO eastward and establishing friendly relations with Ukraine, the U.S. was antagonizing Russia and cornering Putin into military action.
“When you’re a country like Ukraine and you live next door to a great power like Russia, you have to pay careful attention to what the Russians think, because if you take a stick and you poke them in the eye, they’re going to retaliate. States in the Western hemisphere understand this full well with regard to the United States.” — John Mearsheimer
As Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger lamented in a prescient 2014 Washington Post article, understanding Russian history and psychology has never been a priority for policymakers, and the U.S. and the West more broadly have long failed to understand that, “to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”
People forget how irrevocably intertwined the two are. Much of Ukraine speaks Russian, and some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil. Semi-encircled by U.S.-led Western military power, Russia has always considered Ukraine, a massive expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to attack the motherland, a pivotal buffer state against an eastward-creeping NATO.
It’s easy enough to imagine how things have looked from Russia’s perspective since the end of the Soviet Union. Not only was NATO slowly encroaching, but the alliance had taken to proactively interfering in global affairs: Bombing Yugoslavia and opposing the Serbs, who were allied with Russia, and engaging in regime change and nation building in countries like Libya and Afghanistan.
Remember, NATO was originally formed as a military and political alliance between the U.S., Canada, and several Western European nations after WWII to contain the Soviet Union. Its raison d’être was collective defense. But when the Soviet Union dissolved, the alliance didn’t disband. Instead, led by America, it changed its mission to promoting democracy, which it did by using the prospect of NATO membership to encourage countries to liberalize and support the political, economic, and military interests of the U.S. As one country after another joined, it left Russia ever more isolated.
If there was a moment when the Kremlin became convinced the West had plans against Russia, surely it was in April 2008 at the NATO summit in Bucharest, when the organization — led by the U.S. — delivered a promise that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of NATO. This gravely strained the Russia-Ukraine relationship. One Russian newspaper reported that Putin, while speaking to then-President Bush, “very transparently hinted that if Ukraine was accepted into NATO, it would cease to exist.”
According to Mearsheimer, “the Russians made it unequivocally clear at the time that they viewed this as an existential threat, and they drew a line in the sand.” Just a few months after the Bucharest summit, Russia invaded Georgia to reassert its dominance in the region, which should have dispelled any remaining doubts about Putin’s determination to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO.
Yet, rather than give up on adding Ukraine, the U.S. instead made the country into a sort of Western bulwark on Russia’s precarious border, a strategy that not only depended on NATO expansion, but on the expansion of the European Union and turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy.
It was estimated in 2013 that the U.S. had invested more than $5 billion to help Ukraine achieve “the future it deserves.” As part of this Western social engineering, the U.S. bankrolled the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a nonprofit that’s funded more than 60 projects aimed at promoting “civil society” in Ukraine, the country that the NED’s president, Carl Gershman, called its “biggest prize.”
Russian leaders watching this social engineering play out have doubtless feared their country might be next. And such fears are hardly baseless. Carl Gershman himself wrote in the Washington Post that “Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents.” He added: “Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”
In another impossible to miss sign that Russia wouldn’t tolerate having its sphere of influence shrunk, Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 in the wake of the Washington-backed coup of Ukraine’s pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych. Unsurprisingly, Putin refused to stand idly by while the West helped install a government that was determined to integrate Ukraine. At the time, Mearsheimer wrote that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for this crisis.” He also warned that this episode did not portend well, and that Ukraine’s quasi-membership in NATO would have catastrophic consequences: “The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”
Whether or not Putin’s rationale for invading is logical or makes sense doesn’t matter. It’s immaterial. What matters is geopolitics 101, which holds that great powers are always sensitive to potential threats.2 And it is Russia who gets to determine what counts as a threat, not the U.S. or NATO or Ukraine.
We’ve established that for decades, and especially the past few years, there’s been glaring evidence that Russia sees NATO’s eastward encroachment as a threat to its national security, and just as much evidence that Putin was willing to use military force to maintain his sphere of influence. According to many contemporary analysts this was so obvious in the lead up to the war that the United States’ strategic posture was borderline negligent. Russia spent weeks shifting 150,000 troops to the Ukrainian border. At that point Putin had to get some kind of concession about Ukraine’s future; he wasn’t going to be called out on a bluff on the world stage and lose face in front of his people.
“I thought, and continue to think, that we should have made a deal, that there was a deal to be had—not a deal that we liked, obviously, but a deal that the realities of the situation that we're facing required,” George Beebe, a former director of Russia analysis at the CIA, told MSNBC in early March.
Sure, we don’t know whether substantive talks on the question of Ukraine’s NATO status or neutrality would have allayed Putin’s concerns or changed his perception of the situation. Many folks stick to the tired argument that Putin is a mad man whose only concern is his historical legacy, and who’s too paranoid and closed off from the outside world to ever consider any course of action other than a show of power.
But what’s irrefutable is that the greatest irritant between Russia and the West has always been NATO expansion, and the question of Ukraine’s status mattered a great deal to Putin, which is why it should have been (and should be) the focus of negotiations.
Detractors will say that regardless of the hypotheticals, it’s wrong for Ukraine to be denied membership in an alliance that it wants to be part of to protect itself.
But that’s not how the world works.
The global balance of power is a delicate, overarching deciding factor in geopolitics. Our leaders know this. NATO knows this. Just like they know the balance of power is impacted by miscalculations, a reality that requires them to contemplate whether or not a given action is prudent—especially when war is a real possibility.
Diplomatic Dialogue is a Must
The U.S. bears some measure of responsibility for this conflict. I believe this is inarguable. But rather than doing everything we can to bring about a diplomatic resolution, we’ve essentially done nothing but pour gasoline on the conflagration. The conflict has become a full-blown proxy war, with the U.S. effectively assuming financial, material, political, strategic, and operational dominion over Ukrainian state warfare. Ukraine’s freedom isn’t even the point anymore; the point is to reshape Europe and the global balance of power by degrading Russia.3 Even in the event that Ukraine is forced in defeat to negotiate and concede territory for peace, Washington will have achieved its primary goal of weakening Russia’s military capacity and isolating Putin from Europe.
History shows over and over that proxy wars devour the countries they purport to defend. But the U.S. remains imperially callous, and Democrats and their liberal supporters, seduced by RussiaGate lies into transferring their violent hatred of Trump and his supporters onto a nuclear superpower, have encouraged Ukraine and its people to take a maximalist position.
I cannot emphasize enough how bad it is that Biden, perversely convinced by his handlers that intentionally exacerbating the warfare will actually lessen the warfare, has effectively declared that Ukraine will be inducted into NATO after the war. Putin now has all the more reason to fight in order to prevent that outcome. The existential stakes have been heightened,4 and in all likelihood any semblance of a diplomatic settlement to the war has evaporated.
Unfortunately, the media won’t talk about any of this because it fundamentally undermines their essential overarching narrative that Putin is solely responsible for this war and our cause is just and noble. Nor can we really talk about the conflict in the public square without being hounded by keyboard warriors; the discourse is being policed by obnoxious wannabe strategists who think putting a Ukrainian flag in your Twitter handle is the epitome of virtue. Departing even a smidge from the orthodoxy is automatically taken as an admission of pro-Russia sympathies and engenders intensely negative, over-wrought reactions.
Regardless of how you feel about the situation, the intolerance for even the mere discussion of peace proposals should be alarming, and it’s emblematic of a trend whereby people grossly oversimplify complex issues and problems, flattening out all nuance until a moral binary is achieved—good vs. bad. In this framing, anything but full-throated fealty to the Good Side™ is a political non-starter, which means nothing less than “absolute victory” for Ukraine is permissible.
Most people can’t even articulate what that outcome looks like. They just have some vague vision in their heads of Russia raising the white flag and going home. That’s not how it works. Wars only ever end in one way: Negotiations. I’ve had people try and refute this point by saying, “Nuh-uh! Look at WWII!” Well, guess what? Germany surrendered through negotiations; so did Japan. The end result was unconditional surrender, but getting there still required diplomatic dialogue.
But there’s been no dialogue. The Biden administration won’t allow it. They even blocked a potential peace deal between Ukraine and Russia early in the war. How many more thousands of corpses need to pile up before the war-drum beaters consider a course-correction? At what point will people realize that the only way to end hostilities is to establish Ukraine as a neutral buffer state between NATO and Russia? And when will Washington mandarins understand that leaping from one war to the next in a bid to reassert U.S. hegemony fits the pattern of empires in terminal decline?
Said Putin about America’s failure to follow through on these assurances: “They duped us, in the full sense of this word.”
See for example the U.S., which enforces the Monroe Doctrine. Imagine if Russia tried to rope Mexico or Canada into a military alliance that resulted in the steady buildup of raw military power on one of our borders.
On a lighter note, the Russian parliament banned gender reassignment surgery the other day, which means we’re the closest to WWIII we’ve ever been.