How the West Sowed the Seeds of War in Ukraine
Putin invaded Ukraine. But an alliance of bad actors, the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and NGOs paved the road that made the present crisis inevitable.
President Vladimir Putin is playing Russian roulette with the world. The invasion he launched on Feb. 24 has brought us closer to nuclear war than anything since the Cuban missile crisis.
However, other culprits in the United States and Europe share his guilt. But they have so far managed to avoid notice and blame.
There would be no victory in stopping Russia without confronting what these groups and individuals have done. War does not begin in a vacuum, and this one has been a long time coming. Putin invaded Ukraine, but these liberal interventionists paved the road that made the present crisis inevitable.
First, it’s important to understand why Russia views Ukraine’s suing for NATO membership as an existential threat even though the alliance has integrated plenty of Warsaw Pact states and ex-Soviet republics since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As political scientist John Mearsheimer put it, Russia “swallowed” NATO’s major admissions of Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and the Baltic states between 1999 and 2004.
But a line was drawn at Georgia and Ukraine.
“Russian leaders have told their Western counterparts on many occasions that they consider NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine unacceptable, along with any effort to turn those countries against Russia,” Mearsheimer wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it.” Essentially, it’s Russia’s Monroe Doctrine.
Putin would make this clear again four years after NATO integrated Romania and the Baltics.
“No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia,” Putin warned then-Undersecretary for Political Affairs William Burns, now director of the CIA, just before NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit. Nevertheless, George W. Bush’s administration supported integrating both Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance at the summit, while France and Germany remained adamantly opposed for fear of poking the Russian bear.
A compromise was reached. The alliance did not formally extend invitations to the two, but it did affirm, provocatively, and largely at the insistence of the Bush administration, “that these countries will become members of NATO.”
Putin called the summit’s statement a “direct threat” to Russian security. Then deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko said that “Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security.” Even Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense in the administrations of Bush II and Barack Obama, confessed in his memoir that “trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching . . . that was an especially monumental provocation.”
The Bucharest summit concluded on April 4, 2008. Four months later, Putin demonstrated his seriousness to the West.
On August 1, 2008, the Russo-Georgian War began. In short, wrote Ted Galen Carpenter, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, “Moscow exploited a foolish provocation by Georgia’s pro‐western government to launch a military offensive that brought Russian troops to the outskirts of the capital.” In the end, “Russia permanently detached two secessionist‐minded Georgian regions and put them under effective Russian control.”
Russia successfully checked the ambitions of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had been committed to gaining membership in NATO and the European Union for Georgia. But neither NATO, the EU, nor the United States would relent in their drive eastward.
In the wake of unrest fomented in Ukraine by the West in 2014, Putin launched the Russo-Ukrainian War, resulting in the annexation of Crimea. Along with the intervention in Georgia, this event is used today as concrete evidence of Russia’s dreams of global domination. “Putin’s behavior proves that it was wise to expand NATO eastward,” many would say. However, as Mearsheimer explained in a lecture at the University of Chicago, “there is no evidence that we thought Putin was aggressive before the crisis.” There is “no evidence that we were talking about expanding NATO because we had to contain the Russians.”
“Because again, NATO expansion was driven by 21st century men and women—they believe balance of power politics is dead.”
By contrast, Mearsheimer added, “Putin is a 19th century man” who views the world through the lens of balance of power politics. “In the case of Europe, we were thinking like 21st century men and women and we thought we could just drive right up to his doorstep, and it wouldn’t matter.” His evidence that the foreign policy establishment did not consider Russia aggressive or bent on creating Greater Russia until recently is that “Obama and virtually all of Washington was caught with their pants down when this crisis broke out after February 22, because they did not see it coming.”
But they should have, considering that they toppled Ukraine’s democratically elected government that year. It was the work of an alliance between internal actors, the United States, and NGOs like the Clinton Foundation.