Ukraine, NATO, and the Most Fateful Error of American Policy

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, NATO, in a violation of the verbal agreement between Secretary of State James Baker and Russian Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, launched a massive expansion to the east.

This expansion can be seen from Moscow only as a strategy to encircle Russia and turn its neighbors into hostile countries. As long as Russia was economically and militarily weak, the process proceeded unabated. NATO has grown from 16 countries before the reunification of Germany, to 28 today.

George KennanAmerican diplomat and author of the concepts of “Cold War” and “containment,” prophetically warned America about the danger of this policy in the New York Times on February 5, 1997:

“….. expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era.... Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

The current events emanate from this “most fateful” error

Today’s Russia is in a position to put an end to it, and President Putin has drawn a red line over Ukraine.

He made it perfectly clear that he would not allow Ukraine to join NATO. To resolve the issue peacefully, he suggested to President Biden that the U.S. would offer Russia a guarantee that Ukraine would not be admitted to the NATO military alliance. But NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, rejected the idea and affirmed a NATO right to bring more countries into the alliance. Unless the situation changes, Moscow will have no choice but to invade Ukraine. 

There is little risk for Moscow in doing such an invasion, either militarily, politically, or economically.

Militarily, President Biden has already thrown Ukraine under the bus when he ruled out NATO military intervention. But even if Biden changed his mind, NATO countries that have downgraded their military capabilities are no match to the Russian army. Should Putin order the invasion; Russian tanks will be in Kiev in less than 24 hours. There have been reports suggesting that U.S. defense officials believe he may do so in 2022.

Politically, there will be a lot of noise and condemnation, but nothing tangible. After Russia's annexation of Crimea, Russia was kicked out of the G-8 and suspended from the Council of Europe. Those “severe” punishments were not worth a grain of sand from the Crimean beaches.

Putin also remembers well that when the Red Army ravaged Budapest in 1956, built the Berlin wall in 1961, and invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, America with its NATO allies stood by helplessly, watching the carnage, all full of bluster and no action.

Economically, it is unlikely that the democracies would support additional sanctions on Russia. They would be opposed to the idea as it would undoubtedly exacerbate the current economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic and produce a crisis that would hit their own countries' economies.

But even if additional sanctions are added to the existing ones, these western democracies should realize, after traveling this anguished road for seven and a half years, that Moscow sees the Ukrainian situation as a geopolitical issue paramount to their security. Hence, even if the sanctions are kept in place for the next hundred years, it will not weaken Moscow’s resolve. Doing the same thing would not produce different results.

A different result, however, could be achieved if Biden and his team took Napoleon’s advice and try to understand Russian foreign policy: “If you know a country's geography, you can understand and predict its foreign policy,” Napoleon wrote.

American leaders obviously are not on good terms with geography; otherwise, they would realize that the “land of the Rus” that stretches throughout Europe and Asia for nine time zones, scarcely populated with just fewer than 150 million, can only protect itself by having a buffer zone between Russia and potential adversaries.

The irony is that Putin practices George Kennan’s containment policy in reverse. His strategy is to contain NATO’s expansion. As long as Ukraine is an independent state that serves as a buffer state between Russia and NATO, it will be at the mercy of Russia. For this reason, Russia would preserve Ukrainian independence. Under this scenario, NATO would not attack Russia without violating the sovereignty of Ukraine. In this case, Russia would come to her aid.

As long as America and its NATO allies are contemplating punitive measures against Russia instead of trying to resolve the problem they have created, the invasion seems inevitable.    

Should an invasion take place, Ukraine would no longer remain a unitary state. Russians would split Ukraine into three separate countries Eastern, Central and Western. For Ukraine, which is racked by internal incompatibilities, the separation would be almost natural. It will also send a strong message to the former Soviet satellites – NATO is not the salvation, it is a liability.