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The war in Ukraine was not ‘unprovoked’

May 20,2023 - Last updated at May 20,2023

There is no fairy-tale end to the war in Ukraine, in which Ukraine defeats Russia on the battlefield and then joins NATO.  The war can end with a safe and secure Ukraine, indeed with Ukraine a member of the European Union.  But it cannot end with Ukraine in NATO.  Russia has fought the war over that issue, and could possibly escalate to nuclear war to avoid NATO enlargement to Ukraine.   

A lie the West tells itself is that the war was “unprovoked.”

The word “unprovoked” is invoked incessantly, in President Biden’s major speech on the first-year anniversary of the war, in NATO statements, and in the media.  The New York Times editorial pages alone have included at least 26 editorials, opinion columns and op-ed pieces that have described the Russian invasion as “unprovoked”.  

Yet the war and Russian invasion were provoked by the issue of NATO enlargement, just as leading US diplomats had warned about for decades.

There were in fact two NATO-related provocations. The first was the US intention to expand NATO to Ukraine and Georgia, which would surround Russia in the Black Sea region by NATO countries (Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia, in counterclockwise order). The second was the US role in the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who had pushed Ukraine’s neutrality.  The shooting war began nine years ago, with the installation in Ukraine of a US-backed, Russophobic government intent on joining NATO.   

The US government refuses to discuss these roots of the war. To recognise them would undermine the Biden Administration in three ways. First, it would expose the fact that the war could have been avoided, or stopped early, sparing Ukraine its current devastation, and sparing the US more than $100 billion in outlays to date. Second, it would expose President Biden’s own role in the war dating back to 2014 and earlier, as a staunch advocate of NATO enlargement and participant in the overthrow of Yanukovych. Third, it would lead to the negotiating table, which the administration avoids as it continues to push for NATO expansion.

Admitting that NATO expansion provoked the war would also undermine decades of US policy.

In 1990, as the archives show irrefutably, US and Germany repeatedly promised Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch eastward” when the Soviet Union disbanded the Warsaw Pact alliance. Nonetheless, US planning for NATO expansion began in the early 1990s, well before Vladimir Putin was Russia’s president. In 1997, national security expert Zbigniew Brzezinski detailed the NATO expansion timeline with remarkable precision.

US diplomats and Ukraine’s own leaders knew well that NATO enlargement could lead to war. The great US scholar-statesman George Kennan called enlargement a “fateful error”, writing in these pages that “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”. president Bill Clinton’s secretary of defence William Perry considered resigning in protest against NATO enlargement.

(Last year, Mr Clinton dismissed out of hand the idea that NATO expansion was to blame for the war. “I think we did the right thing at the right time,” he said.)

In 1998, then US Ambassador to Russia, and now CIA director, William Burns, sent a cable to Washington warning at length of grave risks of NATO enlargement: “Ukraine and Georgia's NATO aspirations not only touch a raw nerve in Russia, they engender serious concerns about the consequences for stability in the region. Not only does Russia perceive encirclement, and efforts to undermine Russia's influence in the region, but it also fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences which would seriously affect Russian security interests. Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.”

Ukraine’s leaders knew clearly that pressing for NATO membership would mean war. Former Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych declared in a 2019 interview “that our price for joining NATO is a big war with Russia”.

During 2010-2013, Yanukovych pushed neutrality, in line with Ukrainian public opinion. The US worked covertly to overthrow Yanukovych, as captured vividly in the tape of then US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt. Nuland makes clear on the call that she was coordinating closely with then Vice President Biden and his national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the same team now at the centre of US policy vis-à-vis Ukraine.

After Yanukovych’s overthrow, the war broke out in the Donbas, while Russia quickly claimed Crimea. The new Ukrainian government appealed for NATO membership, and the US armed and helped restructure the Ukrainian army to make it interoperable with NATO. In 2021, NATO and the Biden administration strongly recommitted to Ukraine’s future in NATO.

In the immediate lead-up to Russia’s invasion, NATO enlargement was centre stage. In December 2021, Putin proposed a draft NATO-Russia treaty called for a halt to NATO enlargement. Russia’s leaders put NATO enlargement as the cause of war in Russia’s National Security Council meeting on Feb. 21, 2022. In his address to the nation that day, Putin declared NATO enlargement to be a central reason for the invasion.

Could a deal to halt NATO expansion in return for guarantees of Ukrainian sovereignty have avoided the war? We’ll never know, but the Biden Administration refused even to try. In March 2022, Russia and Ukraine reported progress toward a quick negotiated end to the war based on Ukraine’s neutrality. According to Naftali Bennett, former prime minister of Israel, who was a mediator, an agreement was close before the US, UK and France blocked it.

The past shapes the future. Only by understanding the roots of the war, can we also understand the way to end it. The US risks an escalation to nuclear war by continuing to push NATO enlargement on the Ukrainian battlefield.  Better that the US should push Russia to leave Ukraine in return for a commitment to Ukraine’s neutrality, akin to the Soviet army’s retreat from Austria in 1955 predicated on that country’s neutrality.  The way to end the war is through negotiations that secure Ukraine’s sovereignty and security without the US simultaneously aiming to surround Russia with NATO states.

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