War is hell. It doesn’t matter where the fighting is—Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Libya, Ukraine or elsewhere—suffering, death and destruction are sure to follow. These are key reasons that every reasonable effort should be made to avoid wars. Despite knowing this, appallingly, sometimes leaders of a nation will intentionally try to provoke another nation into a conflict.
The current war receiving the greatest attention is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, also sometimes viewed as a struggle between the U.S.-led NATO and Russia over Ukraine. Regardless, on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the invasion represented a huge escalation of the fighting going on in eastern Ukraine since 2014. This Russian invasion was clearly a violation of international law. However, as shown below and contrary to many false claims, the Russian attack wasn’t unprovoked or unpredicted.
In 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration and other key NATO members promised that, in exchange for the Soviet Union allowing the reunification of Germany, NATO would not expand one inch eastward. This promise was crucial to the Soviets as Russia and/or the Soviet Union had been invaded several times by Western nations, including the Nazi invasion of World War II. Over 26 million people in the Soviet Union were killed during WWII.
Warnings from U.S. experts
In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin, then the Russian president, protested strongly against this expansion. When Vladimir Putin became president, he also vehemently protested the expansion, drawing a red line in both 2007 and 2008 about NATO’s possible inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia.
Despite these strong protests, the subsequent Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations all violated this promise and expanded NATO eastward toward Russia’s borders. Note that it wasn’t just Russians who were concerned by the broken pledge. For example, George Kennan, architect of the U.S. containment policy toward the Soviet Union, was interviewed by Thomas Friedman in 1998 about NATO’s eastward expansion. Kennan said: ‘’I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. 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 anybody else.”
William Burns, the current CIA Director, has been long involved in U.S. relations with Russia. According to an excellent article by Peter Beinart, Burns quotes a memo he wrote while serving as counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1995. “Hostility to early NATO expansion,” it declares, “is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.” Burns calls the Clinton administration’s decision to expand NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.”
Beinart continued: On the question of extending NATO membership to Ukraine, Burns’ warnings about the breadth of Russian opposition are even more emphatic. “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin),” he wrote in a 2008 memo to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He told Rice it was “hard to overstate the strategic consequences” of offering NATO membership to Ukraine and predicted that “it will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.” Promise Ukraine membership in NATO, he wrote, and “There could be no doubt that Putin would fight back hard.” Beinart’s article includes quotes from several other U.S. officials raising similar points.
Despite all these warnings, instead of trying to prevent this crisis with Russia from escalating, the U.S. acted irresponsibly, and its actions played a crucial role in bringing about this predicted crisis. For example, in 2014 the US supported the coup against the democratically elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The U.S. was also very influential in the selection of the new Ukrainian leaders. Most Ukrainians in western Ukraine were pleased whereas many Ukrainians in the Donbas area viewed the coup government as being: 1) illegitimate, and 2) influenced by Ukrainian Nazis. In response to actions by the coup government, many people in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts chose to separate from Ukraine. The predicted civil war then fully erupted and Russia intervened to support the Russian-speaking separatists. The separatists asked to join Russia, but Putin rejected their request.
The Minsk Negotiations
In 2014/15, there were negotiations over the Donbas area. In February 2015, Germany and France brokered the Minsk II agreement that was signed by Germany, Ukraine, Russia and Ukrainian separatists, and supported unanimously by the UN Security Council. The agreement called for a ceasefire and stated that the separatist areas would remain a part of Ukraine with a high degree of autonomy. Instead of encouraging implementation of the agreement, the U.S. continued to push the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine while also training and arming Ukrainian forces. As a result, fighting has continued for eight years in the Donbas area with more than 14,000 killed, the majority of those being separatists. One week before the Russian invasion, Ukraine forces dramatically increased the shelling of the separatist areas, further heightening tensions with Russia.
Dismissing Russia’s legitimate security concerns
In December 2021, Putin demanded security guarantees that, among other things, meant Ukraine would not enter NATO. To make his point about having NATO forces on Russia’s border, Putin also asked how the U.S. would react if Russia had its missiles in Canada or Mexico on the U.S. borders. We have an inkling based on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the U.S. was willing to risk a nuclear war over Soviet missiles. Unfortunately, the U.S. was dismissive about Russian security concerns.
End the fighting
It is certainly possible that this war could have been prevented. The hope now is that Ukraine and Russia both realize that they have lost the war. Continuing the fighting simply increases losses. Therefore, they cannot allow the U.S. goal of weakening Russia to prevent them from reaching an immediate diplomatic solution to end
Ron Forthofer is a member of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and a retired professor of biostatistics.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.
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