Ukraine: The "NATO Enlargement" Question
Updated: Mar 27
On February 24th, Vladimir Putin's Russia launched a war of aggression against Ukraine, under the strange pretexts of "genocide" against ethnic Russians and the "Nazi" character of the Ukrainian government. Whatever the justification, the facts on the ground are evident enough to see: as of the time of writing, the United Nations has verified 406 civilian deaths (including 15 children) from February 24th - March 6th, while at least 1.5 million Ukrainians have had to flee as refugees (the UN admits the casualty figures could in fact be far higher). Meanwhile, Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure have been severe, especially in residential areas in cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv. This is truly a humanitarian crisis of horrific proportions.
Before we continue:
The Guardian's Donna Ferguson has listed some ways in which you can send assistance to the people of Ukraine here.
The Evening Standard's Katie Strick has done the same here.
The UK government's own suggestions for aid can be found here.
I. The NATO Enlargement Debate
II. George Kennan
III. Henry Kissinger
IV. Zbigniew Brzeziński
V. Joe Biden
Note: This post is rather long. Feel free to skip to the Conclusions for the main points.
I. The NATO Enlargement Debate
Ever since the beginning of this current round of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, there have been those who have attributed Russia's actions to NATO expansion; the narrative is, since NATO has pushed right up against Russia's borders (to the point where Bush Administration talked about admitting Russian neighbours Ukraine and Georgia in 2008), the Russian state has felt an acute sense of threat and has attempted to prevent the danger of a Western-aligned Ukraine by invading the country.
This is the view expounded by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer, whose widely-viewed 2015 lecture on the subject I transcribed some time ago (he also wrote a Foreign Affairs article on that theme). This also appears to be the view of longtime historian of Russia, Robert Service, who, talking with Wall Street Journal contributor Tunku Varajaradan, noted that the US-Ukraine Charter of Strategic Partnership signed on November 10th, 2021 was one of the "immense strategic blunders" that eventually led to the war (among other things, the Charter reaffirms US support for "Ukraine's right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO").
The alternative narrative sees Russian aggression as inevitable, and that the West's primary mistake was not having accepted Ukraine into NATO sooner as a deterrent to this aggression. This view is summarised neatly by political scientists Oxana Shevel (Tufts University) and Maria Popova (McGill University), who write:
NATO’s eastward expansion may have played a role in straining the relationship between Russia and the West, but mainly because, for Russia, seeing former satellites eagerly abandon it for the greener pastures of Euro-Atlantic integration stung. However, Putin’s rhetoric and actions over almost two decades reveal that his goals extend beyond imposing neutrality on Ukraine or even staving off further NATO expansion. The larger objective is to re-establish Russian political and cultural dominance over a nation that Putin sees as one with Russia, and then follow up by undoing the European rules-based order and security architecture established in the aftermath of World War II. Given these goals, Ukrainian neutrality is a woefully insufficient concession for Putin [here they directly criticise the oft-preferred solution of those in Mearsheimer's camp: to create a neutral Ukraine as a "buffer zone" between the West and Russia].
Also indicative of this strain of thinking is a recent article by Robert Person (international relations scholar and Russia researcher at West Point) and Michael McFaul (former US ambassador to Russia), who state:
This [NATO expansion] argument has two flaws, one about history and one about Putin’s thinking. First, NATO expansion has not been a constant source of tension between Russia and the West, but a variable. Over the last thirty years, the salience of the issue has risen and fallen not primarily because of the waves of NATO expansion, but due instead to waves of democratic expansion in Eurasia. In a very clear pattern, Moscow’s complaints about NATO spike after democratic breakthroughs. While the tragic invasions and occupations of Georgia and Ukraine have secured Putin a de facto veto over their NATO aspirations, since the alliance would never admit a country under partial occupation by Russian forces, this fact undermines Putin’s claim that the current invasion is aimed at NATO membership. He has already blocked NATO expansion for all intents and purposes, thereby revealing that he wants something far more significant in Ukraine today: the end of democracy and the return of subjugation.
This reality highlights the second flaw: Because the primary threat to Putin and his autocratic regime is democracy, not NATO, that perceived threat would not magically disappear with a moratorium on NATO expansion. Putin would not stop seeking to undermine democracy and sovereignty in Ukraine, Georgia, or the region as whole if NATO stopped expanding. As long as citizens in free countries exercise their democratic rights to elect their own leaders and set their own course in domestic and foreign politics, Putin will keep them in his crosshairs.
The US foreign policy establishment has long contained figures of both camps: those who advise against NATO expansion due to the potential animosity this would generate vis-à-vis Russia, and those who strongly advocate for NATO expansion due to the moral reasons of protecting Eastern European states from Russian (re-)domination.
In this article, I will be summarising views from both sides of the aisle, from such well-known individuals as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Kennan and current US president Joe Biden - none of whom, I'm sure, can be labelled as "Russia apologists" - on the issue of NATO expansion back in 1997; this was the year when Hungry, the Czech Republic and Poland were all invited to join NATO (all are former Warsaw Pact states). All of them accepted, with Hungary holding a referendum that achieved a 49.2 percent voter turnout, of which 85.3 percent voted to join NATO.
Though some of these statements were made 25 years ago, they discuss the spectre of animosity between Russia and the West, a reality that we are only too keenly aware of today. As such, I hope that they may be of some import to the current discussion on the issue.
I. George Kennan
George Frost Kennan (1904-2005) was an American diplomat well-known for his establishment of a doctrine of "containing" the Soviet Union at the dawn of the Cold War. As deputy head of the American mission in Moscow, he sent a telegram (known later as "The Long Telegram") to Secretary of State James Byrnes on February 22nd, 1946 explaining recent (uncooperative) Soviet behaviour. Later, in July 1947, he published an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs (under the pseudonym "X") titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct".
In the Long Telegram (1946), he states that "at [the] bottom of the Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is [a] tradition and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity", a sense engendered over time by "liv[ing] on [a] vast exposed plain in [the] neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples". This fear has only grown in recent years, as Russia came in contact with an "economically advanced West", with Russian rulers feeling in some sense that their "relatively archaic" form of rule would be threatened by this demonstration of modernity from the West.
As such, Russia is a "political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] US there can be no permanent modus vivendi that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure".
What must be done about this? In "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (1947), Kennan asserts that the primary element of US policy toward the Soviet Union must be "that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies".
However, policymakers must be careful not to put Russia in a position from which it cannot withdraw without saving face. He emphasises that the Kremlin "is by no means unamenable to considerations of prestige" - it can be "placed by tactless and threatening gestures in a position where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by its sense of realism". Therefore, US demands on Russian policy should be "put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige".
What would such a "tactless and threatening gesture" look like? An answer may be found in a New York Times opinion piece Kennan wrote fifty years later, published February 5th, 1997, on the topic of expanding NATO to Central Europe.
Titled "A Fateful Error", the piece contains a warning that expanding NATO could be "the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era". The reason is that this move could 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". He returns to the topic of 'prestige': "Russians are little impressed with American assurances that it reflects no hostile intentions. They would see their prestige "always uppermost in the Russian mind) and their security interests as adversely affected".
Thus Kennan warned in 1997 that NATO expansion could be of such a threatening nature to Russia that it could produce adverse effects on the nature of their regime - in particular, discouraging Russian democracy and inflaming "militaristic tendencies".
However, in 1997, there was still a strong sector of the US foreign policy establishment who disagreed with him, including longtime statesman Henry Kissinger.
II. Henry Kissinger
Henry Alfred Kissinger (1923-) played an extremely important role in the formulation of US foreign policy during the Cold War. His landmark book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (published under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations), became an unexpected bestseller, with its scathing criticism of the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" adopted by the Eisenhower administration (Kissinger advocated a "flexible response" doctrine, rather than the all-or-none nature of general nuclear war).
Through his government tenure (1969-1977), he would serve two administrations - Nixon and Ford - as both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. US foreign policy thus found itself unprecedentedly concentrated in the hands of one man.
Kissinger - often known as a "realist" - was never squeamish about the use of force, but nevertheless, his diplomacy seemed to encapsulate the value of great-power cooperation (demonstrated most strikingly by his July 1971 "secret trip" to China and his policy of "détente" toward the Soviet Union).
This emphasis on great-power cooperation perhaps motivated his enthusiasm for NATO expansion. His reasons for supporting it could perhaps be traced to his prepared statement at a series of hearings held by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in October and November 1997 on the issue.
For Kissinger, America and Europe are locked in mutual dependence. Without American, Europe would "turn into a peninsula at the tip of Eurasia, unable to find equilibrium, much less unity, and at risk of gradually subsiding into a role similar to that of ancient Greece in relation to Rome -- the only outstanding question being whether America or Russia will play the role of Rome". Without Europe, America would "become an island off the shores of Eurasia, condemned to a kind of pure balance-of-power politics that does not reflect its national genius".
A major American role in Europe is a "prerequisite for European coherence". Without it, the nations of Europe would be at each others' throats: "the European Union would founder on the fear of German domination; France would see reinsurance in a Russian option; historic European coalitions would form, compounding their traditional tenuousness with irrelevance; Germany would be tempted into a nationalist role, Russia into revanchism".
An American presence in Europe provides a "measure of equilibrium" - by protecting the nations of Europe, it prevents a slide toward nationalism and that kind of antagonistic politics that has long characterised the Continent. However, that role requires "a definition of Europe that is historically valid -- that is, which includes the nations of Central Europe".
The primary rationale for absorbing these nations into NATO is that "basing European and Atlantic security on a no man's land between Germany and Russia runs counter to historical experience", especially that of the interwar period. It would "bring about two categories of frontiers in Europe: those that are potentially threatened but not guaranteed, and those that are guaranteed but not threatened".
The main issue, of course, are those frontiers that are "threatened but not guaranteed". If NATO were to limit itself at Germany's eastern border, Germany will be "driven to doubt America's leadership role and to try to influence the security position of the buffer zone" which would result in "either collision or collusion between Germany and Russia". Collision would manifest in conflict, collusion would cause a rift between the nations of Western Europe.
Regarding Kennan's warning that NATO expansion might derail a democratic evolution in Russia, Kissinger refers to Czech president Vaclav Havel's opinion that "even the most optimistic outcome will take longer than is safely compatible with the establishment of a vacuum of power in Central Europe".
NATO expansion therefore represent a balancing of two conflicting considerations: the "fear of alienating Russia" against the "danger of creating a vacuum in Central Europe between Germany and Russia". He clearly saw the latter issue as more pressing.
So Kissinger was clearly a supporter of expanding NATO to the Central European states, but does he support extending NATO membership to Ukraine? We may perhaps find out by reading a Washington Post opinion article of his, published on March 5th, 2014, at the height of the Crimea crisis.
Kissinger exhorts the two sides to appreciate the virtues of neutrality: "far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West [but] if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them".
Of course, this involves Russia giving up its dreams of dominance: "Russia must accept that to try to force Ukraine into a satellite status, and thereby move Russia’s borders again, would doom Moscow to repeat its history of self-fulfilling cycles of reciprocal pressures with Europe and the United States".
However, the West must also understand that "to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country". This is a consequence of history: "Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then".
Thus, Kissinger's recommendation consists of four elements:
"Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe".
"Ukraine should not join NATO, a position I took seven years ago, when it last came up [in 2007/08, when President Bush expressed support for Ukrainian membership]".
"Ukraine should be free to create any government compatible with the expressed will of its people. Wise Ukrainian leaders would then opt for a policy of reconciliation between the various parts of their country [which support East and West respectively]. Internationally, they should pursue a posture comparable to that of [neutral] Finland. That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia".
"It is incompatible with the rules of the existing world order for Russia to annex Crimea. But it should be possible to put Crimea’s relationship to Ukraine on a less fraught basis. To that end, Russia would recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea. Ukraine should reinforce Crimea’s autonomy in elections held in the presence of international observers. The process would include removing any ambiguities about the status of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol."
So, whilst speaking in support of Ukrainian independence, Kissinger did not support the admission of Ukraine into NATO, warning that this policy will end up accelerating the drift toward confrontation. Therefore, though Kissinger spoke in support of NATO membership for the Central European states in 1997; seventeen years later, when the question of Ukraine was raised, his answer was different. Perhaps he saw Ukraine as a step too far.
Instead, he appeared to propose maintaining Ukraine as something akin to a buffer state - a "bridge" between the East and West, the same kind of role he argued against when it came to the Central European states.
Also speaking at the Senate hearings of late 1997 was another major figure in American foreign policy, who stepped into government just as Kissinger left. This was Zbigniew Brzeziński, a Polish-American political scientist who, from 1977-81, served as President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor.
III. Zbigniew Brzeziński
Brzeziński has been styled as a "realist" in the same general fashion as Kissinger; during his tenure, he oversaw the normalisation of relations with the People's Republic of China (and concomitant severing of ties with the government in Taiwan - the "Republic of China") as well as the signing of SALT II, a significant arms control agreement with the Soviet Union.
His opinions on NATO expansion in 1997, as featured in the aforementioned hearings, are very similar to that of Kissinger.
In his view, NATO expansion was "not principally about the Russian threat, for currently it does not exist, though one cannot exclude its reappearance and hence some insurance against it is desirable". It also also "not primarily a moral crusade, meant to undo the injustice the Central European peoples suffered during the half-century long Soviet oppression, though one cannot ignore the moral right of the newly emancipated and democratic Central Europeans to a life no less secure than that enjoyed by the West Europeans".
Rather, NATO expansion was about "the long-term historic and strategic relationship between America and Europe" - expansion was "central to the vitality of the American-European connection, to the scope of a democratic and secure Europe, and to the ability of America and Europe to work together in promoting international security". Bringing the Central European states into NATO would "bring into NATO counsel new, solidly democratic and very pro-American nations", an outcome that will "further deepen the American-European kinship while expanding Europe's zone of peace and democracy". Regarding the threat of discouraging Russian democracy, Brzeziński suggested that NATO expansion might do the opposite - it may encourage democracy by "foreclosing the revival of any self-destructive imperial temptations regarding Central Europe".
Hence, his statement was overall quite vague, couched in liberal-internationalist language and not really of much substance when it comes to discussing the possible effects on Russian opinion.
Yet, Brzeziński was much more direct on the issue of Ukraine, as we can seen from an interview he gave to German outlet Der Spiegel on July 2nd, 2015.
He was highly supportive of sending weapons to Ukraine to assist in its simmering war in the East against Russian-backed forces: "We should make it more costly for the Russians to use force. I think it makes sense to give defensive weapons to the Ukrainians, like mortars and anti-tank rockets, for the defense of major cities. If you want to take over a large country, you have to take the big cities. And taking big cities is extremely expensive if people are willing to defend it".
However, he believed that crisis should be resolved "on the basis of an accommodation", where a framework could be worked out for Ukraine on the basis of the "same arrangements that have provided for stability and peace for a number of decades now between Russia and Finland". Ukraine should be "should be free to choose its political identity" and free to form closer links with Europe. However at the same time, Russia should be "assured credibly that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO". Hence Brzeziński agreed with Kissinger that in order to avert a further crisis, NATO should provide guarantees that it would not admit Ukraine. It is perhaps this balancing act that Bush failed to strike in 2008.
But what would the current president think?
IV. Joe Biden
Joe Biden, of course, needs no introduction. Apart from being the current president, and vice president under Obama, he was the chair or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 12 years (chair in 2001, then 2001-2003, then 2007-2009). As such, he was very seriously involved in foreign affairs during the main period(s) of NATO expansion, which in the late 1990s, he was very enthusiastic about.
As a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the hearings of late 1997, he sent a letter of transmittal to the committee chairman, Jesse Helms, summarising his opinions on the matter (it can also be found here).
Biden reaffirms that Europe "remains an area of vital interest to the United States" due to "political, economic, strategic, and cultural reasons", hence "stability on the continent is fundamental to the well-being of our country". However, the tragedies of the twentieth century proved that the countries of Europe are "unable to resolve their differences peacefully", hence the United States must "play a leading role in organising the security of Europe".
Now, with new nations and regimes appearing in Eastern and Central Europe, the enlargement of NATO "must be seen". During the Cold War, NATO "provided the security umbrella under which former enemies in Western Europe were able to cooperate and build highly successful societies". Hence, NATO expansion would "move the zone of stability eastward to Central Europe, thereby preventing a 1930s-type renationalisation of that historically volatile region". The expansion of NATO today would "avoid, once again, having to spill incalculably more blood and expend more resources to settle conflict tomorrow".
However, Biden emphasised that it was "essential" that "enlarging NATO be accompanied by a broader and deeper relationship with Russia". NATO enlargement "need not adversely affect U.S. relations with Russia" - however, this would have to be achieved in spite of the Russian leadership's "opposition to enlargement" which reflects a deeper "psychological problem of coming to grips with the loss of empire and a fear of Moscow's being marginalised in the changed world of the 21st century".
Like Kissinger and Brzeziński, Biden posed the main benefit of NATO expansion as increased stability on the European continent, to prevent the repetition of its "painful" twentieth century history. He also emphasised that, though Russian leaders may object, US-Russia tensions need not increase significantly as a result of NATO expansion.
What is his stance today? As President of the United States, his ability to speak candidly on this issue may be reduced, but, if we are to believe Edward Wong and Lara Jakes of the New York Times, his early fervour for NATO expansion has "cooled considerably", despite the fact that his administration has consistently supported Ukrainian membership in public. They cite four reasons:
His growing skepticism of expanding US military commitments "over the course of two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan".
His emphasis on Ukraine's need to improve its political and legal systems; a 2020 Transparency International report ranked Ukraine 117th out of 180 countries in its corruption index, lower than any NATO nation. On a 2014 visit to Ukraine's parliament, Biden said, "to be very blunt about it ... you have to fight to cancer of corruption that is endemic in your system right now". White House press secretary Jen Psaki has also reiterated that the "steps ... Ukraine needs to take" are "efforts to advance rule of law reforms, modernize its defense sector and expand economic growth".
NATO's desire to avoid greater Russian hostility; the article notes that "Germany and many other NATO nations prefer to choose their battles with Russia, given its proximity and Mr. Putin's aggressive nature". As a result, as noted by Douglas Lute, a former US ambassador to NATO, it's "indisputable there wouldn't be consensus among the 30 members [which is needed to admission of new members], even though all allies agree that Ukraine has a right to aspire to become a NATO member". He also added, "the principal objection would be: Does such a move actually contribute toe the stability in Europe, or would it contribute to destabilization?"
Ukrainian leaders have "waffled" on NATO membership; Zelenskyy has strongly pushed for membership, but this has not always been a constant in the Ukrainian leadership (especially after Russia's invasion of Georgia and the rise of Viktor Yanukovych). Would taking a tough stance on Russia (by admitting Ukraine) be worth the hostility in this case?
This brief survey is by no means exhaustive of the debates, both now and then, but it does present some of the main arguments concerning NATO expansion of some of America's most influential foreign policy figures.
As we've seen, there were some who were skeptical of NATO expansion from the start (e.g. George Kennan) and some who were enthusiastic (e.g. Biden, Kissinger and Brzeziński). However, some who were enthusiastic about Central Europe now draw the line with Ukraine.
When it comes to being skeptical about Ukraine's admission into NATO, nobody (or at least nobody that I've read) frames their opposition in terms of morality or support for Russia. Virtually none of the skeptics regarding NATO expansion (e.g. Kissinger, Brzeziński or Mearsheimer) can be labelled as "Russia supporters" I'm sure, and I think it's a mistake to take opposition to (or support for) NATO expansion to Ukraine as representing an individual's moral opinions on this issue.
Rather, the basic question that this all boils down to is a counterfactual one: would Putin's Russia have invaded Ukraine had NATO not expressed support for Ukrainian membership? There are some, including Mearsheimer, who think the answer is "no" (hence the title of his Foreign Affairs article, "Why the West is to Blame for the Ukraine Crisis", which has been widely used - I think abused - by Russian state propaganda).
Then there are some who - without outright stating an answer to that counterfactual - have long warned that support for Ukrainian membership would inflame West-Russia tensions, potentially to a tipping point, though they have supported NATO expansion in the past (these include Kissinger and Brzeziński).
Then, there are those who opposed NATO expansion to post-Soviet states from the beginning, such as Kennan. In a May 1998 interview with the Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, he lambasted the Senate debate for being "superficial and ill informed". He was "particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe". The Russia of 1998 was not the Soviet Communist regime; in fact, "Russia's democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we've just signed up to defend from Russia [I wonder how he would react today]".
Finally, there are those who think that Russia would have attacked a free, democratic Ukraine regardless of any associations it might have had with NATO. This is the basis of some of the arguments I presented at the start of the piece. In this reading, the problem with NATO expansion was that it did not happen enough - if only NATO had expanded to Ukraine before this current war, Putin would deterred from initiating it.
I don't know the answer to this question, but I do think it is possible to debate it a manner that does not involve accusing anyone of supporting Russian aggression.