More On: Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin is solely to blame for the violence that erupted this week. However, the last four presidential administrations squandered opportunities to deescalate the situation.
The war in Ukraine is entirely the fault of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who cruelly launched an attack on a non-threatening neighbor.
However, the escalating confrontation serves as a warning about how mistakes in American foreign policy can unnecessarily exacerbate tensions, increasing the likelihood of war. Some of these decisions increased the acute risk of warfare in Ukraine, while others undercut post-war norms, which are now in danger of being completely destroyed by Putin's invasion. Four successive presidential administrations contributed to the conditions that led to Putin's breach of Ukrainian sovereignty through arrogance and mistaken attempts to extend American dominance around the world.
This is not an apology for Russia's actions, but it does assist to explain them.
That history begins with the Clinton administration, which inherited a globe devoid of the Soviet Union for the first time in decades. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe provided an opportunity for the United States and its NATO members to reconsider the goals of the strategic partnership founded in 1949 to combat the Soviets.
Instead of restructuring what had always been a defensive alliance, NATO went on the offensive in the 1990s. First, it admitted additional member states, such as Poland and Bulgaria, that had previously been members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Then, with the Clinton administration's support, NATO intervened vigorously in the Yugoslav Wars, most notably in Kosovo.
The analogies between the Kosovo war of 1999 and Putin's onslaught on Ukraine are not flawless, but they are startlingly comparable in certain aspects. Both involved direct military intervention by a superpower, were motivated (or at least justified) by claims of needing to protect an ethnic enclave within a larger country, violated the post-World War II norm that great powers do not use force to redraw national borders, and resulted in a massive refugee crisis.
The "conflict [in Kosovo] was launched without UN authorisation, and was a blatant violation of international law," writes Sarang Shidore, head of studies at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a realism think tank. "It was carried out in accordance with a new principle devised by the US and some of its allies known as the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P—the belief that serious human rights breaches justify the 'international community' intervening militarily in any part of the world. While persecution of human beings is unacceptable wherever, the highly arbitrary application (and non-application) of the principle by a group of powerful powers against those less capable reeked of opportunism even back then."
President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq (and, to a lesser extent, the extended misadventure in Afghanistan) weakened the notion that superpowers should not violate the sovereignty of smaller states or engage in wars to destabilize unfriendly regimes. That is the same concept that the United States and NATO are now attempting to use to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine—in fact, none other than Bush himself has published a statement stating that exact premise.
Bush also advocated for raising the stakes in Ukraine. At a 2008 meeting in Bucharest, Romania, the Bush administration successfully lobbied for NATO to release a declaration promising Ukraine and Georgia potential membership (contrary to Germany and France's wishes). The so-called Bucharest Declaration elicited an immediate and forceful response from the Russian government, which announced plans to send military assistance to pro-Russia forces in Georgia and eventually invaded a portion of the country. Former US ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder has labeled the declaration NATO's "cardinal sin."
According to Chris Preble, co-director of the Atlantic Council's New American Engagement Initiative, "many eminent strategists warned that NATO enlargement was a mistake." "However, there was bipartisan agreement among foreign policy elites to ignore Russian security concerns. NATO expansionists said that NATO was primarily a defense alliance and hence posed no threat to Russia. This was a critical untested premise behind NATO expansion, a major blind spot that was never adequately investigated."
President Barack Obama's pledge to avoid "dumb crap" in foreign policy, as well as his administration's desire to "reset" relations with Russia, may have offered some hope of decreasing tensions. But much of that was thrown out the window when America openly attempted to sway the outcome of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, which deposed President Viktor Yanukovych for refusing to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union.
In a leaked phone call to American ambassadors, Obama's assistant secretary of state, Victoria Nuland, showed a clear preference for a successor in Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who would become Ukraine's next president following the revolution. Senators John McCain (R–Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D–Conn.) visited Yatsenyuk during the protests and openly expressed American support for him, which would be strongly condemned if Russian officials were seeking to pick favorites in a Mexican or Canadian election.
Putin retaliated by annexing Crimea, and Obama, sensibly, chose not to escalate.
As he was leaving office in 2016, Obama provided the most realistic appraisal of the situation in Ukraine of any American president. "The fact is that Ukraine, as a non-NATO country, would be exposed to Russian military dominance regardless of what we do," he told The Atlantic, adding, "This is an example of where we need to be very clear about what our basic interests are and what we are willing to go to war for."
The lesson was forgotten. President Donald Trump defied his predecessors by openly asking for a rethinking of America's role in NATO and NATO's role in the globe, but his attempts were motivated by domestic populism rather than a serious attempt at diplomatic realignment. Trump was neither the Russian stooge that many liberals claimed nor the tough guy that many conservatives envisioned, but his administration remained committed to the 2008 Bucharest Declaration—a position that contradicts Trump's harsh criticisms of NATO and personal fondness for Putin—and, like Obama, Trump sold billions of dollars of weapons to Ukraine.
Since the end of the Cold War, American presidents have made decisions that have echoed in the current crises. Whether directly tied to Ukraine or as larger representations of de facto foreign policy reality, such actions have shaped the contours of what is presently unfolding. Principles such as respect for national sovereignty cannot be abandoned in certain circumstances while considered insoluble in others, and even well-intended security agreements such as the Bucharest Declaration can contribute to aggravate tensions in harmful ways.
But, as Preble puts it, the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington has refused to accept that "blindspot." The Biden administration has, in fact, continued this pattern. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated during his confirmation hearing in January 2020 that the Biden administration would continue to favor eventually extending NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia.
"If you are successful," Senator Rand Paul (R–Ky.) interjected, "we will be at war with Russia right now."
Avoiding a direct military clash between the United States and Russia must be America's top concern now more than ever. All of this history is irrelevant in comparison to what happens next.
While the actions of American presidents over the last 30 years do not excuse Putin's belligerence, today's decisions are built on previous ones. And the truth is that several American presidential administrations over three decades have made foreign policy decisions that have shaped the potentially catastrophic choices Putin, Biden, and other world leaders now face.