Ukraine imbroglio: An outcome of extraordinary defiance of strategic advice by the celebrated US Strategic Minds

The spiraling catastrophic Ukraine war, the fatigue in the Western camp, talk of freezing the war and Korean like ceasefire and Israel Like security guarantee to Ukraine as its not able suffice the conditions to become a NATO member is bringing us to the question of NATO expansion strategy. Most of the US strategic minds and cold war warriors have been very clear about Russia’s sentiments about Ukraine and Russian security imperatives and national pride attached to it. The US pursuit of NATO expansion in defiance of these strategic advice of its own strategic stalwarts is an extraordinary policy behaviour with profound consequences for the US global power and leadership. A probing analysis of these strategic minds and their suggestions can help understand the crisis, geopolitical consequences, implications for US global appeal, European security and evolving world order.

Irrespective of the US justification and refusal of the West to accept it, the NATO’s eastward expansion is at the core of the Ukraine crisis. The importance of Ukraine for Russia can be gauged from the warning of George F Kennan in 1948 that “no Russian government would accept Ukrainian independence.” The assurance of “Not an inch eastward” given by US Secretary of State, James Baker to the USSR President, Mikhael Gorbachev on 9th February, 1990 is at the heart of Russia’s opposition to the NATO’s eastward expansion since the end of Cold War. Mikhael Gorbachev agreed for the united Germany and the wthdrwawal of USSR from East Germany only after this assurances. Gorbachev and President Putin has always referred it as a breach of trust. NATO says that it never made such an agreement. Since its inception, NATO has an “Open Door Policy” for membership and it has never been changed. Membership consideration is made through consensus by members.

George F Kennan

Notwithstanding, when the NATO expansion debate was heating in the mid-1990s, George F Kennan wrote an article in the New York Times titled “A Fateful Error” on 5th February, 1997. He put it clearly that “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 Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in  directions decidedly  not to our likings.” Thus he could foresaw what is exactly unfolding now- a more militaristic Russia with a new inning of Cold War and off course the Ukraine imbroglio. Even, Zbigniew Brzezinski has put it in an unambiguous words that “Without Ukraine, Russia cease to be a Eurasian empire in his book “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives” in 1997.

Jack F Matlock Jr

In 1997, Jack F Matlock Jr, the last US ambassador to the USSR, in his introductory remark before the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee said that “I consider the administration’s recommendation to take new members into NATO at this time misguided. If it should be approved by the United States Senate, it may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War. Far from improving the security of the United States, its Allies, and the nations that wish to enter the Alliance, it could well encourage a chain of events that could produce the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed.” Indeed, our nuclear arsenals were capable of ending the possibility of civilization on Earth. He explained his views once again in his recent article “I was there:NATO and the origin of Ukraine Crisis”, RESPONSIBLE STATECRAFT, on15th February, 2022 just before the war started.

In another article, “Ukraine Crisis Should Have Avoided” in The Transnational, Jack F Matlock Jr,   wrote on 27th May, 2022 how the eventual conflict should have been avoided and why? In order to create broad awareness consensus to stop the war which is not in the national interests of the US and security of Europe and the world. He explains that if there was no NATO expansion, there would have been no basis for the present crisis. Moreover, major demands of President Putin was an assurances that NATO would not expand eastward and no membership to Ukraine and Georgia in particular before the war. Ukraine’s denial for not implementing the 2015 Minsk Agreement, reuniting Donbas region with a large degree of autonomy which has been agreed with Russia, France and Germany that the US endorsed. A diplomatic engagements on these issues could have avoided the war. Besides, a broad European Security which includes Russia as well seemed very plausible after the end of Cold War and collapse of the USSR.

Henry A. Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, the most celebrated US diplomat and Cold War strategist, in an article “The Unconventional Wisdom About Russia”, on 30th June, 2008 wrote that “This is all the more important because geopolitical realities provide an unusual opportunity for strategic cooperation between the erstwhile Cold War adversaries. Between them, the US and Russia control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Russia contains the largest landmass of any country, abutting Europe, Asia and Middle East. Progress towards stability, with respect to nuclear weapons, in the Middle East and in Iran, requires- is greatly facilitated by- Russian-American cooperation.” The current US policy is in complete defiance of his suggestion and remarkably in all the areas referred- Nuclear cooperation, Middle East and Iran in particular, the US policies are in a state of strategic loss- There is a dangerous nuclear uncertainty, rather a nuclear belligerence has reached all time high. US partners are no more following its line of policy, rather making strategic engagements with its adversaries and rivals like Russia and China. Iran is emerging as militarily more powerful challenge in close strategic alliance with Russia and China. The recent Iran-Saudi rapprochement brokered by China and re-inclusion of Syria in the Arab League despite US opposition is the clear evidence of loosening grip of US power and leadership in the region.

In the same piece, Mr Kissinger wrote specifically about Ukraine that “Genuine independence for Ukraine is essential for a peaceful international system and must be unambiguously supported by the US. Creating close political ties between the European Union and Ukraine, including membership in the European Union, is important. But the movement of the Western security system from the Elbe River to the approaches to Moscow brings home Russia’s decline in a way bound to generate a Russian emotion that will inhibit the solution of all other issues.” These are the words of experience of profound strategic importance which the successive US administration seems to have unmindfully neglected or ignored with imprudent estimation of Russian response. Whatsoever, the result is the present geopolitical abyss- the Ukraine crisis.

In March, 2014, Henry Kissinger in an article “How the Ukraine Crisis Ends”, in The Washington Post, wrote that “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.” Since independence, the Ukrainian leaders from the Ukrainian speaker Catholic West and the Russian speaking Russian Orthodox has tried to dominate and impose their will on each other. This is the essence of the Ukraine issue. Thus treating Russia as part of East-West confrontation would mar the possibility of peace and security. Ukraine should have the right to join any economic and political system including Europe but must not join NATO. “A wise US policy towards Ukraine would seek a way for the two parts of the country to cooperate with each other. We should seek reconciliation, not the dominance of a faction.” The words are powerfully prophetic and trajectory of the US policy in Ukraine is understandably in a defiance mode. Its worth noting in the context his introductory remark in the article with his experience four wars started with enthusiasm but unilaterally withdrawn in three case that “The test of a policy is how it ends, not how it begins.” The enthusiasm of the West is visibly on sharp wane in Ukraine and the end is neither at sight nor the nature of outcome.

In his address to the World Economic Forum, in May, 2022, Henry Kissinger said that it would be ‘fatal’ for the West to get swept up in the ‘mood of the moment’ and forget Russia’s position of power within Europe. The European leaders must ‘not lose sight of the longer term relationship’ or otherwise risk putting Russia in a permanent alliance with China. He emphasized that the summit would be pointless if Putin is allowed to win the war because he is ‘not interested in our thoughts’ and ‘brute force.. does not talk, it kills.’ And he made a suggestion that Ukraine should give up territory given the state of the conflict and possible consequences. The suggestion speaks of his fear that prolonging of the war would be strategic loss for European peace and security and permanent anti-West alliance of China and Russia which would be more formidable challenge and change the global geopolitical balance against the West.

While the war in Ukraine is grinding on, on 17th December, 2022, Henry Kissinger in his “The Push for Peace: How to avoid another World War”, in The Spectator, wrote that the Western strategy must be based on Russia’s historical role in ‘global equilibrium’ and ‘balance of power’ for half a millennium as well as enormity of consequences of Russian disintegration and chaos with its nuclear arsenals. He stressed that “The road of diplomacy may appear complicated and frustrating. But progress to it requires both the vision and the courage to undertake the journey.” He explained the relevance of this diplomatic path with devastating consequences of World War I for not choosing the path at the early stage. And also warned that the delays to take the path runs the danger of devastating automated tech based warfare where even the strategies and options would also be decided by these technologies to extreme detriment of the human civilization. He, therefore, for a lasting solution argues that “The goal of a peace process would be twofold: to confirm the freedom of Ukraine and to define a new international structure, especially for Central and Eastern Europe. Eventually Russia should find a place in such an order.”

John J. Mearsheimer

In 2014, John J. Mearsheimer in an article in Foreign Affairs “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin”, he argues against the Western line of accusation that Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea as per his project of resuscitating the Russian empire. Rather he holds the United States and its European allies most responsible with their strategy of NATO expansion as central factor and take Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit into the Western camp. The Russian is opposed to the eastward expansion of NATO and the backing of pro-Democracy movement in Ukraine in 2004 has put the Russian in an extreme suspicion of the Western design in Ukraine. He says that “For Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president- which he rightly labeled as “coup”- was the final straw. He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a NATO naval base, and working to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.” Had such an explanation from a celebrated strategic expert in the United States been heeded and a proper strategic consideration made, the present Ukraine conflagration would have been avoided and a possible diplomatic course, most probably, would have delivered an amicable solution or at least a standing peace with pragmatic reciprocity.

When Russia annexed Crimea, in an article, Prof John Mearsheimer, “Getting Ukraine Wrong”, in International New York Times, on 13th March, 2014 called the sanctions on Russia and an increasing support for Ukraine government, a ‘big mistake’. He pointed out that it is based on the same faulty assumptions which had precipitated the crisis. So, “Instead of resolving the dispute, it will lead to more trouble. Washington played a key role in precipitating this dangerous situation, and Mr. Putin’s behaviour is motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States. The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” An amazingly correct correct futuristic analysis of the crisis and the policy options and warning of the same strategy- US commitment to NATO’s expansion and Ukraine’s membership. The suggestive strategy remained unheeded under the spell of the US grand geopolitical strategy and we are here with the present Ukraine conflagration without a possible peace at sight. Rather the world is inching with an unprecedented fear towards a nuclear apocalypse.

Moreover, there was a growing chorus of voices for arming Ukraine with economic sanction not having intended impact and Putin had no sign of backing down wrote prof. John Mearsheimer in a new article ““Don’t Arm Ukraine”, in The New York Times, on 8th March, 2015. The idea of arming was no more defeating Russia rather raising the cost so much that Putin would forced to withdraw and Ukraine would join the European Union and NATO. The Prof. once again cautioned that “They are wrong. Going down that road would be a huge mistake for the United States, NATO and Ukraine itself. Sending weapons to Ukraine will not rescue its army and will instead lead to an escalation in the fighting. Such a step is specially dangerous because Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons and is seeking to defend a vital strategic interest.”

His another article “Defining a New Security Architecture for Europe that brings Russia from the Cold”, in Military review, May-June, 2016 makes an enlightening analysis that though Russia was opposed to the eastward NATO expansion from the very beginning it didn’t view the two expansion in 1999 and 2004 as a mortal threat to its security. The announcement at NATO’s Bucharest Summit that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members attracted the sharp Russian opposition. “The Russians, in response, made it perfectly clear at the time that this was unacceptable. And they made it clear they would go to great length to prevent that from happening.” He opines that 2008 was the best time to understand, assess and redefine the European security architecture with due consideration to the Russian security perceptions and responses to the Western strategies, particularly after the NATO’s expansion plan at Bucharest Declaration.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February, 2022, Prof John Mearsheimer, once again wrote John in an article “Why the West is Principally Responsible For the Ukraine Crisis”, in The Economist, on 19th March, 2022 that given its earlier readings on the Ukraine issue, Russia would not accept Ukraine in the Western NATO orbit. Therefore, he holds the NATO’s reckless expansion strategy as the root cause. He considers it the most dangerous conflict since the Cuban crisis and stresses that an understanding of the root causes are of utmost importance to prevent the war and find a way to bring it to close before it is turning worse and assume inextricable proportion and stage.

In another article, “Playing With Fire in Ukraine: The Underappreciated Risk of Catastrophic Escalation”, on 17th August in ‘Foreign Affairs’ writes that the West has ‘reached a consensus’ that “the conflict will settle into a prolonged stalemate, and eventually a weakened Russia will accept a peace agreement that favours the United States and its NATO allies, as well as Ukraine.” There is an understanding that both US and Russia might escalate for comparative advantage or to avoid defeat. This line of approach entails an unappreciated risk of catastrophic escalation and therefore it requires change of approach and course to escape the catastrophe.

Secretary William Perry

In an interview with The Guardian on 9th February, 2016, the former US Defence Secretary of President Bill Clinton, William Perry said that “In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame. Our first action that really set off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.” Besides, the contemptuous attitude of the US officials towards the former Superpower Russia made the situation worse whose as the US responses were like- “Who cares for what they think? They are third-rate power. And of course that point of view got across to the Russian as well. That was when we started sliding down the path.” The US support to the pro-democracy ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine and Georgia severely damaged the relations. These arrogant behaviour of US uni-polar moment laid the path of divergence which has produced the unmanageable crisis in Ukraine with niggardly pursuance of NATO expansion despite despite Russian reminders and policy suggestion of the US men in the administration like Secretary William Perry.

Jeffery D. Sachs

Jeffery D. Sachs is another consistent voice of profound strategic wisdom with constructive and appropriate suggestions and warning against the US strategic course in NATO expansion and eventual dangerous consequences. In his article “Avoiding the worst in Ukraine and Taiwan” on 15th December, 2021 he pitches for the same. The current crisis is the result of overreach by both US and Russia. The US President, George Bush call to invite Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO has very provocative for Russia long resisting the NATO’s eastward expansion. It produced a sense deep concern among some NATO members. France and Germany particularly expressed concern on such eventuality as it would antagonize Russia. But later the all were managed to toe the line by softening tone and Ukraine remain the goal of NATO in its future expansion. This eventually led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 “to ensure that NATO could never gain access to Russia’s Black Sea naval base and fleet.” On 1st February, 2022, he wrote in “Letter: A path to peace exists in the Russia-Ukraine Dispute” and echoed the ways and means to avoid the crisis. In another article “How to Protect Ukraine’s Sovereignty” on 8th February, 2022 he put it clearly that “Rather than trying to pretend that one side is a saint and the other a sinner, everyone involved in the latest NATO-Russia conflict should recognize that they have a mutual interest in long-term security. That implies a diplomatic settlement in which Ukraine secures its sovereignty through neutrality.”

In April 2022 he told on CNN that  “A negotiated peace is the only way to end Russia’s war on Ukraine.” He said that the two-pronged US strategy, to help Ukraine overcome the Russian invasion by imposing tough sanctions and by supplying Ukraine’s military with sophisticated armaments, is likely to fall short. What is needed is a peace deal, which may be within reach. The argument seems appropriate and consistent with the claims and determinations of the Russians and realities on the ground as well as the possibilities given Russian military prowess including its nuclear threat if it find the situation an existential threat.

In his another article , “The West’s False Narrative about Russia and China”, OtherNews, on 22nd August, 2022, he emphasized that the failure of Western leadership to take on the real causes has led to the emergence of dangerous narrative pushing the world to the edge of nuclear catastrophe.The core idea of the US National Security Strategy is that Russia and China are “attempting erode American security and prosperity” and “determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” The relentless Western narratives that the West is noble while Russia and China are evil is simple-minded and extraordinarily dangerous” he said

In an article in the Peninsula, “The Great Game in Ukraine is Spinning out of Control”, on 1st October, 2022, he refers to the former Secretary of States, Brzezinski, who famously called Ukraine as ‘Pivot to Eurasia’ central to both US and Russia power. Russia considers Ukraine vital for its security and therefore the conflict has chance to slip into nuclear showdown. He traces the historical roots of this Great Game and said that “Since the middle of the 19th century, the West has competed with Russia over Crimea and more specifically, naval power in the Black Sea. In the Crimean War (1853-6), Britain and France captured Sevastopol and temporarily banished Russia’s navy from the Black Sea. The current conflict is, in essence, the Second Crimean War. This time, a US-led military alliance seeks to expand NATO to Ukraine and Georgia, so that five NATO members would encircle the Black Sea.” Given the heightened stakes and historical context, its urgent to exercise restraint by both Russia and the US before the unprecedented disaster actually occurs.

On 5th December, 2022, in an article, “A Mediator’s Guide to Peace in Ukraine”, in ‘Common Dreams’, he explained a possible negotiated settlement in a historical context and claims and counters by the by parties involved. The course of the war has led to a sense that chances of Ukraine victory not so high said Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joints Chiefs of Staff and urging for a negotiated settlement. For lasting settlement, the major core issues are- sovereignty of Ukraine, NATO enlargement, the question of Crimea and the future of Donbas. Russia view the NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia as its encirclement in the Black Sea (Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Georgia). “Russia also claims Crimea as home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since 1783. Putin warned George Bush Jr. in 2008 that if the US pushed NATO into Ukraine, Russia would re-take Crimea, which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.

In his article “Why neutral countries should mediate between Russia and Ukraine” in the Economist on 18th January, 2023,  he wrote that neither Russia nor Ukraine seems to be able to achieve decisive military victory. The West and Ukraine do not have chance to ousting Russia from the territories it has occupied and even Russia has slim chance to force Ukraine into surrender. So given the spiraling dangerous escalation including nuclear Armageddon, its impacts on the developing countries and their sufferings, only a neutral county mediation has a chance of bringing the parties to negotiating table for a possible cooling of the conflict.

In his article “The New Geopolitics” in Horizon, 30th Jan, 2023, he analyses and explains the broader geopolitical patterns and theories in the context of the contemporary world, its challenges and their panacea. He sees the Ukraine war as “a central part of Washington’s strategy for continued US hegemony,” by NATO’s eastward expansion and “bleeding Russia through a war attrition.” “This is part of a long-term game plan, outlined by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, to end the ability of Russia to project its power towards Western Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, or the Middle East.” He explains four contemporary theories of IR and emphasises on The Multilateralist Theory. It calls for global geopolitical cooperation around UN institutions to deal with wars, dangerous technologies or such human-induced as climate change and financial instability and to ensure global public goods. It is dismissed as too idealistic and unrealistic. Still he pins his hope that “Cooperation can be strengthened if the case is better understood. Most importantly, neither the three hegemonic theories nor realism offer solutions to our global crisis.”

In an interview with Isaac Chotiner, , (“Jeffery Sachs’s Great-Power politics”) The New Yorker, on 27th February, 2023 he said that “I think that the more one knows about the background of this war, the more it is clear how it could have been avoided, and also how it can end.” In the 1990s, during the first phase of NATO expansion, many wise people including the then Defence Secretary, William Perry, called it “a dreadful mistake”. The NATO bombing of Serbia was another dreadful mistake.These were further complicated by the US involvement in the overthrow of President Victor Yanukovych in February, 2014. This is the politics by other means and an understanding of all these geopolitical moves of the West and US is necessary so that war can be ended as fast as possible.

In his article “The War in Ukraine Was Provoked- and Why That Matters to Achieve Peace”, in Common Dreams, on 23rd May, 2023, in response to the regular uses of “unprovoked war” in the US administration statements and speeches, similarly in NATO statements and speeches and their allies, mainstream US and allied media Prof. Jeffery Sachs contends that there are two provocation by the US leading to the war. First was the US intention to expand NATO to Ukraine and Georgia in order to surround Russia in the Black Sea and Second, the US role in installing a Russophobic regime in Ukraine by the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Victor Yanukovych, in February, 2014. He says that “By recognizing that the question of NATO enlargement is at the centre of this war, we understand why US weaponary will not end this war. Only diplomatic efforts can do that.” But the war continues with spiraling intensity and increasing virulent proportion owing to rejection of these core factors and reasons of the Russian invasion. And he makes it once again that “The key to peace in Ukraine is through negotiations based on Ukraine’s neutrality and NATO non-enlargement.”

In Brief

There are three major regions of US power and dominance for its global power and influence- Europe, West Asia and Indo-Pacific. The NATO’s push under the United States in Ukraine and its seemingly disastrous and uncertain trajectory holding US there and sapping its ability to manage its influence in two other regions. Its Arab partners are showing unprecedented defiance and assertion of independent autonomous policies. The telling evidence are the Iran-Saudi rapprochement, Arab normalization with Syria and its eventual return to Arab League and OPEC-plus decision of oil cut despite US advice and warnings. There is growing trend of increasing partnership with China which US considers as global strategic competitor and systemic challenge. China is a growing challenge to the US power in the pacific and the US policy NATO expansion and the subsequent Ukraine crisis has pushed its two global challenger into strategic embrace under their ‘Limitless Strategic Partnership’ against the United States.

So, if the defiance is a ‘Strategic Defiance’, then it is a strategic mistake. Or if it is a Strategic Mistake, then it is a strategic disaster for the US power and its global influence. An immediate strategic course-correction seems to be a prudent way forward to retain its global power and maintain a stable global order.

Dr.Khushnam P N
Dr.Khushnam P N
Independent IR and Regional Security Researcher & Analyst, Bengaluru, India