The NATO-Russia-Ukraine crisis is a train wreck that was easily foreseeable and preventable.1 It could have been prevented if the U.S. and the European Union had thoroughly negotiated formal treaties with both the Russian Federation and East European states in the process of formulating and implementing a new system of European security immediately after Soviet collapse. 2 Instead NATO and the EU engaged in an uncoordinated “double enlargement” into former Soviet bloc states without coordinating with each other—nor, even more crucially, with Moscow.
Since 1999, the major powers have been engaged in a renewed partition of eastern Europe that is somewhat comparable to repeated partitions of the Great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that had been chiseled down over time by Prussia/Germany, Austria and Russia/Soviet Union after it had reached the heights of its expansion just before the Thirty Years War.
The key difference between now and then is that the U.S. represents an external power that has not only been backing NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe since 1999, but also supporting Lithuanian and Polish ties to Ukraine (what Moscow calls the “Baltic Black Sea Alliance”).3 For its part, Moscow has sought to counter both NATO expansion and the Baltic Black Sea alliance by annexing Crimea and backing Ukrainian autonomy movements in the Donbass region and by pressuring NATO members through a major military build-up presently involving more than 100,000 troops deployed in Russia and Belarus. What makes this particular “insecurity-security dialectic” particularly dangerous is the almost total lack of historical American experience in dealing with this tumultuous region. This leads US policy to exacerbate Ukrainian-Russian tensions at the risk of provoking a war that will further polarize global alliances between the US and its allies and the Russia-China Axis.
The Russian and Chinese backlash
After he had warned President Bill Clinton on numerous occasions of a brewing Russian backlash in response to NATO enlargement, it is not accidental that Russian President Boris Yeltsin suddenly resigned from power in January 2000 just a few months after the March-June 1999 NATO air war “over” Kosovo when Vladimir Putin became Acting President.
That war had been fought against Russia’s ally Serbia without a UN Security Council mandate and was thus seen as “illegal” by both Russia and China. From Moscow’s perspective, the air war over Kosovo, that was belatedly dubbed as “exceptional” by NATO, also represented NATO’s first violation of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act that had promised to “build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security.”
Not only did the combo of the Open NATO enlargement and NATO’s war “over” Kosovo against Russia’s ally Serbia provoke a backlash in Moscow, but the war also caused a backlash in China. Beijing has never accepted the excuse that the U.S. “accidentally” bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade due to a “mapping error”. Both Moscow and Beijing were additionally alienated by the 2003 U.S.-led war against Iraq that was likewise fought without UN Security Council mandate. In response, both countries continued to boost their high-tech military capabilities against the feared U.S.-led threats to their interests.
The fact that NATO announced at its 2008 Bucharest Summit that both Ukraine and Georgia could eventually join NATO—without Russia’s input—angered Moscow as did the EU announcement that former Soviet bloc states, including Georgia and Ukraine, could establish closer ties to the EU “Eastern Partnership” in 2008-09. This uncoordinated NATO-EU double enlargement then led Moscow to punish Georgia in the 2008 Georgia-Russia war—even if Tbilisi itself had initiated that conflict in South Ossetia. The U.S. recognition of Kosovo independence in February 2008 additionally led Moscow to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in a tit for tat measure.4
The 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine led Moscow to fear that Kiev would soon join NATO (and the EU) and force the removal of Russia’s military base leased at Sevastopol. Moscow annexed Crimea, while also engaging in political-military interference in eastern Ukraine. In effect, Russia engaged in acts of preclusive imperialism that were seen by Washington as “illegally” violating the 1994 Budapest accords, among other treaties. Moscow feared that Ukraine’s membership in NATO could permit NATO to more easily back Ukrainian irredentist claims to Russian territory and permit NATO to control the Black Sea from the geostrategic position of Sevastopol against Moscow’s perceived vital interests—including its regional trade and energy routes.
Concurrently, in an effort to circumvent U.S. and European sanctions, in 2014, Moscow tightened its political-economic and energy ties with Beijing by signing a major energy pipeline deal in addition to engaging in yearly joint Sino-Russian military exercises, while tacitly seeking to play Chinese irredentist claims to Taiwan versus Washington and Tokyo. The combination of stronger U.S. support for Taiwan, plus U.S. backing for “democracy” movements inside both Russia and China/Hong Kong, has tended to link Russia and China in a common cause against the U.S. and its Allies. Russian President Putin and Chinese leader Xi appear to have tightened the relations between China and Russia on all levels—from social to economic to defense.
In late 2021, a few months after the first Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva, Moscow began to surround Ukraine with over 100,000 troops in an effort to finally force the U.S. and NATO into a political settlement over Ukraine upon the threat of war, while seeking to augment social and political tensions inside Ukraine in an effort to check the possibility that Kiev might enter NATO or that the Biden administration and the Baltic Black Sea alliance might strengthen their support for Kiev’s goals to regain control over the Donbass and Crimea. Putin hopes that his perceived threats to invade Ukraine—at the risk of a very dangerous war and extremely heavy sanctions—will soon force the U.S., NATO and Europeans to implement a new European Security treaty.
The dilemma is that the U.S. and NATO have been reluctant to make an about face and alter their position that promised eventual NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia at the 2008 Bucharest summit—after Washington had overruled French and German opposition against Ukraine’s eventual membership. This is true even if Kiev, as Biden himself admitted in his January 2022 press conference, is far from being ready to join NATO.
On the one hand, Ukraine is far from achieving democratic and economic reforms. On the other, from a purely strategic perspective, there is no way NATO itself should be put in the provocative position of defending undefined Ukrainian boundaries and waterways until Russia and Ukraine are eventually able to resolve those disputes, most likely with multilateral French, German, and OSCE assistance.
It is nevertheless being argued by the U.S. Congress that not to enlarge NATO to Ukraine would somehow undermine American and European credibility, particularly given the fact that Kiev has been trying to force the American hand by amending Ukraine’s Constitution in 2019 to make NATO and EU membership a strategic foreign and security policy objective. This is a clear case of the “tail wagging the dog,” or of a lesser power manipulating a major power, in Hans Morgenthau’s traditional realist critique. It is up to the U.S. and Europeans—not Kiev—to determine how to best deal with Ukrainian security.
The fact of the matter is that Washington will gain even greater credibility and legitimacy if it begins to use all of the diplomatic tools that it has at its disposal in the effort to bring Russia into a new relationship with Ukraine and with its eastern European neighbors as soon as possible. This can be achieved by forging a new Euro-Atlantic security treaty instead of blindly supporting NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia that will continue to antagonize Moscow.
The best option is to form a new European security order around a neutral, decentralized, and non-nuclear Ukraine that would in turn negotiate its disputes over the Donbass and Crimea with Russia in the Normandy or another OSCE-backed multilateral format. A truly neutral Ukraine, with its disputed borders protected by international peacekeepers under a general OSCE mandate, for example, would be closer to achieving the neutral position that Kiev originally demanded when it declared independence in 1991.
From the U.S. perspective, this approach has its historical parallel in George Kennan's failed proposal to forge a neutral and disarmed Germany in 1949 in what he called Plan A. A successful historical analogy, however, is the multilateral Austrian neutrality treaty which the U.S., Soviet Union, France and the UK negotiated in the period 1945 to 1955. That treaty had required the removal of U.S. and Soviet forces in exchange for an Austrian declaration of neutrality. In the contemporary case of Ukraine, different forms of neutrality in the form of military non-alignment could be negotiated that would permit Kiev to obtain purely defensive capabilities and to participate in UN, OSCE, or or other multilateral activities.
The option of bringing Ukraine into NATO should be ruled out entirely. The proposal that NATO could delay membership for Kiev for another 10 or 20 years will not work as there is no way Ukraine-Russian relations can remain unsettled for that long without provoking tensions. Another option would be to bring Moscow and Kiev simultaneously into NATO, much as NATO brought both Greece and Turkey into membership despite their still ongoing conflicting territorial claims. Yet this option, which had initially been proposed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, before he himself supported the option of Ukrainian neutrality, is not plausible either.
On the one hand, many NATO members oppose Russia as a member. On the other, Moscow itself does not want to join NATO in that it appears dubious that NATO will eventually transform itself from a collective defense organization into a cooperative-collective security organization as had been proposed at the end of the Cold War. As Russian membership in NATO remains a very dubious project, and as Moscow does not trust US and NATO intentions after the air war over Kosovo in 1999, among other more recent strategic and defense concerns, Moscow wants to start negotiating a new European security order now—and not in the future.
The lack of U.S. diplomatic innovation
The dilemma is that the Biden administration, coupled with Congressional efforts to support of NATO expansion, could limit U.S. diplomatic flexibility by overlooking the full range of diplomatic options that could bring lasting peace. These options include a French, German and European Union rapprochement with Moscow, as proposed by French President Macron, and that is aimed at establishing a new European security order. Yet such an approach still requires the backing of the U.S. and NATO.
The deeper problem is that the U.S. and NATO members need to overcome their hubris, or excessive pride, and begin to fully back a European rapprochement with Russia. In such a way, the U.S. and NATO can more easily retreat on their 2008 Bucharest promise to bring Ukraine into NATO without significantly harming U.S. and NATO credibility. The U.S. and Europeans could still back the defense of a neutral Ukraine and help develop the country—in working more closely with Moscow where possible. Moreover, a U.S.-EU-Russian rapprochement over a neutral Ukraine could then lead to an even more general European Security accord much as was proposed by Moscow and discussed in Track II diplomacy after the 2008 Georgia-Russia war—yet failed to be pursued at that time.
Congress and Trump
It is time for decisive U.S. and EU diplomatic action. Yet can the Biden administration, as it has promised, engage in a truly “relentless” and multilateral diplomacy that will prove flexible enough to achieve a modicum of peace? Or will Biden continue to pursue his own version of Trump’s Peace through Strength doctrine that appears to be pressing Russia, China and Iran even closer together by tightening U.S. alliances with NATO, the Europeans, including Sweden and Finland, plus Japan, India and Australia?
The dilemma is that the U.S. and NATO appear even more reluctant to compromise in the face of Putin’s demands. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as Donald Trump and his supporters, appear to be making it even more difficult to achieve a compromise with Moscow and other states.
Despite strong divisions between Republicans and Democrats over domestic social and environmental priorities, there is a general bipartisan consensus that the U.S. needs to engage in an even tougher defense and security policy against U.S. authoritarian rivals, Russia, China and Iran. In fact, Biden had initially proposed a 2022 National Defense Authorization Act spending bill that was larger than Trump’s previous defense bill. Yet Congress itself boosted that same defense bill with even more funding above Biden’s initial proposals—with only a few Senators and members of the House opposing.
Much like previous defense authorization bills, the final version of the 2022 NDAA bill that Congress passed seeks to restrict executive action with respect to U.S. policies toward China and Taiwan and toward Russia and Crimea. This potentially makes it more difficult for the President to engage in a more flexible diplomacy. Congress could also oppose a Biden-negotiated Iran nuclear deal that would make assurances, as Iran has demanded, that the U.S. would never again drop out of the Iran nuclear accord once it signed the agreement as Trump did.
And now the U.S. Congress has proposed a sweeping new U.S. sanctions bill that targets Russian banks, state-owned enterprises, government debt, energy firms, SWIFT financial transfers, as well as the Nordstream 2 pipeline. The risk is that such a bill if passes into law, it may not permit the flexible and calibrated diplomacy that is needed to deal effectively with the very dangerous geopolitical situation.
First, the proposed U.S. sanctions bill prevents the President from ceding “to the demands of the Russian Federation regarding NATO membership or expansion” and thus could prevent Biden from agreeing to a neutral Ukraine. Second, the bill also provides Ukraine with “lethal” and not just defensive weaponry. Third, the bill’s terminology opens the door to extremely tough U.S. sanctions that could be triggered in response to a cyber-attack or some other provocation—and not just a so-called “limited” or full-scale invasion. And if triggered, this bill could make diplomacy much more difficult in the future, negatively impacting the European economy and political unity, while forcing Russia even deeper into the jaws of the Chinese Dragon. The threat of sanctions could possibly help to provide some deterrence versus a full-scale Russian invasion, yet Congress and the President should oppose this particular sanctions bill as it is presently formulated.
There is a further danger that Congressional militarism, backed by a Congressional alliance of neo-liberal Democrats with Republican neo-neo-conservatives, plus a number of Trumpists, is being used as a means to unify Republicans and Democrats against perceived international threats. Such hardline policies will only serve to divide the already deeply divided American populace while also more deeply polarizing the global systems of alliances—thereby pitting the U.S., NATO, Japan, Australia and India against a China-Russia-Iran-North Korea Eurasian Axis.
The fact that Congress has been considering the possibility of a military draft forewarns of real preparations for war. In the preliminary versions of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Bill, that were not kept in the final version, the U.S. Congress considered pressing women to register for a potential military draft, as is now the case for men. A proposed draft for women—particularly without first passing the Equal Rights Amendment—is certain to provoke domestic American protest while sending a signal to the world that the U.S. was preparing for war.
And finally, the fact that former President Trump is not only seeking to undermine Biden’s leadership, but that he, and his followers, also want to strengthen the power of the executive branch over both the legislative and judicial branches in the formation of a new form of American authoritarianism if they come to power—much as I forewarned in my book, World War Trump—will only further divide the country, provoking even more intense domestic protest and conflict.5
Instead of warmongering, instead of engaging in sanctions that are counter-productive, and instead of pressing for a military draft that would include both men and women, Congress and the Presidency should be pushing for deconfliction and de-escalation with respect to American rivals. Washington should be urging the implementation of treaties that deal with both nuclear and conventional arms reductions and eliminations and that involve the no-first-use of any form of Weapon of Mass Destruction, including cyber weaponry. And instead of boosting a panoply of new weapons systems, the U.S. and Europeans should be boosting diplomacy by working for geopolitical and economic compromises with Moscow, China, Iran and North Korea, among other actual and potential rivals—in order to prevent the real possibilities of major power war.
1 See Hall Gardner, Surviving the Millennium, (Praeger, 1994).
2 Hall Gardner, Dangerous Crossroads: Europe, Russia and the Future of NATO, (Praeger, 1997).
3 Hall Gardner, Crimea, Global Rivalry and the Vengeance of History, (Palgrave, 2015).
4 Hall Gardner, NATO Expansion and US Strategy in Asia, (Palgrave, 2013).
5 Hall Gardner, World War Trump, The Risks of America’s New Nationalism, (Prometheus Books, 2016).