Exactly two years ago, Russia formulated its security interests in separate letters to NATO’s Secretary General Stoltenberg and to US President Biden in no uncertain terms. The West’s reaction: no response! There is much to suggest that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have been prevented if the West had negotiated and ruled out the country’s membership of NATO.
Western reporting about the war in Ukraine has many remarkable blank spots about the events that led to the war. Hardly anybody in the West knows that Boris Yeltsin, who was otherwise very close to the West, threatened back in March 1997 the then US President Bill Clinton that if Ukraine joined NATO, it would cross a red line for Russia. This was at the time of NATO’s first eastward expansion and long before Vladimir Putin came to power. It shows that Western plans for NATO expansion into Ukraine date back to the 1990s and that Russia has vehemently opposed this for just as long.
The Minsk II agreement was, with the obvious acquiescence of the West, never implemented by the Ukrainian government. The constitutional reforms agreed in Minsk to provide the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with special status (like the South Tyrol solution) by the end of 2015 were simply ignored. At the end of 2022, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed what ‘evil tongues’ had long suspected: the purpose of the two Minsk Agreements was only to gain time to get the Ukrainian army in shape. Later, France’s former President François Hollande and Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko confirmed this.
It is also little known in the West that in 2021, long before the Russian invasion, Ukraine intensified its attacks against rebel positions in Donetsk with Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drones that had “proven their worth in the Karabakh War 2020." It was also negotiating with Turkey for a licence to produce them in Ukraine.
Virtually unknown among the Western public is also the fact that since mid-1990, the US armed forces have conducted annual military manoeuvres with Ukrainian troops inside the territory of western Ukraine under the code name “Rapid Trident” (formerly named “Peace Shield”). The last US-Ukrainian manoeuvres took place in September–October 2021, together with forces from Bulgaria, Canada, Georgia, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Jordan, Moldova, Pakistan, and Poland. Since 1997, US naval manoeuvres coded “Sea Breeze” have taken place regularly off the coast of Ukraine in the Black Sea. In summer 2021, these naval manoeuvres involved forces from 32 countries.
What would have been the reaction of the West if Russia, together with soldiers from Belarus, Serbia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and other countries, had conducted regular military exercises in Mexico and held annual naval manoeuvres in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida?
Who knows that on March 24, 2021—exactly eleven months before the Russian invasion—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed Decree No. 117 for a “Strategy for the de-occupation and reintegration of the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol”? Its aim was to prepare all necessary military measures to “end the temporary occupation” of Crimea and the Donbass. On August 30, 2021, the USA and Ukraine signed a treaty on military cooperation, and on November 10, 2021, they concluded a treaty on “Strategic Partnership." This treaty stated, among other things: "The United States intends to support Ukraine’s efforts to counter Russia’s armed aggression, including through the maintenance of sanctions and the application of other relevant measures, pending the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders.” Had Ukraine, with US encouragement, prepared for war just months before the Russians attacked?
And this was not all
All this took place on the background of other activities that must have been seen by Russia as existential threats to its security. In 1999 and 2004, NATO expansion brought it directly to the Russian border when 14 Eastern European countries joined the military organization.
By 2001, the US government under Bush Jr. began dismantling virtually all arms reduction treaties and confidence-building measures with Russia. In 2001, it cancelled the A-CFE Agreement on the Disarmament of Armed Forces and Weapons Systems in Europe and the ABM Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems; in 2019, it allowed the phasing out of the INF Treaty prohibiting the production and deployment of land-based missiles and cruise missiles with a range of between 500 and 5.500 kilometres; and in 2020, it cancelled the Open Skies Treaty, which was intended to create a ‘glasnost’ for both sides in the sense of confidence-building measures through overflight rights. In 2023, Russia responded by suspending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining treaty limiting U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals. The US had never ratified the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
NATO conducted its own wars of aggression, ignoring the UN Charter. In 1999, it illegally attacked the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and forced it to hand control of Kosovo, formally an autonomous province of Yugoslavia, to NATO forces. In 2003, the US attacked Iraq under false pretext and without an UN mandate. In 2011, it attacked Libya, also under false pretext, ignoring the limitations set in the UN mandate. In a highly “creative” interpretation of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, it began to station NATO troops in countries bordering Russia in 2016. In 2016, the US Aegis Ashore Site became operational in Romania, and in 2023, the US Aegis Ashore Site in Poland became operational. They are all directed against Russia and designed to undermine Russia’s ability to respond to any nuclear attack.
What Russia proposed to NATO and USA
On December 17, 2021, Russia sent NATO and the USA each a draft treaty that was intended to establish legally binding security guarantees for both sides. Are the proposals really so absurd and unrealistic, as claimed by the US and other NATO states? Was the West justified in ignoring Russia’s security concerns and in taking the position that “Ukraine NATO membership is not up for negotiation"? Had NATO fulfilled its obligation under the UN Charter to negotiate any conflict to find a diplomatic solution as and when it arises to prevent war?
In summary, the draft treaty addressed to NATO contained the following proposals:
- Both sides should confirm not to regard each other as adversaries.
- Return to the principles of “equal and indivisible security” (Paris Charter).
- Renunciation of the use and threat of force.
- Refraining from creating situations that one side could regard as a threat to its national security.
- Restraint in military planning and exercises to avoid “dangerous brinkmanship," especially in the Baltic Sea region and in the Black Sea.
- Revitalization of the NATO-Russia Council and other bilateral and multilateral discussion formats.
- Transparency in military exercises and manoeuvres.
- Establishment of hotlines for emergency contacts (revitalization of the “red telephone”).
- Withdrawal of Western armed forces and weapons systems to the level prior to NATO’s first eastward expansion.
- No deployment of land-based short- and medium-range missiles in areas from which they could attack the territory of the other party.
- No further expansion of NATO (in particular, not to include Ukraine).
- NATO to refrain from military activities on the territory of Ukraine and other states in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia.
- Establishment of a largely demilitarised corridor between NATO and Russia.
In summary, the draft treaty addressed to the USA also contained the following proposals:
- Reaffirmation of the declaration that nuclear war can have no victor and that every effort must be made to avert this danger.
- Renunciation of measures aimed at preparing for war against the other side on the territory of third countries.
- Renunciation by the USA of establishing military bases and bilateral military cooperation in and with the states of the post-Soviet space that are not NATO members.
- Both sides to refrain from stationing armed forces and weapons systems outside their territories, which the other side might regard as a threat to its national security.
- Refraining from flights of heavy bombers and the presence of surface combatants in regions from which they could strike targets in the territory of the other party.
- Refraining from stationing nuclear weapons outside its own territory and returning such weapons systems and destroying the corresponding infrastructure to third countries.
- No training of personnel in the use of nuclear weapons and no military exercises for their use in countries that do not possess them.
As always, the devil is in the details, and all proposals would have required intensive scrutiny by security policy and diplomatic experts. Moreover, the ‘package demands’ and the ultimate tone of the two letters were highly undiplomatic. Nonetheless, NATO and the USA should have taken the two proposed draft agreements seriously as a clear formulation of Russian security interests, examined them carefully, and used them as a basis for negotiations aimed at significantly improving the security situation of all signatory states by finding a negotiated solution to the security concerns of Russia and Ukraine. This would have probably prevented the war, saved the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of mostly young men, and left Ukraine as a sovereign state intact.
And how NATO responded
On January 7, 2022, an extraordinary digital conference call among all 30 NATO foreign ministers took place to work out a common NATO position on how to react to the Russian proposals. NATO’s response was disappointing. They decided not to negotiate any of the core issues raised by Russia.
At the subsequent press conference, Secretary General Stoltenberg, like US President Biden later, responded in the usual fashion: NATO would continue to support Ukraine and Georgia, and every country, regardless of its size and the concern of its neighbours, had the right to choose its own alliances. However, by claiming that every member of the OSCE, regardless of its neighbours, has the right to become a NATO member, Stoltenberg and Biden contradicted the spirit of the 1990 OSCE “Charter of Paris” for a New Europe and the Istanbul Document of the 1999 OSCE Summit with its stated principles: "Each participating state has an equal right to security... They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other tates."
Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, the former and well-informed ARD correspondent in Moscow, responding to such a claim, said the necessary things about the alleged general right to NATO membership: “All states have the right to apply to NATO for membership. But NATO has every right in the world to reject applicants if overriding political considerations speak against it!"
Adding further to the tensions, Stoltenberg took this opportunity to blatantly call on Finland and Sweden to join NATO—“the partners with whom we are working more and more closely. NATO’s door remains open!”
Six weeks later, Russia launched its military intervention in Ukraine.