By Walter Clemens, for CEPA

The idea that Russia was somehow provoked to invade Ukraine is bad history, whether it comes from the Kremlin or the West.

Consider this. NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet sphere was a targeted favor to munitions makers and provoked Russian fears that led Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine. The United States’ response should be to strain every sinew to end the war speedily.  

This is not a call from the political extremes; it is the message of 14 security experts including Jack Matlock, the US ambassador to Moscow 1987-1991 and the economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs, along with a group of retired colonels and a retired major general in America’s armed forces. 

The US and allies’ failure to understand that Russia would defend its interests — as it had in Georgia and Syria — was likely due to “incompetence, arrogance, cynicism, or a treacherous mixture of all three,” the authors wrote in the May 16 full-page ad in the New York Times

While it acknowledged the all-out invasion was a Russian decision, it blamed the US for creating the circumstances: “NATO expansion . . . is a key feature of a militarized US foreign policy characterized by unilateralism featuring regime change and preemptive wars.” 

These arguments distort history. US and Western relations were broadly amicable in the first decade following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and included the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, signed by the Kremlin, which promised “respect for [the] sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security.” In 1999, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary were the first of the ex-Warsaw Pact nations to choose the alliance to ensure their security. 

Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s foreign minister from 1990–1998, under then-President Boris Yeltsin, told me in 2001 that Russian hostility to the West stemmed mainly from Russian domestic politics and the concerns of its ruling class. Why? Accustomed to top-down rule, Russian leaders feared the eastward spread of democracy and openness.  

At the heart of much of this debate — at least for some — are the contested words of Secretary of State James Baker in a private meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990. Vladimir Putin and others, including some in the West, have interpreted Baker’s words as tantamount to a pledge that the alliance would never offer membership to former Warsaw Pact states. Opponents point out that such membership was not even a policy option in 1990 nor for some years afterward.  

“It never would have occurred to them to raise an issue that was not on the agenda anywhere, not in Washington, not in Moscow, and not in any other Warsaw Pact or NATO capital,” as one US expert put it. It’s also clear that whatever Baker said was couched in conditional terms and was a very long way from a public or treaty commitment. 

The myth of the US promise that never was should have ended with the denial from Gorbachev, his interpreter, and his foreign minister — each in separate statements — that there was no kind of quid pro quo to Moscow for going along with German reunification in 1990 (other than a pledge not to move NATO forces eastward into the old DDR, which was kept.) 

Like the British and French leaders who tried to appease Hitler at Munich in 1938, the 14 American experts and their allies downplay the other side’s imperial ambitions. Long before Putin took the helm, Russian strategists espoused a policy oriented toward revenge and the recovery of lost lands and glory. This campaign commenced in the early 1990s before NATO started to expand eastward. Influential policy experts in Moscow declared that Russia had a right and a duty to protect its interests in the “near-abroad” — the former union republics of the USSR such as Estonia and Ukraine. The Duma passed legislation to assist “compatriots” — former citizens of Russia or the USSR and their descendants — a clear marker of future interference in neighboring affairs. The compatriot legislation has been tightened under Putin.  

Russia’s ruler (as president and prime minister) from 1999–2000, Putin stated in 2005 that he was determined to correct the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”,  as he termed the Soviet Union’s breakup. Putin has also claimed to be like Peter the Great who won hegemony over the Baltic region and much of Ukraine in 1709 by defeating the Swedes at Poltava. He claims that the historic convergence of values among the various peoples of the Russian Federation has produced a “Russian world” in which they thrive together. He denies that Ukraine exists and wishes it was a part of the Russian Federation.  

Russian forces entered Ukraine in 2014 and Putin proceeded to annex Crimea and the Donbas region. There was no compromise to be had between Kyiv’s insistence on Ukrainian sovereignty and Putin’s desire for puppet regimes in its occupied territories,  

Putin said his military operation aimed to de-nazify Ukraine and halt its genocide of Russian speakers, But far-right parties won only 2% of the vote in Ukraine’s 2019 parliamentary elections — less than in many European countries. In 2019 Ukraine voters chose a Jewish man, Volodymyr Zelenskyy (named after the founder of Ukrainian Christianity) as their president. There has been no evidence of recent ethnic purges in Ukraine.  

In September 2020, Zelenskyy approved a new National Security Strategy to develop a partnership leading to NATO membership. Even as Russia launched all-out against its neighbor in 2022–2023, however, the prospects of NATO membership for Ukraine (and Georgia) looked remote, though it has become closer since Russia’s aggression raised the question, how else is Ukraine to be defended? 

The facts support the conclusion of Professor Alexander Motyl at Rutgers University: “Ukraine is an important security interest of Russia only because Russians have made it into an important security interest.”  

Russians could just as easily “unmake” it and, instead, treat Ukraine as nothing more than a neighbor. Ukraine is as much an objective threat to Russia as Canada is to the United States. Even NATO poses no objective threat to Russia’s security. Most of its members have completely neglected their militaries since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukraine’s resistance and its very existence is thus a threat to Putin’s imperialist project — not because it actually threatens Russia’s existence — but it is perceived by Putin as a threatening idea whose model may leak across the border and threaten his imperial project’s existence.  

Should US diplomacy work for a speedy peace in Ukraine? No.  

An immediate ceasefire would permit Russia to retain the fruits of conquest and avoid any reckoning for its actions. It is unthinkable that Putin not be tried for war crimes and that Russia not be compelled to pay very significant reparations for lives and property destroyed. For peace now and in the future, Putin must be defeated. He cannot be appeased.  

By Walter Clemens, for CEPA

Walter Clemens is an Associate at Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Boston University. He wrote ‘Blood Debts: What  Putin and Xi Owe Their Victims’ (Westphalia Press, July 2023).  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.