Never Forget the Real Reason Russia Went to War | Opinion

Public support for NATO's proxy war in Ukraine rests upon three frequently repeated assumptions: Russia's invasion was unexpected and unprovoked, Ukraine is a unified, democratic state, and Ukraine will win the war. Based on widely available public information, it is increasingly self-evident that all three of these assumptions are flawed. As the anniversary of the start of the war approaches, we intend discuss precisely why these views have become dangerously misleading, starting with the conclusion that Russia's behavior was somehow surprising.

Many well-informed observers agree that as the Cold War was ending, the Western powers assured the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe, and that this promise was subsequently broken. In February 1990, Secretary of State James Baker met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss the reunification of Germany. Gorbachev noted that, "It goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is unacceptable," and Baker responded: "We agree with that."

Others note that Russian leaders including Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin actually expressed interest in joining NATO, but were ignored. In December 1991, Yeltsin wrote to the NATO foreign ministers, expressing his hope that Russia could someday join the alliance. Shortly after coming to power in 2000, Putin asked then NATO Secretary General George Robertson, "When are you going to invite us to join NATO?" The answer was essentially never.

A memorial to the present
A memorial statue with the Ukranian flag tied across the shoulders of one of the statues, is covered by snow in Chasiv Yar on Feb. 14. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

We find both arguments largely irrelevant to the outbreak of war in Ukraine. It matters little whether Baker was speaking about moving NATO troops within a unified Germany or moving NATO itself into Poland and Lithuania. Likewise, there was never any realistic possibility that NATO would expand its borders to the Pacific or that Spain would sign up to defend Russia from China.

Yes, NATO did add 14 new members and move right up to Russia's border in the Baltic region. Yes, there were those in Russia who sought closer ties with Europe, including NATO membership. However, Russia did not invade Ukraine merely because America agreed to defend Albania or that NATO rejected the Kremlin's rather vague requests to join the alliance. What alarmed Russia so profoundly that it reacted militarily was the explicit effort to pry Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit and bring it into NATO.

Russian concerns were longstanding and well understood in Washington. Our ambassadors are the individuals best equipped to understand, analyze, and explain the motives and intentions of foreign governments. For three generations, American ambassadors to Moscow delivered clear and consistent warnings against expanding NATO into Russia's traditional sphere of influence.

Ambassador George Kennan joined the Foreign Service in 1925. He was America's ambassador in Moscow during the Truman administration and an architect of the Containment policy that contributed to ending the Cold War. In 1948 he wrote that "no Russian government would accept Ukrainian independence," and that any attempt to create an independent Ukrainian state would be "artificial and destructive."

Alarmed by NATO expansion in 1998, Kennan told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman that, "I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely.....I think it is a tragic mistake." He considered it extremely unwise to ask former communist nations to choose between NATO and Russia. In a letter to the State Department he wrote, "Nowhere does forcing this choice appear more portentous and pregnant with fateful consequences than in the case of Ukraine."

Ambassador Jack Matlock was a career Foreign Service officer with many years of experience in Russia when President Ronald Reagan named him ambassador to Moscow. Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Bill Clinton administration he stated, "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 could well encourage a chain of events producing the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed."

Ambassador William J. Burns was the most distinguished Foreign Service officer of his generation and now serves as director of the CIA. While serving as ambassador to Moscow during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations he advised that "NATO enlargement, particularly the Ukraine, remains an emotional and neuralgic issue for Russia. Strategic policy considerations also underlie a strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Regarding Ukraine these concerns include fears that the issue could spilt the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene."

In a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Burns wrote, "Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Russian President Vladimir Putin). In more than two-and-a-half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin's sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests."

Nevertheless, convinced that a greatly weakened Russia could not oppose expanding Western influence, NATO's political leaders continued to promote Ukrainian entry into the alliance. Under strong American pressure, NATO's secretary general announced in 2008 that Ukraine would eventually join the alliance. In 2014 NATO actively supported the Maidan Uprising which overthrew Ukraine's pro-Russian, elected president Viktor Yanukovych and replaced him with a pro-European, pro-NATO government.

Right up until the outbreak of the current war on Feb. 24, 2022, the Western powers consistently rejected Russian calls for a neutral Ukraine. Instead, the alliance repeatedly reconfirmed Ukraine's right to join NATO and committed itself to ever deeper security assistance, defense planning and intelligence sharing with Kiev.

To explain Putin's motives is not to justify his actions. Yet without a clear- eyed understanding of why Russia invaded Ukraine, we have little hope of negotiating an end to this conflict. Just how those negotiations might succeed will be the topic of another essay.

David H. Rundell is a former chief of mission at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia and the author of Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads. Ambassador Michael Gfoeller is a former Political Advisor to the U.S. Central Command and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served for 15 years in the Soviet Union, former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.