The U.S. and NATO Helped Trigger the Ukraine War. It's Not 'Siding With Putin' to Admit It | Opinion

Vladimir Putin's decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a monstrous act of aggression that has plunged the world into a perilous situation. By any reasonable standard, his move was an over-the-top response to any Ukrainian or NATO provocations. However, that conclusion is different from saying that there were no provocations, as far too many policymakers and pundits in the West are doing now.

It has become especially fashionable in such circles to insist that NATO's expansion to Russia's border was in no way responsible for the current Ukraine crisis. Many dismiss all arguments to the contrary as "echoing Putin's talking points," "siding with Putin," or circulating Russian propaganda and "disinformation." Leaving aside the ugly miasma of McCarthyism enveloping such allegations, the underlying argument is factually wrong.

Russian leaders and several Western policy experts were warning more than two decades ago that NATO expansion would turn out badly—ending in a new cold war with Russia at best, and a hot one at worst. Obviously, they were not "echoing" Putin or anyone else. George Kennan, the intellectual architect of America's containment policy during the Cold War, perceptively warned in a May 2, 1998 New York Times interview what NATO's move eastward would set in motion. "I think it is the beginning of a new cold war," he stated. "I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake."

Kennan was speaking of the first round of enlargement that brought into the Alliance Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Later rounds, which added the Baltic Republics and other East European countries, were considerably more abrasive, and Washington's subsequent attempt to make Ukraine and Georgia members was contemptuous of Russia's core security interests. Moscow's complaints and warnings were becoming increasingly sharp as well.

Yet U.S. and European officials blew through one red light after another. George W. Bush began to treat Georgia and Ukraine as valued U.S. political and military allies, and in 2008, he pressed NATO to admit Ukraine and Georgia as members. French and German wariness delayed that endeavor, but the NATO summit communique affirmed that both countries would eventually achieve that status.

Damaged buildings in Chuhuiv, Ukraine
File photo: Firefighters work on a fire on a building after bombings on the eastern Ukrainian city of Chuhuiv on February 24, 2022, ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

In his 2014 memoir, Duty, Robert M. Gates, who served as secretary of defense in both Bush's administration and Barack Obama's, conceded that "trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching." That initiative, he concluded, was a case of "recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests."

Indeed it was, and Moscow began to push back. Putin exploited a foolish provocation by Georgia's pro-Western government to launch a military offensive that penetrated deeply into the country. Upon its victory, Russia permanently detached two secessionist-minded Georgian regions and put them under permanent Russian control.

The Kremlin's decisive action should have alerted even slow-learning U.S. leaders that the days of Russian officials merely issuing verbal protests about the West's steady encroachment into Russia's security sphere were over. Amazingly, though, the Obama administration still sought to turn Ukraine into a NATO political and military asset. In late 2013 and early 2014, the United States and several European governments meddled shamelessly to support the efforts of demonstrators to unseat Ukraine's generally pro-Russia president, Victor Yanukovych, some two years before the expiration of his term.

That campaign was especially inappropriate since Yanukovych became president in 2010 as the result of an election that even the European Union and other international observers acknowledged was reasonably free and fair. In a democratic system, the legal way to remove a president from office is, depending on a specific country's constitutional rules, through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, impeachment, or defeat in the next election. Angry street demonstrations do not fit into any of those categories, yet the United States and its allies backed that illegal process. A recording of the infamous leaked telephone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt confirmed the extent of Washington's meddling in the affairs of a sovereign country.

The Ukraine episode proved to be an intolerable provocation to neighboring Russia. Putin responded by annexing the strategic Crimea peninsula and the United States and its NATO partners then imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The new cold war was on in earnest.

Yet Washington still refused to back off. Instead, the Trump and Biden administrations poured weapons into Ukraine, approved joint military exercises between U.S. and Ukrainian forces, and even prodded the allies to include Ukraine in NATO war games.

In late 2021, it became clear that the Kremlin's restraint had run dry. Moscow issued demands for security guarantees, including a draw-down of military forces already deployed in NATO's eastern members. With respect to Ukraine, the demand was very clear and uncompromising: Not only would Kyiv never receive a membership invitation, but NATO weapons and troops would never be deployed on Ukrainian soil. When the West failed to provide those guarantees, Putin launched his devastating, full-scale war.

Moscow's cruel overreaction deserves emphatic condemnation. However, the culpability of the United States and its NATO allies also is sizable. Moving an alliance that one great power dominates to the border of another major power is inherently destabilizing and provocative.

Those people who are familiar with even the basics of international relations should grasp that point; it was inexcusable that so many U.S. and NATO leaders apparently did not do so.

One can readily imagine how Americans would react if Russia, China, India, or another peer competitor admitted countries from Central America and the Caribbean to a security alliance that it led—and then sought to add Canada as an official or de facto military ally. It is highly probable that the United States would have responded by going to war years ago. Yet even though Ukraine has an importance to Russia comparable to Canada's importance to the United States, our leaders expected Moscow to respond passively to the growing encroachment.

They have been proven disastrously wrong, and thanks to their ineptitude, the world is now a far more dangerous place.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 950 articles on international affairs.

The views in this article are the writer's own.