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Diplomatic Cables Show Russia Saw NATO Expansion as a Red Line

Ukraine was the “line of last resort” that would complete Russia’s encirclement, said one defense expert, and its entry into NATO was universally viewed by the Russian political elite as an “unfriendly act.” 

ACURA VIEWPOINT, Branko Marcetic, January 16, 2023

Nearly a year in, the war in Ukraine has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and brought the world to the brink of, in President Joe Biden’s own words, “Armageddon.” Alongside the literal battlefield has been a similarly bitter intellectual battle over the war’s causes.

Commentators have rushed to declare the long-criticized policy of NATO expansion as irrelevant to the war’s outbreak, or as a mere fig leaf used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to mask what Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates recently called “his messianic mission” to “reestablish the Russian Empire.” Fiona Hill, a presidential advisor to two Republican administrations, has deemed these views merely the product of a “Russian information war and psychological operation,” resulting in “masses of the US public … blaming NATO, or blaming the US for this outcome.” 

Yet a review of the public record and many dozens of diplomatic cables made publicly available via WikiLeaks shows that US officials were aware, or were directly told over the span of years, that expanding NATO was viewed by Russian officials well beyond Putin as a major threat and provocation, that expanding it to Ukraine was a particularly bright red line for Moscow, that it would inflame and empower hawkish, nationalist parts of the Russian political spectrum, and that it could ultimately lead to war. 

In a particularly prophetic set of warnings, US officials were told that pushing for Ukrainian membership in NATO would not only increase the chance of Russian meddling in the country, but risked destabilizing the divided nation — and that US and other NATO officials pressured Ukrainian leaders to reshape this unfriendly public opinion in response. All of this was told to US officials in both public and private by not just senior Russian officials going all the way up to the presidency, but by NATO allies, various analysts and experts, liberal Russian voices critical of Putin, even, sometimes, US diplomats themselves. 

This history is particularly relevant as US officials now test the red line China has drawn around Taiwan’s independence, risking military escalation that will first and foremost be aimed at the island state. The US diplomatic record regarding NATO expansion suggests the perils of ignoring or outright crossing another military power’s red lines, and the wisdom of a more restrained foreign policy that treats other powers’ spheres of influence with the care they treat the United States’ own.

An Early Exception

NATO expansion had been fraught from the start. The pro-Western Boris Yeltsin had told Bill Clinton he “saw nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed” with plans to renege on the verbal promises made years earlier not to enlarge NATO eastward, and warned it would be “sowing the seeds of mistrust” and would “be interpreted, and not only in Russia, as the beginning of a new split in Europe.”………………………………………………………………………….

Almost Complete Consensus

The thinkers and analysts that US officials conferred with likewise made clear the Russian elite’s anxieties over NATO and its expansion, and the lengths they might go to counteract it. Many were transmitted by then-US Ambassador to Russia William Burns, today serving as Biden’s CIA director. 

Recounting his conversations with various “Russian observers” from both regional and US think tanks, Burns concluded in a March 2007 cable that “NATO enlargement and U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe play to the classic Russian fear of encirclement.” Ukraine and Georgia’s entry “represents an ‘unthinkable’ predicament for Russia,” he reported six months later, warning that Moscow would “cause enough trouble in Georgia” and counted on “continued political disarray in Ukraine” to halt it. In an especially prescient set of cables, he summed up scholars’ views that the emerging Russia-China relationship was largely “the by-product of ‘bad’ US policies,” and was unsustainable — “unless continued NATO enlargement pushed Russia and China even closer together.”

………………… “Ukraine was, in the long term, the most potentially destabilizing factor in US-Russian relations, given the level of emotion and neuralgia triggered by its quest for NATO membership,” went the counsel of Dmitri Trenin, then-deputy director of the Russian branch of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a Burns-authored February 2008 cable. For Ukraine, he said prophetically, it would mean that elements within the Russian establishment would be encouraged to meddle, stimulating US overt encouragement of opposing political forces, and leaving the US and Russia in a classic confrontational posture.

Indeed, opposing NATO’s enlargement eastward, particulary in Ukraine and Georgia, was “one of the few security areas where there is almost complete consensus among Russian policymakers, experts and the informed population,” he cabled in March 2008. Ukraine was the “line of last resort” that would complete Russia’s encirclement, said one defense expert, and its entry into NATO was universally viewed by the Russian political elite as an “unfriendly act.” Other experts cautioned “that Putin would be forced to respond to Russian nationalist feelings opposing membership” of Georgia, and that MAPs for either would trigger a cut-back in the Russian military’s genuine desire for co-operation with NATO. 

From Liberals to Hardliners

These analysts were reiterating what cables show US officials heard again and again from Russian officials themselves, whether diplomats, members of parliament, or senior Russian officials all the way up to the presidency, recorded in nearly three-dozen cables at least………………………………………………………………..

Selling NATO to Ukraine……………………………………………………..

“Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war,” Burns wrote in February 2008. Russia, he wrote, would then “have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.”………………………………

By December 2016, with fears of invasion ramping up, Putin told Biden personally that “the eastward expansion of the Western alliance was a major factor in his decision to send troops to Ukraine’s border,” the Washington Post reported

…………..  claims that Russian unhappiness over NATO expansion is irrelevant, a mere “fig leaf” for pure expansionism, or simply Kremlin propaganda are belied by this lengthy historical record. Rather, successive US administrations pushed ahead with the policy despite being warned copiously for years — including by the analysts who advised them, by allies, even by their own officials — that it would feed Russian nationalism, create a more hostile Moscow, foster instability and even civil war in Ukraine, and could eventually lead to Russian military intervention, all of which ended up happening. 

“I don’t accept anyone’s red line,” Biden said in the lead-up to the invasion, as his administration rejected negotiations with Moscow over Ukraine’s NATO status. We can only imagine the world in which he and his predecessors had. https://usrussiaaccord.org/acura-viewpoint-guest-post-by-branko-marcetic-diplomatic-cables-show-russia-saw-nato-expansion-as-a-red-line/

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January 16, 2023 - Posted by | politics international, Russia

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