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West Ignores Role of NATO Expansion in Driving Russia’s War on Ukraine

The illegal invasion of Ukraine was not solely caused by Russian internal politics, says Stephen Wertheim.

After the closing of a major NATO summit in Lithuania, President Biden vowed to support Ukraine and warned the war may continue for a long time, before flying to Finland, the newest member of NATO, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia. The goal of this summit may have been to make Ukraine seem more aligned with NATO, but “they actually revealed that the alliance was split” when they did not offer a timeline for Ukraine’s membership, says Stephen Wertheim, senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Wertheim says the real result of this summit was Ukraine moving to an “armed neutrality” or “Israel model,” where international allies supply long-term economic and security assistance to the country. The NATO summit also resulted in a communiqué criticizing China’s growing military power, saying Beijing’s actions are threatening the security of NATO nations.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden has vowed to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” Biden made the pledge after the closing of a major NATO summit in Lithuania, where the military alliance agreed to invite Ukraine to NATO “some day,” but no timeline was announced. During his speech, Biden drew parallels between the Cold War and efforts today to push Russia out of Ukraine.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: NATO is stronger, more energized, and, yes, more united than ever in its history — indeed, more vital to our shared future. It didn’t happen by accident. It wasn’t inevitable. When Putin, and his craven lust for land and power, unleashed his brutal war on Ukraine, he was betting NATO would break apart. He was betting NATO would break. He thought our unity would shatter at the first testing. He thought democratic leaders would be weak. But he thought wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: After the NATO summit in Lithuania, Biden flew to Helsinki, the capital of Finland, the newest member of NATO. Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia.

While much of the NATO summit focused on Ukraine, NATO nations also issued a communiqué criticizing China’s growing military power, saying Beijing’s actions are threatening the security of NATO members. On Wednesday, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, criticized what he called “NATO’s Cold War mentality.”

WANG WENBIN: [translated] We urge NATO to immediately stop distorting and smearing China and fabricating lies, abandon the outdated concept of the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game, abandon the blind faith in a military force in pursuit of absolute security, and abandon the dangerous behavior of disrupting Europe in the Asian-Pacific. Do not fabricate excuses for their continued expansion, and play a constructive role in world peace and stability.

AMY GOODMAN: China also criticized what it called NATO’s eastward march, after leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea took part in the NATO talks.

Meanwhile, talks between China and the United States are continuing. Secretary of State Tony Blinken is expected to meet today with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Indonesia at a meeting of ASEAN — that’s the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Meanwhile, Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, is scheduled to visit China next week.

To talk more about the NATO summit, we’re joined by Stephen Wertheim. He’s a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School and Catholic University, author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. His recent op-ed piece for The New York Times is titled “The Tale the West Tells Itself About Ukraine.”

You wrote that, Stephen Wertheim, before NATO, but tell us what you believe is the tale that is told that is wrong.

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: Well, the basic story — and it’s not all wrong — that is predominant in Western capitals is that Russia launched its war of aggression, its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in February last year for reasons entirely internal to Russia. That is, Russia fears a democracy in Ukraine that’s on its border, or Russia is imperialistic and covets Ukrainian territory. That’s all true, to a large extent, but part of the tale is that the West took no actions that causally contributed to the decision by Russia to launch its aggression against Ukraine. And I think that’s simply not true, or that overdraws the distinction. The fact is, yes, Russia has an imperial mentality, especially when it comes to Ukraine, but it’s partly for that reason that Russia has been, over the years, so opposed to NATO enlargement and the incorporation of Ukraine — to be clear, through Ukrainians’ own choices — into a Western orientation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Stephen, if you could elaborate on that, and talk not just about Ukraine, but other former Soviet states and other countries previously aligned with the then-Soviet Union that have expressed an interest, as you say, in joining NATO, and subsequently did, and how Russia responded then?

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: Yeah. So, this is a really complicated story, but there was a so-called big bang round of enlargement, the second major round, after the Cold War, that occurred in 2004. And at that time, seven countries joined NATO, including the three Baltic republics that had been Soviet republics — that is, not just parts of the former Warsaw Pact, but in fact constituent parts of the Soviet Union. At that time, Moscow did not react too harshly. It was a time when Vladimir Putin, a new president, was trying to cultivate positive relations with the West, and he thought that there was an opportunity to partner with Washington around the global war on terror, and he could use that to his advantage.

But the real source of intense controversy came in 2008, when George W. Bush tried to get NATO allies to agree to give a membership action plan — that is, a concrete plan — for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. And that’s when this strange compromise was forged at the summit held in Bucharest in 2008, stating that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO, but not giving them a plan or a timeline to actually do so. And I think that’s, in many ways, the sort of proximate source of the tensions between NATO and Ukraine, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other hand.

Now, leading up to that summit, the guy who’s the current CIA director, Bill Burns, he was then the ambassador to Russia, and he warned Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, that Ukraine joining NATO would constitute the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite, not just Putin. Unfortunately, his advice wasn’t heeded. So, it’s a reminder that many leading officials and analysts have understood over the years that, you know, flirting with the notion of Ukraine, in particular, or Georgia joining NATO would be something that would run a very real risk of causing Russia to take aggressive steps against those countries in a bid to prevent their alignment with NATO.

Now, I have to say, you know, looking at the history since then, Russia has reacted very badly. It has committed aggression against Ukraine. And I think it’s backfired on Russia spectacularly. When Russia has meddled in Ukraine, Ukrainians have turned further west.

But we have to appreciate this whole dynamic of this history in order to create a more stable and peaceful future coming out of this war when it ends, and it might be quite a while before it ends. And by erasing this history of the dynamic between Western actions and Russian actions, that can make us overlook factors that will cause problems in the future. Specifically, bringing Ukraine into NATO or trying to do that is something that could well cause Russia to reinvade Ukraine, or at least give it an excuse to do so, after the current war ends. So, Ukrainians and many others in the West think that bringing Ukraine into NATO is some kind of silver bullet solution, it’s the strongest possible guarantee of security for Ukraine. But I fear that they may be incorrect about that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Stephen, you mentioned the 2008 Bucharest summit, NATO summit, and you said in a tweet that this summit in Vilnius intended to deliver a, quote, “Bucharest plus” statement on Ukraine’s future membership, but you write, “I wonder if it has in fact produced Bucharest minus.” So, if you could explain what you mean by that, and whether what you advocate — namely, that Ukraine should be armed and able to defend itself, but not be given NATO membership — isn’t that effectively, even if not explicitly, what was agreed in Vilnius?

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: That’s a really good question. I think you could read the Vilnius statement in the way that you have suggested.

What actually came out of this summit? So, there had been a big push in the weeks and months prior to make a very clear statement about Ukraine getting into NATO and laying out an actual timetable or plan to make that happen. And that is not what happened. The allies, including the White House, tried to deliver Bucharest plus. They tried to make it sound like Ukraine was coming closer to NATO membership than ever and that this would be a very real likelihood after the war. And yet, in the process of doing so, they actually revealed that the alliance was split, and they came up with a formulation that’s tautological: Basically, the alliance will be in a position to offer membership to Ukraine when allies agree and conditions are met. So, that’s pretty much true for any country. So, in a way, by revealing — by putting pressure on this question, they have revealed that there are very serious hesitations about bringing Ukraine into NATO and no clear agreement on what conditions Ukraine would have to meet.

And the White House itself, I think, seems to be putting forward two contradictory logics on this score. On the one hand, President Biden says very clearly — and I think he absolutely means this — that the United States absolutely should not go to war with Russia over Ukraine. And that would imply not doing so not only now but also in the future. On the other hand, a pledge of NATO membership would be something that, if deterrence fails, would presumably bring the United States into a direct war with Russia. And he’s also sort of entertaining the idea that Ukraine just has to meet certain standards, democratic standards, in order to join. So, which is it? That hasn’t been resolved. It’s been punted toward the future, so this drama will go on.

But what we did see, to your point, actually come out of the summit was a remarkable statement by the G7 countries promising long-term economic and security assistance to Ukraine. And we can expect that other countries will join this framework. And it’s part of creating what you might call either armed neutrality or an Israel model for Ukraine, by which Ukraine can defend itself, and it will be well armed and well supported outside of the NATO framework by its international partners. That is the model that actually moved forward in this summit.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Stephen Wertheim, if you can comment on China? All the attention is on Ukraine, but, in fact, that isn’t what was actually happening at NATO. There was a lot of sidelining and going after China, and China struck back, calling NATO’s eastward march, warning about it, talking about a new Cold War. Now you have Blinken in Jakarta meeting with the top diplomat of China, and you have John Kerry going to China. Can you talk about the significance of what’s coming out of this?

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: I wouldn’t say there was much that was concrete about China or new coming out of this summit, but China is concerned about the attempts of the alliance to integrate European allies with U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. I will say the People’s Republic of China tends to call a whole lot of things a product of a, quote-unquote, “Cold War mentality.” At this point, I think, you know, that kind of mentality or a mentality of intense, durable, strategic competition is pretty well entrenched in Western capitals, as well as in Moscow and in Beijing.

But, you know, I think one thing that the NATO alliance should think very carefully about is, first of all, exactly where it’s going with respect to actions in the Indo-Pacific. The United States has chosen, under President Biden, not to take actions that would encourage a more balanced military relationship between the transatlantic allies, and thus would allow the United States to shift its focus on deterrence in the Asia-Pacific. Instead, it is trying to be the leading provider of security in Europe and Asia simultaneously and hope that its allies and partners in each region support the goals of one another. And so —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there.


AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Wertheim, we want to thank you so much for being with us, senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. And we’ll link to your New York Times op-ed, “The Tale the West Tells Itself About Ukraine.”

Next up, we look at how the world’s increasing reliance on cobalt for mobile phones, electric cars [has] had a devastating impact on the Congo. We’ll speak with Siddharth Kara, author of the new book, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. Back in 30 seconds.


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