Experts warned for decades that NATO expansion would lead to war: Why did nobody listen to them?
Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine has been underway for a month now. It has already led to a global economic crisis stemming from disruptions in supply chains and rising energy prices. And although the beginning of the hostilities came as a surprise to the whole world, the current state of affairs was not unpredictable – international relations experts have been warning about the risk of this escalation for the past 30 years.
Why didn’t politicians in the West listen to their advice, instead of allowing war to break out in Europe, and fuel and food prices to skyrocket at home? RT explains.
Told you so
“I want to make it clear to everyone, both in our country and abroad, to our partners, that it’s not even about the line that we don’t want anyone to cross. The fact is that we have nowhere to retreat. They have pinned us against a line from which, sorry for the bad manners, we have nowhere to retreat,” President Vladimir Putin stated at the end of December 2021, almost two months before he ordered the assault on Ukraine.
At the time, Moscow was trying to come to an agreement with NATO on mutual security, hoping that the US-led bloc would agree to provide comprehensive written guarantees that it would not expand any further, to the east. Not only Putin, but also other Russian officials, talked about ‘red lines’ that posed a serious threat, with ominous consequences for the world, if crossed.
The existence of these red lines – most notably against NATO expansion into Ukraine – is not some subjective concept born in the minds of Russia’s current leadership. Oddly enough, they were being discussed in the West long before they became the subject of conversation in the Kremlin.
In 1998, George Kennan, an American diplomat and historian known as the ‘architect of the Cold War’, said NATO expansion would mean nothing less than “the beginning of a new Cold War,” warning that it would be a “tragic mistake.”
“Of course, this will provoke a bad reaction from Russia. And when that happens, [those who made decisions about NATO expansion] will say that we have always told you the Russians are like that. But it’s just not true,” he said.
In 1997, 50 prominent foreign policy experts, including former senators, military leaders, and diplomats, sent an open letter to then-President Bill Clinton outlining their opposition to NATO expansion. “It is a policy error of historic proportions,” they wrote.
Conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan wrote in his 1999 book ‘A Republic, Not an Empire’, “By moving NATO onto Russia’s front porch, we have scheduled a twenty-first-century confrontation.”
The current director of the CIA, William Burns, said in 2008 that for Russia, “Ukraine’s accession to NATO is the brightest of all red lines.”
“I have not yet found anyone who would consider Ukraine in NATO as something other than a direct challenge to Russia’s interests,” he said.
These are just some of the statements made by major American political figures, but it would be possible to compile an entire book from forecasts made in the 1990s alone. And after the Ukraine crisis began in 2014, and Russia’s subsequent reabsorption of Crimea, opinions about the folly of further NATO expansion were heard more and more often in the West.
Over the past eight years, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, Henry Kissinger, famed American scholar of Russian studies Stephen Cohen, and many other experts have issued warnings about NATO expansion.
Are you for peace or victory?
The decisions made by Western government officials over the past 20-25 years have clearly contradicted the recommendations of these experts.
Timofei Bordachev, the program director of the Valdai International Discussion Club and academic director of the Center for Integrated European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, believes the reason for this is obvious – politicians listen to experts, but don’t consider it necessary to follow their recommendations.
“In an area like international relations, politicians, unfortunately, almost never listen to the expert community. The reason for this is understandable. The task of the expert community is to achieve peace and prevent conflict. But since politicians answer to the voters, they always work to achieve victory at any cost,” Bordachev said in a conversation with RT.
“The difference in approach is obvious. Therefore, it is very difficult for politicians to listen to the opinion of experts. In achieving their goals, they bluff to the last,” he added.
This hypothesis is most clearly confirmed in an interview with the adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Alexey Arestovich, which was given to the Apostrophe TV YouTube channel in 2019. At the time, he not only accurately predicted the year war would break out in his country and the reasons behind it, but also asserted that conflict was inevitable, indicating that it was necessary for Ukraine:
“With a 99.9% probability, our price of joining NATO is a big war with Russia... The optimal outcome is a major war with Russia and a transition to NATO based on the results of victory over Russia.”
These words suggest that Ukraine’s leadership was not intent on preventing war at all. On the contrary, the country was preparing for war, believing it was a justifiable means of achieving ‘victory’ – joining NATO.
However, this does not explain why American, or at least European, politicians did not try to prevent the war in Europe. According to Bordachev, the fact is that Western leaders proceeded from the assumption that there was no way their countries could join the war.
“Given the existence of nuclear deterrence, everyone understands the risk of a general destructive war is very easily separated from all other risks: it is easy to localize and prevent. We can see this now from the behavior of the United States and its allies, who are taking all measures against Russia short of direct intervention in the conflict. That is, they very confidently exclude from the equation a scenario that would pose a danger to themselves – they are not suicidal. But Western politicians do not care at all about how many Ukrainians must die in order for them to achieve their goals,” Bordachev said.
It’s all Fukuyama’s fault
Dmitry Suslov, the deputy director for research at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) and deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the National Research University – Higher School of Economics (NRU HSE), believes there is a different reason why the actions of politicians deviate so much from what the expert community prescribes.
It’s not that Western politicians refuse to listen to foreign policy analysts – they listen to the wrong ones.
“There was no unity among the experts in the West, no consensus at all. It was mainly the foreign policy realists from the US and Europe that had warned about the dangers of expanding NATO. The problem was, after the end of the Cold War, the realists’ influence in the Western foreign policy establishment has diminished significantly,” Suslov told RT.
According to him, once the Cold War ended, the liberal viewpoint quickly gained popularity among Western expert circles and policymakers. “The idea was, first off, that Russia was in a state of impending and irreversible decline, and that it wouldn’t dare challenge the West in any shape or form. It was believed that Russia would eventually fall in line and join the ‘right side of history’ (from the West’s point of view), would fit into the NATO-centric paradigm in Europe and take on a subordinate position on the sidelines of global politics. This was the vision espoused by liberals and neoconservatives, and it clearly dominated over the realists’ position,” he said.
This only seemed natural. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many had the feeling that the balance of power and the previous patterns of international relations suddenly became obsolete. Now, they thought, everything would be different – international relations would be guided by a brand-new set of considerations, while those of the realists, along with their notions of geopolitics, would fade away into obscurity.
The ‘end of history’, a concept advocated by Francis Fukuyama in the 1990s, gained a lot of traction during this period. It is well known that Fukuyama’s interpretation of this idea had a powerful influence on George W. Bush and his foreign policy. In his book titled ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, he announced that the age of ideological confrontation, authoritarianism, revolutions, and war was finally over, as all states would eventually embrace liberal democracy modeled after the United States.
Fukuyama is now making predictions about the outcome of the current conflict in Ukraine. He believes that military defeat for Russia in Ukraine is imminent and will result in China not daring to invade Taiwan. This, according to Fukuyama, will revive the spirit of 1989, which will capture people’s hearts and bring the world back to the path towards the ‘end of history’.
The predator senses weakness
Truth be told, Russia gave Western politicians reasons to doubt the assessments of realist experts.
“In the 1990s and even early 2000s, Russia appeared weak. It didn’t stand determinately and clearly enough against expansion of NATO; moreover, it made the expansion even easier to some extent,” Suslov said.
In his opinion, the very existence of the Founding Act signed in 1997 convinced the West that Moscow was ready to turn a blind eye to NATO expansion.
This document determined Russia-NATO relations over the past 25 years, until the start of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. It reaffirmed the commitment of the parties to the inherent right of European nations “to choose the means to ensure their own security.”
For years, this formula was used by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to explain why Russia did not have a say in Georgia or Ukraine joining the alliance.
“Indeed, Russia had secured several important provisions in that document, but at the same time, it gave a signal that a deal on expansion is possible. In general, the act showed Russia wouldn’t wage war against NATO or acceding states,” Suslov said.
The Founding Act gave the alliance legal grounds for admitting new members, but what really assured Western politicians that Russia was ready to allow expansion was the accession of the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Curiously enough, when this discussion was just beginning in 1997, Joe Biden, then-chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, argued that Russia could go along with NATO accepting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the military bloc, but the Baltic states were where it would draw the line.
“I think the one place where the greatest consternation would be caused in the short-term would be to admit the Baltic states now,” the future US president said.
In the end, the Baltic states were admitted into the alliance. They received invitations in 2002, and in 2004 became full members.
“How did Russia react? It did nothing again. It really stood up against expansion only when NATO tried to extend to Georgia and Ukraine. That’s why we ended up where we are now,” Suslov said.
Reality has clearly changed. The current dynamics of relations between Russia and the West leaves no ambiguity about NATO’s potential advance toward Russia’s borders.
According to Suslov, this, along with other trends observed in contemporary international relations, will strengthen the position of the realists.
“There is no doubt we are now witnessing a resurgence of the realist school. This has to do not only with the conflict in Ukraine, but also with the confrontation between the US and China. Once again, we see that the shifts in the balance of power on the globe are the single most important factor – it is what sets everything in motion and shapes the international system. It is a new shift in the balance of global powers that dictates the state of relations between nations: China has become too strong, and the US is trying to contain it,” he said.
Suslov argues that the current patterns in US-China relations “spell doom for the liberals and hold a lot of promise for realists. It is quite likely that, in the near future, Western politicians will start making decisions based on advice from the latter and not the former. If so, then what do the realists propose as their solution to the ongoing conflict in Europe?"
“The realists argue that the US should recognize Ukraine’s geopolitical losses as ‘status quo’, stop supplying Kiev with lethal weapons and even pressure Zelensky into signing a deal with Moscow under which Ukraine would remain independent but neutral.”
Following these recommendations would help the US solve two important problems, Suslov said. First of all, Washington could stop further Russia-China rapprochement unfavorable to the US. Secondly, it would de-escalate US-Russia tensions by preventing direct military confrontation between the nations.
“Realists believe this kind of confrontation is on the table if Washington continues the economic war against Moscow,” he said.
In any case, it’s too early to dismiss negative scenarios as unlikely and trust in the good judgment of politicians. According to Bordachev, “Not once in the history of humankind have politicians listened to experts. And there are no hints this could change today.”