Viewpoint: The U.S. never pursued diplomacy 

By Hank Davis 

 By invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be a war criminal of the first rank. His apparent threat to use nuclear weapons puts him among the worst in history. That said, the Biden administration has been criminally negligent in its refusal to discuss Russia’s concerns with NATO enlargement. Russia has long opposed NATO expansion eastward toward its border. That opposition, while often ridiculed in this country, is not unreasonable. Biden’s complete rebuff of Russia’s main concern or worries about NATO dismissing them as groundless, a ruse undermined the diplomatic option and provided Putin with an opening for his darkest impulses. Consider the following. 

First, Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement goes back decades. It certainly does not begin with Putin. A 1997 Russian National Security Blueprint states quite simply, “The prospect of NATO expansion to the East is unacceptable to Russia since it represents a threat to its national security.” Former Russian presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin both opposed the idea. 

Second, while the first Bush administration never “promised” no NATO enlargement, evidence of a verbal understanding that NATO would not reach beyond a unified Germany is compelling. That Russia views NATO’s subsequent expansion as a breach of trust is understandable. The documentary record has been declassified and is available through the National Security Archives ( Note, in this context, a remark by Jack Matlock, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under Bush Sr. He states in a 2021 interview that Bush would not have expanded NATO had he been reelected in 1992. 

Third, contrary to what one usually hears, NATO is not just a defensive alliance. Recall the bombing campaigns NATO waged in Libya, Afghanistan and, in 1999, the former Yugoslavia. In the last case, NATO bombed Belgrade for three months without UN approval, violating international law. Henry Kissinger warned at the time that the NATO bombing “undercut American assurances that Russia had nothing to fear from NATO expansion.” Kissinger lamented the “transformation of the NATO alliance from a defensive military grouping into an institution prepared to impose its values by force.” 

Fourth, many U.S. foreign policy experts have found NATO enlargement to be a terrible idea, provocative and destabilizing. Matlock told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1997 that adding countries to NATO “may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War.” George Kennan, another former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, wrote in a 1997 op-ed: “[E]xpanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold-War era.” “Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion … to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.” 

Note also the diplomatic sleight of hand on the part of the Biden administration. Administration spokespersons equate Russian opposition to NATO enlargement with opposition to the right of nations to choose military alliances. The addition of NATO members is none of Russia’s business. Choice in this context is not inviolable, however. Turn the tables. What if Cuba or Mexico were to ally itself militarily with Russia? According to administration reasoning, they should be free to do so. The U.S. would have no say in the matter. Obviously, the U.S. would have much to say, and I can imagine them pursuing regime change in those countries. I seem to recall just such an attempt in Cuba in 1961. The bottom line: Choice of allies must be balanced against the larger security context. This has been Russia’s main point all along. The point is reasonable, and the U.S. should have listened instead of shrugging it off. 

Everyone nowadays wants a stronger NATO. But note the logic. NATO enlargement is essential to contain Russia roused from its slumbers by NATO enlargement. The logic has spiraled out of control. NATO expansion. Russian pushback. More NATO expansion. More Russian pushback. Keep in mind that NATO began moving toward Russia’s borders in 1998 when Russia under Yeltsin posed no threat to Eastern Europe. Keep in mind too that starting in 1990, Russia has appealed repeatedly for a single Pan-European security structure replacing both NATO and the old Warsaw Pact. We dismissed the idea. 

The reader will reply that my remarks smack of appeasement and are beside the point. Putin’s complaints about NATO enlargement are simply a ruse, cover for his Hitler-like drive to take back Ukraine, his dreams of empire. On the other hand, had we been willing to address Russia’s longstanding and largely legitimate security concerns, Putin’s move on Ukraine may have been avoided. We will never know because the U.S., reckless and full of hubris, did not pursue the diplomatic option beyond lip-service. 


Hank Davis is a resident of Brooklin. He has a doctorate in philosophy and has taught philosophy at the University of Maine. Sources for this op-ed are available at [email protected] 


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