As I speak today, Europe, for the first time in almost 80 years, is faced with the threat of a major invasion. A large nation threatens a smaller, less powerful neighbor, surrounding it on three sides with tens of thousands of troops, tanks and artillery.
My friends, as we have painfully learned, wars have unintended consequences. They rarely turn out the way the planners and experts tell us they will. Just ask the officials who provided rosy scenarios for the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, only to be proven horribly wrong. Just ask the mothers of the soldiers who were killed or wounded in action during those wars. Just ask the millions of civilians who became “collateral damage.”
The war in Vietnam cost us 59,000 American deaths and many others who came home wounded in body and spirit. In fact, a whole generation was devastated by that war. The casualties in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are almost incalculable.
In Afghanistan, what began as a response to those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, eventually became a twenty year-long, $2 trillion war in which over 3500 Americans were killed along with tens of thousands Afghan civilians. George W. Bush claimed in 2003 that the United States had “put the Taliban out of business forever.” Sadly, as we all know, the Taliban is in power right now.
The war in Iraq – which was sold to the American people by stoking fear of a “mushroom cloud” from Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction — led to the deaths of some 4,500 U.S. troops, and the wounding—physical and emotional—of tens of thousands of others. It led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement of over 5 million people, and regional destabilization whose consequences the world continues to grapple with today.
The military intervention in Vietnam started slowly, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began much more quickly, but what they all share is that the foreign policy establishment insisted that they were necessary. That there was no alternative to escalation and war.
Well, it turns out that they were wrong. And millions of innocent people paid the price.
That is why we must do everything possible to find a diplomatic resolution to prevent what would be an enormously destructive war in Ukraine.
No one knows exactly what the human costs of such a war would be. There are estimates, however, that there could be over 50,000 civilian casualties in Ukraine, and millions of refugees flooding neighboring countries as they flee what could be the worst European conflict since World War II.
In addition, of course, there would be many thousands of deaths within the Ukrainian and Russian militaries. There is also the possibility that this “regional” war could escalate to other parts of Europe. What might happen then is even more horrifying.
But that’s not all. The sanctions against Russia that would be imposed as a consequence of its actions, and Russia’s threatened response to those sanctions, could result in massive economic upheaval – with impacts on energy, banking, food, and the day to day needs of ordinary people throughout the entire world. It is likely that Russians will not be the only people suffering from sanctions. They would be felt in Europe. They would be felt here in the United States, and around the world.
And, by the way, any hope of international cooperation to address the existential threat of global climate change and future pandemics would suffer a major setback.
Mr. President, we should be absolutely clear about who is most responsible for this looming crisis: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Having already seized parts of Ukraine in 2014, Putin now threatens to take over the entire country and destroy Ukrainian democracy. There should be no disagreement that this is unacceptable. In my view, we must unequivocally support the sovereignty of Ukraine and make clear that the international community will impose severe consequences on Putin and his fellow oligarchs if he does not change course.
With that said, M. President, I am extremely concerned when I hear the familiar drumbeats in Washington, the bellicose rhetoric that gets amplified before every war, demanding that we must “show strength,” “get tough” and not engage in “appeasement.” A simplistic refusal to recognize the complex roots of the tensions in the region undermines the ability of negotiators to reach a peaceful resolution.
I know it is not very popular in Washington to consider the perspectives of our adversaries, but I think it is important in formulating good policy.
I think it is helpful to consider this: One of the precipitating factors of this crisis, at least from Russia’s perspective, is the prospect of an enhanced security relationship between Ukraine and the United States and Western Europe, including what Russia sees as the threat of Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO), a military alliance originally created in 1949 to confront the Soviet Union.
It is good to know some history. When Ukraine became independent after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russian leaders made clear their concerns about the prospect of former Soviet states becoming part of NATO and positioning hostile military forces along Russia’s border. U.S. officials recognized these concerns as legitimate at the time.
One of those officials was William Perry, who served as Defense Secretary under President Bill Clinton. In a 2017 interview, Perry said and I quote, “In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame… “Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.”
Another U.S. official who acknowledged these concerns is former U.S. diplomat Bill Burns, who is now head of the CIA in the Biden administration. In his memoir, Burns quotes a memo he wrote while serving as counselor for political affairs at the US embassy in Moscow in 1995, and I quote: “Hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.”
Over ten years later, in 2008, Burns wrote in a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and I quote “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin)… In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players… I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
So again: these concerns were not just invented out of thin air by Putin.
Clearly, invasion by Russia is not an answer; neither is intransigence by NATO. It is important to recognize, for example, that Finland, one of the most developed and democratic countries in the world, borders Russia and has chosen not to be a member of NATO. Sweden and Austria are other examples of extremely prosperous and democratic countries that have made the same choice.
Mr. President, Vladimir Putin may be a liar and a demagogue, but it is hypocritical for the United States to insist that we do not accept the principle of “spheres of influence.” For the last 200 years our country has operated under the Monroe Doctrine, embracing the premise that as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has the right to intervene against any country that might threaten our alleged interests. Under this doctrine we have undermined and overthrown at least a dozen governments. In 1962 we came to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union in response to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from our shore, which the Kennedy Administration saw as an unacceptable threat to our national security.
And the Monroe Doctrine is not ancient history. As recently as 2018 Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, called the Monroe Doctrine “as relevant today as it was the day it was written.” In 2019, former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton declared “the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.”
To put it simply, even if Russia was not ruled by a corrupt authoritarian leader like Vladimir Putin, Russia, like the United States, would still have an interest in the security policies of its neighbors. Does anyone really believe that the United States would not have something to say if, for example, Mexico was to form a military alliance with a U.S. adversary?
Countries should be free to make their own foreign policy choices, but making those choices wisely requires a serious consideration of the costs and benefits. The fact is that the U.S. and Ukraine entering into a deeper security relationship is likely to have some very serious costs – for both countries.
Mr. President, I believe that we must vigorously support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to deescalate this crisis. I believe we must reaffirm Ukrainian independence and sovereignty. And we must make clear to Putin and his gang of oligarchs that they will face major consequences should he continue down the current path.
My friends, we must never forget the horrors that a war in the region would cause and must work hard to achieve a realistic and mutually agreeable resolution – one that is acceptable to Ukraine, Russia, the United States and our European allies – and that prevents what could be the worst European war in over 75 years.
That is not weakness. That is not appeasement. Bringing people together to resolve conflicts non-violently is strength, and it is the right thing to do.
Text of Sanders’ remarks delivered on the floor of the senate.