A War Long Wanted: Diplomatic Malpractice in Ukraine

Photograph Source: Anton Holoborodko – CC BY-SA 3.0

Author’s Note: This is the original draft of the letter to President Biden and the US Congress published in The New York Times on May 16 by the Eisenhower Media Network. This version, which is substantially longer than the published letter, is published here amended from its original formatting as a group letter. This version goes into much greater depth on the background of Russia’s invasion, the role of the military-industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry in US policy-making, and speaks to the toxic and dangerous diplomatic malpractice that has dominated US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. 

The essay is not exhaustive, for example, I don’t write of events after February 2022 or offer predictions as to what will come if ceasefire and negotiations are not begun, other than stating a general fear of unending stalemated war, a la WWI, or expressing concern for an escalation towards a nuclear WWIII. It also does not address the substantial complaints that can be made about the Russians. Repeating what is found abundantly in US media was not my intent, but rather what is omitted, particularly examining deliberate US decision-making over three decades and noting the absence of strategic empathy from the US/NATO side, hence the charge of diplomatic malpractice.

These are my views and don’t necessarily represent the views of my fellow co-signers on The New York Times letter.

Nothing written excuses or condones Russia’s actions. The Russian invasion is a war of aggression and a violation of international law. An attempt at understanding the Russian perspective on their war does not endorse the invasion, occupation and war crimes committed, and it certainly does not imply the Russians had no other option but this war. Rather, this essay seeks to communicate that this war was not unprovoked and that the actions of the US and NATO over decades led to a war of choice between the US, NATO, Ukraine and Russia. A war long wanted by megalomaniacs and war profiteers in DC, London, Brussels, Kyv and Moscow became realized in February 2022.

The US Provoked Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

The direct cause of the current inter-state war in Ukraine is Russia’s invasion, but America’s relentless expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders provoked the attack. Since at least 2007, Russia repeatedly warned NATO’s armed forces on Russian borders, especially Ukraine, were intolerable – just as Russian forces in Mexico or Canada would be intolerable to the US now or as Russian missiles in Cuba were in 1962. Coupled with these provocations has been an American militarized foreign policy characterized by unilateralism, regime change and preemptive war. This has ensured a reality since the end of the Cold War of confrontation and slaughter throughout the world. Thus, the famed predictions of the 1990s of a clash of civilizations became a reality of our own making.

The Broken Promises of Post-Cold War Peace

In the wake of the Cold War, US and Western European leaders made assurances to Soviet and then Russian leaders that NATO would not expand toward Russia’s borders. “…there would be no extension of…NATO one inch to the east” was what US Secretary of State James Baker promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990. Similar assurances from other US leaders, as well as from British, German and French leaders, throughout the 1990s form the foundation for the Russian argument of being double-crossed by NATO’s eastward expansion.

This resentment is not the only grievance expressed by the Russians over the actions of the US in the decade following the end of the Cold War. The economic shock doctrine forced upon the Russians, and the looting of Russian finances and industry, led by US bankers and consultants, saw an incredible drop in living standards, including a severe decline in life expectancy. The post-Soviet economic collapse saw GDP cut in half and millions die. This coincided with the US influencing and possibly rigging the 1996 elections for the corrupt and drunken Boris Yeltsin. Put all that together and you have a decade of humiliation and harm that still aggrieves Russian leaders and their public and informs a nationalist desire to stand up to the US, the West and NATO.

US and NATO bombings of Russia’s ally Serbia in 1999 occurred not just in the same year as the first expansion of NATO membership into Eastern Europe but the same month. This attack on their Serb allies is a continued theme in Russian messaging and talking points. Mostly now forgotten here in the US, NATO’s 78-day air war on Serbia is often the starting justification for Russia’s defense of its own war on Ukraine. Seen by the Russians as unjustified and illegal, as the first instance of NATO’s kinetic bullying, the 1999 war against Serbia leads Russian arguments about the Ukraine War being a necessary war of defense.

The Russians saw George W. Bush’s unilateral exit from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001 in the context of NATO expansion and the US’ Global War on Terror. To the Russians, NATO expansion meant the US moving its bases and missile launch sites closer to Russia while US leaders announced policies of “with us or against us”. At the same time, the US withdrew from the decades-old ABM Treaty, enacted to ensure nuclear deterrence by limiting one side’s ability to launch a first strike and then be protected from a retaliatory strike by defensive missiles (defensive missiles that the Russians understood would be made more effective by being moved closer to their borders). The withdrawal from the ABM Treaty announced monthsbefore the 9/11 attacks, was an early element of what would come to be known as the Bush Doctrine. The Bush Doctrine had three core components: unilateralism, preemptive military action and regime change. The Bush Doctrine peaked with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

NATO-Backed Regime Changes Stoked Russia’s Fears

A year to the month after the US waged an unprovoked preemptive war against Iraq, NATO conducted its second post-Cold War enlargement. In March 2004, seven more Eastern European nations were admitted into NATO, including Russia’s three Baltic neighbors, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. NATO troops were now on Russia’s direct border.

Later in 2004, Ukraine underwent its Orange Revolution. Seen in the West as affirmations of democracy, the Orange Revolution and its sister color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics from 2000–2010 threatened, often successfully, the rule of pro-Russian leaders. Russia’s ally in Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, was removed in Serbia’s Bulldozer Revolution of 2000. Three of these revolutions, all successful, occurred within 18 months of one another: Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. All three Moscow- friendly leaders were deposed. Less successful color revolutions occurred in the former Soviet Republics of Belarus in 2006 and Moldova in 2009.

In Kyrgyzstan in 2010, a second color revolution occurred. This time, Kurmanbek Bakiyev was chased out of office after closing an American air base in his country. To the Russians, these were not revolutions but coups, all part of a grand strategy by Washington to weaken Russia by removing its allies.

Historical evidence for Russia’s paranoia exists. Since the end of World War II, the US has conducted dozens of coups across the globe. With the Bush Doctrine openly enshrining preemptive warfare and regime change, the color revolutions, the enlargement of NATO and the abrogation of the ABM Treaty, the Russians saw a clear danger in the West’s actions. The idea of Russia joining NATO seems to have been broached with and by NATO and Russia on multiple occasions, but by several years into Vladimir Putin’s reign, distrust and animosity between Russia and NATO were in control.

Dramatic Escalation: NATO’s Role in Ukraine and Georgia

In 2008, NATO leaders, including President Bush, announced plans to bring Ukraine and Georgia, also on Russia’s borders, into NATO. That summer would see a five-day war between Georgia and Russia, with Russia invading after Georgia fired first. Washington and Brussels failed to understand that the Russians would not hesitate to use force if provoked, demonstrating Russia’s determination to enforce red lines. Rather, in 2009, the US announced plans to put missile systems in Poland and Romania. Announced as missile defense, the launchers could fire defensive weapons or launch offensive cruise missiles into Russia, only 100 miles away from the missile bases in eastern Poland.

In 2009, the Russians witnessed the US dramatically escalate the war in Afghanistan, and then in 2011, NATO carried out regime change in Libya. In both Afghanistan and Libya, the wars were sustained by lies. In both countries, military victory by the US and Western Europe was paramount and any efforts at negotiation were not only dismissed but denied.

By 2012, the US’ goal of regime change in Syria was clear. Like Serbia more than a decade earlier, the Syrian government was a Russian ally now under threat. As in Afghanistan and Libya, negotiations would not be possible, as the Americans set a precondition that required Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down as an outcomeof the talks. That was unacceptable to Assad and to the Russians. To the Russians, these three wars of the Obama administration displayed an American determination to wage war without regard for consequence and to never negotiate.

By the end of 2013, political tensions in Ukraine, a country with a long and deep historical split between its eastern and western halves, had developed into a crisis. Protests occurred across the country and in Kyiv protestors occupied the central square. By January 2014, violence was underway and by the end of February the legally elected, if corrupt, Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, had fled to Moscow. The US presence in the overthrow of Yanukovych’s government was readily observable. Senior US State Department officials and members of Congress, led by Senator John McCain and Victoria Nuland, attended anti-government rallies, boasted of spendingover $5 billion to promote democracy in Ukraine, and infamously discussed plans for a post-coup government in Kyiv. Much more happened covertly and quietly, and if known, reported only by US journalists outside the mainstream.

The Russians believed what happened in Ukraine to be a coup. A repeat of the color revolutions that had replaced Russian-friendly governments with US/NATO-friendly ones. The Russians saw a determined US and NATO willing to overthrow governments and engage in war. From their perspective, they were being besieged by NATO enlargement and threatened by American missiles. Warnings against not just NATO enlargement but interference in Ukraine had gone unheeded. The Russian parliament had formally denounced NATO expansion in 2004 and the Kremlin started issuing regular warnings in 2007. In 2008, following NATO’s announcement to eventually bring Ukraine and Georgia in as members, Vladimir Putin warned George W. Bush: “if Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions. It will simply fall apart.” [Andrew Cockburn points out that US recognition of an independent Kosovo in February 2008 further incensed Russia and that even Mikheil Saakashvili complained to Secretary Rice that this would provoke a dangerous reaction from Russia.]

In response to what they saw as a coup in neighboring Ukraine, Russia seized Crimea, home to their centuries-old warm-water naval base, and invested significant military support into Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region by backing Russian- speaking separatists in a steadily worsening civil war. The following year, in a similar manner, the Russians heavily intervened with their military in Syria, something they had warned they would do to ensure the survival of the Syrian government. Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria were predictable and should have been expected.

A Desperate Push for Peace: Minsk II Accords

The civil war in Ukraine worsened through 2014 until negotiations delivered the Minsk II Accords in 2015. This agreement between Ukraine and Russia dramatically diminished the devastation and set a pathway to autonomy within a federalized eastern Ukraine for the Donbas. By and large, the violence remained low until 2021, until tensions renewed fighting, although both Moscow and Kyiv were failing to honor aspects of the agreement. The Russians argued the Ukrainian government was failing to implement the Accord’s framework for Donbas autonomy, while the Ukrainians argued Moscow was refusing to withdraw military support from the region.

Late in 2022, the former leaders of Germany, France and Ukraine attested that the West had no intentions of ever seeing through or honoring the Minsk II Accords. Per Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Petro Poroshenko, the West’s purpose was to use the time to arm Ukraine and prepare for eventual war with Russia and not to prevent such a war (it appears the Russians did the same, preparing their economy to protect it from the inevitable US sanctions, to include enhancing relationships with other nations, and building out their military-industrial base to support a high-intensity conventional war – the Russians seem to have been much better prepared for this war than the West). The Russians accepted these admissions as a validation of the bad faith they alleged of the West, another betrayal, and more reason to see force as having been the correct option for securing their needs.

During the Obama administration, the US provided only nonlethal support to Ukraine, but it did begin a troop buildup in Europe, including conducting more exercises in the new NATO nations on Russia’s borders. The Trump administration escalated the US role in Ukraine’s civil war by sending Ukraine hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons. This was interpreted by the Russians as an indication of a US preference for conflict and possibly a preparation for war.

That interpretation was reinforced when President Trump unilaterally ended the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and Open Skies treaties. The INF Treaty prohibited exactly the type of medium-range missile that the US could now place in the NATO countries of the former Soviet bloc, allowing Moscow to be hit by first-strike nuclear missiles in a manner of minutes. For decades, the Open Skies Treaty had allowed each nation to conduct surveillance missions as a key element of trust. These overflights verified adherence to nuclear weapons treaties and ensured each side could see the other side’s actions. This limited the real peril of mistaken assumptions and misinterpretations that could lead to nuclear war. To its discredit, the Biden administration has refused to reenter either treaty.

As fighting in the Donbas increased in late 2021, the Russians put forward negotiation proposals while sending more forces to the border with Ukraine. US and NATO officials rejected Russia’s proposals immediately. In the first months of 2022, violence dramatically increased in eastern Ukraine. Stated attempts at dialogue, viewed in hindsight, belie a sincere desire by either side to avoid conflict. By mid-February,  observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe countedthousands of explosions weekly. On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Understanding the War Through Russia’s Eyes or, inversely, How to Commit Diplomatic Malpractice

For years, the Russians made clear their red lines and demonstrated in Georgia and Syria that they would use force to defend those lines. In 2014, their immediate seizure of Crimea and their direct and major support to Donbas separatists again showed they were serious about protecting their interests. Why US and NATO leadership did not understand this can only be explained by incompetence, arrogance, cynicism or a treacherous mixture of all three. This mixture illuminates the pathway to war in Ukraine and helps clarify the over 250 wars, military operations, interventions and occupations the US has conducted since the end of the Cold War.

What is written here is and was not unknown. Almost as soon as the Cold War ended American diplomats, generals and politicians warned of the danger of expanding NATO to Russia’s borders and maliciously interfering in Russia’s sphere of influence. Former Cabinet officials Madeleine Albright, Robert Gates and William Perry made these warnings, as did venerated diplomats Strobe Talbott, George Kennan, Jack Matlock and Henry Kissinger. At one point in 1997, 50 senior American foreign policy experts wrote an open letter to President Clinton advising him not to expand NATO. They called NATO expansion “a policy error of historic proportions.” President Clinton ignored these warnings and called for NATO expansion, in part to pander to American voting blocks of Eastern European descent.

Perhaps most important to our understanding of the hubris and Machiavellian calculation in US decision-making is the disregard for the warnings issued by Williams Burns, the current director of the CIA. First in an official cable in 1995 while serving in Moscow, Burns wrote: “Hostility to early NATO expansion…is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.”

Then in 2008 Burns, as US Ambassador to Moscow, wrote these warnings on multiple occasions in stark language:

“I fully understand how difficult a decision to hold off on [Ukranianin NATO membership] will be. But it’s equally hard to overstate the strategic consequences of a premature [membership] offer, especially to Ukraine. 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, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests. At this stage, a [NATO membership] offer would be seen not as a technical step along a long road toward membership, but as throwing down the strategic gauntlet. Today’s Russia will respond. Russian-Ukrainian relations will go into a deep freeze. … It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”

and again, in another cable to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice titled Nyet Means Nyet: Russia’s NATO Enlargement Redlines:

“Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO aspirations not only touch a raw nerve in Russia, they engender serious concerns about the consequences for stability in the region. Not only does Russia perceive encirclement, and efforts to undermine Russia’s influence in the region, but it also fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences, which would seriously affect Russian security interests. 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. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.”

To reiterate these were the words of the current US Director of Central Intelligence.

Who Profits from War?

Underwriting this wanton diplomatic malpractice and its attendant megalomania is the American military-industrial complex. More than 60 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” in his farewell address. He was famously describing the ever-increasing influence, if not control, of the military-industrial complex.

At the end of the Cold War, the military-industrial complex faced an existential crisis. Without an adversary like the Soviet Union, justifying massive arms spending by the United States would be difficult. NATO expansion allowed for new markets. Countries coming into NATO would be required to upgrade their armed forces, replacing their Soviet-era stocks with Western weapons, ammunition, machines, hardware and software compatible with NATO’s armies. Entire armies, navies and air forces had to be remade. NATO expansion was a cash bonanza for a weapons industry that originally saw destitution as the fruit of the Cold War’s end. From 1996–1998, US arms companies spent $51 million ($94 million today) lobbying Congress. Millions more were spent on campaign donations. Beating swords into plowshares would have to wait for another epoch once the weapons industry realized the promise of Eastern European markets.

In a circular and mutually reinforcing loop, Congress appropriates money to the Pentagon. The Pentagon funds the arms industry, which, in turn, funds think tanks and lobbyists to direct Congress on further Pentagon spending. Campaign contributions from the weapons industry accompany that lobbying. The Pentagon, CIA, National Security Council, State Department and other limbs of the national security state directly fund the think tanks and ensure that any policies promoted are the policies the government institutions themselves want.

It is not just Congress that is under the sway of the military-industrial complex. These same weapons companies that bribe members of Congress and fund think tanks often employ, directly and indirectly, the cadre of experts that litter cable news programs and fill space in news reporting. Rarely is this conflict of interest identified by American media. Thus, men and women who owe their paychecks to the likes of Lockheed, Raytheon or General Dynamics appear in the media and advocate for more war and more weapons. These commentators and pundits seldom acknowledge that their benefactors immensely profit from the policies of more war and more weapons.

The corruption extends into the executive branch as the military-industrial complex employs scores of administration officials whose political party is no longer in the White House. Out of government, Republican and Democratic officials head from the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department to arms companies, think tanks and consultancies. When their party retakes the White House, they return to the government. In exchange for bringing their rolodexes, they receive lavish salaries and benefits. Similarly, US generals and admirals retire from the Pentagon and go straightto arms companies. This revolving door reaches the highest level. Before becoming Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence, Lloyd Austin, Antony Blinken and Avril Haines were employed by the military-industrial complex. In Secretary Blinken’s case, he founded a firm, WestExec Advisors, devoted to trading and peddling influence for weapons contracts.

There is a broader level of commercial greed in the context of the Ukraine War that cannot be dismissed or ignored. The US fuels and arms the world. US fossil fuel and weapons exports now exceed its agricultural and industrial exports. Competition for the European fuel market, particularly liquid natural gas, has been a primary concern over the last decade for both Democratic and Republican administrations. Removing Russia as the key energy supplier to Europe and limiting overall Russian fossil fuel exports worldwide has greatly benefited American oil and gas companies. In addition to wider commercial trade interests, the sheer amounts of money the American fossil fuel business makes as a result of denying Europeans the option of buying Russian fossil fuels cannot be disregarded.

The Cost of War

Hundreds of thousands may have been killed and wounded in the fighting. The harrowing psychological wounding of both combatants and civilians will likely be greater. Millions have been made homeless and live now as refugees. The damage to the environment is incalculable and the economic destruction has not been solely confined to the war zone but has spread throughout the world, fueling inflation, destabilizing energy supplies and increasing food insecurity. The rise in energy and food costs has undoubtedly led to excess deaths far from the geographical boundaries of the war.

The war will likely continue to develop as a protracted stalemate of purposeless killing and destruction. Horrifically, the next likely outcome is for the war to escalate, perhaps uncontrollably, to a world war and possible nuclear conflict. Despite what the crackpot realists in Washington, London, Brussels, Kyiv and Moscow may say, nuclear war is not manageable and certainly not winnable. A limited nuclear war, perhaps each side firing 10 percent of their arsenals, will result in a nuclear winter during which we get to watch our children starve to death. All our efforts should be devoted to avoiding such an apocalypse.

The Potential for Peace

The intent of this essay has been to delineate how deliberate US and NATO provocations toward Russia have been perceived from the Russian perspective. Russia is a nation whose current geopolitical anxiety is defined by memories of invasions by Charles XII, Napoleon, the Earl of Aberdeen, the Kaiser and Hitler. US troops were among an Allied invasion force that intervened unsuccessfully against the winning side in Russia’s post-WWI civil war. Possessing historical context, understanding an enemy and having strategic empathy toward your adversary is not deceitful or weak but prudent and wise. We are taught this at all levels in the US military. Nor is dissent from continuing this war and a refusal to take sides unpatriotic or insincere.

President Biden’s promise to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” must not be a license to pursue ill-defined or unachievable goals. It may prove as catastrophic as President Putin’s decision last year to launch his criminal invasion and occupation. It is morally not possible to endorse the strategy of fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian nor is it moral to be silent as our nation pursues strategies and policies that cannot achieve its stated goals. It is not only an affront to our moral and humane senses, but this senseless pursuit of an unattainable defeat of Russia in the spirit of some form of 19th-century imperial victory or grand geopolitical chess move is vainglorious, counterproductive and self-destructive.

Only a meaningful and genuine commitment to diplomacy, specifically an immediate ceasefire and negotiations without disqualifying or prohibitive preconditions will end this war and its suffering, bring stability to Europe and prevent a nuclear third-world war.

Deliberate provocations delivered this war. In the same manner, deliberate diplomacy can end it.

Matthew Hoh is a member of the advisory boards of Expose Facts, Veterans For Peace and World Beyond War. In 2009 he resigned his position with the State Department in Afghanistan in protest of the escalation of the Afghan War by the Obama Administration. He previously had been in Iraq with a State Department team and with the U.S. Marines. He is a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy.