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Did the US really take Russia’s NATO concerns 'very seriously'?

Sen. Rand Paul gets smeared after challenging Secretary Blinken on America’s muddled Ukraine messaging.

Analysis | Europe

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken appeared to contradict one of his top deputies in an exchange with Sen. Rand Paul before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, re-igniting questions about the Biden administration’s diplomatic strategy in the months leading up to Russia’s illegal and aggressive war on Ukraine.

Of course, the media chatter surrounding yesterday’s hearing largely ignored the latest evidence that U.S. diplomats missed a potential opportunity to prevent Russia’s war, focusing instead on conflating Paul’s attempts to explain Russia’s actions with efforts to justify them

I’d encourage you to watch their full exchange.

Sen. Paul opened his comments by saying that “while there is no justification for Putin's war on Ukraine, it does not follow that there's no explanation for the invasion.” Yet during his testimony, Sec. Blinken seemingly rejected the need for any further exploration of Russia’s motivations, instead asserting the same, dangerous combination of over-certainty and incuriousness about the “the other side” that has fueled so many disastrous U.S. foreign policy decisions.

Blinken told Paul that the Biden administration “took very seriously the arguments that some Russians were putting forward back last fall, that they had concerns about Ukraine's eventual membership in NATO, in terms of their security posture.” Yet Blinken’s assertion appears to be at odds with what Derek Chollet, counselor to the Secretary of State, recently told War On the Rocks’ Ryan Edwards: that the U.S. refused to discuss the possibility of Ukraine’s NATO membership during diplomatic efforts leading up to the war, and treated Ukraine’s NATO membership as a “non-issue” during talks with Russia. 

It’s tough to square Blinken’s claim that U.S. negotiators engaged “very seriously” with Russia’s security concerns with Chollet’s admission that they explicitly refused to discuss Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. Because whatever the U.S. side may have thought about Ukraine’s entrance into NATO before the war, it’s hardly a “non-issue” for Russia.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Putin himself expressed frustration that Russia’s NATO concerns were being ignored, saying that “we need to resolve this question now … (and) we hope very much our concern will be heard by our partners and taken seriously.” But don’t just take Putin’s word for it — in 2008, then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia (and current CIA Director) William Burns wrote in a State Dept. memo that: “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 view Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

In fact, more than 30 years of analysis from U.S. foreign policy leaders like Burns, George Kennan, and Fiona Hill indicates that NATO’s expansion is, in fact, a core security concern for Russia; it is in this context that Sen. Paul challenged the wisdom of a Nov. 2021 statement reaffirming U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, asking Blinken to explain how the administration weighed the imperative to avert a Russian invasion against their desire to keep NATO’s door “open” to Ukraine (despite “knowing full well” that Ukraine was unlikely to join the alliance).

At a moment when the Biden administration has signaled an openness to expanding U.S. war aims beyond defending Ukrainian sovereignty, the American people deserve to know how our leaders both assess the credibility of Russian demands and balance the threat of further escalations and violence against maintaining abstract principles like NATO’s open door. Instead, Blinken largely refused to engage with the substance of Paul’s questions, mounting a vigorous defense of NATO’s open-door policy and rejecting the notion that NATO expansion had anything to do with Russia’s choice to launch a war in Ukraine. 

We can’t know for certain whether more rigorous U.S-Russia diplomacy — including discussions surrounding NATO expansion and Ukrainian neutrality — might have succeeded in preventing Russia’s invasion. We won’t know because it was — according to White House officials — never really tried. This makes Blinken’s refusal to even engage with Sen. Paul on these questions all the more concerning because understanding the other parties’ motivations and interests is foundational to any future successful diplomatic effort. 

Sen. Paul was right to remind Blinken that “war very rarely ends in complete victory by either side.” At some point in the future, the U.S. will hopefully have the opportunity to play a productive role in diplomatic negotiations aimed at preserving Ukrainian sovereignty and ending Russia’s illegal war.  

If these efforts are to succeed, Secretary Blinken and U.S. diplomats must take seriously their obligation to understand Russia’s motivations and beliefs; refusing to engage with Russia’s core demands might feel good, but it does not make for “very serious” diplomacy.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Senator Rand Paul, (Reuters)
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