Eight months into the war in Ukraine, a consensus seems to have solidified among the U.S. commentariat: NATO expansion and years of U.S. policy had little or no role to play in Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, which was instead entirely based on imperial pathologies of Putin’s Russia.
That Russian grievances over NATO helped spark the war “makes no sense,” wrote Rutgers professor Alexander Motyl, arguing instead that “tyrants use expansion and aggression against foreigners as a means of legitimating their rule.” “NATO cannot have been the issue,” historian Timothy Snyder insists; Putin “simply wants to conquer Ukraine, and a reference to NATO was one form of rhetorical cover for his colonial venture.” Putin’s attempt “to portray the pre-invasion crisis that Moscow created with Ukraine as a NATO-Russia dispute ... does not stand up to serious scrutiny,” former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer assures us.
To be sure, Putin and other Russian elites clearly do have a skeptical view of Ukraine's independence and its people's separateness from Russia. And in any war, you'll find a tapestry of different factors that have led to its outbreak. But looking at the evidence, it's hard to deny NATO and its increasing encroachment into what the Kremlin sees as its sphere of influence was central to the road to war.
We don’t need to go through the decades’ worth of public and private objections from Russian and U.S. officials alike to understand the role of NATO expansion in the war’s outbreak. Just consider what U.S. officials themselves said in the months leading up to the invasion, via the Washington Post’s report in August based on “in-depth interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.”
“On Dec. 7, Putin and Biden spoke on a video call,” the report states. “Putin claimed that the eastward expansion of the Western alliance was a major factor in his decision to send troops to Ukraine’s border.”
This is in fact just one of at least four such instances documented in that piece. “The Russian leader recited his usual complaints about NATO expansion, the threat to Russian security, and illegitimate leadership in Ukraine,” the report recounts about CIA director William Burns’ November 2021 meeting with Putin. “He almost exactly echoed Putin’s grievances about history and NATO in his discussions with Burns,” the report states about Burns’ subsequent meeting with Putin advisor Nikolai Patrushev.
In early January, the Post tells us, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov “reiterated Moscow’s position on Ukraine ... that NATO must end its expansion plans” to his U.S. counterpart. Few likely remember that President Biden himself said in June last year after meeting with Putin that “he still, I believe, is concerned about being, quote, ‘encircled,’” referencing long-standing Russian complaints about NATO’s enlargement.
The claim that Putin is solely motivated by imperialism is part of a pattern in Western coverage of the war. When Putin uses nationalist rhetoric that suggests a dim view of Ukrainian independence from Russia ― almost always in public-facing speeches that are meant at least as much for domestic consumption ― commentators seize on it to declare he’s driven purely by expansionist thinking. When he brings up grievances over NATO, which he has done in both public and in private with Western officials, it’s ignored or downplayed.
In fact, it’s ignored even when he brings it up in those public speeches. Many remain convinced Putin’s pre-invasion speech is proof positive of NATO’s irrelevance to this war ― even though he mentioned it 40 times. Even his famous 7,000-word essay presenting a vision of Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” was framed around unspecified “Western powers” manipulating Ukraine’s politics as part of an “anti-Russia project” to make the country a “springboard against Russia.” One doesn’t have to agree with this interpretation to simply recognize it exists.
But what about Finland and Sweden’s proposed accession into NATO, commentators say? “The Russian president reacted calmly” to the news, says Pifer, and “Putin says that this does not matter,” argues Snyder. Surely this is definitive proof the complaints about NATO are a mere fig leaf?
This argument leaves out three key facts: the unique position Ukraine holds in Russian thinking for cultural and strategic reasons, which sets it apart from both Nordic states; the disastrous war Moscow had mired itself in, tying its hands at the time of the announcement; and that the Russian response was far from “calm.”
When the idea was first floated, Putin ally and Security Council deputy chair Dmitry Medvedev warned Russia might deploy hypersonic missiles and nuclear weapons in the exclave of Kaliningrad. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it a threat to Russia and warned it would receive a “tit-for-tat response” that depended on “how far the military infrastructure will grow towards our borders.” The Russian Foreign Ministry threatened “retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature.” Though Putin and others subsequently tamped down this rhetoric, they continued to make threats, the Russian president warning that “if military contingents and military infrastructure were deployed there, we would be obliged to respond symmetrically and raise the same threats for those territories where threats have arisen for us.”
It’s not agreeing with Moscow’s invasion to imagine the bad reaction all this might spark, particularly from a militaristic state nursing a wounded national pride. American commentators well understood this when the shoe was on the other foot during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the New York Times’s James Reston chided Soviet leaders for “not understanding the limitations of political debate in America,” where most politicians were likely to react hawkishly to news of an adversary’s nuclear weapons being placed off the Florida coast. Or as one op-ed put it before the missiles were even publicly revealed:
Let those who are leaning over backwards to find justification for Cuba ask themselves what would happen if the United States suddenly began sending great quantities of arms and “technicians” to a country like Finland right up against Russia itself and hitherto acknowledged as being within the sphere of Soviet influence as Cuba once was within the American. There would be a real parallel to Cuba. Even our most fanatic rightists … would have to admit that such a thing would be an unwarranted provocation of the Russians and a serious tampering with the precarious balance on which world peace rests.
It’s somewhat understandable that commentators would want to downplay all this. Moscow’s invasion is self-evidently criminal and appalling, so it’s natural observers don’t want to lend credence to any element of its narrative of the war. Meanwhile, in a political climate that has often resembled wartime jingoism, there are professional and personal disincentives to being viewed or accused of being “pro-Putin.” And for at least some, it’s clear the conflict plays a psychological role as a “good war” exercising the demons of past U.S. foreign policy missteps. But understandable as it may be, there are real costs to ignoring this.
After the September 11 attacks, the plainly stated grievances over U.S. foreign policy of those behind the atrocity were largely kept from the U.S. public, which was instead told the terrorists were purely motivated by hatred of freedom, Western decadence, and a desire to impose their religious order on the rest of the world. Anyone who said otherwise was likewise accused of justifying or even sympathizing with the terrorists’ crimes and silenced. As a result, the United States spent years pursuing the very same wrongheaded policies that had helped cause the problem in the first place, fueling more anti-American resentment and terrorism in a vicious cycle, with tremendous costs for the U.S. public and for the world.
If and when this war ends, we have the chance to avoid repeating the mistakes that contributed to its outbreak. But not if we’re once more determined to ignore the role that decades of U.S. foreign policy played in getting us here.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer with Jacobin magazine and the author of Yesterday's Man: the Case Against Joe Biden. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, In These Times, and others.
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin participate in a tete-a-tete during a U.S.-Russia Summit on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at the Villa La Grange in Geneva. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East will be to get Iran — the real culprit. And the only way to start building a state for Palestine ith the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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