From the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we’ve been told that the issue of NATO expansion is irrelevant to the war, and that anyone bringing it up is, at best, unwittingly parroting Kremlin propaganda, at worst, apologizing for or justifying the war.
So it was curious to see NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg earlier this month say explicitly that Russian president Vladimir Putin launched his criminal war as a reaction to the possibility of NATO expanding into Ukraine, and the alliance’s refusal to swear it off — not once or twice, but three separate times.
“President Putin declared in the autumn of 2021, and actually sent a draft treaty that they wanted NATO to sign, to promise no more NATO enlargement,” Stoltenberg told a joint committee meeting of the European Parliament on September 7. “That was what he sent us. And [that] was a pre-condition for not invade [sic] Ukraine. Of course we didn't sign that.”
“He went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders. He has got the exact opposite,” Stoltenberg reiterated, referring to the accession of Sweden and Finland into the alliance in response to Putin’s invasion. Their entry, he later insisted, “demonstrates that when President Putin invaded a European country to prevent more NATO, he's getting the exact opposite.”
It’s not clear if Stoltenberg was referring to the draft treaty Putin put forward in December 2021 and simply mixed up the seasons (the provisions of each are the same), or if he’s referring to an earlier, as-yet-unreported incident. In any case, what Stoltenberg claims here — that Putin viewed Ukraine’s NATO entry as so unacceptable he was willing to invade to stop it, and put forward a negotiating bid that might have prevented it, only for NATO to reject it — has been repeatedlymade by those trying to explain the causes of the war and how it could be ended, only to be dismissed as propaganda.
The only logical conclusion, if we’re to listen to the hawks, is that the man in charge of the very alliance helping Ukraine defend itself from Putin is, in fact, working for the Russian leader and spreading his propaganda.
This isn’t the only instance from a member of the NATO establishment. Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee in May this year, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said, alongside Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, that “we assess that Putin probably has scaled back his immediate ambitions to ... ensuring that Ukraine will never become a NATO ally.” Earlier in her testimony, Haines had said that Putin’s invasion had backfired by “precipitating the very events he hoped to avoid such as Finland's accession to NATO and Sweden's petition to join.”
Likewise, in a March 2023 interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, Russia expert Fiona Hill — who served as an intelligence analyst under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as on the National Security Council under President Donald Trump — told the paper that “it was always obvious that NATO’s enlargement to Ukraine and to Georgia was a provocation for Putin.” Yet the opposite claim, that the invasion was entirely “unprovoked,” has become such an article of faith in Western discourse that this word is ubiquitous in news reports and official statements on the war.
On a similar note, an August 2022 Washington Post report based on “in-depth interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials” reported four separate instances of high-ranking Russian officials telling their U.S.counterparts in the lead-up to the war that NATO expansion was a core part of the grievances motivating Moscow’s threatening troop build-up. That included Putin himself, who told President Joe Biden in a December 2021 video call “that the eastward expansion of the Western alliance was a major factor in his decision to send troops to Ukraine’s border,” according to the report.
To some extent, this isn’t surprising. As the analysts, journalists, politicians, and others pointing to NATO expansion as a leading cause of the war have copiouslydocumented, the decades before the invasion saw countless members of the Washington national security establishment, from famed Cold War strategist George Kennan and current CIA Director William Burns to a parade of diplomats, military officials, NATO leaders and even Biden himself, warn that the alliance’s eastward creep was a fundamental source of Russian unhappiness and that it would provoke Russian hostility and aggression — or even spark war.
But what was once uncontroversial and widely acknowledged before the invasion has become verboten since it started in February 2022, as debate or dissent on the matter of the war and U.S. and European policy toward it have been clamped down on, often via vicious McCarthyite tactics. The topic has become verboten, that is, unless you happen to be a U.S. or NATO official.
It’s not just individual officials, either. Elements of this supposedly Kremlin-originating argument also pop up in major U.S. government documents. Take, for instance, the Annual Threat Assessment put out by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence a year after the invasion started. Meant to reflect the “collective insights” of Washington’s various intelligence agencies, the report states that it expects Moscow to continue “to insert itself into crises when it sees its interests at stake, the anticipated costs of action are low, it sees an opportunity to capitalize on a power vacuum, or, as in the case of its use of force in Ukraine, it perceives an existential threat in its neighborhood that could destabilize Putin’s rule and endanger Russian national security.”
Yet today, anyone else saying that Putin or the Russian establishment genuinely view Ukraine’s growing integration into NATO as a security threat is liable to receive all manner of scurrilous accusations.
As with officials’ words, you can find similar points in documents before the war. A 2020 U.S. Army War College paper states that “future admissions to NATO for states in Russia’s near abroad will likely be met with aggression.” A 2019 paper from the Pentagon-funded RAND Corporation — and sponsored by the Army Quadrennial Defense Review Office — states explicitly that the Kremlin’s fear of a direct military attack by the United States is “very real,” plus that “providing more U.S. military equipment and advice [to Ukraine in the war on the Donbas] could lead Russia to increase its direct involvement in the conflict and the price it pays for it,” including by “mounting a new offensive and seizing more Ukrainian territory.” The 2017 National Security Strategy states outright that “Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) as threats.”
It’s the central paradox of the current war discourse: What is widely acknowledged by Western policymakers and officials in the halls of power, who rely on an evidence-based understanding of the world to shape foreign policy, is unspeakable anywhere outside of them.
What’s at stake is more important than just finger-pointing and apportioning guilt. By steadfastly refusing to understand one of the foundational causes of the war and the U.S. and NATO role in it, we will continue to fail to end it and to secure a lasting peace, leading to many more Ukrainian deaths, and to many more years of living in the shadow of global catastrophe.
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.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.