Last week’s column seems to have raised the ire of some folks. They seem to lack the ability to distinguish between a rationale and a justification. This is not a new problem, particularly when it comes to military action. This same sort of allegation was made by Rudy Giuliani against Ron Paul in 2008. Giuliani claimed that Paul’s assertion of US meddling in the Middle East leading to the attacks of 9/11 was somehow “blaming America.” This is of course ridiculous. As Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University (international affairs) explains, “‘strategic empathy’ isn’t about agreeing with an adversary’s position. It is about understanding it so you can fashion an appropriate response.”
There is no path to peace until you understand what motivates your adversary. It has been suggested that Russian concerns over the eastward expansion of NATO is mere wartime propaganda – an invented pretext to justify the invasion and reintegration of Ukraine into the former Soviet empire. Perhaps. But this is a mighty long con if it is. NATO expansion was understood to be extremely antagonistic toward Russia by multiple senior US defense officials over 12 years ago. The current CIA Director, William Burns, stated in 2008 in a memo to Condoleezza Rice that, “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian payers…I have yet to find anyone who view Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.” He further stated that offering Ukraine NATO membership would “create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.” This man literally predicted Russian actions over the next 12 years. If that is not understanding your adversary I don’t know what is.
The idea of Ukrainian NATO membership as a provocation is not some Russian propaganda invented 5 minutes ago. The seeds were planted 30 years ago. On February 9, 1990 President George H.W. Bush promised Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that if the Soviets would withdraw their troops and allow German reunification they would not expand NATO “one inch eastward.” Some claim such a meeting or agreement never took place, or that it did but because it was an oral agreement and not written it “doesn’t count” but this is both absurd and untrue. Written minutes of this meeting were found just last month (February 2022) in the British National Archives.
In closing, to be unequivocally clear – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the murdering of innocent civilians is wholly unjustified. Even if we accept at face value that NATO membership of Ukraine is the proximate issue for Russian aggression, there are a multitude of other routes by which this could have been addressed. That being said, the US and her NATO allies are not without blame. If you think your adversary might be crazy or irrational, it’s unwise to provoke them. Of course it’s a lot easier to be provocative when you know you won’t personally bear any of the consequences of your actions.