The outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine did not come out of nowhere. Here are the key historical events that produced the crisis, and the declassified documents showing that the U.S. government knew it was playing with fire over the last 30 years. Fundamental to understanding this conflict is the history of NATO expansion in Europe — which the U.S. repeatedly promised Russia would not happen.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created in 1949 by Western powers as a military alliance that would “contain” the Soviet Union and fight it in the case of a World War III. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, many wondered if the NATO alliance had any remaining relevance and should be dissolved.
The first assurances from the West that NATO would not expand eastward came from West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in his major speech at Tutzing, Germany. The speech touched on both the topic of German unification, and the orientation of NATO. Genscher promised the Soviet Union that there would be no further expansion of NATO. This speech became known as the “Tutzing formula” and would be repeated in subsequent diplomatic discussions. This assurance that NATO would not move further East was reiterated at the meeting in Moscow between West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 10, 1990. In this meeting, Gorbachev agreed to German unification so long as NATO did not expand East. This promise to Gorbachev, and the premise of NATO non-expansion, became an increasingly important foundation of Soviet foreign policy decision-making in this period.
The excerpt in the image is from a U.S. Embassy in Bonn cable back to Washington about the details of the West German proposal. The Bonn cable also noted that Genscher even proposed to leave the eastern part of Germany out of NATO military structures even if Germany unified.
“Not one inch eastward” — U.S. Secretary of State James Baker famously assures Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev about the limits of NATO expansion.
The Soviet Union dissolves.
A strategy document by US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, unofficially named the “Wolfowitz Doctrine” lays out a U.S. vision for the post-Cold War era. It proclaims the need for one disputed superpower — the United States — with such a preponderance of military force that even allies, like Germany, are discouraged from ever pursuing an independent course and becoming competitors to the U.S. It proclaims “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.” According to this logic, a new European-only security framework would undermine NATO and eventually produce a competitor.
The document continued: “We continue to recognize that collectively the conventional forces of the states formerly comprising the Soviet Union retain the most military potential in all of Eurasia; and we do not dismiss the risks to stability in Europe from a nationalist backlash in Russia…” The document is leaked a few weeks later; it causes a scandal, but much of what is written there becomes realized in the years to follow.
With the foreign policy debate unresolved in the Clinton administration, NATO launches the Partnership for Peace program to “create trust” with non-NATO European states. Secretary of State Warren Christopher met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow and assured him that the Partnership for Peace would be open to all European countries, including Russia, and would substitute for NATO expansion. Yeltsin responded saying, “this is genius!”
Secretary of State Warren Christopher later claims that Yeltsin misheard because he was drunk, but a now-released U.S. cable about the conversation supports that Russia was in fact, being misled.
Within the Clinton administration, there was much disagreement about the expansion of NATO. This disagreement was decisively ended when Clinton gave his “Not Whether But When” statement during a news conference with the Visegrad leaders in January of 1994. During this conference Clinton states, “While the Partnership [partnership for peace] is not NATO membership, neither is it a permanent holding room. It changes the entire NATO dialog so that now the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members but when.”
The U.S. misleading of Russia comes to a head at the meeting with Yeltsin in Budapest, Hungary. Yeltsin delivers an angry speech against the deception of the Partnership for Peace and the broken promises about NATO expansion. Yeltsin’s outburst was covered on the front page of the New York Times and dismissed as the ravings of a madman.
On the plane back from the meeting in Budapest, President Clinton was reported to have been very angry that Yelston “showed him up” in Budapest. Clinton wondered if deceiving Russia was the right tactic. This conversation was relayed in a sensitive memo to the Deputy Secretary of State.
In May and June 1997, NATO issued membership invitations to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. These countries officially joined NATO in 1999. These invitations mark the beginning of the march eastward that is at the center of the current crisis in Ukraine.
NATO conducts its first official military operation in 46 years in Bosnia in 1995. A big part of the U.S./NATO intervention is to keep German unilateralism in check. This is followed in 1999 by dropping 14,000 bombs in 78 days on Yugoslavia. Thousands die and an estimated 1 million are made refugees. NATO suffers zero casualties.
No part of Yugoslavia was a NATO member, demonstrating the alliance’s offensive rather than defensive character.
Yugoslavia was then broken up into multiple countries led by pro-U.S. forces. NATO doesn’t miss a step and begins to incorporate these new countries into their formation. Croatia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia all go on to join NATO in the following years.
Afghanistan was not just America’s war. After the invasion in 2001, over 51 NATO members and partners sent troops, funds, and support for the occupation that would leave hundreds of thousands of Afghan people dead. The $2 trillion war reinforces a global understanding that NATO has become a mechanism for U.S.-led regime-change operations.
Russia is deeply weakened after the Soviet collapse. Large areas formerly of the Soviet bloc, including territories through which Russia was attacked in World War I and II, are organized on a permanent anti-Russian basis. This reality, combined with Western deception, profoundly shapes political discourse in Russia.
Putin comes into office promising to overcome these humiliations. While Russia had been forced to swallow the first two major NATO expansions, he draws a clear red line: it would not allow a third expansion into Ukraine and Georgia.
A classified memo by U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns reveals the U.S. knew it could provoke a civil war and Russian intervention by toying with NATO expansion in Ukraine. William Burns is now the CIA Director.
In 2011 the U.S. and NATO overthrew the nationalist government of Moammar Gaddafi. The UN Security Council had passed Resolution 1973 to impose a “No Fly Zone” for the purpose of “protecting” civilians. Russia, then under the leadership of President Dmitry Medvedev, abstains. Immediately, NATO begins to function as the Air Force of anti-government rebels, dropping an onslaught of bombs that allows them to take the entire country. Again, Russia says it has been deceived; Putin returns to the presidency the following year.
Victor Yanukovych is elected president of Ukraine in 2010, and shelves any plans to join NATO, declaring the country non-aligned. After attempting to secure foreign financing by playing the EU and Russia off of one another, he ultimately rejects the EU deal. Mass pro-Western protests take off in Kiev.
Far-right paramilitaries storm the presidential palace and Yanukovych flees. Faced with the prospect of a NATO military base in Crimea, Russia annexes the region after a popular referendum.
Ukraine, Russia and Western European powers agree to a resolution of the civil war in the country’s Russian-speaking east. Donbass would have autonomy with veto powers over certain foreign policy decisions, its separatist fighters would be integrated into the Ukrainian state, Russian “volunteers” would withdraw and Ukraine’s borders would remain the same. In essence, Ukraine would return to a non-aligned, non-NATO country.
The incoming Ukrainian government refuses to implement the Minsk agreement and the Trump administration re-arms the country with heavy weapons. The fighting in eastern Ukraine takes 14,000 lives. In 2019, Trump also unilaterally ends the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, which Reagan and Gorbachev had signed in 1997. In March 2020, President Zelensky’s advisor on the Donbass advocates for a return to the Minsk framework; he is physically bumrushed by the far-right Azov Battalion, and dismissed a week later.
Crimea holds a popular referendum and votes to join Russia.
Russia mobilizes 150,000 troops for what it says are military exercises all around the Ukrainian borders. It demands permanent Ukrainian neutrality, a pledge of NATO non-expansion, and for no advanced weapons systems to be placed in Ukraine. The U.S. says all of these demands are “non-starters.”
Russia Invades Ukraine
The conflict in Ukraine has been decades in the making. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has taken non-stop measures and interventions to secure complete military domination of Europe. NATO’s expansion, and refusal to accept Ukraine’s neutrality, produced a powder keg situation. In its invasion, Russia has attempted to secure through military means that which it could not achieve after decades of talks. If a long-term peace agreement is not achieved soon, a larger regional or global war is now possible.
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Rachel Hu is a New York City based journalist, designer, and Asian American anti-war activist. She is the host of CovertAction Bulletin the official podcast of CovertAction Magazine which airs on 99.5FM in NYC.
She has also been a community organizer for nine years fighting against police terror and racism.
Rachel has seven years experience in design, and two years experience in motion design. Rachel’s design direction of the aesthetics of BreakThrough News reflects her deep passion for bringing modern design to left media.