Ukraine and the post-Cold War world

By Hugh Gusterson | February 25, 2022

The history of NATO enlargementThe history of NATO enlargement.

Putin has no sterner critic, Ukraine no stronger ally than me. Like so many others, I am appalled to watch the Russian president’s cynical manipulation of the truth in his invasion of a weaker neighbor.

And yet, it is hard for me to join the rhetorical piling on I see on cable news and in the op-ed pages because of an underlying hypocrisy: So much of what Putin is doing wrong is premised on, or made possible by, prior US actions.

The United States condemns Putin for reneging on prior promises—especially at the moment Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the early 1990s—to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Fair enough. But, as Boston University’s Joshua Shifrinson has shown, Gorbachev agreed in 1990 to allow a reunified Germany to be a part of NATO because Secretary of State James Baker promised NATO would expand “not one inch” further.

So how come NATO now includes Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Baltic States, and others?

Because the United States decided to renege on the commitments because it saw strategic advantage in doing so but in part also, allegedly, because Bill Clinton saw electoral advantage in this course of action in the Midwest states with voters who identified with their eastern European heritage.

So-called “realists” will argue that the United States only did what great powers must. As Thucydides argued 2,500 years ago, when great powers—the apex predators of the global system—see a weakness or a power vacuum, they expand.

I disagree with this point of view. Apart from the fact that our interconnected world of nuclear weapons, trade agreements, multinational corporations, and UN organizations is quite different from Thucydides’ world, great powers rely on the predictability of international norms, and part of their greatness lies in their being seen to keep their promises.

Despite the risks, Russia continues to use Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as a source of leverage

The second criticism made by government spokespersons and pundits is that Putin has violated one of the most fundamental elements of the international order—the sanctity of national borders—by invading Ukraine. Of course, this is true: States have a right to feel secure inside their internationally recognized borders, to regulate who comes and goes there, and what goes on inside those borders.  But US criticisms of Putin’s transgression of Ukraine’s borders would sound less grating if they didn’t come from the people who have claimed the United States has carte blanche to violate other countries’ borders.

I am referring to all those officials, academics, and pundits who, for years, have behaved as if the United States has a god-given right to transgress the borders of countries like Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan to assassinate people on the ground at will with missiles fired from Predator and Reaper drones. This was all in contravention of international law. At one point in the Obama administration there was a US drone attack in Pakistan once every three days on average. The US vice president at the time, who had nothing to say about those extra-legal attacks on sovereign nations, was a guy called Biden.

Third, in recent days, Putin has been widely condemned for a mendacious propaganda campaign designed to justify invasion: False allegations Ukraine seeks to acquire nuclear weapons, plans to stage fake atrocities and provocations, and so on. But, Russia is hardly the only country to undertake such a campaign in recent years. Have we all forgotten already Colin Powell’s speech to the UN about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist? This speech justified an invasion of Iraq that, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, killed at least 180,000 Iraqi civilians.

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So, when I look at Putin attacking Ukraine, I see not a unique act of evil but an act of evil grounded in and arising out of prior acts by the US and its allies that helped make possible a world in which such an act of aggression by the leader of one of the three apex predator powers in the world is thinkable, indeed pre-normalized.

Of course, the world should condemn the Russian invasion, and there should be sanctions and protests. But Americans should also note that this is not as much a case of Russian exceptionalism as they might want to pretend. American public opinion might have been all in on the 2004 invasion of Iraq, but to many other countries in the world, that invasion looked not so different from what Russia is now doing in Ukraine.

The way forward requires the leading powers to be more self-aware about ways in which their own actions—which they see as licensed by extraordinary circumstances—may then license others to pursue their own exceptionalist actions.

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Rob Goldston
Rob Goldston
2 years ago

Well stated, indeed. I would distinguish between the attack that took out Osama bin Laden and an invasion to overthrow a government… but the latter is exactly what we did in Iraq.

Eric Weis
Eric Weis
2 years ago

I do not disagree but wish to point out an old adage. Two wrongs do not make a right. Putin is grossly wrong in Ukraine, and one hopes that a resurgent and revitalized Europe will emerge to buffer the apex predator nations. And maybe remove them from the apex altogether.

Magdalena S
Magdalena S
2 years ago

I agree with much that’s said here. But focusing on NATO ignores the desires of leaders and citizens of Ukraine who have a right to choose the system they live in.


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