Kennan concluded that “such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
Arguments against such opinions were anchored in a combination of realpolitik and the ideological commitment to the spread of democracy. On the one hand, traditional Russian foreign policy was a domineering danger to Eastern Europe and to NATO itself. In addition, the view was that it should not be up to Moscow to decide; rather, it was up to countries Russia had once dominated to decide their futures.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter’s top national security adviser, was one of the strongest voices. In 1994, Brzezinski argued that NATO enlargement was not only urgent but should go ahead “with Russian cooperation or without it.”
Brzezinski cautioned that failure to expand “could compound the danger” of NATO’s disintegration. Four years later, he told a rapt audience in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv that “Ukrainian independence is strategically vital for Europe. Ukraine is culturally and politically a central European state.”
Proponents of the eastward NATO inclusion argument that people – not governments – should decide were confident that former Soviet satellites and republics would choose the democratic and prosperous West over Russia. Rolling crackdowns on political opposition to Putin in Russia bolstered their case.
Now, positions on all sides have hardened.
At the beginning of the war, the US expected a short conflict and a Russian victory. Sanctions seemed the best response. But Ukrainian resistance altered American thinking.
The US began to set maximalist Western goals, beyond just forcing a Russian retreat from Ukraine.
In April, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin described US objectives: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
What’s more, Biden declared that Putin has committed genocide in Ukraine and is a “war criminal” and ought to go on trial. These are accusations that will outlive the war, no matter what the outcome.
Western allies have not been fully on board with Biden. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have declined to use the term genocide to describe Russian actions.
For his part, Putin laid out his own expansive list of demands, mostly aimed at the West. He considers the Ukrainian government of President Volodymyr Zelensky a mere Western puppet, not a worthy protagonist.
Putin wants not just to take over the Black Sea coast and far eastern Ukraine, but also to overthrow the Ukrainian government. He wants to get NATO to pledge that it never will expand into Ukraine, and he wants NATO to withdraw militarily from far-eastern Europe.
In any event, the war did not proceed in the way that Putin – and even the West – expected. The invasion stalled. Putin raised the specter of nuclear war. NATO is supplying sophisticated artillery and missiles while the Ukrainians have begun to target Russian military facilities in Crimea.
Oh, and what of the Ukraine-based agents of the World Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots? The organization failed to materialize, even in towns that Russian forces were able to conquer, the NATO official said.
“The local allies were a fiction,” he explained. “Agents stole the money while reporting to Putin that they were ready to take control and that the Ukrainians would welcome the Russians as liberators.”
In any event, the trajectory of combat makes a fancifully neat transfer to Putin’s Potemkin Village of loyalists. Simply too many people are dying.