The seven-month war in Ukraine, and the role of NATO, especially the Atlanticist powers, are fueled by an official western narrative that depicts the conflict as one between the plucky little Ukrainian David and the brutish Goliath that is Russia. The invasion is as unwarranted as it is vicious and provides justification for a current tally of $57 billion in lethal and non-lethal aid from the United States alone, with the United Kingdom at its side.
The western print and broadcast media feed the narrative with daily reports of heroic Ukrainian resistance and Russian setbacks, of invading forces targeting civilians and using a captured nuclear facility as an instrument of war. In this environment, the issue of how all this came about, the root causes of deadly conflict between two historically close neighbors, is in a state of deep freeze; but when the time comes for historical assessment Benjamin Abelow’s How the West Brought War to Ukraine will serve as an invaluable primer.
Abelow is both a researcher on international security and a medical professional, and his approach here is a clinical one. While roundly condemning the invasion, he cites by way of context a litany of western insults to Russia over the past thirty years. For those who have followed the trajectory of the war, these are familiar, but missing from the mainstream narrative: NATO expansion by 1000 miles to Russia’s borders, despite assurances to the contrary to the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and culminating in the statement at the 2008 NATO conference in Bucharest that Ukraine and Georgia were on track for membership; unilateral US renunciation of the anti-ballistic missile and intermediate nuclear forces treaty, followed by placement of ‘defensive’ systems [capable of conversion to offensive mode] in eastern European NATO states; provocatively aggressive joint NATO military exercises on land and in the Black Sea.
Abelow cites a blue-ribbon group of diplomats, scholars, policy experts and senior military figures—including former US Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock, the distinguished US diplomat Chas Freeman, University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, the British scholar Richard Sakwa and former US army colonel and Trump Pentagon adviser Douglas Macgregor, all deeply critical of the West’s role in the Ukraine conflict. Perhaps the best single illustration of expert condemnation came from George Kennan, the very architect of containment of the Soviet Union on NATO expansion: “a tragic mistake…..The beginning of a new cold war.’ at very least, nato actions since the cold war’s end have given the lie to continuing and expanding the alliance as ‘a great zone of peace.”
The author then posits a ‘shoe on the other foot scenario’: How would we have reacted if the Soviet-led Warsaw pact had prevailed in the Cold War and had not only proceeded to embrace European NATO members but to establish a military presence in Canada and Mexico? This raises a related issue: the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 enshrined the Americas as an inviolable sphere of influence for the US, one that we have regularly invoked in military-political interventions in central and south America. Yet we have denied the right to such a strategic interest in its neighborhood to Russia; our justified self-interest is Russia’s menacing meddling.
Two chapters follow on the general theme of policy missteps [“Russophobia policymakers double down on past mistakes”] this ‘who’s to blame” theme is basically an elaboration of what has gone before—the myopic failure by the US and its NATO allies to understand the depth of Russian animus over expansion, especially with respect to Ukraine and Georgia. The most revealing testimony to this effect comes from Fiona Hill, a national intelligence officer in 2008, later on senior director for Europe and Russia on President Trump’s national security council, who acknowledges “terrible mistakes.” Here we may also add the warnings of the US ambassador to Russia at that time, William Burns, who spoke unambiguously of admission of Ukraine and Georgia as ‘the reddest of red lines [for Putin]……nyet means nyet.”
A major strength of Abelow’s argument is his treatment not only of the ongoing conflict but of the possible knock-on catastrophic consequences. Most obviously, the current limited proxy war with Russia in Ukraine may explode into a regional conflict or beyond. Episodes such as the sinking of the Russian warship Moskva in the Black Sea with the loss of forty sailors, and the reported targeted killings of twelve Russian generals, on top of the copious flow of lethal and nonlethal aid from the us and its allies to the Ukrainian side—the us tally alone is $57 billion and counting—are plausible accelerants.
Abelow notes the contradiction in two stated objectives of us support for Ukraine: first, that of enabling Ukraine to mount a robust defense—a humanitarian intervention; second, and emphasized in repeated bulletins from the Biden administration, the intent to ‘cripple’ Russia not only in the current conflict but in any future [unspecified] military adventurism. This, far from offering protection to Ukraine, guarantees that the war will drag on, with ever greater levels of death and destruction. It has also led to both Russia and the us on hair-trigger launch policy, raising the specter of two equally catastrophic ‘next steps’: a grievously wounded Russia lashing out [as Abelow notes, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov has threatened as much] or, accidental or inadvertent nuclear action by, for instance, computer error [false alarms have occurred before, in much less fraught times].
This compelling counter-narrative should surely stimulate further articulation of themes Abelow merely touches on. To list just a few: first, one tragic lesson of the war is that, for the present at least, Ukraine in nato is a chimera; Ukrainian President Zelenskiy recognized as much shortly after the invasion with his rueful reflection that “NATO let us down by not letting us in.” Who knows what madness may yet reverse this, but the fact is that had one nato member leader—perhaps Macron—simply quashed the idea of Ukrainian membership the conflict might have been averted. Second, Russia cannot help but associate American involvement in the war with the threat of regime change; consider events this century in Kiev, Tbilisi, Bishkek—not to mention Baghdad, Tripoli, and a clear intent in Damascus—along with statements from members of the us congress and the executive branch, and it is hardly fanciful to think of Moscow as the ultimate trophy, raising further the prospect of a preemptive response by Russia. Third, within Ukraine itself, why did Zelenskiy, like Poroschenko before him, do a volte face from an election pledge to pursue positive relations with Russia? Threats from domestic ultranationalist forces have been floated, and were there outside voices of discouragement?
Finally, there is a growing pile of evidence of censorship in the western media of any attempt to question the official narrative. Why? If it is as demonstrably accurate as claimed, why fear skeptical questioning? The most recent instance of this is cbs news’s stifling of an investigative report into diversions of arms from western sources finding their way, not to the front lines in Ukraine, but to black markets in Europe and the middle east. As an ironic footnote to this, and for whatever reason, Abelow has learned that amazon has uncharacteristically refused to allow him sponsored product advertisements on their platform—an important marketing tool given the immense volume of books.
Like the war itself, these questions will persist. For now, the last word fittingly belongs to Benjamin Abelow: “False narratives lead to bad outcomes.”
David Speedie is former chair of the program on cooperative security, Carnegie Corporation of New York. He is a member of the board of ACURA.