The former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously referred to Ukraine as the “geopolitical pivot” of Eurasia, a power centre for both the United States and Russia. Since Russia regards the current conflict as threatening its vital security interests, the war in Ukraine is rapidly turning into a nuclear confrontation. Both the United States and Russia must exercise restraint before catastrophe strikes.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the West and Russia have contended Crimea and, more specifically, naval strength in the Black Sea. Britain and France conquered Sevastopol and temporarily expelled Russia’s Navy from the Black Sea during the Crimean War (1853-6). In essence, the current war is the Second Crimean War. This time, a US-led military alliance intends to ring the Black Sea with five NATO members by expanding NATO into Ukraine and Georgia.
Since the Monroe Doctrine was established in 1823, the United States has considered any incursion by great powers into the Western Hemisphere to be a direct threat to the nation’s security.
The United States invaded Cuba in 1961 when Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro sought backing from the Soviet Union. The United States had little interest in Cuba’s “right” to identify with whichever nation it wished, contrary to its assertion over Ukraine’s alleged right to join NATO. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was precipitated by the Soviet Union’s decision to put offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962 in response to the failed US invasion of Cuba in 1961. This crisis placed the world on the verge of nuclear war.
However, the United States care for its own security interests in the Americas has not prevented it from infringing on Russia’s key security interests in Russia’s neighbourhood. As the Soviet Union weakened, policymakers in the United States started to believe that their military could conduct operations at will. In 1991, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told General Wesley Clark that the United States could deploy its defense force in the Middle East and the Soviet Union won’t stop the US. The national security officers of the United States made the decision to interfere with Russia’s security interests and to topple regimes in the Middle East that were aligned with the Soviet Union.
In 1990, Germany and the United States issued assurances to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet Union could dismantle the Warsaw Pact without worry that NATO would expand eastward to replace it. On this premise, it obtained Gorbachev’s approval for German reunification in 1990. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Bill Clinton reneged on his support for the eastward expansion of NATO.
Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, objected vehemently but was powerless to stop it. George Kennan, the dean of American diplomacy with Russia, stated that NATO expansion meant the beginning of a new cold war.
In 1999, Clinton oversaw the expansion of NATO to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Five years later, during the administration of President George W. Bush, Jr., NATO expanded to include seven additional nations: the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), the Black Sea (Bulgaria and Romania), the Balkans (Slovenia), and Slovakia. In 2009, under President Barack Obama, NATO extended to Albania and Croatia, and in 2019, it will expand to Montenegro under President Donald Trump.
Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion grew drastically in 1999 when NATO members attacked Russia’s ally Serbia in defiance of the United Nations and further in the 2000s when the United States launched its preferred wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, President Putin stated that NATO expansion was a severe provocation that reduced confidence.
With the addition of Bulgaria and Romania to NATO in 2007, the United States established the Black Sea Area Task Group (originally the Task Force East). Then, in 2008, the United States escalated tensions between the United States and Russia by announcing that NATO would extend to the heart of the Black Sea by adding Ukraine and Georgia, endangering Russia’s naval access to the Black Sea, Mediterranean, and Middle East. With the addition of Ukraine and Georgia, Russia would be bordered on the Black Sea by five NATO members: Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine.
Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who persuaded the Ukrainian parliament to declare Ukraine’s neutrality in 2010, originally shielded Russia from NATO expansion into Ukraine. Yet, in 2014, the United States assisted in removing Yanukovych and installing a vehemently anti-Russian regime. At the same time, the Ukraine War erupted, with Russia swiftly regaining Crimea and aiding pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas, an area of Eastern Ukraine with a disproportionately large Russian population. Later in 2014, the Ukrainian parliament explicitly renounced neutrality.
Ukraine and separatists backed by Russia in the Donbas have been engaged in a horrific conflict for eight years. Efforts to resolve the dispute in the Donbas through the Minsk Agreements failed when Ukraine’s leaders decided not to honour the agreements, which demanded autonomy for the Donbas. As seen by this year’s conflict, the United States supplied Ukraine with enormous amounts of arms after 2014 and helped restructure Ukraine’s military to be NATO-compatible.
If Biden had agreed to Putin’s demand at the end of 2021 to halt NATO’s eastward expansion, the Russian invasion in 2022 would have likely been averted. The war could have ended in March 2022, when the Ukrainian and Russian administrations exchanged proposals for a peace accord based on Ukrainian neutrality. The United States and the United Kingdom pressured behind the scenes on Zelensky to reject any agreement with Putin and continue the conflict. At that time, Ukraine terminated the negotiations.
Russia will escalate as necessary, including nuclear weapons, to prevent military defeat and NATO’s eastward expansion. The atomic threat indicates the Russian leadership’s conviction that its security interests are at risk. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States was likewise prepared to deploy nuclear weapons. A senior Ukrainian official recently encouraged the United States to launch nuclear strikes as soon as Russia even considers carrying out nuclear strikes, a prescription for World War III. We are once again on the verge of a nuclear disaster.
President John F. Kennedy was confronted with nuclear conflict during the Cuban missile crisis. He defused the crisis by diplomacy and compromise, removing US nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet Union removing its nuclear missiles from Cuba rather than through force of will or US military strength. He pursued peace with the Soviet Union the following year by signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
It is of the utmost importance that Russia and Ukraine return to the draft peace deal they had in late March, which was premised on the non-enlargement of NATO. As the world has done on so many other occasions in the past, the precarious situation we find ourselves in today might quickly spiral out of control, except, this time, there is the prospect of a nuclear disaster. All parties involved need to exercise caution, diplomatic skill, and a willingness to compromise for the world to continue existing.