On March 1, Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union Address. The first several minutes were dedicated to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In those few minutes, Biden made three key assertions. One of them was true; two of them were not.
In a speech that was surprisingly restrained, Biden fiercely announced how the West would make Putin pay, but refrained from the normal name calling and hyperbole, holding back even of the word "invasion."
Biden called Russia’s move an "aggression" that has "unleashed violence and chaos." That is true. Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a violation of international law. It is a brutal act for which there is no excuse and because of which innocent people are being terrified, forced from their homes and dying. War is always the ultimate crime.
That there are reasons why Russia chose this brutal action does not excuse it. Reasons are not excuses. There are reasons why anyone does anything. Criminals have reasons for their actions, but that does not make their actions legal.
Biden declared Russia’s attack on Ukraine to be "unprovoked." He offered no explanation nor evidence. That claim is false.
Putin has for decades clearly warned that continued NATO expansion as far as Ukraine was not only the betrayal of assurances made at the close of the first cold war but that it was the final red line. Had NATO not kept encroaching and promising an open door to Ukraine the conditions for the current crisis would not exist. It is not only Yeltsin and Putin that warned the US about setting these conditions. Mainstream and authoritative American voices from US ambassadors George Kennan and Jack Matlock to CIA director William Burns have warned American presidents that NATO encroachment to Russia’s borders is a dangerous provocation.
In 1997, Kennan, the architect of the US policy of containment and rollback of the Soviet Union, said that NATO expansion east “would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”
Only two years ago, Burns wrote about the warnings he had sent when he worked in the US embassy in Moscow in 1995. "Ukrainian entry into NATO," he wrote, "is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin)." Three years later, he warned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that "I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests." Short even of expansion into Georgia or Ukraine, Burns called NATO expansion into Eastern Europe "premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst." If it came to Ukraine, Burns warned, "There could be no doubt that Putin would fight back hard."
Despite the oft made claim that Biden repeated in his address, US presidents have long known that NATO expansion to Ukraine is a provocation.
NATO has also placed soldiers and weapons in the countries that surround Russia, not to mention the planes in the air and the ships in the Black Sea. In a recent press conference, Putin said, “Today we see where NATO is: in Poland, in Romania and in the Baltic states. They said one thing but did another.” Then he clearly stated his concern: “Then later the United States walked out on the ABM Treaty. . . . Now anti-ballistic missile launchers are deployed in Romania and are being set up in Poland. They will probably be there soon if they are not yet built. These are MK-41 launchers that can launch Tomahawks. In other words, they are no longer just counter-missiles, and these assault weapons can cover thousands of kilometers of our territory. Isn’t this a threat to us?”
It is not only a provocative threat, it is a violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, which promised explicitly that as NATO expanded east, there would be no "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces." Russia warned that this action was provocative in it 2015 National Security Strategy that stated that “continued expansion and the approach of its military infrastructure to Russia’s borders, all create threat to national security.”
Not heading these Russian security concerns, the US and NATO continued to surround Russia with the most threatening weapons, placing antiballistic missile bases and "spearhead" military bases in Eastern Europe. There are US nuclear weapons in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey. And the US has keeps a military base in Poland just 100 miles from Russia: a lot closer than Cuba is to Miami.
Biden, like the presidents before him, are well aware of just how provocative this situation is. They might also understand. The two century old Monroe Doctrine closed the door to European powers from encroaching on the American continents. It warns that "any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere" would be interpreted as "dangerous to our peace and safety." Any alliance between a European power and a sovereign state in the Western hemisphere would be seen as "the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States."
To the Monroe Doctrine, Theodore Roosevelt would add America’s right to intervene in Latin America. Kennedy invoked the Monroe Doctrine to justify illegal US intervention in Cuba, claiming that "The Monroe Doctrine means . . . that we would oppose a foreign power extending its power to the Western Hemisphere."
The US and NATO have also provocatively place hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars’ worth of military aid, including lethal weapons, on Ukrainian territory. The Cuban missile crisis testifies to how the US would respond to that.
So, Biden’s claim that Russian actions, in addition to being illegal, are unprovoked needs to be questioned.
A Battle Between Democracy and Autocracy
As he has since the beginning of his administration, Biden described the world in Manichean terms of light and dark, freedom and tyranny and democracy and autocracy. This battle, he said, is "the battle between democracy and autocracy." That claim is false.
If the first cold war was an ideological battle between capitalism and communism, the new cold war is devoid of ideology. It is a naked US battle for global hegemony and control of world markets. Rejecting the constant Chinese reference to "cooperation," Biden sees the global arena as a "competition" for market dominance.
Even the first cold war was not always clearly about ideology or about capitalism versus communism or democracy versus autocracy. In her careful study of US covert regime changes, Lindsey O’Rourke, Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston College, says that during the 1940’s and 50’s, the US conducted thirteen coups in Eastern Europe to roll back the Soviet Union. She concludes that there is no evidence that the US coups were focussed on replacing communist governments with democracies or democratic values. "On the contrary," she says, "the United States knowingly backed illiberal nationalist groups, many of whom had ties to the Nazis during WWII." She goes on to say that, through these coups, the US "promoted authoritarian regimes."
O’Rourke concludes that during the cold war, the US "promoted whatever regime type they felt would best serve US interests in that particular state. This suggests that US behavior was guided less by ideology and more by pragmatism. . . . Sometimes this meant supporting a military junta; at other times, a single-party authoritarian regime or a personalist dictator was thought to be best. In most Cold War cases, US leaders promoted authoritarianism."
Still today, the US has no problem backing dictators and authoritarian regimes when such an alliance is pragmatic, as in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others.
The new cold war is not about democracy versus autocracy. If the concern in Ukraine were democracy, the US never would have staged and supported the coup in 2014 that took out a democratically elected government, replaced it with a hand-picked pro-American government and gave birth to this whole crisis. That is hardly representing democracy in a global struggle.
And it was not just the US that was caught on an intercepted call plotting the coup against the democratically elected government of Ukraine, it was Biden. Then Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland can be heard on the intercepted call telling the American ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, whom the US wants to install in government in Ukraine. Pyatt refers to the West needing to "midwife this thing," a metaphorical admission of America’s role in leading the coup. Then Nuland clearly says that then Vice President Biden, himself, would be willing to do the midwifery.
So, the Russian invasion is a brutal violation of international law, but it is not unprovoked and it is not a global Manichean between democracy and autocracy.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.