How the Past 4 American Presidents Helped Escalate Tensions in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for the war in Ukraine. He has shamefully directed an attack against a neighboring country.

However, the conflict’s escalating nature is also an indicator of how American foreign policies can cause tensions to escalate in unneeded ways. This makes war more likely. Some of these actions increased the danger of violence in Ukraine and others took away the benefits of post-war norms, which now face being torched completely by Putin’s invasion. In their hubris and misguided attempts to project American power all over the world, the four previous presidential administrations contributed to the creation of the conditions for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

This doesn’t make Russia any less guilty, but it helps to understand them.

The Clinton administration is the beginning of this history. This was the world in which the Soviet Union had been removed for the first time since decades. With the collapse of communism Eastern Europe, the United States and NATO allies had the opportunity to reconsider the goals of their strategic partnership in 1949. This was in opposition to the Soviets.

NATO in the 1990s didn’t reorganize an alliance which had been considered defensive. NATO first accepted new member countries that had been previously part the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. This included Poland and Bulgaria. With the support of Clinton’s administration, NATO then launched into Yugoslav Wars and most aggressively intervened in Kosovo.

While the similarities between Putin’s attack in Ukraine and the 1999 war on Kosovo may not be perfect, there are some striking similarities. Each involved the military intervention of an international superpower. They were also motivated by the claim of having to protect an ethnic group within another country.

The “war” [in Kosovo]”It was carried out without U.N. authorization and was a gross violation of international laws,” says Sarang Shidore who is director of studies at Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. This think tank, which advocates realist foreign policies, “It was conducted based on a new principle conjured up by the United States and some of its partners called the Responsibility to Protect or R2P—the idea that major human rights violations justify the ‘international community’ intervening militarily in any part of the world. Although persecution of humans is unacceptable anywhere in the world, it was clear that a group of powerful countries used the principle against the less capable with utter disregard.

The invasion of Iraq by President George W. Bush (and to a lesser degree, his misadventure there) has further undermined the principle that superpowers shouldn’t violate the sovereignty of smaller countries or wage wars against unfriendly regimes. It is that same principle that the U.S. and NATO are now seeking to use to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—indeed, none other than Bush himself has issued a statementThis principle can be reformulated.

Bush also advocated for Ukraine to be given more attention. In 2008, Bush’s administration negotiated with NATO for a statement to offer future membership to Ukraine or Georgia. This was against Germany and France’s wishes. After the so-called Bucharest Declaration, the Russian government responded immediately and aggressively. They announced that they would provide military support for pro-Russian militias in Georgia, and then invaded a part of the country. Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder called NATO’s declaration the “cardinal sin.”

Chris Preble co-director, Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative tells the story. “Many top strategists warned NATO expansion was an error.” Reason. But there was a bipartisan consensus between foreign policy elites which dismissed Russian security concerns. NATO expansion supporters claimed that NATO was an alliance solely for defense and therefore no threat to Russia. “This was an untested assumption that underpinned NATO expansion. It was really a blind spot and was not seriously examined.”

President Barack Obama’s promise to avoid doing “stupid shit” in foreign policy and his administration’s attempt to “reset” relations with Russia might have offered some hope of reducing those tensions. All of that was lost in the wake of America’s attempt to control the outcomes of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, which deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych had not signed a free trade deal with the European Union.

Victoria Nuland was Obama’s assistant Secretary of State in an unpublished phone call that she made to American Ambassadors. She expressed her preference for a replacement in Arseniy Yotsenyuk was the future president of Ukraine, following the revolution. Sens. John McCain (R–Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D–Conn.) visited Yatsenyuk during the protests and openly indicated American support for him—the kind of behavior that would be loudly denounced if it were Russian politicians attempting to pick favorites in a Mexican or Canadian election.

Putin responded by annexing Crimea—and Obama, wisely, decided against escalation.

Obama was about as objective as an American president when he left office in 2016 in Ukraine. The fact is, that Ukraine“Russia, which, as a non-NATO member, will be susceptible to military domination no matter how we do,” he said. AtlanticHe added that this was an example of how we need to be clear about our core interests and for what we will go to war.

It didn’t work. Trump openedly called for an assessment of America’s NATO role and NATO’s global role. However, these efforts were motivated by domestic populist politics instead of a genuine diplomatic effort to realign. Trump was neither the Russian stooge that many liberals claimed nor the tough guy that many conservatives imagined, but his administration remained committed to the 2008 Bucharest Declaration—a position that’s in tension with Trump’s loud criticisms of NATO and personal fondness for Putin—and, like Obama, Trump sold billions of dollars of weapons to Ukraine.

Since the Cold War ended, American presidents made decisions that have echoed in today’s crisis. These decisions, whether directly or indirectly related to Ukraine, have shaped the current events. It is impossible to abandon principles like respecting national sovereignty in all circumstances. Insoluble issues can be made in any other situations. And even good-intentioned security agreements like the Bucharest Declaration could lead to dangerously increasing tensions.

Preble says that the Washington bipartisan foreign policy consensus has not acknowledged this “blindspot”. In fact, this is what the Biden government has done. In January 2020’s confirmation hearing, Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, stated that the Biden Administration would support NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

“If you are successful,” interjected Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.”Then we will be at War with Russia Now,” he said.

Avoiding a direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia must be the top priority for American officials—now more than ever. This history is irrelevant compared with the significance of what lies ahead.

Although the behavior of American presidents in recent decades has not justified Putin’s aggression, the choices made today are a continuation of those made over 30 years ago. Truth is that over the past three decades, several American presidential administrations made decisions about foreign policy that helped to shape the dangerous choices Putin and Biden face today.