Dozens Of WikiLeaks Cables Show US Government Knew NATO Expansion Was Russia's Bright Red Line
Nearly a year in, the war in Ukraine has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and brought the world to the brink of, in President Joe Biden’s own words, “Armageddon.” Alongside the literal battlefield has been a similarly bitter intellectual battle over the war’s causes.
Commentators have rushed to declare the long-criticized policy of NATO expansion as irrelevant to the war’s outbreak, or as a mere fig leaf used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to mask what Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates recently called “his messianic mission” to “reestablish the Russian Empire.” Fiona Hill, a presidential advisor to two Republican administrations, has deemed these views merely the product of a “Russian information war and psychological operation,” resulting in “masses of the US public … blaming NATO, or blaming the US for this outcome.”
Yet a review of the public record and many dozens of diplomatic cables made publicly available via WikiLeaks shows that US officials were aware, or were directly told over the span of years, that expanding NATO was viewed by Russian officials well beyond Putin as a major threat and provocation, that expanding it to Ukraine was a particularly bright red line for Moscow, that it would inflame and empower hawkish, nationalist parts of the Russian political spectrum, and that it could ultimately lead to war.
In a particularly prophetic set of warnings, US officials were told that pushing for Ukrainian membership in NATO would not only increase the chance of Russian meddling in the country, but risked destabilizing the divided nation — and that US and other NATO officials pressured Ukrainian leaders to reshape this unfriendly public opinion in response. All of this was told to US officials in both public and private by not just senior Russian officials going all the way up to the presidency, but by NATO allies, various analysts and experts, liberal Russian voices critical of Putin, even, sometimes, US diplomats themselves.
This history is particularly relevant as US officials now test the red line China has drawn around Taiwan’s independence, risking military escalation that will first and foremost be aimed at the island state. The US diplomatic record regarding NATO expansion suggests the perils of ignoring or outright crossing another military power’s red lines, and the wisdom of a more restrained foreign policy that treats other powers’ spheres of influence with the care they treat the United States’ own.
NATO expansion had been fraught from the start. The pro-Western Boris Yeltsin had told Bill Clinton he “saw nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed” with plans to renege on the verbal promises made years earlier not to enlarge NATO eastward, and warned it would be “sowing the seeds of mistrust” and would “be interpreted, and not only in Russia, as the beginning of a new split in Europe.” Just as containment architect George Kennan had predicted, the decision to go ahead helped inflame Russian hostility and nationalism: The Duma (the Russian parliament) declared it “the largest military threat to our country over the last fifty years,” while the leader of the opposition Communist Party called it “a Treaty of Versailles for Russia.” https://archive.ph/atHx4