No, the US didn’t “provoke” the war in Ukraine
Is the US to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
That’s what Jeffrey Sachs thinks. In a recent op-ed titled “The War in Ukraine Was Provoked,” the Columbia University professor – a man I’ve known and respected for a solid 25 years, who was once hailed as “the most important economist in the world” and who’s played a leading role in the fight against global poverty – argues that the United States is responsible for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine 15 months ago.
This claim is morally challenged and factually wrong, but it is not a fringe view. Many other prominent figures such as political scientist John Mearsheimer, billionaire Elon Musk, conservative media star Tucker Carlson, and even Pope Francis have made similar assertions, echoing the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia is but a victim of Western imperialism.
This strain of Putin apologia has taken root in China, pockets of the US far left and far right, and much of the developing world, making it all the more important to debunk it once and for all.
You don’t own me
Sachs’s first big claim is that the US provoked Russia through its “intention to expand NATO to Ukraine and Georgia in order to surround Russia in the Black Sea region by NATO countries.” According to him, this betrayed a promise allegedly made in 1990 by US officials to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would never expand eastward. There are several issues to unpack here.
First, it’s a myth that the last Soviet president was guaranteed a permanent buffer zone between Europe and Russia back in 1990. Declassified transcripts from the talks show that neither Gorbachev nor other Soviet officials ever raised the prospect of NATO accession for Warsaw Pact countries, and Gorbachev himself denied that the West had ever committed to anything about NATO expansion beyond Germany.
Second, as a voluntary association, NATO has no unilateral ability to “expand” – and it has always been reluctant to do so. But Central and Eastern European states have agency, and they demanded to join NATO to protect themselves from Russian aggression despite initial objections from NATO members. It was the Ukrainian people – not officials in Washington and Brussels – that voted in 2019 to enshrine NATO and European Union membership as national goals, largely as a response to Russia’s threats (on which Putin has acted). Far from being pushed or imposed by the US and its allies, NATO enlargement was actively sought by Eastern European countries, which had to actively convince members to accept them.
Third, NATO enlargement never posed a military threat to Russia. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, a mutually agreed roadmap for cooperation between NATO and Russia, reflected the alliance’s strictly defensive nature. From 1997 until Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO deployed no nuclear weapons and almost no combat forces on the territory of its new members. Putin himself expressed no concerns about enlargement in 2002 when the process was underway.
Fourth, despite Ukrainian aspirations, NATO membership was never a realistic prospect for Ukraine. While it’s true that at the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008, NATO promised Ukraine and Georgia accession at some indeterminate time in the future, it didn’t offer a roadmap for it. Indeed, when Ukraine applied for a NATO Membership Action Plan, NATO members rejected the application. The prospect of Ukrainian accession died a second death after the Russian invasion in 2014, as the alliance had little appetite to go to war with Russia. On the eve of the 2022 invasion, Ukraine was no closer to actually joining NATO than it was during the 2008 Bucharest summit 14 years prior.
Putin’s beef with Ukraine has never been about NATO “encirclement,” as evidenced by his muted reaction to the Baltics’ accession in 2004 and Finland’s last month. Rather, it’s always been about Ukrainian sovereignty. He invaded because he doesn’t think Ukraine is a legitimate country with a right to exist separate from Russia. We know this because Putin himself has repeatedly told us that the war’s aim is to reverse Ukrainian independence and recreate the Russian empire. That’s why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pledge not to join NATO just before the invasion didn’t stop the tanks from rolling in – and why nothing he could have plausibly offered would have.
We didn’t start the fire
Sachs’s second claim is that the US further provoked Russia and actually started the war when it “[installed] a Russophobic regime in Ukraine by the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, in February 2014.” This one is problematic as well.
For starters, the US did not orchestrate the Euromaidan protests. They started organically when, under pressure from Moscow, Yanukovych refused to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement – which had passed the Ukrainian parliament with a large majority and enjoyed broad support among the population. They had nothing to do with the US or NATO accession, and participation was mostly limited to students. Only after Yanukovych ordered the police to brutally beat the peaceful protesters and passed “dictatorship laws” curtailing freedom of press and assembly did the demonstrations turn massive.
Likewise, the US didn’t force Yanukovych to direct his security forces to shoot protesters, killing over 100 and triggering the Revolution of Dignity. Nor did Washington push him to try to create a separatist republic in Kharkiv before fleeing to Russia with a reported $1 billion in cash stolen from the central bank’s reserves. It was the Moscow-supported Yanukovych who chose to pull away from the EU, kill protesters, and try to split his country. In the end, his “violent overthrow” was achieved through a peaceful vote to oust him by more than two-thirds of the Ukrainian parliament.
Where I do agree with Sachs is that the war started nine years ago – not when Yanukovych was overthrown by his own people, but when Russia sent “little green men” to take control of the Donbas and illegally annexed Crimea.
If I could turn back time
Nothing the US, NATO, or Ukraine did or didn't do caused Russia to launch a war of aggression against its neighbor. Putin chose to do this, and the responsibility is his and his alone. Having said that, it’s clear in hindsight that the US and its allies did make a number of missteps that made Putin’s decision more likely.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West left Russia behind. Instead of making its prosperity, partnership, and cooperation a top priority like they did with the defeated Germans and Japanese after World War II, Americans and Europeans largely ignored Russia. There was no Marshall Plan for Russian reconstruction, no real effort to help Russia transition to a democratic market economy, to integrate it into the US-led global order, or to give it a proper stake in the European security architecture. Passing on the chance to turn Russia into another post-war Germany or Japan was a huge missed opportunity.
The West then failed to anticipate that the EU’s and NATO's eastward expansion would enhance Russia's threat perception in their backyard, something Russian officials in the early 1990s made clear and key US officials seemed to understand at the time. Even though no promise not to expand was ever made and it was the former Warsaw Pact countries themselves that demanded to join these organizations to safeguard their sovereignty from Russian threats, the West should have foreseen that this would feed Russia’s already acute sense of insecurity and humiliation.
Finally, the West failed to respond forcefully to previous Russian aggressions. When Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, the West did nothing. When Russia then invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, the West did pitifully little. This inaction was also a breach of a promise the US and the UK made in 1994 to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity – a promise that got Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons and make itself vulnerable to aggression in the first place. By failing to act in 2008 and 2014 (and by setting an example of disregard for international law in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan), the West gave Russia good reasons to believe that it could get away with invading Ukraine a second time.
Maybe if the West hadn’t made these missteps, Russia wouldn’t be a rogue regime with imperial designs and a chip on its shoulder. Maybe it still would. Either way, nothing the West did or didn’t do forced Putin’s hand. The blame lies entirely with him.