The War in Ukraine Is Putin's Fault, but 30 Years of Misguided U.S. Foreign Policy Didn't Help

NATO is a means to an end, not an end unto itself.


There is one person—and just one person—who is responsible for the widespread death and devastation inside Ukraine right now, and that is Vladimir Putin. He has attacked and invaded a sovereign nation without justification. Putin's nostalgia for the old Soviet Union is despicable, and his imperialist ambitions to expand his authoritarian grasp are in direct violation of international law, humanitarian principles, and the very stability of the post–World War II peace that has endured in much of the word for decades.

Putin is a tyrant and a killer. His decision to put Russia's nuclear forces on high is unconscionable. It's a move that harkens all the way back to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962—a leader of a superpower has unilaterally brought civilization closer to nuclear war. This is indefensible, and the whole world knows it. The people of Russia know it: That's why thousands of them are protesting Putin's war all over their country. Putin's government has arrested more than 6,000 peaceful demonstrators so far.

Putin's nuclear threats will put the rest of the developed world on high alert in response. This means we've rapidly landed in a place where the risk of all-out nuclear war is significantly higher. There's no reason for this. We are in this situation because of the actions of one very evil man.

All of that said, it's important to call out the bad U.S. foreign policy moves that helped get us here. And even though no one did this but Putin, the U.S.'s failed approach to Russia for the last 30 years—a bipartisan effort that includes mistakes by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden—deserves criticism as well.

Let's start with the Clinton administration in the 1990s. As Reason's Eric Boehm pointed out, Clinton was the first U.S. president in decades to inherit a world that did not include the Soviet Union. Clinton could have completely revamped NATO now that its purpose—defending member nations against the expansion of the Soviet Union—was no longer applicable. Instead, Clinton, with the Republican Party's support, oversaw an expansion of NATO. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland all joined. Years later, Putin would cite this enlargement of NATO as one of the West's "broken promises" that justified his Ukraine policy.

Again, Putin is dead wrong. Nothing justifies his Ukraine policy. But the purpose of NATO was defensive: to protect the world from Russian aggression. If NATO policy is antagonizing Russia and being used as a pretext for invasion, it clearly isn't serving that goal.

With the Clinton administration's backing, NATO also intervened in Yugoslavia in 1999 to ensure an independent Kosovo. That military action never had the backing of the United Nations; it was a violation of international law, just like Putin's attack on Ukraine.

George Bush's foreign policy has not held up well, due to the U.S.'s horrendous misadventures in the Middle East, but Bush blundered in Europe as well. At a 2008 NATO summit—one attended by Putin—Bush staunchly supported Ukraine's eventual admittance to NATO, over the objections of France, the U.K., and Germany.

The Obama administration, of course, inflamed tensions with Russia when the U.S. took sides in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. And then came Donald Trump. Democrats and their allies in the mainstream media ceaselessly accused Trump of being a Russian stooge, even a pro-Putin plant, installed by Russia as president of the U.S. due to a subtle influence campaign on Facebook. This was of course ridiculous—and as evidence of how ridiculous the claims are, Trump's actual administration was just as foolishly tough on Russia as his predecessors. In 2017, Vice President Mike Pence even reiterated the 2008 Bucharest declaration.

The Biden administration maintained that same fiction. A clear declaration that the Ukraine would not be joining NATO might have deprived Putin of the intellectual ammo he required to move forward with this invasion. We don't know for sure. But it was incumbent on the U.S. to try. NATO is a means to an end—a more safe and secure Europe—not an end unto itself. If expansion is creating the very conditions that NATO's existence is supposed to prevent, it's not working. Yet every single U.S. president since the end of the Cold War has misunderstood this. And now here we are.