Potential explanation for the Ukraine situation

A reader comment on Why didn’t Ukraine become a NATO member back in the 1990s? highlighted this 2018 lecture at Yale by a French-Russian-American guy, 83 years old at the time(!), who was formerly a Soviet spokesman. Starting at about 19:00 he summarizes the various insults that the U.S. and NATO have inflected on the post-Soviet Russians. These include the 1998 expansion of NATO, breaking explicit promises made to the Soviets, recognizing the split off of Kosovo from Serbia, rejecting Putin’s proposals to join NATO and the EU, returning nothing for Putin’s assistance post 9/11.

He highlights Thomas Friedman, not for being smart enough to marry the daughter of a billionaire and fret about global warming from inside an 11,000-square-foot mansion, but for a 1998 article about the NATO expansion:

So when I reached George Kennan by phone to get his reaction to the Senate’s ratification of NATO expansion it was no surprise to find that the man who was the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union and one of the great American statesmen of the 20th century was ready with an answer.

”I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. ”I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”

The point about “neither the resources nor the intention” reminds me of a question at a Chinese New Year party in Miami: “Why does Joe Biden want to defend the Ukraine border when he won’t defend our own?”

”I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

If we are unlucky they will say, as Mr. Kennan predicts, that NATO expansion set up a situation in which NATO now has to either expand all the way to Russia’s border, triggering a new cold war, or stop expanding after these three new countries and create a new dividing line through Europe.

Thanks to Western resolve and the courage of Russian democrats, that Soviet Empire collapsed without a shot, spawning a democratic Russia, setting free the former Soviet republics and leading to unprecedented arms control agreements with the U.S.

And what was America’s response? It was to expand the NATO cold-war alliance against Russia and bring it closer to Russia’s borders.

As he said goodbye to me on the phone, Mr. Kennan added just one more thing: ”This has been my life, and it pains me to see it so screwed up in the end.”

Geopolitics is a complex topic so I don’t think Pozner or Kennan has access to the whole truth (but Friedman does! Marry a rich woman and live under Maryland family law so that she can’t get rid of you without ruinous financial consequences). However, the Pozner lecture is a good refresher for Americans who’ve forgotten everything that we’ve done in Europe during the past 30 years.

40 thoughts on “Potential explanation for the Ukraine situation

  1. Being ripped off by 3 stooges is a bad excuse for murdering a bystander. With 20/20 hindsight, was Russia ready for NATO and EU with what have proved to be dictator Putin? Unfortunately we seem to be going toward a dictatorship ourselves, we do not need to get there faster.

  2. And this dude Pozner is from a family of old communists, liberal wing of old KGB.

    • A lot of people running Russia today are from families of old communists, no? Their perspective is worth understanding even if we don’t agree with it, no?

    • It worth understanding of course, but it is also a story for consumption. And it is not an explanation for us of Russian invasion of Ukraine in excuse sense of the word. It would not fly in any court of justice, maybe woke one of so-called social justice which is anti-thesis to real justice.

    • LSI: I think Pozner makes no secret of his background, and the NATO topics are verifiable. His observations about the Western press are certainly correct. His explanation why Putin favored the Republicans seems logical. It seems legitimate to take him as one data source, verify his claims and listen to other historians to see if he has omitted unpleasant facts.

    • There is a sensible take on the Ukraine situation by the historian Niall Ferguson who had predicted the invasion last year. Of course, nobody believed him including myself.

      He makes a number of interesting points including his prediction for the future of Ukraine with which I largely agree and disagree with some.

      At the end of his interview, he makes a convincing argument about the sources of Russian imperialistic mindset starting with Peter the Great. His contention is that Putin sees himself as Peter the Great version two rather than modern Hitler (not that the difference matters a lot to Ukrainians). Interestingly, Ukraine lost its autonomy after the Poltava battle by siding with the looser, the Swedish king Charles the XII rather than Peter in 1708. Ferguson further contention is that the modern analysts cannot understand Putin’s imperial ambitions because they do not go far enough in history, limiting themselves to the WWII events at best, perhaps due to their ignorance, to understand what makes people like Putin tick.

      Here’s the podcast. The Russian imperialism part starts at 35:53 if you bored to listen to the whole thing.


  3. NATO trying to stuff the Russia bear into a cage and the Russian bear doesn’t want to go into a cage.

    I didn’t realize how much oil and gas (food, iron, timber, etc) Europe imported from Russia. I vaguely recall Germany decommissioning it’s nuclear power plants after Fukushima disaster. Now I guess they will have to turn them all back on since Europe and Russia are having “marital difficulties”.

  4. It is regrettable that the question of Russia joining, or just becoming closer (a special partner status?) with NATO and EU was laughed out of the room, given its impact today.

    Yes, the Russian bear doesn’t want to go into the NATO cage, indeed. The other animals of the forest (Eastern Europe countries) have lobbied hard for decades to build the cage, and who can blame them.

    Some corners of the internet have noted a change of aspect on Putin’s demeanor, and speculate he may have a grave, possibly terminal, disease. No more videos of vigorous physical movement, congested pale face etc. This may make him rush plans to put affairs in order. Anyway, his various plans for retirement (pre-2014 to France’s Côte d’Azur, post-2014 to the $1B palace complex in Sotchi) have been dashed again and again by self-inflicted events. That’s enough to make anyone cranky, being kept away from the hand-picked harems in those places.

    “Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.”

    He is absolutely right and it is a failure of Western foreign policy. Imagine having Russia on US’s side against China today! That would make many things easier.

  5. For the people who believe that Pozner is one-sided, this lecture (from 2015) by American professor John Mearsheimer goes into more details about Ukraine. He predicts most of the current events, except that he believed (in 2015) that Putin would not do a large scale invasion (he predicted that Putin would wreck the country economically instead). He focuses more on the civil war aspect of Ukraine due to ethnic differences (haven’t we been told that diversity is peace and strength?). He did not think that Putin is insane or like Hitler.

    He mentions that folks holding his opinion had been ignored completely by the political establishment. Posting this is not an excuse for the invasion, but highlights the utter mismanagement of events since around 2007:

    • Even if Pozner was “one-sided” back in 2018, I don’t think that reduces his value as a way of understanding the Russian perspective. More or less by definition, the people involved on each side of a dispute are one-sided. Americans are notorious for self-righteousness and not being able to see the other side’s point of view. We are nearly always self-evidently right, yet for some strange reason the world keeps producing people who oppose us in various theaters. If we are plainly right, why isn’t our rightness evident to these opponents such that they turn into allies (in both the 2SLGBTQQIA+ sense and also the pre-Rainbow World sense)?

    • @ philg

      “If we are plainly right, why isn’t our rightness evident to these opponents such that they turn into allies (in both the 2SLGBTQQIA+ sense and also the pre-Rainbow World sense)?

      I think this is carryover from the boomers Cold Warrior legacy culture. Once the 2SLGBTQQIA+ crowd catches up, they can append an R for Russki to the collection and all will be well in the world again.

    • “He did not think that Putin is insane or like Hitler.”

      Well, he was utterly wrong judging by what is going on in Ukraine now. Even Russian commentators talking on the two previously remaining, but as of yesterday shut down by Roskomnadzor, opposition channels think Putin literally has gone crazy when he ordered the invasion that has already resulted in more than 2,000 civilian deaths and close to 800,000 refugees only after 6 days of fighting.

      Putin could have started choking Ukraine economically by waiting a couple of months, half a year until the pipeline bypassing Ukraine is ready and just close the existing gas pipeline running through the Ukrainian territory. Instead he proceeded with killing the supposedly “brotherly people” and destroying the country civilian infrastructure.

      The two pundits you mentioned above have no clue how a typical Russian imperial mindset functions (about 70% of Russians according to https://theconversation.com/russias-invasion-of-ukraine-has-kremlin-battling-for-hearts-and-minds-at-home-177991 ). 81% supported the Crimea annexation ( https://tass.com/society/1264975?utm_source=google.com&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=google.com&utm_referrer=google.com ).

    • Ivan: We in the West do not know whom to listen to! You cite the imperial mindset, /df below the kleptocracy, Pozner and Mearsheimer NATO expansion issues. Perhaps it is a bit of all, surely NATO expansion would antagonize the imperial mindset.

    • Ivan: Thanks for the Ferguson link. His perspective on Putin seems to be the same as that of historian David Starkey. I wonder if both of them get carried away by explaining too much by personal politics (as an unrelated example, Starkey also claims that Boris Johnson is under the influence of his wife, which allegedly explains many of his policies).

      I’m not impressed by Ferguson’s view on the “complete reversal of German Ostpolitik” in the past seven days. He is hyping things up that fit his hawkish narrative, same as some “intellectual dark web” commentators who were hyping up the vote of the European parliament to give Ukraine EU candidate status (candidate status means nothing, Turkey has been in that state for decades).

      Similarly, he claims that the EU has to get ready for self-defense because the election of Trump in 2024 could mean that Trump withdraws from Europe. The Hoover institute has people who are great on culture wars, immigration and the decline of the middle class, where they are mostly correct. I think they are wrong on Europe.

      There is a lot of war misinformation right now, but allegedly Putin’s demands have been a) recognition of Russian Crimea, b) recognition of independent Donetsk/Luhansk and c) a demilitarized neutral Ukraine. At this stage at least, it does not sound like an all or nothing imperialist.

    • Anonymous:

      “I’m not impressed by Ferguson’s view on the “complete reversal of German Ostpolitik”
      “Similarly, he claims that the EU has to get ready for self-defense”

      Those two are the points I disagree with Ferguson and agree with you 🙂

      I think however Ferguson got the Russia imperial spirit and therefore true Putin’s motive right – all Putin’s whining about the NATO, West provocations, hurt feelings and security guarantees was just noise manufactured for external and internal idiot-savants consumption and used as a lame pretext for the invasion. Russia has had an uninterrupted imperial existence since the early 18th century during which it accumulated lands. never lost until recently, and that deeply affected Russian mentality and ambitions.

      I also think Ferguson’s prediction regarding the Ukraine future is more or less correct except the part of how long the resistance to the occupation will persist (much less in my mind).

      In any case, Putin’s move may have been considered kosher in 1708, but hopefully not today. Today, he is a vanilla war criminal, the fact that makes me wonder if all the self-flaggelating, tu quoque’ing people in the West who try to somehow whitewash the guy have not regressed themselves to the morality current in the year of 1708.

    • Incompetent fool Mearsheimer should not be compared to real deal Pozner. Mearsheimer would not deduct what natural number follows number 5. His malevolent insinuations on Israel proved to be totally false. On Ukraine, he predicted the opposite – economic warfare based on North Stream 2 construction (who would not?) and he was 100% wrong. Mearsheimer is part of what went wrong with this country. He created 0 value, really destroyed value is someone actually created policies based on his analysis, and makes good living out of it in heavily subsidized academia. At least low skilled immigrants do not cost as much and create some value. I would trade him for them anytime.
      Something wrong with Yale. It is gathering bs masters and international men of mystery with their agendas; they really do not add to to knowledge of anything. Political circus.

    • LSI: I do not know what Mearsheimer said about Israel, here is a recent interview where he says the same as in his talk:


      I think that the threat of NATO expansion and American interference has provoked this crisis, which some here categorically deny. I think he is correct on that issue. He is also correct that it is unwise to drive Russia into the arms of China.

      In an ideal world, obviously Ukraine should do what it wants as an independent state. But we don’t have that.

    • Anon, you should know Mearsheimer’s track record before listening to him. If academia and media allocates a bully pulpit to a total dope you still going to listen to him?
      There is no chance for Ukraine joining NATO in the foreseeable future, due to not settled disputes and NATO governance requirements. Do you think that Putin is stupider then us to know it? Of course not. Do you think that he attacked Georgia because NATO threat? The why he stopped on Abkhazia? If it is not imperial aspirations of Putin it may be combination of state freudenschade on steroid in seeing free Ukrainians living as they please and fear of Ukraine becoming richer when accepted to EU similar to other East European nations and highlighting hole into which he keeps Russia.
      Maybe US elites like that Putin supply’s fuel below market price to China? Having well oiled and fueled workshop in China operating allows false green posturing that enables crony capitalism in the West and takes chore of dealing with unstable Putin from US hands. But here is the issue for them and main cause for Putin’s aggression:

    • LSI: I still do not know what Mearsheimer said about Israel, and you do not give us any specifics.

      It is also irrelevant: Personally, I’m extremely pro-Israel. It is quite possible (but I’d have to do serious research first!) that I might agree with Kagan’s Israel policies.

      This does not mean that I think Biden/Nuland/Kagan’s Ukraine policies were wise, even if you assume they were well-intentioned (as opposed to getting influence in another oil/gas rich country).

  6. philg: I agree completely! The Mearsheimer link (he largely says the same as Pozner), is for people who would dismiss Pozner because of his background.

  7. Pozner is (to quote Wikipedia) “best known in the West for his television appearances representing and explaining the views of the Soviet Union during the Cold War” and that’s my recollection too. He had to flee Georgia after his hotel was blockaded by protesters calling him a “Kremlin propagandist”, which sounds right. So he might equally be able to defend the Cold War fantasy promoted by the Putin regime, but is that what they really believe or just a propaganda facade?

    The actual explanation is that Putin saw the images of Saddam Hussein in the sewer and figures he now has nothing to lose. His crony regime can only cling to power by destroying the emergent democracy in Russia and jailing and murdering his own people and people in friendly neighbouring countries, not to mention people flying over neighbouring countries. All can die as long as Putin and the money machine keep running. A system where the government changes according to an unrigged election cannot be allowed or even seen to prosper close by.

    The expansion of NATO to cover the former Warsaw Pact members was agreed with the Russian government, before the KGB guy took over and began in due course to spin the fantasy of threats and insults. He could have retired to his dacha (or Monaco) in 2008, and maybe wouldn’t even have been prosecuted. Instead he spun the wheel again, gamed the constitution, and backed himself full throttle into the current position where his regime can only remain in place because of nuclear weapons (see the difference from Saddam?).

  8. From an old Moscow baseball player I have heard that Pozner, who chaired Moscow or Russian baseball association, is not a good person. I used to like him when he led resistance to 1991 communist coup but he is obviously a Putin’s propagandist now. Yeltsen, whose protégé Putin was, ended liberal Gorbachov’s USSR that supported USA in 1st Iraq War and liberation of Quwait. Later Yeltsin ended budding Russian democracy by using best Russian army divisions storming Russian parliament and some time after that started building nuclear reactor in Iran. Putin made a fortune on dissolution of USSR and inherited Yeltsin’s throne. No wonder NATO or EU did not recognize not-finalized due to Yeltsin’s disolution of USSR verbal promises given to Gorbachev. Russia got a lot for its early semi – support of USA Europe. Many western companies made home in Russia instead choosing cheaper Ukraine. Russia inherited major arms of USSR even though large portion of it was made in Ukraine

  9. Victor Pozner is not an expert on anything except self promotion. Comparing the border problems in the US to what is going on in Ukraine is inane. If the Red Army were crossing the Rio Grande, murdering thousands of civilians and leveling cities it might be apposite. So what some ding dong at a Chinese new years party has to say about Ukraine hardly seems worth memorializing either on this esteemed blog.

  10. I think almost everything that can be productively said has been here, except to note that earlier today I laughed a little at @PhilG affirmatively quoting Thomas Friedman – but also thinking that Pozner should really have been very grateful to Reagan – despite his own personal letdowns and so forth. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren had a chance, at least, to grow up in a freer world. It’s not obvious to me that the Cold War really ended – I’ve never really thought it did.

    But some things are better than others.

    • In fact I’ve asked my own father on several occasions: “Do you think the Cold War really ended with Reagan?” and he’s always said: “No.” I don’t think the Left has ever given up on their dreams, either! They certainly have shown no sign of doing so that I can discern. They can hibernate, they can and will wait for their moments, but their entire philosophy is based on an inevitability. As long as it takes, it takes, and in the meantime, creative and influential apologists are helpful and useful. For Putin it’s not just his KGB background but also his desire to influence history here that is motivating him, and I think a lot more people are going to die because of that. He’s a very determined man, but I think he has gravely miscalculated.

      I wasn’t convinced of that even a few days ago!

  11. I’m not sure about Ivan’s Russian Imperialism theory (this is typical mentally of people from former soviet countries, they have a BIG chip on their shoulder when it comes to USSR and Russia – Russia always bad, West always good. Simples.) . From the Russian perspective, Europe has always been the attacker and instigator (Napoleon, WW1, WW2).

    Russia has a GDP the size of Italy – nothing like the undisputed USA world hegemony and its pushing of NATO further is not something that can simply be ignored as not having played role here.

    Clearly Putin is off his rocker and the invasion is not justified, even considering the abuses of Ukrainians on the easterners. It doesn’t help that Putin thinks in a 20th century mindset while US/EU/NATO think in 21st century mindset.

    But you can’t sit there and say USA/NATO were just sitting quietly in a corner doing nothing since the 1990s. To believe that would be naive.

    • GermanL:

      Two objections.

      I’ve never claimed “West is always good”. In fact, I am convinced that in many respects including its foreign policy, “West” is on a steep downward trajectory, maybe even in a Death Spiral due to various socioeconomical forces we seem to have lost control of. Perhaps, some of your former Soviet Union friends think this way and, having experienced the beautiful life under the Soviet regime for many years myself, I fully understand their myopia. However, the existential threat of the West decline lies perhaps in somewhat remote future and hopefully can be avoided while the existential threat of Putin’s empire is here and now, and it’s not clear at all how to avoid it.

      It seems possible that the erasure of Ukraine as nation that is going on at the moment would have happened regardless of any behavior of the West. Putin has complained for years about the Soviet Union dissolution as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” (obviously for Russia) which has got nothing to do with the West itself.

      It does not help that Putin thinks in a 18th century mindset, not 20th. As I wrote before, he sees himself as Peter, or Catherine depending on his proclivities, the Great Version II, the gatherer of all the lands Slavic.

      If anyone wondered how Germans could support Hitler in his military adventures, they may want to ask the 70% of Russians supporting Putin today who cannot claim ignorance, as Germans might have, of destruction and deaths happening right before their eyes. Putin, as his predecessor, has no motivation to stop what he is doing with this sort of approval, he could not care less about the sanctions. I just do not know what is a solution to that madness short of total Ukraine destruction to satisfy his appetite for nation building.

      Finally, as someone wrote: “By his or their choice, Putin and/or the Russian nation collectively has decided to become a toxic product, the ultimate human scum that no decent person will want to touch for generations”.

    • It appears that the Soviet Union is Germany’s fault. The Tzar had a German born wife who was allegedly fooling around with a Rasputin character. Now if the Tzar simply divorced the German born wife and re-married a Russian born wife, the hungry and poverty-stricken workers and peasants would have felt slightly better about their stalemate situation on the Eastern Front decreasing the odds of a revolution.


      “Russian Revolution
      From 1914 to 1916, Russia’s army mounted several offensives on World War I’s Eastern Front, but was unable to break through German lines.

      Defeat on the battlefield, combined with economic instability and the scarcity of food and other essentials, led to mounting discontent among the bulk of Russia’s population, especially the poverty-stricken workers and peasants. This increased hostility was directed toward the imperial regime of Czar Nicholas II and his unpopular German-born wife, Alexandra.

    • Paul:

      The picture you are trying to paint is too simplistic. There had always been quite a bit of German ancestry in the Russian emperors/empresses.

      Nicholas II himself was of mainly German and Danish ancestry. Empress Catherine the Great was a German Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg who changed her name upon conversion. I do not think “the hungry and poverty-stricken workers and peasants” has any idea or cared about genetic subtleties of the their rulers.

      There had always been a lot of affinity between the Russian and German rulers with occasional squabbles that the aforementioned peasants re-enacted for.

      Meanwhile, the Russian troops put the largest nuclear power station in Europe on fire as part of their plan on de-nazification and bringing Green energy to Europe:


    • Ivan:

      My European and Russian history is rather limited and it quickly turns into a rabbit hole of reading.

      I remember reading that Ukraine has a lot of nuclear power plants. From your link, “The plant has six nuclear reactors, making it the largest in Europe. It produces around 25% of Ukraine’s power.

      This is one problem with one nuclear power is countries like to start wars for any and all causes real or imagined or just plain idiocy and long range artillery doesn’t jive with nuclear power plants and associated nuclear waste cooling ponds.

    • GermanL, where did you study your history? You should know that European monarchies, including Russian Empire, attacked revolutionary France. If you went to Soviet school you would study famous Russian painting “Suvorov crossing the Alps in 1799” https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/suvorov-crossing-the-alps-in-1799/_AHnWPcZJr1YrQ. Google how he got there. He was chased here by the French who were defending France. Have you learned about Battle of Austerlitz in Austria and what business Russian Emperor Alexandr I had there fighting Napoleon in 1805? Did you know that Russia got involved in WWI on Serbia’s side and without this there would not be WWI? Have you heard about Molotov-Ribbentrop pact? Did you know how Russia grew to be empire starting late 15th century and roots of Russian statehood in Golden Horde rule? And check how many times Russian army have been to Berlin.
      I am not saying that West is spotless or always good but “20th century mindset” means nothing. If you refer to early 20th century Cambridge Trinity College entrance examinations then we totally lost in 21st century. And many of our politicians are dumb. We have potential to do much worse things, at least MAD worked in 20th century

  12. The invasion is terrible, but there are no good guys on either side. Joe Biden and Victoria Nuland had been involved in the February 2014 Ukrainian regime change, after which Hunter Biden magically got his immensely lucrative contract on the board of Ukraine’s largest gas company.

    (Example of the involvement: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26079957)

    Once elected president, Joe Biden installed Nuland again. Is it a coincidence that Putin attacks in February?

    Nuland’s relative Frederick Kagan, notable for the genius Irak “surge strategy”, sits on Jordan Peterson’s show, merrily mentions that he failed to predict the Ukraine invasion and then pontificates that Russia might deploy missiles against Poland (he is probably working on the next genius strategy that will draw the U.S. into a 10 year war that will eventually be lost):

    • Anon, what sides are you talking about? Putin did not attack Biden/Nuland/USA, he bombs and pillages Ukraine.

    • perplexed: Everyone except for 2022 Biden, who called Ukrainians Iranians in his recent speech, is aware of that fact.

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