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Andrew Bacevich: Ukraine Is Paying the Price for the U.S. “Recklessly” Pushing NATO Expansion

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What role did the United States play in creating conditions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and what will it take to end the war? The U.S. invasion of Iraq, which saw no repercussions for the Bush administration despite breaching international humanitarian law, coupled with Cold War-era policies and NATO’s eastward expansion, incited Putin’s aggressions toward Ukraine, says retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich, president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “American decision-makers acted impetuously, and indeed recklessly, and now we’re facing the consequences,” says Bacevich.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. Senate has passed a $1.5 trillion spending bill that includes $13.6 billion for military and economic aid for Ukraine — that, twice the original amount requested by the Biden administration. This comes as the U.S. and NATO are pouring weapons into Ukraine to help counter the Russian invasion. The New York Times recently reported the U.S. and its allies sent 17,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine over a recent six-day period. The Washington Post reported the U.S. is quietly preparing plans to back a Ukrainian insurgency and a government in exile if Russia succeeds in seizing Ukraine.

We’re joined now by Andrew Bacevich, president and co-founder of the antiwar think tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University, author of a number of books, including his most recent, just out, called After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed. His most recent pieces include one headlined “U.S. Can’t Absolve Itself of Responsibility for Putin’s Ukraine Invasion.”

Professor Bacevich, let’s begin there. Talk about the U.S.-Putin connection and why you feel the U.S. is partially responsible for what’s taking place.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think I would describe it as a U.S.-Russia connection, because it’s not necessarily limited to Mr. Putin. And the key issue here, I think, is when the Cold War ended. When the Cold War ended, of course, Russia was in a position of great weakness and vulnerability, and the United States and its allies chose to exploit that weakness. The most vivid expression of that was the eastward expansion of NATO. Let’s remind ourselves, NATO was an anti-Soviet alliance when it was created in 1949. Expansion of NATO basically moved it up to the borders of post-Soviet Russia. At that time, there were many Americans — George Kennan, the diplomat, would be perhaps the most prominent — that warned against NATO expansion as likely to cause us troubles down the road. We ignored those warnings, and I think that we’re kind of in a chickens-coming-home-to-roost situation right here.

Putin has — I am not a Putin apologist, and he’s the principal cause of this catastrophe that we’re experiencing. But Putin had been quite candid in warning that the eastward movement of NATO, and in particular the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, constituted, from his perspective, a vital threat, a threat to vital Russian security interests. We ignored that. And I think, to some degree, this terrible, unnecessary war is a result of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you know, you’re not the only one who says this. One person who warned years ago about NATO expansion in Eastern Europe is William Burns, the current director of the CIA.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: He served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. And in his memoir, The Back Channel, Burns wrote, quote, “Sitting at the embassy in Moscow in the mid-nineties, it seemed to me that NATO expansion was premature at best and needlessly provocative at worst.” And then, in 1995, Burns wrote a memo saying, quote, “Hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.” He’s talking about Russia. In another memo, Burns wrote, “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.” Again, those the words of the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns. Andrew Bacevich?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, so, one would say that given that kind of warning from a very senior official, highly respected senior official, why did we go ahead and do it anyway? And I think there are two answers to that question. One is because Europeans so desperately wanted to join NATO and to join the EU, seizing their chance to have democracy, to have liberalism, to have the possibility of prosperity. You know, my paternal grandparents came from Lithuania. Lithuania was in the vanguard of countries that wanted to join the EU and NATO. I don’t blame the Lithuanian people for that aspiration. And in many respects, joining NATO and the EU has paid dividends for Lithuania. That said, it was done in the face of objections by the Russians, and now we’re paying the consequences of those objections.

And I think the other reason we did it, of course, apart from what I think is really kind of a deep-seated Russophobia that pervades many members of the American elite, was the belief at that time — that is to say, back in the 1990s — the belief that Russia couldn’t do anything about it. Russia was weak, Russia was disorganized, and therefore it seemed to be a low-risk proposition to exploit Russian weakness to advance our objectives and also to advance the objectives of other European countries, most of which had either been part of the Soviet Union or had been Soviet satellites and saw the end of the Cold War as their chance to achieve freedom and prosperity. I don’t blame the Lithuanians, I don’t blame the Poles, but I do think that American decision-makers acted impetuously, and indeed recklessly, and now we’re facing the consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about this brutal invasion by Putin of Ukraine and also what Putin is demanding. It hasn’t gotten as much attention in the United States as in other places, but the demands written in documents submitted to the U.S.: Ukraine cease military action, Ukraine change its constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory, acknowledge Crimea — and if you can talk about these demands and also the brutality of what Putin is doing right now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, let’s start with the brutality. I must admit that, to me, the most striking thing about the war as it has evolved has been the crudeness of the Russian war machine. They had portrayed themselves as a modern army. Modern armies know how to use force, to use violence in a controlled and purposeful way. Yeah, people get killed, buildings get destroyed, but it’s not random violence. That, I think, summarizes the conception of modern war. And we believed, and I think the Russians themselves believed, that they had embraced the methods of modern war. It turns out that they did not. And so everything that has happened thus far over the first couple of weeks has demonstrated that they are incapable of using violence in a controlled and politically purposeful way, which brings us to the present moment, where it appears that what we are moving into is some form of siege warfare, where violence is used in a random way to punish, to terrorize, I guess, among the Russian commanders, with some vague hope that violence used in this way is going to lead to the Ukrainians giving up, collapsing.

It remains to be seen if that’s going to happen, but that seems to be the current conception among the Russians of how they think they’re going to achieve their goals. Whether or not they succeed, what we see, I think, is levels of violence far greater than anybody expected, the probability of civilian deaths and destruction on an enormous scale, and, not insignificantly, at least from a Russian point of view, very high Russian casualties. The press reports that say that the Russians have already lost somewhere in the order of 3,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers killed in action is actually, in my view, astonishing and is a powerful statement of how the Russians misread their own military capabilities, and therefore plunged into this morass, where I don’t think anybody on the Russian side, whether Putin or his generals, has a clear picture of how they’re going to get out of the mess that they created.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they’re calling for Ukraine — talk about what it means to remain neutral, also recognition of Crimea and the independent states, the Donbas region. But I also wanted to quote Zelensky here for a minute, if we can see any movement in both of these parties when it will come to a ceasefire. He made this very important statement on ABC. He said, “Regarding NATO, I have cooled down regarding this question a long time ago, after we understood that NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine.” Talk about what this means.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it’s too bad people couldn’t say that out loud before the war started. I mean, I think —

AMY GOODMAN: That was Zelensky.

ANDREW BACEVICH: — based on what I hear — pardon me?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Zelensky himself, the president of Ukraine.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah, I mean, but had Zelensky said, had the Americans said, had NATO said, out loud, prior to the beginning of the war, that “We all collectively recognize that Ukraine is not going to be joining NATO anytime soon,” if we were willing to put that in writing, then I would argue that it would be — at least have been possible, not certain, it might have been possible to dissuade Putin from taking the course that he chose. Again, he chose the course. He’s the perpetrator. He’s the criminal. But nonetheless, I think a wiser handling of the NATO issue might have given Putin a way to avoid taking the terrible steps that he ended up taking.

AMY GOODMAN: Zelensky also said, “I am talking about security guarantees,” he said. He went on to say, “I think that items regarding temporary occupied territories and unrecognized republics that have not been recognized by anyone but Russia, these pseudo-republics, but we can discuss and find a compromise on how these territories will live on.” And this was followed by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Kuleba saying, “If we could reach an agreement where a similar system of guarantees as envisaged by the North Atlantic Charter could be granted to Ukraine by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia, as well as by Ukraine’s neighbors, this is something we are ready to discuss.” I mean, we’re seeing the broad outline of a possible agreement or ceasefire here.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I mean, it seems to me that what you just quoted is courageous, enlightened, especially given the fact that Ukraine has been the victim of this entire thing. And I guess the question is: On the Russian side, are there any signs of that willingness to compromise? And that’s where — not that I know anything about discussions going on behind the scenes, but it appears that Russia is not willing to seek a compromise. Quite frankly, if Putin listens to any advisers whatsoever, those advisers should be urging him to find a way to cut a deal, because the longer this war goes, the greater harm this war will inflict on Russia and the Russian people. Again, it’s not my job to worry about Russia, but it seems to me if Putin cares at all about the well-being of his nation, then he needs to be working real hard to find a way to back away from the cliff that he’s wandered onto.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Andrew Bacevich, if you can explain the argument you make in your piece, headlined “The Ukraine invasion is nothing compared to Iraq”? I mean, you’re a retired colonel. You’re a Vietnam War veteran. You lost your son in Iraq. Explain your argument.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, I don’t — not for an instant would I want to minimize the horrors that are unfolding in Ukraine today and the deaths and the injuries inflicted on noncombatants. But let’s face it, the numbers are minuscule compared to the number of people that died, were displaced, were injured as a consequence of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The total number — according to the Brown University Costs of War Project, the total number is somewhere in the vicinity of 900,000 deaths resulted from our invasion of Afghanistan and our invasion of Iraq. Now, I understand that Americans don’t want to talk about that, don’t want to remember that. The political establishment wants to move on from that. But there is, I think, a moral dimension to the present war, to the Ukraine war, that should cause us to be a little bit humble, reticent about pointing our fingers at other people.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we only have 30 seconds, but the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been staggering. I mean, you’ve got not only the government response. Of course, Putin has strengthened NATO beyond any NATO activist’s wildest imaginings. The corporate response, all of these companies pulling out. The effect of all of this?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, it remains to be seen, but I think your point is basically correct. The negative response that Putin has elicited across — around the world, not everywhere but most places around the world, has been astonishing and heartening. But let’s see. I think it remains to be seen what the policy effects are going to be.

AMY GOODMAN: We thank you so much for being with us, Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, president and co-founder of the antiwar think tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest book is After the Apocalypse.

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