Not to be outdone in vote pandering, the incumbent, Bill Clinton, countered with a proposal to expand NATO into Eastern Europe. By 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic had joined NATO. Continuing in the tradition of bipartisan foreign-policy overreach, Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, invited additional countries to join the alliance, and by 2004, another seven countries joined, bringing NATO east of what had been the borders of the old Soviet Union.
It is too often forgotten that in late 2001, Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a gratuitous slap at Russia in view of the fact that in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Russia both shared intelligence on Islamic extremist groups with America, and also granted the U.S. military transit rights over Russian territory for deployment to Afghanistan.
NATO’s overtures to Georgia were clearly the limit, as Putin demonstrated when he sent military forces against that country in 2008. The move also clearly telegraphed what he would do if NATO accession were offered to Ukraine, a country far more integral to Russia’s security than Georgia. Parts of Ukraine extend east of Moscow’s longitude, a fact that would certainly be riveted in the minds of a government whose people have ancestral memories of devastating invasions from the West stretching back centuries.
The Russian response was perfectly predictable in February 2014, when the Ukrainian opposition, egged on by U.S. diplomatic personnel, overthrew the Russia-friendly regime of Viktor Yanukovych. The rough equivalent from the American perspective would be as if, hypothetically, a coup occurred in Ottawa that was assisted by Chinese “advisers.” Does anyone doubt that Washington would take drastic measures under the circumstances?
The infamous hack of the cell-phone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, in which they speculated on who would be the “right” people to run Ukraine, was widely viewed in America as an unsporting trick perpetrated by Putin’s secret service. In reality, Nuland and Pyatt screwed up: When talking on unencrypted devices on territory adjacent to Russia amid intense civil strife, what did they expect would happen, anyway? The fact that they were treated back home as victims rather than punished as security risks and diplomatic loose cannons is evidence of the clannishness, naïve self-righteousness, and self-referentiality that often prevail among Washington’s national security elite.
Finally, Putin has begun to reciprocate against imprudent U.S. actions like Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty with impulsive and ill-considered symbolic measures of his own: In March 2015, Russia ceased participating in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, and, during the past month, the Kremlin withdrew from the U.S.-Russia agreement on the disposal of plutonium.