Former President Clinton on Sunday pushed back on critics who argue NATO’s expansion during his presidency is partly to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“You’re wrong,” Clinton said when asked to respond to critics during an appearance on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”
Clinton made integrating Central and Eastern European countries a hallmark of his foreign policy following the Cold War. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined the military alliance in 1999, toward the end of his second term.
“When I did what I did, I offered Russia not only a special partnership with NATO, but the prospect of eventual membership in NATO, arguing that our biggest security problems in the future were going to come from non-state actors or from authoritarian states selling chemical, biological and nuclear capacity to terrorist groups,” he added.
The enlargement came in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Seven additional Eastern European countries joined NATO in 2004, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were formerly part of the Soviet Union.
“You’re supposed to tell the Poles they should live for the rest of eternity with the insecurity that Russia won’t try to come after them again?” asked Clinton. “Or the Hungarians or all the others, the Baltic states?”
Clinton said Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that Nikita Khrushchev, the former leader of the Soviet Union, did a “terrible job” when he ceded Crimea to Ukraine.
“President Putin made no secret of the fact that he thought the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a great tragedy in world history,” said Clinton.
In 2014, Russia under Putin’s leadership annexed Crimea, a peninsula located in the south of Ukraine.
Putin further invaded Ukraine in February, hoping to quickly take the capital city of Kyiv and topple the sitting government. One of his motivations was the fear that Ukraine would eventually join NATO as well.
After failing to take Kyiv, fighting primarily shifted to the country’s east and along the southern coast. Ukrainian forces in recent days have begun a counteroffensive, pushing back Russian forces to the border in some places and reclaiming thousands of square miles of land in the northeast.
“I think we did the right thing at the right time,” Clinton told host Fareed Zakaria. “And if we hadn’t done it, this crisis might have occurred even sooner.”