In closer ties to Ukraine, U.S. officials long saw promise and peril

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As the war in Ukraine grinds on amid a renewed Russian assault of the eastern Donbas region, U.S. and other Western officials have redoubled their material and diplomatic support for Kyiv, with the White House announcing a new $1.3 billion aid package last week.

The Biden administration and its allies have sought to project a united front against the Russian invasion, transferring billions of dollars in military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and choking Russia’s economy with punitive sanctions.

But the full-throated support for Kyiv — and the unanimous condemnation of Moscow — by the U.S. and other NATO members belies a deep historical ambivalence within the alliance, and the U.S. itself, over how closely to bring Ukraine into the West’s orbit.

Joe Biden
President Biden speaking about the situation in Ukraine from the White House last week. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Historically, U.S. policymakers have been torn between their support for Ukraine’s right as an independent sovereign state to determine its own foreign policy and national future; the need to manage delicate relations with Russia, a nuclear superpower; and the desire to reassure nervous European allies that Washington will deter expansionist aggression from Moscow.

Indeed, the likely fallout from Ukraine’s potential bid for NATO membership has hung over the alliance for decades.

In the late 1990s, “when I would go to meetings with representatives of NATO member-states, people would laugh and say, ‘Oh God, here comes Ms. Ukraine’ ... because I was in contact with the government all the time,” recalled Samantha de Bendern, a former NATO political officer, in a recent BBC interview.

“And they would say to me, ‘My God, let’s pray Ukraine never asks to join NATO, because what on earth will we do? That will really irritate Russia. Let’s just hope they just never make a formal request,’” Bendern said. “NATO has always been very, very wary” of Ukraine’s intermittent bid for closer ties, she said.

Over the years, the debate over NATO expansion — and worries about Russia’s reaction to it — has roiled the highest levels of the U.S. government. During the Clinton administration, Secretary of Defense Bill Perry almost resigned in opposition to the administration’s plans to back enlargement, Perry said in his memoir. (Perry strongly supported eventual NATO expansion, but wanted it delayed until the U.S.’s post-Cold War relationship with Russia solidified.)

George W. Bush with Vladimir Putin

Waves of new members joined the alliance in 1999 and 2004. Then, in April 2008, at the urging of the George W. Bush administration, NATO, in a communiqué known as the Bucharest Declaration, affirmed that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members” of the alliance one day, but did not initiate the formal accession process, known as a Membership Action Plan (MAP), for either country.

At the time, the U.S. intelligence community assessed that Russia might launch a preemptive strike against Ukraine or Georgia if either country tried to continue its westward shift, according to Fiona Hill, a top Russia expert on the National Security Council in the Trump administration, who was then a senior U.S. intelligence analyst.

Hill has said that, in an Oval Office meeting, she even warned Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that Moscow would react furiously to any formal attempt to bring Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance.

A few months after the Bucharest Declaration — which represented a compromise position, as America’s European NATO allies opposed offering either country an immediate path to membership — Russia invaded Georgia.

The path for Georgia or Ukraine to join NATO, always narrow, became increasingly treacherous. Any further tilt of Ukraine toward the West was viewed by Moscow as a threat, with Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, and occupation of parts of Donbas, a direct response to a pro-Western revolution that had forced Ukraine’s Moscow-aligned president to resign and flee the country.

Pro-Russian protesters
Pro-Russian protesters storm a Ukrainian air force base in the Crimean city of Novofedorivka in March 2014. (Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

At the CIA, at least, Russia’s likely response if NATO were to provide Kyiv or Tbilisi a real avenue to membership was clear. “We used to glibly tell people, if you like what happened in Georgia in 2008, or Ukraine in 2014, then by all means give either country a NATO MAP,” recalled a former CIA official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive agency deliberations and assessments.

“If we took a serious step toward admitting either country to NATO, we were 100% convinced that the Russians would find some reason to declare war in the intervening between us announcing they were going to get in and them actually getting in,” the former official said. “There wasn’t even a 1% shadow of doubt in any analyst’s mind about that assessment.”

During Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, agency analysts believed that Ukraine was the only country that Russian President Vladimir Putin might risk war with NATO or the United States over, according to another former CIA official, who also requested anonymity.

Ukraine was Putin’s “red line,” CIA officials concluded at the time, said this former official. “We’ve been saying to policymakers for many, many years, Democrats, Republicans, that Russia is actually OK with NATO expansion. They know that the Baltics are gone. They’ve accepted that. They’ve accepted Poland is gone. They’ll never say it out loud,” but Moscow begrudgingly recognizes the reality there, the former official said.

But CIA analysts assessed that Moscow viewed Georgia — and, even more, Ukraine — as a different matter entirely, recalled this former official. Still, in 2014, the idea that Russia would launch a full-scale war against Ukraine, of the magnitude and intensity seen today, was unthinkable, said the former official.

People look at the exterior of a damaged residential block hit by an early morning missile strike on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
A residential block in Kyiv in the wake of an early-morning missile strike from the Russians, Feb. 25. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

If the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine receded after 2014, U.S.-Ukraine ties — including military and CIA training, as well as intelligence sharing — steadily increased.

At first, the Obama administration’s military assistance was tightly circumscribed. The aid was calibrated to avoid aggravating Moscow, but some former officials believe it put Kyiv in an impossible position, with the U.S. support setting Russia on edge while being insufficient to actually help Ukraine deter or fight an invasion.

“I didn’t think the numbers of Javelins or the things they were talking about weren’t really going to make any big difference, and weren’t going to stop Russia from invading,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, a Russia expert who served on the NSC from 2014 to 2017. “And they weren’t going to change things in the east.”

There was “cognitive dissonance” over the policy, Edmonds said. “Because I understand the moral argument, but I also understand the argument that, well, why would you want to give these things if it’s just going to increase the chances that Russia does something?”

But, partially spurred by Congress, as well as the Trump administration, which was more willing to be aggressive on weapon transfers to Kyiv, overt U.S. military support for Ukraine grew over time — and with it the risk of a deadly Russian response, some CIA officials believed at the time.

An antitank missile system used by Ukrainian soldiers
An antitank missile system used by Ukrainian soldiers. (Gaelle Girbes/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Policymakers “would always say, ‘If we do X thing, if we give the Ukrainians X system, how are the Russians going to react?’ And our answer would always be, ‘You can’t look at any one thing in isolation,’” recalled the first former CIA official. “And we might look and say, 'Well, it’s just a few hundred MANPADs [man-portable air-defense systems] or a few hundred Humvees,' but it’s missing the point that the Russians are taking all of this stuff in the aggregate, and they’re drawing this picture of this ever-increasing relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine.”

By last summer, the baseline view of most U.S. intelligence community analysts was that Russia felt sufficiently provoked over Ukraine that some unknown trigger could set off an attack by Moscow, the former official said. (The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.)

U.S. military support to Ukraine wasn’t the ultimate driver of Moscow’s decision to invade, according to Edmonds, the former NSC Russia staffer; it was Putin’s desire to resettle “the bigger security architecture in Europe. Ukraine was just the proximate cause of that.”

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a warehouse after it was hit by Russian shelling, March 28, in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a warehouse in Kharkiv, Ukraine, after it was hit by Russian shelling, March 28. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Some type of renewed Russian assault on Ukraine may have been inescapable, Edmonds said.

"I would never underestimate President Putin's risk appetite on Ukraine," CIA Director William Burns said at a public event last December.

But the U.S.’s ballooning military support for Ukraine, no matter how well intentioned, or reflective of American liberal-democratic principles, had become self-fulfilling, “like a snowball rolling down a hill,” even as the danger of Russian attack grew, or this policy itself increased that danger, said the former CIA official.

“We had given all the warnings, all the caveats” on Ukraine to policymakers, said the former official. “And it was pretty clear that U.S. foreign policy, regardless of administration, was just going to keep rolling forward.

“It’s gutting, but it is what it is.”


What happened last week in Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.