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Ex-White House Official Says Putin's 'Fixation' On Empire Led To The War On Ukraine

Stephen Hadley speaks with RFE/RL from his home in Washington on February 28.
Stephen Hadley speaks with RFE/RL from his home in Washington on February 28.

President Vladimir Putin himself provoked the events that led to Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, a former top White House official said in an interview, pushing back on a central Kremlin argument that NATO's eastward enlargement in the 2000s catalyzed the war.

One year into what has become Europe's largest land war since World War II, Putin used a speech to Russians last week to repeat long-standing grievances about Western policies toward Moscow in the decades since the Soviet collapse of 1991.

Putin suggested that NATO and its ties to Ukraine were posing an increasing threat to Russia. He reiterated false claims about those relations, including the assertion that Ukraine's government is controlled by the United States and the Western military alliance, and that Ukraine is "enslaved" to them.

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Stephen Hadley, who served eight years in the White House under President George W. Bush including four as national-security adviser, dismisses Putin's comments. He argues that NATO posed no threat to Russia, and that for years Moscow was content to work with the alliance.

"A real effort was made to make it clear that Russia was an accepted part of Europe. And NATO was not a threat to Russia, and that NATO wanted a constructive relationship to Russia," Hadley said in a February 28 interview. He spoke from his home in Washington, D.C., via Zoom.

"So there was that effort to try to mitigate Russian reaction to NATO enlargement," said Hadley, whose tenure in the White House coincided with the largest single enlargement of the alliance in its history: in 2004, when seven Eastern European countries, including the three former Soviet Baltic states, joined.

Historians and academics have long debated the rationale for NATO's enlargement, and in some cases, questioned the wisdom of its expansion eastward. For their part, Russian officials expressed open misgivings, and even questioned why the Cold War-era alliance was even needed anymore.

In the mid-1990s, President Boris Yeltsin warned his U.S. counterpart, Bill Clinton, of "humiliation" if NATO moved to accept Eastern European countries.

Under Putin, those doubts grew into outright denunciations and claims that Washington and its allies had deceived Moscow. In particular, Russia voiced anger over NATO's promise to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 that they would someday become members.

As it happened, Hadley says, Ukraine's interest in joining NATO was then put on the back burner by Ukraine's government -- until 2014, when the ouster of a Moscow-friendly president led to Russia financing and supplying local militias in eastern Ukraine, and at several points sending in regular troops for battle.

"Since 2008, the issue of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO was really off the table. And it remained off the table until 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time. And that then provoked exactly the thing that Russians say they did not want," he said.

Stephen Hadley speaks to journalist in Washington in June 2008.
Stephen Hadley speaks to journalist in Washington in June 2008.

"It was that invasion that put the issue of NATO membership, and how NATO was going to help and support Ukraine and Georgia, back on the table," he said.

"Similarly, the Russians complain about NATO infrastructure moving eastward towards the Russian border; none of that happened until Russia went into Ukraine in 2014," he said. "So I would argue that Russia by its invasion of Ukraine in 2014 created the very things it said it was threatened by."

"Russia, in fact, provoked the very things that it said it was threatened by in terms of NATO and the West," he said.

Besides, Hadley says, countries that were formerly in Moscow's sphere of influence -- places like the Baltic states or the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe -- had long-standing historical fears of Russia that pushed them to seek NATO membership.

"And, of course, what the states that are now part of NATO say is, 'We told you so,'" he said.

'At That Point We Lost Putin'

Though Putin's reaction at the time was measured, the subject of another long-standing Kremlin grievance is the U.S. decision in 2002 to withdraw from a major arms-control agreement: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Bush administration argued that the pact hampered the U.S. ability to develop missile defense to protect against nascent threats like North Korea and Iran, and that the withdrawal was not intended to undermine Russia.

In the interview, Hadley asserted that Putin accepted U.S. assurances at the outset.

"Initially, it did engender a fair amount of goodwill between the two countries," he said. "Putin did not really criticize [the withdrawal] and actually said just the opposite: that while he didn't like the United States getting out of it, it did not represent a threat to Russian interests, to Russian security."

Hadley, who has just published a book detailing some of the national-security memos that were relayed to Bush's successor, Barack Obama, in 2008, says he accepted criticism that successive U.S. administrations, including the one in which he served, made mistakes in their dealings with Russia.

But he argues that likely would not have made a difference for two reasons: one was what he described was the Kremlin's position that a series of popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s -- known popularly as the "color revolutions" -- were a U.S. plot. The other was what he said was "Putin's fixation" on Russia's imperial history.

"We thought those revolutions would be good for Russia because it would create stable, democratic, prosperous states that would be good neighbors for Russia," he said. "Putin didn't see it that way. He saw it as a CIA-led effort to establish regimes in those kinds of countries that were anti-Russia, as a dress rehearsal for destabilizing Russia itself. And I think at that point we lost Putin."

'Could We Have Done [Things] Differently? Maybe, Probably'

In U.S. foreign-policy circles, one of the most prominent critics of U.S. policies toward Russia since the Cold War is Thomas Graham, who served in the White House under President George Bush, in the early 1990s, and later with Hadley in the Bush White House in the 2000s.

In an earlier interview, Graham repeated those misgivings about NATO's growth. "There is a fairly persuasive argument to be made that to push for NATO membership in 2008...was a mistake on the part of the alliance," he said.

Hadley says he too has questioned whether NATO enlargement was mishandled.

"I struggled about that until I read the speech that Putin gave on the eve of his going into Ukraine -- again -- in 2022," he said, referring to an address Putin delivered three days before the invasion. "The front part of that speech is the real Putin talking. And that's the piece that says, this is about restoring the Russian Empire, restoring Russian control of traditional Russian lands, and basically obliterating Ukraine and absorbing it into Russia.

"In light of that agenda, it's a good thing we expanded NATO, or otherwise, it would be a much more open field for Russia to pursue that vision of a restored Russian Empire," he said.

"Could we have done [things] differently?" Hadley said. "Maybe, probably, you know, there's always things you could always have done better."

"But the question is: would it have made any difference at the end of the day, given Putin's fixation on restoring the Russian Empire within the former Soviet space?" he said. "And I think that at the end of the day, sadly, it wouldn't have made any difference."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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