Whenever war or geopolitical tensions spark jingoistic fervor, there are always efforts by certain factions to try to stamp out dissent, flatten nuance and historical context into a simple black-and-white narrative, and use the moment to settle scores and advance their careers.
The last time we in the West lived through this was a little over twenty years ago, when outrage over the September 11 atrocity quickly led to a militaristic climate in which only the most extreme and reckless military responses were given a platform. The luckiest of those who objected, or who counseled calm, caution, and peaceful solutions, were mocked and ignored. The less lucky were called traitors and terrorist sympathizers, even terrorists themselves, and accused of disloyalty and hurting the country, as the president warned that you were either “with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Those who deviated in any way from the approved line — including any who inquired into the motives of the terrorists and their supporters — were accused of “rationalizing support for these hate-filled fanatics,” of spreading their propaganda, of being one of the “appeasers,” and they were attacked, censored, even fired. Right-wing columnists cheered that “the portions of the left that oppose [military action] will go the way of the America Firsters during the last war.”
The result was a rash of disasters and foolish policy choices that all sensible people came to regret. Overseas, $8 trillion worth of US wealth was poured into a “war on terror” that destroyed two countries, one of which had no connection to the attack whatsoever, and killed nearly a million people worldwide (including more than seven times as many Americans as died on September 11), while displacing 38 million other people. The US government set up a worldwide system of torture dungeons, whose inmates included innocent people it had mistakenly kidnapped, and traumatized entire societies with killer drones and covert death squads that wiped out whole families and villages at a stroke, with no warning. After decades, all of this came to be almost universally viewed as a terrible, shameful mistake.
Twenty years later, we’re now witnessing a very similar sequence of events playing out, with potentially even more horrifying consequences.
A War on Dissent
Throughout the crisis over Ukraine — when Moscow first began amassing troops at its border, then launched a war — politicians in the United States and the UK have used the world’s outrage at Russian president Vladimir Putin’s actions to go after their critics and political rivals on the Left. In the UK, Labour leader Keir Starmer, whose underwhelming tenure has been most preoccupied with a factional war on his party’s Left, first accused the Stop the War Coalition (whose deputy president, incidentally, is the predecessor Starmer purged from the party) of “actively giv[ing] succor to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies” and “showing solidarity with the aggressor.”
Since then, Starmer has threatened the eleven Labour MPs who signed the group’s open letter with suspension if they failed to remove their names, and declared that “there will be no place in this party for false equivalence between the actions of Russia and the actions of NATO.” One unnamed Labour figure called them “a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.” When the party’s youth wing criticized Starmer for “stoking up tension, macho posturing & trying to ‘outdo’ the Tories on hawkish foreign policy,” Starmer cancelled their annual conference, restricted access to their Twitter account, and slashed its funding.
A similar campaign seems to be building in the United States. After the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) put out a statement on Putin’s invasion, ending it with a critique of NATO and Western imperialism, a collection of corporate-funded Democrats with long-standing animus toward the US left rushed to make a national story out of it. At the same time, White House rapid response director Mike Gwin denounced an earlier statement as “shameful.” In the New York Post’s telling, socialists had chosen to “blame US imperialism for Russian invasion of Ukraine,” while a separate op-ed characterized them as “making excuses for Putin.”
This follows weeks of inflammatory rhetoric among the Democratic-aligned sectors of US media denouncing right-wing figures like Tucker Carlson and Josh Hawley (but also former Democratic representative Tulsi Gabbard) for disloyally repeating Kremlin propaganda, siding with the enemy, and so on. Now, Gabbard herself is a war-on-terror hawk (whom I’ve criticized numerous times), and Hawley and Carlson are both reactionary demagogues, the latter a particularly noxious voice in US discourse. So there should be no need to point out the fact that Carlson has said many foolish things about the issue, such as when he characterized Russia’s initial incursion into Ukraine a mere “border dispute.”
But it’s significant that many of these McCarthy-era style accusations referred not to this but to Carlson’s sensible position on what Washington should do over Ukraine; i.e., not go to war over it. And it’s much the same for everyone else attacked here. Gabbard’s offending statements were that sanctions against Russia would backfire on US consumers and potentially lead to military escalation, and that the better course would have been to “take NATO off the table for Ukraine” and prevent the war.
The DSA statement that aroused such ire in Washington wasn’t without its flaws. But it clearly condemned Putin’s invasion, and its fundamental point — demanding no further escalation, the acceptance of refugees, and a diplomatic solution — was eminently reasonable, something that was clearly part of the outrage. “I’m positive that your words mean nothing to [Ukrainians], but anti-tank missiles and bullets do,” Pennsylvania senator Conor Lamb said in response.
Gwin, the White House official, meanwhile, seemed to believe what was “shameful” about the organization’s earlier statement was calling the 2014 Euromaidan revolution a “coup” — a contentious label for sure, but not an unreasonable description of what happened, especially given the widespread use of that word to describe the very similar events of January 6.
The same goes for the Stop the War Coalition statement, which Starmer attacked as “showing solidarity” with Putin, showing a “kneejerk reflex” that any adversary of the West was in the right, and providing a “smokescreen” for Moscow’s repression.
What justified such inflammatory allegations? Only an immediate statement of opposition to Putin’s war coupled with criticism of the British government’s dismissal of a diplomatic solution, its escalatory actions, and a call to halt NATO’s eastward expansion to address Russian security concerns while returning to the Minsk accords and devising a new, mutually agreeable security arrangement for Europe.
This kind of thing is everywhere, particularly on social media, where attempts to outline the full context of how we got here or to explain to Western audiences how their governments’ policy choices since the end of the Cold War contributed to this are met with accusations of justifying Putin’s illegal war or parroting Kremlin propaganda.
But it goes well beyond social media. Witness these letters to the editor (Headline: “If you think NATO is the real threat, you’re falling for Russian propaganda”) denouncing the idea NATO is related to the current tensions or involved in inflaming these tensions as a “preposterous Russian lie” and the “Russian view of NATO.” A leading expert on propaganda tells us the Kremlin is “pushing the idea that this is all NATO’s fault, that it’s the fault of the West,” and that “a lot of people in Russia bought into that.”
The Establishment Origins of the NATO Expansion Critique
The history of Western tensions with Russia over Ukraine is long and complicated, with many overlapping and competing analyses. Reasonable people can disagree over solutions like those put forward by groups like Stop the War.
But to simply dismiss them as the lies and propaganda of Western traitors, Putin apologists, and dangerous fringe figures secretly in league with the Kremlin is false to the point of being Orwellian. These are mainstream arguments that have been made for years by current and former US diplomats and foreign-policy thinkers across the political spectrum, along with figures from the ranks of the Western establishment.
There’s Jack Matlock, who served as US ambassador to the Soviet Union under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush after a decades-long career as one of the top Soviet experts in the US Foreign Service. He wrote in the lead-up to this war that “there would have been no basis for the present crisis if there had been no expansion of the alliance following the end of the Cold War,” and that “the policies pursued by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden have all contributed to bringing us to this point.” Matlock had called for a diplomatic solution to prevent war, principally around Moscow’s negotiation demands to draw a hard line on NATO’s expansion, saying that “what Putin is demanding is eminently reasonable.”
Stephen Walt, Harvard professor of international relations and columnist for Foreign Policy, made a similar argument, puzzling over the fact that while Western countries ruled out fighting on Ukraine’s behalf, “the US negotiating position (and thus NATO’s position as a whole) hasn’t budged at all on the central issue dividing the two sides” — meaning, Ukraine’s status in NATO. He lamented the “black-and-white view of the situation in Ukraine” that holds that “Russia’s stated grievances have no legitimate basis whatsoever; and the only conceivable Western response is to refuse to make any concessions.”
Walt’s fellow “realist” thinker John Mearsheimer has been making this case for years, chiding Western officials for continually trying to bring Ukraine into their orbit, leading Russia to take drastic, illegal steps to counteract it. He recently told the New Yorker he believed “all the trouble in this case really started in April 2008,” when Bush made his infamous announcement on Ukraine and Georgia, despite Moscow making it clear “they viewed this as an existential threat, and they drew a line in the sand.” Mearsheimer dismissed the idea Putin is bent on conquering a broader swath of Europe to restore the Russian Empire or Soviet Union as an argument “invented” by “the foreign-policy establishment in the United States, and in the West more generally,” and believes Kiev can come to some kind of “modus vivendi” with Moscow.
Samuel Charap, a Ukraine expert at the RAND Corporation (a Pentagon-aligned think tank originally started by the air force), argued that what had been in early February just the Ukraine “crisis” was “a symptom of [Washington’s] runaway success” after the Cold War. He charged that “Russia is destined to clash again with the United States and its allies over the status of these former Soviet republics unless all parties can agree on a mutually acceptable arrangement for the regional order.”
Or see international relations professor Rajan Menon and former George W. Bush national security staffer Thomas Graham, who urged US officials in Politico back in January to stave off war by “accommodating some of Russia’s principal security concerns,” and formalizing “a declared moratorium on the accession of Ukraine, or any other former Soviet state” into NATO for as long as twenty-five years.
See the recent comments by the critical Russian sociologist Greg Yudin, who was recently arrested and brutalized at an antiwar protest in Moscow, and who warned just a day before the invasion began that “NATO is certainly a potential military adversary of Russia,” that it “is not a peaceful and innocent alliance,” and that its expansion is “an unfriendly action towards Russia” that “any responsible Russian government should seek to prevent.”
The Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko has warned that it was becoming “increasingly clear that a Putin successor, however progressive or democratic they may be, would still see Ukraine’s NATO membership as a threat,” and that among the solutions to the then building crisis was, among other things, “restoring Ukraine’s non-alignment status” and reversing the 2019 amendment that enshrined the goal of “Euro-Atlantic integration” into the country’s constitution.
You could go on and on: Katrina vanden Heuvel writing that “NATO now largely exists to manage the risks created by its existence” in the Washington Post; Jeffrey Sachs urging Washington to “compromise on NATO to save Ukraine” in the Financial Times; or Kings College Ukraine expert Anatol Lieven, who has stressed that same history and repeatedly called for solutions like a neutral Ukraine and a moratorium on its entry into the alliance, first to stave off this war and now to end it.
In fact, when Lieven convened a collection of former US and British ambassadors and experts in January this year, their consensus was that “the Russian government has not yet decided on war,” and that Washington would “have to go much further” than its initial responses to Moscow’s first negotiation bid.
That’s not even getting into the many, many US establishment figures who warned throughout the decades that NATO expansion would eventually provoke the very thing it was meant to be guarding against.
First among them is George Kennan, widely regarded as the father of the Cold War containment policy, who presciently warned in 1997 that expanding NATO eastward would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion,” “have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy,” and “impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
Or the eighteen former diplomats who warned the policy risked “significantly exacerbating the instability that now exists in the zone that lies between Germany and Russia, and convincing most Russians that the United States and the West are attempting to isolate, encircle, and subordinate them.”
Or the fifty prominent foreign-policy experts, including retired military officers, diplomats, and former senators, who signed on to a letter calling NATO expansion “a policy error of historic proportions” that was “opposed across the entire political spectrum,” and would “strengthen the nondemocratic opposition, undercut those who favor reform and cooperation with the West, [and] bring the Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement.”
Or Biden’s current CIA director, William Burns, who wrote from Moscow in 1995 that “hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here,” and that the move was “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.” Thirteen years later, Burns would inform the Bush administration that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin),” and that “in more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players,” he had “yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.” Just two years ago, Burns wrote of how “Russians stewed in their grievance and sense of disadvantage” and how “a gathering storm of ‘stab in the back’ theories slowly swirled.”
Or the US intelligence agencies, which, according to former intelligence analyst Fiona Hill (now a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution), all opposed the idea of offering membership to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, only for Bush to override them — now viewed by most foreign policy experts as a key turning point in US-Russian relations after the Cold War and Putin’s own relationship with Washington.
Or the numerous other establishment voices, from Tom Friedman and Henry Kissinger to Zbigniew Brzezinski and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who all made similar criticisms of the policy at the time.
In the fervor of war, we are suddenly being told to believe all of these are merely the foolish and traitorous apologetics of Putin sycophants and fringe extremists, invented just now to vindicate Moscow’s invasion and even strengthen Russia. The speed with which these ideas have, in the West, gone from conventional mainstream opinion to treasonous lies and propaganda has been shocking to witness.
Explaining War Is Not Justifying It
Why is all this important? We have to know how we got to this point, what policy choices we in the West had control over contributed to it, and what we could have done differently. By doing so, we can not only avoid repeating the same mistakes and watching a terrible history replay again and again, but find some political, nonmilitary way out of what’s happening now, and secure a lasting stability for Ukraine and Europe, if not long-term peace.
The idea now widely advanced that Putin is an Adolph Hitler–like madman bent on world domination, and that Western policy over the past decades played no meaningful role in the choice he made to launch this atrocious and illegal invasion, is a very convenient one. It’s a convenient one for those Western officials who played leading roles in that policy, including the sitting US president, who led the very first effort to expand NATO. It’s convenient for arms manufacturers and every other corporate leech feeding off endless global conflict. It’s convenient for the war hawks who would cynically use this war to justify breathtakingly dangerous ideas like turning Ukraine into an Afghanistan-like permanent warzone. And, of course, it rules out any diplomatic settlement to end this terrible crime, because a madman who wants to take over the world cannot be negotiated with.
Just as important, if we don’t understand how Western policy helped lead to this conflict and we don’t work to veer away from similar mistakes in the future, conflict and war is forever inevitable. As the figures listed above pointed out, opposition in Russia to NATO’s expansion goes well beyond the single figure of Putin. If and when he eventually leaves power, and Western policymakers continue to plow ahead with the policy — having been persuaded by the political and media figures now assuring us that NATO has nothing to do with what’s going on and all this is merely the product of one man’s megalomania — we will likely find that the leadership that replaces him is no less opposed, creating the conditions for a permanent state of conflict.
Maybe you disagree with this analysis, or the possible solutions to end this war. You have every right to do so. But to delegitimize them with smears and character assassinations, even cast them as borderline criminal, is outrageous and shocking behavior that risks repeating some of the most shameful episodes of history, such as the disastrous post-9/11 war frenzy, the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s, and the repression and abuses of the 1920s Red Scare and World War I.
Trying to explain the role of Western foreign policy in stoking jihadist terrorism doesn’t justify or excuse the atrocity committed on September 11. Understanding how the Treaty of Versailles helped lead to World War II doesn’t justify or excuse Hitler’s invasions that triggered that war. Two weeks ago, these were things that went without saying. Now they’re apparently treasonous.