Meet the man who predicted the Ukraine war 30 years ago

George F. Kennan

The Russia-Ukraine war will likely end in one of three ways: Russia will annex all of Ukraine and reincorporate it into Russia; Russia will install a puppet regime in Kyiv and exercise effective political control over Ukraine’s foreign policy, or Russia will militarily occupy parts of Ukraine and suffer the resistance of an insurgency that may be armed and supported by outside powers.  Regardless of which scenario plays out, this is and will be a tragic and unnecessary war — entirely preventable, if only the Europeans and Americans had heeded the warnings of George F. Kennan about the likely unintended consequences of NATO expansion.

Kennan spent much of his life studying Russia — like his namesake, George Kennan (a cousin of Kennan’s grandfather), whom historian John Lewis Gaddis called the late 19th century’s “most prominent American expert on that country.”  George F. Kennan served in America’s Moscow embassy from 1933 to 1937, again in 1944–1946 (from where he issued his famous “Long Telegram” that signaled the beginnings of the Cold War), and still later as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952.  From 1947 to 1950, Kennan headed the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and anonymously wrote his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947 entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” in which he explained his perception of the motivations of Soviet foreign policy and recommended that the United States seek to “contain” Soviet/Russian expansionism.

Kennan during his long career as a diplomat and historian (he died in March 2005 at the age of 101), wrote several books and numerous articles about Russia, including historical works on Russian diplomacy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War.  He had perhaps the most important qualities of a diplomat, statesman, and historian: he was able to look at events through a Russian/Soviet lens, to see things from a Russian/Soviet perspective.  He had what the great British geopolitical thinker Halford Mackinder believed was the greatest gift of a statesman — “an insight into the minds of other nations than his own.”

Kennan used that insight in the late 1990s to warn his countrymen and Europe against expanding NATO in the wake of the West’s victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The Clinton administration had made it known that NATO would be inviting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join the alliance.  Kennan’s first public pronouncement on NATO expansion was made in October 1996 in an event held at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.  He decried efforts to expand NATO as a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.”  He then wrote an article in the New York Times on February 5, 1997.  He wrote the piece, he explained, to caution American statesmen that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”

Kennan was blunt in describing the probable unintended but all too foreseeable consequences of NATO expansion: “Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.” There was no necessity for this move, Kennan continued, and Russians would be “little impressed with American assurances that it reflects no hostile intentions.”  The Russians, he wrote, would “see their prestige (always uppermost in the Russian mind) and their security interests as adversely affected.”

And Kennan’s article dealt with only Russia’s likely reaction to the initial wave of NATO expansion.  After Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic (admitted in 1999) came Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 2004; Albania and Croatia in 2009; Montenegro in 2017; and North Macedonia in 2020.  And the Bush 43 and Obama administrations (and their European counterparts) openly discussed inviting Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance.  One can only imagine what Kennan would have thought about that.

In his diary (The Kennan Diaries was published by Norton in 2014 and is a book of inestimable historical value), Kennan predicted that “the Russians will not react wisely and moderately to the decision of NATO to extend its boundaries to the Russian frontiers.”  He expected that this would produce “a strong militarization of their political life, to the tune of a great deal of hysterical exaggeration of the danger and of falling back into the time-honored vision of Russia as the innocent object of the aggressive lusts of a wicked and heretical world environment.” He expected that the Russian leadership would attempt to coax the former Soviet republics into a “military alliance” and would “develop much closer relations with … Iran and China, with a view to forming a strongly anti-Western military bloc as a counterweight to a NATO pressing for world domination.”  (The Russians have done precisely that.)  He foresaw NATO expansion producing a “tragically unnecessary division between East & West and in effect a renewal of the Cold War.”

In another diary entry, Kennan expressed the concern that NATO expansion “is the greatest mistake of the entire post–Cold War period” and called it “senseless” and a “colossal blunder.”  And he noted that he told his wife that he foresaw “a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one,” and “a total, tragic, and wholly unnecessary end to an acceptable relationship of [Russia] to the remainder of Europe.”

The Russians with their initial invasion of Crimea in 2014, and now with the current invasion of Ukraine, have quite obviously reacted to NATO expansion just as Kennan said they would.  Kennan saw that the West’s victory in the Cold War led to hubris whose end would-be nemesis, as we are witnessing today in Ukraine.

None of this excuses the naked and brutal aggression of Putin’s Russia in Ukraine.  But prudent and careful diplomacy could have averted this war — and could avert a wider war in the future.  A recent news report stated that Putin has threatened “military and political consequences” if Finland and Sweden try to join NATO.  The U.S. and NATO ignored Kennan’s warning before, and we are witnessing the tragic results.  Let’s not make the same mistake again and embroil the world in yet another full-scale European war.

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