Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did something last week few members of the Biden administration and Congress have done in their public comments about the Ukraine crisis: offered a global perspective that goes beyond a simple recitation of State Department talking points.
The Senate Budget Committee chairman and former presidential candidate has long been a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interference in the political affairs of other nations and assaults on Russian dissidents, such as Alexei Navalny. And he remains so.
Speaking on the floor of the US Senate on Thursday, Sanders expressed deep concern about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. He warned that the United States “must unequivocally support the sovereignty of Ukraine and make clear that the international community will impose severe consequences on Putin and his fellow oligarchs if he does not change course.”
Yet Sanders also steadily warned against abandoning hope for a diplomatic solution. He argued that, as part of a necessary focus on diplomacy, US officials must recognize the role that Russian fears about NATO expansion play in the crisis. This recognition could yet play a critical role in dialing down tensions and averting war.
“A simplistic refusal to recognize the complex roots of the tensions in the region undermines the ability of negotiators to reach a peaceful resolution,” Sanders told the Senate, in remarks that were all too rare for a chamber where too many members of both parties are rushing to hike defense spending and impose indiscriminate sanctions.
“I know it is not very popular in Washington to consider the perspectives of our adversaries, but I think it is important in formulating good policy,” Sanders said.
To that end, the senator explained:
One of the precipitating factors of this crisis, at least from Russia’s perspective, is the prospect of an enhanced security relationship between Ukraine and the United States and Western Europe, including what Russia sees as the threat of Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO), a military alliance originally created in 1949 to confront the Soviet Union.
It is good to know some history. When Ukraine became independent after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russian leaders made clear their concerns about the prospect of former Soviet states becoming part of NATO and positioning hostile military forces along Russia’s border. U.S. officials recognized these concerns as legitimate at the time.
Sanders quoted former defense secretary William Perry, who in a 2016 interview said, “In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame. Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.” He also quoted current CIA head William Burns, a former diplomat, who in a 2008 memo to then–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote:
Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.
With this in mind, Sanders told his colleagues,
Clearly, invasion by Russia is not an answer; neither is intransigence by NATO. It is important to recognize, for example, that Finland, one of the most developed and democratic countries in the world, borders Russia and has chosen not to be a member of NATO. Sweden and Austria are other examples of extremely prosperous and democratic countries that have made the same choice.
US officials rarely note in debates about possible solutions to the Ukraine crisis the fact that key European nations remain outside the NATO tent. But Russian diplomats have made opposition to NATO expansion central to their position in negotiations over how to avert a war. US diplomats have been just as rigid in arguing that Ukraine’s right to join NATO must be maintained.
Sanders pointed out in his remarks that the United States has long accepted the idea that superpowers are concerned with maintaining “spheres of influence” in their regions.
For the last 200 years, our country has operated under the Monroe Doctrine, embracing the premise that as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has the right to intervene against any country that might threaten our alleged interests. Under this doctrine we have undermined and overthrown at least a dozen governments. In 1962 we came to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union in response to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from our shore, which the Kennedy Administration saw as an unacceptable threat to our national security.
And the Monroe Doctrine is not ancient history. As recently as 2018 Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, called the Monroe Doctrine ‘as relevant today as it was the day it was written.…
To put it simply, even if Russia was not ruled by a corrupt authoritarian leader like Vladimir Putin, Russia, like the United States, would still have an interest in the security policies of its neighbors. Does anyone really believe that the United States would not have something to say if, for example, Mexico was to form a military alliance with a U.S. adversary?
Countries should be free to make their own foreign policy choices, but making those choices wisely requires a serious consideration of the costs and benefits. The fact is that the U.S. and Ukraine entering into a deeper security relationship is likely to have some very serious costs—for both countries.
Recognizing the role that NATO expansion plays in Russia’s thinking about the Ukraine conflict is not, Sanders argued, a sign of weakness. It is an understanding, Sanders explained, that could yet play a part in achieving “a realistic and mutually agreeable resolution—one that is acceptable to Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and our European allies—and that prevents what could be the worst European war in over 75 years.”