Jeffrey Sachs – Save Ukraine from American meddling

Ukraine epitomises Henry Kissinger’s famous aphorism, “It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, where he directed The Earth Institute from 2002 until 2016. He is also President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a commissioner of the UN Broadband Commission for Development. He has been advisor to three United Nations Secretaries-General, and currently serves as an SDG Advocate under Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Sachs is the author, most recently, of “A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism” (2020).

Cross-posted from Other News


Ukraine can only be saved at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. Sadly, this point is not understood by Ukrainian politicians such as Oleg Dunda, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, who recently wrote an oped on this site against my repeated call for negotiations.

Dunda believes that the U.S. will save Ukraine from Russia. The opposite is true. Ukraine actually needs to be saved from the U.S.

Ukraine epitomizes Henry Kissinger’s famous aphorism, “It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”

Thirty years ago, Ukraine was embraced by America’s neoconservatives, who believed that it was the perfect instrument for weakening Russia. The neocons are the ideological believers in American hegemony, that is, the right and responsibility of the U.S. to be the world’s sole superpower and global policeman (as described, for example, in the Project for a New American Century’s 2000 report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”).

The neocons chose three methods to push U.S. power and influence into Ukraine: first, meddle in Ukraine’s internal politics; second, expand NATO to Ukraine, despite Russia’s red line; and third, arm Ukraine and apply economic sanctions to defeat Russia.

The neocons whispered a sweet fantasy into Ukraine’s ear back in the 1990s: Come with us into the glorious paradise of NATO-land and you’ll be safe ever after. Pro-European Ukrainian politicians, especially in Western Ukraine, loved the story. They believed that Ukraine would join NATO just as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had in 1999.

The idea of expanding NATO to Ukraine was fatuous and dangerous. From Russia’s perspective, the NATO expansion into Central Europe in 1999 was deeply objectionable and a stark violation of the solemn U.S. promise that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward,” but it was not deadly to Russia’s interests. Those countries do not border the Russian mainland. NATO enlargement to Ukraine, however, would mean the loss of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet at Sevastopol and the prospect of U.S. missiles minutes from the Russian mainland.

There was, in fact, no prospect that Russia would ever accept NATO enlargement to Ukraine. The current CIA Director, William Burns, said as much in a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when he was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in 2008. The memo was famously entitled “Nyet means Nyet.”

Burns 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.”

The neoconservatives never described this Russian redline to the American or global public, then or now. Senior diplomats and scholars in the U.S. had reached the same conclusion about NATO enlargement more generally in the 1990s, as has been recently documented in detail.

Ukrainians and their supporters insist that Ukraine has the “right” to join NATO. The U.S. also says so repeatedly. NATO’s policy says that NATO enlargement is an issue between NATO and the candidate country, and that it is no business of Russia or any other non-NATO country.

This is preposterous. I’ll start to believe that claim when Adm. John Kirby declares from the White House podium that Mexico has the “right” to invite China and Russia to put military bases along the Rio Grande, based on the same “open door policy” as NATO. The Monroe Doctrine has said just the opposite for two centuries.

So. Ukraine was set up for disaster by the neocons. Actually, the Ukrainian public sensed the truth, and overwhelmingly opposed NATO membership until the 2014 uprising that overthrew Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Let’s retrace the chronology of this shockingly misguided American policy. In the early 2000s, the U.S. began to meddle intensively in Ukraine’s politics. The U.S. spent billions of dollars, according to Victoria Nuland, to build Ukraine’s “democracy,” meaning to turn Ukraine to the U.S. and away from Russia. Even so, the Ukrainian public remained strongly against NATO membership, and elected Viktor Yanukovych, who championed Ukrainian neutrality, in 2010.

In February 2014, the Obama team actively sided with neo-Nazi paramilitaries, which stormed government buildings on February 21 and overthrew Yanukovych the next day, cloaked as a “Revolution of Dignity.” The U.S. immediately recognized the new government. The astounding intercepted call between Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, where they talk about who should be in the new Ukrainian government several weeks before the rebellion, demonstrates the level of American involvement.

The post-uprising government in Ukraine was filled with Russia-haters, and was backed by extremist right-wing paramilitaries like the Azov Brigade. When the ethnically Russian Donbas region broke away from the uprising, the central government aimed to retake the region by force. A peace agreement was reached between Kyiv and the Donbas in 2015, known as Minsk II, that would end the fighting by extending autonomy to the ethnically Russian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Alas, Ukraine and the U.S. undermined the treaty even while publicly endorsing it. The treaty was a mere temporizing measure (according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel) to give Ukraine time to build its army. The U.S. shipped armaments to Ukraine to build up its military, make it interoperable with NATO and support the retaking of the Donbas by force.

The next diplomatic opportunity to save Ukraine came in December 2021, when Vladimir Putin proposed a U.S.-Russia Treaty on Security Guarantees, calling for an end to NATO enlargement, among other issues (including the urgent question of U.S. missile placements near Russia). Instead of negotiating, Biden again flatly said no to Putin on the question of ending NATO enlargement.

Yet another diplomatic opportunity to save Ukraine arose in March 2022, just days after the start of Russia’s “special military operation,” launched on February 24. Russia said that it would stop the war if Ukraine would agree to neutrality. Zelensky agreed, documents were exchanged and a peace deal was nearly reached. Yet, according to former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the U.S. and other NATO allies, notably the U.K., stepped in to block the agreement, telling Ukraine to fight on. Recently, Boris Johnson said that Ukraine should keep fighting to preserve “Western hegemony.”

Ukraine can still be saved through neutrality, even as hundreds of thousands of lives have been squandered by the failure to negotiate. The rest of the issues, including boundaries, can also be resolved through diplomacy. The killing can end now, before more disasters befall Ukraine and the world. As for the United States, 30 years of neoconservative misrule is long enough.

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