Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Russia warned years ago that growth of U.S. influence in Ukraine could cause trouble

2008 memo from our man in Moscow warned that Ukraine’s drift to the West could split the country

Wikileaks has released a 2008 cable from the then-U.S. ambassador to Russiawarning of potential large, nation-splitting trouble between the Russian and Ukrainian populations in Ukraine if Ukraine pushed for NATO membership.

The events that set off the current Ukraine crisis were not about NATO membership, but otherwise the six-year-old cable from Ambassador William Burns eerily foreshadowed recent events. A non-partisan career diplomat who served under the last four presidents (the two Bushes, Clinton and now Obama) Burns has since risen to be deputy secretary of state.

In 2008, Ukraine and NATO were exploring the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine (also the former Soviet republica of Georgia, neither of which has been admitted to the alliance).

The full 2008 cable from Burns about this possibility is here. I’ve highlighted in italics below some of the key phrases that make the cable seem so relevant now.

Article continues after advertisement

In the key summary, Burns wrote:

“Following a muted first reaction to Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the Bucharest summit, Foreign Minister Lavrov [Georgi Lavrov is still foreign minister] and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat.

“NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains ‘an emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene. Additionally, the GOR and experts continue to claim that Ukrainian NATO membership would have a major impact on Russia’s defense industry, Russian-Ukrainian family connections, and bilateral relations generally. In Georgia, the GOR fears continued instability and ‘provocative acts’ in the separatist regions.”

(GOR stands for Government of Russia.)

The recent crisis was set off by the moves of the deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich to back out of a plan for closer Ukrainian economic ties to Western Europe and instead to accept aid from Russia. I have no sympathy for the pro-Moscow kleptocrat Yanukovich, but the overthrow of an elected president by street mobs, which included violent neo-Nazi elements, which is mostly overlooked by the U.S. mainstream coverage, is also highly problematic for those who claim to favor democracy.

Whatever you may think of the rebellion and separatist movements of the predominantly Russian regions of Ukraine and whatever you believe about the level of involvement by Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin (for whom I likewise have little sympathy), the origins of the crisis seem pretty well foreshadowed by what Burns wrote six years ago about the “emotional and neuralgic” nature of the issue, for Russia the nation and for ethnic Russians in both Ukraine and Russia.