NATO Expansion Key to Understanding Threat of War on Russia-Ukraine Border

Interview with David Gibbs, professor of history at the University of Arizona, conducted by Scott Harris

News reports around the world warn that the current buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia could be a prelude to a dangerous new Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The reports cite an estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers deployed on Ukraine’s eastern, northern and southern frontiers, along with tanks, artillery and surface to air missiles.

The foreign ministers for the Group of 7 nations urged Russia to pull back from the tense border standoff and warned that Russian military aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and severe costs. During a two-hour video conference call between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 7, Biden warned that military action by Russia would result in unprecedented and painful economic and other sanctions, as he called for de-escalation and diplomacy.

With memories of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, there’s palpable fear that another such conflict could result in thousands of civilian deaths, hundreds of thousands of refugees and destabilization of the region. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with David Gibbs, professor of history at the University of Arizona, who explains why he believes that NATO’s eastward expansion is key to understanding rising tensions and threat of war along Ukraine’s Russia border.

DAVID GIBBS: I think the key issue is the status of NATO and the role of NATO in general and particularly with regard to the Ukraine. First, let me just begin with the more general issue of NATO. I think the Soviet Union to the very end expected that NATO would simply disappear because the Soviet counterpart to NATO, the Warsaw Pact effectively went out of business in 1989. And, you know, NATO didn’t seem to have any purpose anymore since the Cold War — by everybody’s agreement — was effectively over by the end of 1989. Yet NATO’s not only continued, but it really began expanding to an extraordinary degree, incorporating most of the former communist states in Eastern Europe and three former Soviet states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Now this is a direct violation of a U.S. agreement that they made with the Soviet Union in 1990, which was a solemn promise that was made not once, but repeatedly — never to expand NATO to the East. The phrase that was used by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was “not one inch eastward.” That was a promise made by the United States so that the Soviet Union, later Russia, would not feel threatened. Specifically, there was a U.S. objective that Germany was reunifying and the Soviet Union had the ability to block the reunification of the U.N. Security Council. And as agreed, as part of the comprehensive agreement, the Soviets agreed not to block Germany’s reunification and the U.S. agreed not to expand NATO. It was a quid pro quo.

This was made over and over again. There have been a number of recent studies that have looked at the declassified documents and the public statements, and they firmly assert that there was an agreement, a U.S. promise not to expand NATO. And almost immediately, the U.S. began violating that agreement and began doing so quite brazenly, and the Soviets and then the Russians have always been furious about this and see this as a threat to their security.

In terms of the Ukraine, in 2008, there were repeated statements by both U.S. and NATO officials that the Ukraine would be welcomed into NATO, and the Russians insisted that that was simply a bridge too far and they would not allow it. The United States has repeatedly insisted — the eventual accession to membership NATO by the Ukraine is a U.S. objective. The U.S. has never backed down on that.

And you know, I think there’s a tendency not to realize how provocative this is to the Russians in light of A, the fact that this is a violation of a U.S. agreement and B, that this is directly on the southern border of Russia. It’s a little bit like how the United States would feel if, let’s say, Russia established an alliance with Mexico and began building bases in Mexico. Everybody knows exactly what the U.S. response to that would be. And that’s exactly how the Russians see the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO. I see this as reckless provocation against Russia. There’s really no purpose to it. This has largely been triggered by American insistence on extending NATO.

SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Gibbs, before we run out of time, I did want to ask you about who are the losers and who were the winners in a new Cold War if the Cold War between the United States and Russia should escalate. And I’ll just add here that there’s been recent reports that Russia and China have signed an agreement for closer military cooperation through 2025, which speaks to some extremely dangerous years ahead if the United States should pursue a Cold War path.

DAVID GIBBS: Well, you know, in terms of the losers. I mean, the world is going to see reduced security based on the resurgence of nuclear tensions and at least the threat of nuclear war. There’s very little discussion of that danger, but it hasn’t really changed all that much in terms of being a danger since the end of the Cold War, and it’s really being ramped up right now. And that’s extremely dangerous. And so I think the whole world is losing in that sense. More specifically, I think both the American public and the Russian public are going to lose because this will result likely in greater military expenditures at the cost of living standards in both countries.

Also, U.S. economic sanctions are mostly going to hurt the people of Russia because economic sanctions almost always have that effect of hurting the population of the targeted country, usually without producing any real changes in policy. As far as the winners, obviously manufacturers of weapons are going to do very well from this and have been doing very well by the ratcheting up of tensions. They were very concerned with the early ’90s. There was a reduction of military spending in the United States, and they’ve always been trying to correct that. And, you know, tensions with Russia certainly help achieve that objective.

For what it’s worth, you know, there was a big lobbying campaign to help sell the idea of expanding NATO to the American public and also to the European public. And it was funded very heavily by weapons manufacturers because they benefited from these things. So in terms of winners and losers, I would say a very small elite group would benefit and frankly, everyone else is going to lose from this.

For more information, visit David Gibbs’ University of Arizona web page at

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