Ukraine: An Expert Reappears as a Ghost

George Kennan’s warnings on Ukraine find fresh relevance.

AP Photo/Henry Griffin
George Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow, in testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee voices belief that Soviet leaders are prepared to play close to the edge of war to gain their objectives in Berlin. Feb. 4, 1959. AP Photo/Henry Griffin

In this century George Kennan is best remembered, if at all, for “A Fateful Error,” the short essay he published on the op-ed page of the New York Times in February 1997. He argued that expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders would be “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”

A year later, with President Clinton’s encouragement, the Senate approved, by a vote of 80 to 19, NATO expansion to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, with an eye to another possible round of admits. Kennan’s warning was disregarded or simply ignored in most quarters in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

The expansion program proceeded apace, through the Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, most recently with the U.S. Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership of November 10, 2021. Meanwhile, Kennan died in 2005. An authorized biography, “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” by John Lewis Gaddis, a professor at Yale University, appeared in 2011.  And was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize. 

In the twentieth century, however, Kennan was remembered for the central role he played as a framer of US policy towards Russian expansion at the outset of the first cold war. As a State Department officer, he spent most of the 1930s and much of the 1940s in the Soviet Union. There he developed, in almost equal parts, affection for Russia and high disdain for Josef Stalin and his communist dictatorship.

First in a secret “long telegram” to his State Department superiors, then as the author of its summary in a Foreign Affairs article in 1947 that introduced the catch-word “containment” and the rationale behind it. He subsequently became respected, even venerated, as among the senior architects of much of the successful post-war US foreign policy, including the Marshall Plan.

In 1955 Kennan retired to become a history professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, served as President Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia 1961-63, opposed America’s war in Vietnam, and remained active until not long before his death, at 101, when he vigorously protested the invasion of Iraq.

Now Kennan has returned to life in a second full-scale biography:  “Kennan: A Life between Worlds,” by a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, Frank Costigliola. In the new book, Mr. Costigliola offers a parallax view of the life of his Milwaukee-born subject.  

In an article that appeared last week on the Foreign Affairs website, Mr. Costigliola, who previously edited “The Kennan Diaries,” surfaced a previously undiscussed passage from a paper authored by Kennan in 1948, in which the author set out clearly his grounds for pessimism about Ukrainian independence. In “US Objectives with Respect to Russia,” Kennan wrote;

“The economy of the Ukraine is inextricably intertwined with that of Russia as a whole. There has never been any economic separation since the territory was conquered from the nomadic Tatars and develops for purposes of a sedentary population. To attempt to cave it out of the Russian economy and to set it up as something separate would be as artificial and as destructive as an attempt to separate the Corn Belt.”

Kennan goes on to assert that “we cannot be indifferent to the feelings of the Great Russians themselves.” Since Russia would remain the “strongest national element” in the area, any viable “long-term U.S. policy must be based on their acceptance and their cooperation.” The Ukrainian territory was as much a part of their heritage as was the American Middle West, “and they are conscious of the fact.”  The relevant three-page excerpt from Kennan’s paper can be read here

That diagnosis was issued 75 years ago. The circumstances were clearly different in the immediate aftermath of World War II than they are today. Kennan may have underestimated the Ukrainian will to independence even then. It has clearly increased logarithmically since the USSR disbanded itself.

Russia’s feeling towards Ukraine, however, have remained much the same as Kennan described them in 1948. That was much the way Ambassador William Burns conveyed the Russian position to the Obama administration, in 2008, in a dispatch titled “Nyet Means Nyet: Russia’s NATO Enlargement Red Lines” originally made public by WikiLeaks. The same conviction was spelled out by President Putin in the summer of 2021. 

Kennan’s pessimistic views on Ukraine independence are largely a newly-reported story, according to Mr. Costigliola. They do not appear in the index of Mr. Gaddis’s book, and Mr. Costigliola did not discuss the 1948 passage in his own book, which was published last month.

Whether the discovery of the sage’s skepticism makes any difference at all remains to be seen. But the appearance, a dozen years apart, of two deeply-informed biographies of the same man is surely grist for the historiographer’s mill.

This essay is reprinted from Mr. Warsh’s blog, “Economic Principals.

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