The former US president has argued that the conflict in Eastern Europe may have occurred sooner if NATO hadn't expanded under his watch
Former US President Bill Clinton has rejected criticism that NATO's eastward expansion on his watch helped set the stage for today's Ukraine crisis, suggesting that Russia would have threatened the security of its neighbors sooner without the Western military bloc's presence in the region.
"I think we did the right thing at the right time, and if we hadn't have done it, this crisis might have occurred even sooner," Clinton said in a CNN interview broadcast on Sunday. Three former Warsaw Pact states - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - joined NATO during Clinton's second term, in 1999, and seven others, including three former Soviet republics, followed in 2004.
Russian leaders have accused NATO of breaking promises against eastward expansion following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The bloc has continued to grow, adding four Balkan members between 2009 and 2020 while pledging to eventually add Ukraine and another ex-Soviet republic, Georgia.
President Vladimir Putin has claimed that NATO's expansion onto Moscow's doorstep has created an "unacceptable threat" to Russia's national security.
Clinton claimed that he tried to get Putin on board with NATO's security strategies. "When I did what I did, I offered Russia not only a special partnership with NATO, but the prospect of eventual membership in NATO, arguing that our biggest security problems in the future were going to come from non-state actors or from authoritarian states selling chemical, biological and nuclear capacity to terrorist groups."
The former US president pointed to past comments by Putin lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev's 1954 decision to give Crimea to Ukraine. In light of those views, he said, "I don't see how we could be surprised" by the current crisis. Putin said last December that the Soviet breakup was a humanitarian tragedy for most of the Russian people. However, Moscow has denied any desire to recreate the Soviet bloc, calling it "impossible."
Clinton's own secretary of defense between 1994 and 1997, William Perry, who served asbelieves that the US shares the blame for antagonizing Russia by ignoring its intrinsic security interests and post-USSR suffering, and needs to acknowledge this before ties with Moscow can be mended.
"The combination of the West failing to act during Russia's financial crisis, and ignoring their strongly-held views on NATO expansion, reinforced a prevailing Russian belief that we didn't take them seriously," Perry wrote in an opinion piece published earlier this month. "Indeed, many in the West saw Russia only as the loser of the Cold War, not worthy of our respect."
Nevertheless, Clinton said, "I am more convinced today than I was then that we did the right thing."