Is it propaganda if you believe in it? I often wonder about that when listening to Washington honchos in charge of American foreign policy, who clearly believe in their nobility of purpose. Take the latest remarks about China from US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. She takes Beijing to task for allegedly spreading disinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, warning that even tacit support for Moscow came with consequences. “[Chinese] state media has parroted the Kremlin’s lies and conspiracy theories,” she said, “including absurd claims that Ukraine and Nato and the EU pose a security threat to Russia.” “Absurd claims”? Some very eminent Americans and Brits think otherwise. Specialists in international relations also disagree over Nato’s threat to Russia. At the very least, the whole question is highly contested, and certainly not “absurd”. Foreign Affairs recently surveyed a group of diplomats and scholars to state whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “Proceeding with Nato enlargement after the end of the Cold War was a strategic mistake.” Nato’s eastern expansion has been cited by Moscow as a casus belli in Ukraine. Nineteen experts say they “strongly disagree” with the statement, 17 just disagree; seven agree and 11 “strongly agree” with it. Three are neutral on the statement. Note that most of those consulted were from the US or Europe. If the journal had surveyed international relations scholars from Asia, not to say China and Russia, the results would probably have been very different. Suffice it to say that even the “experts” don’t agree among themselves. Kissinger on Ukraine and Russia But it’s worth remembering what the likes of Henry Kissinger and George Kennan had to say about Nato’s post-Cold War expansion and Russian security concerns. In a 2014 op-ed, Kissinger observed that Ukraine was an inalienable part of Russia’s history and identity. Vladimir Putin made a similar point before he launched the current invasion, but was roundly ridiculed and dismissed by many Western pundits. In fact, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all date their ancestral homeland to late 9th century Kyivan Rus. Most Soviet leaders had deep roots in Ukraine. “To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West – especially Russia and Europe – into a cooperative international system,” Kissinger warned. ‘No first use’ pledge by US, Nato and Russia can avert nuclear war Quoting Kissinger approvingly, in a late February joint letter to the Financial Times , Lord Owen, UK foreign secretary (1977-79); Lord Skidelsky, historian and biographer of John Maynard Keynes; Anthony Brenton, British ambassador to Russia (2004-08); Christopher Granville, a former British diplomat; and Nina Krushcheva, an international affairs professor and great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, wrote the following: “It should be possible for Nato, in close association with Ukraine, to put forward detailed proposals to negotiate a new treaty with Russia that engenders no institutional hostility. “This would cover: the verifiable withdrawal of nuclear-capable missiles; detailed military confidence-building measures limiting numbers and demarcating deployment; and international agreement on presently contested borders between Russia and Ukraine.” I suppose “no institutional hostility” is a coded phrase that means Ukraine would promise not to join Nato. Before the invasion, though, Nato, led by the US, took the worst possible position; it would not let Ukraine join any time soon, yet dangle the possibility of membership just enough to provoke the Russians. Kennan on Ukraine and Russia When the US Senate ratified Nato expansion in 1998, influential New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman interviewed George Kennan for his take. The late Kennan is often described as the father of US containment policy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, though he himself had disavowed Washington’s militant containment, which he had warned would risk a nuclear confrontation such as during the Cuban missile crisis. Friedman recently republished the whole transcript. Kennan said: “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves. “We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [Nato expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill-informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. “Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the Nato expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.” Finland ‘highly likely’ to apply to join Nato, says minister Whether or not you believe Washington ever promised “no Nato expansion” to Mikhail Gorbachev in exchange for his support for German reunification, it’s clear that this very issue was the foremost security concern of the Russians from day one. So, let’s quote again what Sherman claimed, in light of the post-Cold War history of Europe and Russia, and all the nuanced debates and thinking from some of the best minds of modern diplomacy that have gone into this very question of Nato expansion. “[Chinese] state media has parroted the Kremlin’s lies and conspiracy theories,” she said, “including absurd claims that Ukraine and Nato and the EU pose a security threat to Russia.” You may think it’s not a threat or that it is. But many Russians, not just Putin, certainly think it is, and have said so loud and clear in the past two decades. It may be cynical and self-serving but it’s not absurd or unreasonable for Beijing to agree with Moscow on this very point. After all, if Nato is not aiming at Russia, what is it there for? In fact, this whole question dismissed as “absurd” and “disinformation” by Sherman cuts to Nato’s very raison d’être – on which the peace and future of Europe now depends. Well, I don’t want to be rude. But her claim is nothing short of extraordinary, especially for someone in her position.