George Kennan, the remarkable U.S. diplomat and probing observer of international relations, is famous for forecasting the collapse of the Soviet Union. Less well known is his warning in 1948 that no Russian government would ever accept Ukrainian independence. Foreseeing a deadlocked struggle between Moscow and Kyiv, Kennan made detailed suggestions at the time about how Washington should deal with a conflict that pitted an independent Ukraine against Russia. He returned to this subject half a century later. Kennan, then in his 90s, cautioned that the eastward expansion of NATO would doom democracy in Russia and ignite another Cold War.

Kennan probably knew Russia more intimately than anyone who ever served in the U.S. government. Even before he arrived in Moscow in 1933 as a 29-year-old aide to the first U.S. ambassador the Soviet Union, he had mastered Russian and could pass as a native. In Russia, Kennan immersed himself in newspapers, official documents, literature, radio, theater, and film. He wore himself thin partying into the night with Russian artists, intellectuals, and junior officials. Dressed like a Russian, Kennan eavesdropped on Muscovites in the streetcar or at the theater. He hiked or skied into the countryside to visit gems of early Russian architecture. His disdain for Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship, particularly after the onset of the bloody purges of 1935–38, was matched only by his desire to get close to the Russian people and their culture. In 1946, after dictating his famed long telegram to the State Department warning of the Soviet threat, Kennan was brought back to Washington. The following year, he won national attention for his article in Foreign Affairs calling for the containment of Soviet expansion.

Kennan was unique. When Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson told a colleague that the gifted diplomat was slated to head the newly formed Policy Planning Staff, the colleague replied that “a man like Kennan would be excellent for that job.” Acheson snapped back: “A man like Kennan? There’s nobody like Kennan.” Operating from an office next door to the secretary of state, Kennan helped craft the Marshall Plan and other major midcentury initiatives.

Kennan’s star would dim after 1949 as he opposed the growing militarization of U.S. foreign policy, but he was still venerated as a Russian expert. His advice was sought by the Truman administration when it feared provoking Russia’s entry into the Korean War, by the Eisenhower administration after the death of Stalin, and by the Kennedy administration during the Berlin crisis of 1961. Despite his televised opposition to the Vietnam War and his protests against the nuclear arms race, Kennan was consulted by officials in the State Department and in the CIA well into the 1990s. In 2003, he held a press conference to protest the invasion of Iraq. An elitist blinkered by ugly prejudices that he had absorbed in the early twentieth century, Kennan nevertheless remained a clear-sighted foreign policy analyst until his death in 2005.

In light of this expertise, it is worth examining both Kennan’s skepticism about Ukrainian independence and his suggestion of how Washington should respond to a Russian attack on an independent Ukraine.


In a policy paper titled “U.S. Objectives with Respect to Russia” completed in August 1948, Kennan laid out the United States’ ultimate aims in the event that the Russians invaded Ukraine. He realized that Ukrainians “resented Russian domination; and their nationalistic organizations have been active and vocal abroad.” It would therefore “be easy to jump to the conclusion” that Ukraine should be independent. He asserted that the United States should not, however, encourage that separation.

Kennan’s assessment grossly underestimated Ukrainians’ will to self-determination. Nevertheless, two problems identified by Kennan three-quarters of a century ago have persisted, particularly in the minds of Russian leaders. Kennan doubted that Russians and Ukrainians could be easily distinguished in ethnic terms. He wrote in a State Department memo that “there is no clear dividing line between Russia and Ukraine, and it would be impossible to establish one.” Second, the Russian and Ukrainian economies were intertwined. Setting up an independent Ukraine “would be as artificial and as destructive as an attempt to separate the Corn Belt, including the Great Lakes industrial area, from the economy of the United States.”

Read “U.S. Objectives with Respect to Russia.”

Since 1991, Ukrainians have struggled to establish a territorial and ethnic dividing line while forging economic independence from the Russian behemoth. Moscow has undermined these efforts by encouraging discontent in the eastern Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, fomenting independence movements and now officially annexing four breakaway regions. With years of political and economic pressure and now with military brutality, Russia has tried to thwart Ukraine’s economic independence by disrupting its gas pipelines, grain exports, and shipping.

Even at the height of the Cold War, Kennan insisted that “we cannot be indifferent to the feelings of the Great Russians themselves.” Because the Russians 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.” Again, Kennan likened the Russian view of Ukraine to the American view of the Midwest. A separate, independent Ukraine could “be maintained, in the last analysis, only by force.” For all these reasons, a hypothetical triumphant United States should not seek to impose Ukrainian independence on a prostrate Russia.

Should the Ukrainians achieve independence on their own, Kennan advised the State Department, Washington should not interfere, at least initially. It was nearly inevitable, however, that an independent Ukraine would be “challenged eventually from the Russian side.” If in that conflict “an undesirable deadlock was developing,” the United States should push for “a composing of the differences along the lines of a reasonable federalism.”

Read “U.S. Objectives with Respect to Russia.”

Notwithstanding the vicissitudes of the last 75 years, Kennan’s advice remains relevant today. A federation allowing for regional autonomy in eastern Ukraine and perhaps even in Crimea could help both sides coexist. Many analysts tend to portray the current conflict as “Putin’s war,” but Kennan believed that almost any strong Russian leader would eventually push back against the total separation of Ukraine. Finally, the realities of demography and geography dictate that Russia in the long run will remain the principal power in these often tragic “bloodlands.” For the sake of both regional stability and long-term U.S. security, Washington needs to sustain a hardheaded, clear-eyed empathy for the interests of the Russians as well as of the Ukrainians and other nationalities.


Unlike Kennan, many Kremlinologists did not see the collapse of the Soviet Union coming. He was hailed as a prophet at the end of the Cold War. Nonetheless, in the ensuing debate over NATO expansion, he was honored rather than heeded. This paradox was illustrated in 1995, when U.S. President Bill Clinton’s adviser on Russian affairs, Strobe Talbott, sought to pay homage to Kennan, whom he deeply admired. Talbott invited Kennan to fly with the president to Moscow for the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day on May 9 commemorating Nazi Germany’s surrender. Back in 1945, Kennan, the ranking U.S. official in Moscow, had warmly greeted the cheering Russians thronging the embassy. Now, however, the 91-year-old declined the invitation because of ill health. His refusal to go was probably for the best.

Kennan likely would have felt used had he learned of the full agenda for the trip. In a memorandum to Clinton, Talbott characterized the day after the anniversary festivities as “May 10: Moment of Truth.” In his meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Clinton did as Talbott suggested and pressured the Russians to accept both NATO’s  expansion and Moscow’s participation in the Partnership for Peace, an association best understood as “NATO-lite” that was crafted to soothe Russian concerns. Talbott admitted to Clinton that “virtually all major players in Russia, all across the political spectrum, are either deeply opposed to, or at least deeply worried about, NATO expansion.”

By 1997, Kennan was further alarmed by Washington’s decision to have NATO not only admit the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland but also to initiate military and naval cooperation with Ukraine. The redrawn line dividing east from west was compelling Ukraine and other nations to choose sides. “Nowhere does this choice appear more portentous and pregnant with fateful consequences than in the case of Ukraine,” Kennan warned Talbott in a private letter.

Read the full letter.

He worried in particular about Sea Breeze, a joint Ukrainian-NATO naval exercise that defied Russia’s traditional insecurity about foreign warships in the narrow waters of the Black Sea. Although invited to participate in the exercise, Russia had angrily declined. The ongoing dispute at the time between Kyiv and Moscow over the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea added to the tension. How, Kennan asked Talbott, did this naval exercise fit with Washington’s effort “to persuade Russia that the extension of the NATO borders toward the Russian frontier in Eastern Europe has no immediate military connotations?”

Read the full letter.

Although respectful of Kennan’s doubts, Talbott held firm. He assumed that the economic prostration of Russia meant that it would have to accommodate itself to Western ways. “Russia will have to break out of a deeply ingrained habit of thinking and behavior,” Talbott wrote to Kennan, by seeking to cooperate with rather than dominate its neighbors. Russia had to do the adjusting and accept U.S. power on its borders. The Clinton administration intended “not to stop cooperating with Ukraine but to redouble our efforts to engage Russia.”

Next to Talbott’s reference to “planning exercises this year in Central Asia as well as the Baltic region,” the exasperated 93-year-old Kennan penned two exclamation marks. Moscow again refused to participate in these Western–led military exercises in areas that had been under its control only a few years earlier.

Read the full letter.

Predictions often get it woefully wrong. Kennan underestimated the intensity of Ukrainian nationalism. But his prognostications in 1948 about Russian stubbornness when it came to Ukraine and his warnings in the 1990s about American insensitivity and ambition ring true today. His suggestion of some federal structure and regional autonomy in disputed areas remains promising, albeit increasingly challenging to implement.

The overriding issue here is what the Yale historian Paul Kennedy called imperial overstretch. Back in World War II, Kennan endured long flights in icy cargo planes hopscotching across the Atlantic by reading Edward Gibbon on how the Roman Empire declined and then fell. Kennan came away skeptical about the long-run viability of even the mightiest countries maintaining military forces far from home. As a result, he underrated the stabilizing effect of U.S. troops stationed in Western Europe during the Cold War.

Since the Cold War, however, the United States’ military frontier has advanced much farther eastward. Regardless of how Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine ends, the United States has committed itself to sustaining a robust military presence on Russia’s doorstep. If alive today, Kennan would note the danger of cornering the Russians to the point where they might lash out. He would also gesture toward the United States’ multiple problems at home and wonder how this exposed presence in Eastern Europe accorded with the long-term foreign and domestic interests of the American people.

Read all the documents quoted in this article.

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