The Evolution Of Henry Kissinger’s Views On Russia And Ukraine – Analysis


By Robert Coalson

(RFE/RL) — When Henry Kissinger was born in Germany in 1923, Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin was still alive and the ghosts of World War I still haunted Europe. He grew up as Jewish child while Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, fleeing with his family to the United States in 1938. He was 29 when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died in 1953 and 39 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was 45 and already approaching the center of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment when Soviet-led tanks crushed the Prague Spring uprising in 1968.

“The century of Henry Kissinger was no easy one, but its great challenges fit his great and curious mind,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on the X social media platform on November 30 in reaction to the news that Kissinger had died at the age of 100.

A historian by training and avocation, Kissinger was the doyen of realpolitik who viewed international relations through the prism of great-power politics. From his doctoral dissertation on early 19th-century politics, which was published in 1957 as A World Restored, until the end of his life, Kissinger argued that a world order tacitly accepted by the great powers was “legitimate.”

“‘Legitimacy’ as here used should not be confused with justice,” he elaborated in the book. “It means no more than an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy.”

As a result, Kissinger struggled with the dynamic events of the post-Cold War transitions — among them the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he met frequently, and the tortured relations between Russia and Ukraine.

In a July 2022 interview with Der Spiegel, Kissinger was flummoxed when asked to find an “instructive” historical precedent “for understanding and ending the war in Ukraine.”

“Right off the top of my head, I cannot give a direct answer,” Kissinger responded. “Because the war in Ukraine is on one level a war about the balance of power. But on another level, it has aspects of a civil war, and it combines a classically European type of international problem with a totally global one. When this war is over, the issue will be whether Russia achieves a coherent relationship with Europe — which it has always sought — or whether it will become an outpost of Asia at the border of Europe.”

“And there is no good historical example,” he concluded.

For many experts, Kissinger’s focus on the strategic balance among global and regional powers placed blinders on his analysis.

“Such an approach may work in normal times, but it inevitably fails to capture the possibilities of change or what happens when change begins,” Paul Goble, a retired CIA analyst and an expert on former Soviet republics, told RFE/RL. “Thus it misses the major turning points in world history, and that is true of Kissinger during his career. He failed to see the demise of the Soviet empire abroad and within the U.S.S.R. and failed to understand the power of peoples to change things, regardless of how much power their governments appeared to have.”

In an essay for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service published in June, Ukrainian academic Petro Kralyuk argued that Kissinger long had a blind spot when it came to Ukraine. The country was mentioned only twice in Kissinger’s 1994 book Diplomacy.

The first mention, Kralyuk notes, was an approving reference to U.S. President George Bush’s August 1991 “Chicken Kiev” speech to the Ukrainian parliament in which he cautioned lawmakers against “suicidal nationalism” and urged them to seek “freedom, democracy, and economic reform” within the framework of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s proposed new Union Treaty.

In the second — and, to Kralyuk’s mind, more telling — reference, Kissinger wrote: “The vast majority of leading figures in Russia, regardless of their political beliefs, refuse to recognize the collapse of the Soviet empire or the legitimacy of the successor states, especially Ukraine, the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy.”

“This thesis that Ukraine is ‘the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy’ shows that Kissinger considers Russia and Ukraine as one thing and therefore understands the position of Russian politicians who do not accept the independence of the former republics of the U.S.S.R.,” Kralyuk wrote.

Throughout most of Putin’s years in power, Kissinger advocated a “cooperative relationship” with Moscow, as he told a U.S. Senate committee in January 2018. Over much of this time, the Kremlin was reportedly a client of Kissinger’s political-consulting firm, Kissinger Associates. Kissinger first met Putin in the early 1990s, when Putin worked in the administration of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and was a member of the bilateral Kissinger-Sobchak commission to promote Western investment in Russia.

“Kissinger became an apologist for Muscovite imperialism, viewing Russia as a great power entitled to dominate its ‘sphere of influence,'” Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., told RFE/RL. “He was stuck in the Cold War narrative and largely ignored the interests of smaller or emerging states.”

“It is not possible to bring Russia into the international system by conversion,” Kissinger told The Atlantic in 2016. “It requires deal-making, but also understanding. It is a unique and complicated society. Russia must be dealt with by closing its military options, but in a way that affords it dignity in terms of its own history.”

After Moscow’s 2014 occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its fomenting of a separatist conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine, Kissinger seemingly continued to view Ukraine as a part of Russia’s sphere of interests. In a commentary for The Washington Post less than a month after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, Kissinger argued that “to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.” He urged “wise Ukrainian leaders” to “opt for a policy of reconciliation between the various parts of their country” and said flatly, “Ukraine should not join NATO.”

In a 2015 interview in The National Interest, a U.S. magazine, Kissinger said: “The relationship between Ukraine and Russia will always have a special character in the Russian mind. It can never be limited to a relationship of two traditional sovereign states, not from the Russian point of view, maybe not even from Ukraine’s.”

In a speech in Moscow in 2016, Kissinger said Ukraine should serve “as a bridge between Russia and the West, rather than as an outpost of either side.”

As late as May 2022, Kissinger was calling for a cease-fire in Ukraine and a restoration of the line of contact as it stood before Russia’s full-scale invasion that February. These remarks were widely viewed in Ukraine as a demand that Kyiv give up its claim to Crimea, although Kissinger said in the July 2022 Der Spiegel interview that he intended the status of Crimea to be the subject of further negotiation.

In January 2023, however, Kissinger, addressing the Davos World Economic Forum, expressed “admiration for the president of Ukraine and for the heroic conduct of the Ukrainian people.” And in September, he met in Washington with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and conceded that the continuing Russian aggression had altered his thinking.

“Before this war, I was opposed to the membership of Ukraine in NATO because I feared that it would start the very process that we are seeing now,” he told Zelenskiy. “Now that this process has reached this level, the idea of a neutral Ukraine under these conditions no longer makes sense.”

Written by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson with reporting by Current Time, RFE/RL’s Russian Service, and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. Ramazan Alpautov of RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities contributed to this report.

  • Robert Coalson is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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