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How the US defense industry’s greed led to the Ukraine war.

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Collage of NYT images by author

WHAT struck me most in the letter by American national security experts condemning the US for provoking Russia to invade Ukraine (which I posted in this column last Monday, June 19) were the following assertions:

“Why did the US persist in expanding NATO despite repeated warnings [by its own security officials and by Russia]? Profits from weapons sales was a major factor. Facing opposition to NATO expansion, a group of neoconservatives and top executives of US weapons manufacturers formed the US Committee to Expand NATO.

Between 1996 and 1998, the largest arms manufacturers spent $51 million ($94 million today) on lobbying and millions more on campaign contributions. With this largesse, NATO expansion quickly became a done deal, after which US weapons manufacturers sold billions of dollars of weapons to the new NATO members.”

(NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was set up by the US and several of its allies in 1949 as a military alliance to counter the USSR’s growing military strength after World War 2.)

We Leftists in my youth always condemned the catchy term “military-industrial complex” as ruling America and determining its foreign policy — more than its ruling elite in the Marxist sense. America’s war against Vietnam was an inarguable proof of the existence and power of the “military-industrial” complex, as that US aggression cost it a colossal $1 trillion (in today’s dollars).

Those spendings boosted the profits of such companies as Bell Helicopters which produced the 7,000 iconic Huey choppers deployed in Vietnam, the thousands of ruthless napalm bombs made by Dow Chemicals, and Boeing’s B-52 bombers that ravaged the rice fields of Vietnam and Cambodia.


However, I had never read such a bold statement that “weapons sales was a major factor” in the NATO expansion that eventually encircled Russia and provoked it to attack Ukraine. Neither had I heard, even in current accounts and analyses of a “Committee to Expand NATO.”

Indeed, it is a testament to the tremendous power of US media — controlled by its elite — that I found, only after considerable effort, only two accounts of this Committee, both in the New York Times and only in its subscription-required archives.

Their titles themselves were damning. The first article was titled “Arms Makers See Bonanza in Selling NATO Expansion,” published June 29, 1997 by Jeff Gerth and Tim Weiner. The second was titled “Arms Contractors Spend to Promote an Expanded NSTO,” published a year later on March 30, 1998 and bylined by Katharine Seelye.

The arms makers reversed US policy. Renowned intellectual Jeffrey Sachs wrote in his column in this paper (“The war in Ukraine was not ‘unprovoked’,” June 6) : In 1990, as the archives show irrefutably, the US and Germany repeatedly promised Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move ‘one inch eastward’ when the Soviet Union disbanded the Warsaw Pact alliance. US diplomats and Ukraine’s own leaders knew well that NATO enlargement could lead to war. The great US scholar-statesman George Kennan called enlargement a “fateful error.”


However, the US defense industry, or more accurately, the corporations producing weapons for war desperately needed to reverse this no-NATO-expansion policy by the early 1990s. The American weapons industry was in the doldrums by the 1990s.

The US lost to Vietnam in 1975 and subsequently waged only small wars (invasion of Grenada and Panama). The Gulf War in 1990-91 against Iraq lasted only 43 days. With the end of the Cold War in December 1991 and the implosion of the USSR, there was little justification for the US and its allies to buy more and more weapons, as there was no need to prepare for a war against that “Evil Empire” that no longer existe.d

An expansion of NATO would save the American weapons industry, owners and executives felt. On grounds that NATO was based on the idea that its members would come to the aid of a member attacked by any country, the alliance required new members to modernize its military, standardized so it could be used by any NATO country.

This meant buying Western, especially American, weapons and equipment. The US Congressional Budget Office had estimated these to cost $125 billion for six formerly USSR countries over 15 years. Since it was an undisputed hegemon by the 1990s, these new NATO members would be buying mostly US-made weapons — a boon to the American defense industry.


The 1997 NYT piece reported the euphoria of US arms manufacturers over an expanded NATO:

– ”’The stakes are high” for arms makers, said Joel L. Johnson, vice president for international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group. ‘Whoever gets in first will have a lock for the next quarter-century.’ The potential market for fighter jets alone is $10 billion, he said. Those jets will require flight simulators, spare parts, electronics and engine improvements. ‘Then there’s transport aircraft, utility helicopters, attack helicopters,’’Mr. Johnson said — not to mention military communications systems, computers, radar, radios and the other tools of a modern fighting force.”
–“Lockheed Martin wants its F-16 fighters to replace the old Soviet-made MIG-21s in the hangars of Central Europe. Norman R. Augustine, Lockheed Martin’s chief executive, toured Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovenia in April, drumming up business and supporting the largest possible expansion of NATO. “
– “In May, Bell Helicopter Textron’s chairman, Webb Joiner, also promoted Romania’s bid as he sealed a $1 billion deal to sell the Romanians marine attack helicopters. In Washington, the company’s lobbyist, Dick Smith, said that Bell Helicopter Textron was fighting for Romania’s inclusion by ‘’doing everything we can to tell their story to our friends here.’”


The NYT 1998 article reported: “America’s six biggest military contractors have spent $51 million on lobbying [for the Senate to approve NATO’s expansion in the last two years, The top six American military companies increased their contributions to Federal campaign committees as well, to $2.4 million in 1997 from $1.5 million in 1991. In the last six years, those six companies — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Textron Inc., Raytheon, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas — have given the committees more than $15 million.”

The main venue for the weapons manufacturers’ lobbying in Washington was the Committee to Expand NATO, whose president the 1997 NYT article described:

“At night, Bruce L. Jackson is president of the US Committee to Expand NATO, giving intimate dinners for Senators and foreign officials. By day, he is director of strategic planning for Lockheed Martin Corporation, the world’s biggest weapons maker. Mr. Jackson says he keeps his two identities separate, but his company and his lobbying group are fighting the same battle. Defense contractors are acting like globe-hopping diplomats to encourage the expansion of NATO, which will create a huge market for their wares.”

As always is the case, American political leaders — as long as the lobbyists and their PR men are successful in fooling the public — get around to supporting and even championing big-business’ projects. The justification was that it would strengthen US hegemony in Europe against Russia which even at that time, because of its gas resources, was emerging as a superpower out of the Soviet Union’s ashes. As a hegemon, it could just reply , if reminded that its leaders promised not to expand NATO: “We lied.”


The Committee to Expand NATO and the weapons manufacturers were exceedingly successful in their goal. NATO has 31 members, 12 of which were the founders, led by the US. Fifteen, or nearly half, joined NATO only in 1999 and in subsequent years, all of which were former USSR republics that geographically surround Russia.

Only Belarus and Ukraine had not. Why not push our luck and get Ukraine to join NATO, the arms manufacturers must have thought. For US hegemonists, Ukraine’s accession would mean the complete encirclement of Russia, especially as it is the second largest country in Europe after Russia. Propaganda or not, Russia had often termed Ukraine as its brother, with a third of its population speaking Russian, and with many Ukrainians – among them Party leaders Nikita Khrushchev Leonid Breshnev – reaching the highest echelons of government and army.

On 20 September 2018 the Ukrainian parliament approved amendments to the constitution that would make the accession of the country to NATO a central goal and the country’s main foreign policy objective. On 14 September 2020 President Zelenskyy approved Ukraine’s new National Security Strategy, which provides for the development of the distinctive partnership with NATO with the aim of finally becoming a member of the alliance.
These moves were made after President Victor Yanukovych who assumed the post in 2002 and had opposed joining NATO, was deposed in 2014 through mass protests, after media agitation by groups funded by such American outfits as the National Endowment for Democracy (the same funder of Rappler, and Vera Files). Yanukovych was succeeded by two other presidents until the current president Volodymyr Zelenskyy won the 2019 elections.

When Vladimir Putin assumed power in 1999, he must have been aghast looking at a map of Russia, surrounded by NATO countries on which were installed American military bases. He fired a warning shot when he invaded and annexed Crimea, a part of Ukraine, in 2014.

Probably encouraged by the fact that his Crimean annexation met little Ukrainian and international resistance, Putin invaded Ukraine eight years later, in February 2022, as the last brick in the wall to encircle Russia — and even eventually invade it as the US did Iraq — was being put in place.

Indeed, as in the case of Ukraine, wars do not break out overnight: its seeds are planted decades back.

Major war

Even as the US’s last major war, that against Iraq, ended 11 years ago, US military spending measured in 2022, at $877 billion, is bigger than the combined budgets of the next 10 countries, including China. It has and will skyrocket — generating billions of dollars in revenues for American weapons manufacture — with the US supplying military equipment to Ukraine to fight Russia worth $40 billion.

“Merchants of Death,” they were called in the early 1900s, when these American weapons manufacturers successfully lobbied their government to join World War 1. That phrase has taken an extremely frightening meaning, as the US-Russia proxy war in Ukraine could turn into a nuclear war that would consume all of humanity.

Citations and Further reading

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dorina S. Rojas

    When money talks, everybody listens. Money talk was the strategy used by US weapons manufacturers to make money and to maintain US title as a superpower never mind if it annihilates humanity and all innocent people. And they call it defense strategy just like EDCA etc. as defense against natural disasters in the Philippines. Again, will the US care if the Philippines is bombed or destroyed by US enemy countries? I am sure they won’t even apologize or admit mistakes and would most likely blame the Philippines for wrong decisions somewhere.

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