No one knows how this will end. Putin’s reckless adventurism has backfired: an attempt to mimic the US on a GDP of $1.5 trillion, smaller even than Italy and minuscule compared to China ($14.7 trillion), was always going to be foolhardy. If he imagined a quick sortie, akin to a colonial-style ‘police operation’, he must now realise that installing Yanukovych or another puppet president in Kyiv will commit Russia to maintaining a massive military presence in Ukraine. A country that twelve years ago had a polity roughly divided between pro-Russian and pro-Western factions has swung decisively in the West’s favour.
Biden, too, threw caution to the wind. His decision last November to proceed with Nato enlargement – starting the process of incorporating Ukraine – in the half-hope, half-belief that this would check Russia’s encroachment at the borders of Donbass and Crimea proved disastrously wrong. This can’t be admitted in public, but Nato leaders know it and so do the leaders of China, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cuba and the other countries that abstained from criticising Russia at the UN. Their combined populations amount to half of humanity. The US will have to concede on other fronts. A State Department delegation has already arrived in Caracas. They need the oil. Juan Guaidó, the Washington-appointed president recognised by the West, will have to be discarded. Secret talks with Iran have resumed, much to Israel’s annoyance.
The origins of this massive foreign policy failure are the subject of a recent study, Not One Inch, by M.E. Sarotte, a historian at Johns Hopkins and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.* The title refers to the assurance on the limits of Nato expansion given to Mikhail Gorbachev by James Baker, then US secretary of state, in 1990. The Soviet Union had stationed troops in East Germany since the liberation of Berlin; in 1990 they numbered 380,000. Gorbachev was in a strong position militarily. In all other respects, however, he was weak. Sarotte describes him as an ‘idealist visionary’, but neither word really applies. He was a well-meaning reformer. (I witnessed for myself the excitement generated in Russia by glasnost – not only in intellectual circles and the universities but also in factories and among bureaucrats.) As a world leader, however, he was out of his depth. Western flattery went to his head.
Baker played on this weakness and suggested a deal. Would the Soviet Union agree to withdraw from East Germany if the US ensured that Nato did ‘not shift one inch eastwards from its position’? The next day, he repeated his words to Gorbachev in a letter to Helmut Kohl: ‘Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of Nato, independent and with no US forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to Nato, with assurances that Nato’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastwards from its present position?’
What Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, preferred was direct talks with Gorbachev, at which Kohl pledged there would be no Nato bases in the former DDR. Until this happened, Washington and Bonn were extremely nervous. They couldn’t believe that the Soviet Union would hand over East Germany without anything in writing. Gorbachev kept his side of the bargain. The US didn’t.
Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, comes in for special criticism in Sarotte’s account – not only for advocating war (‘Colin, what are you saving this incredible military for?’) but for pushing American advantage at any cost. Nato enlargement was worthwhile because it would demonstrate ‘from Ukraine to the United States’ that the ‘quest for European security is no longer a zero-sum game’.
Other paths could have been taken. An intelligence report presented to Condoleezza Rice in 2008 included this warning:
Ukrainian entry into Nato is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in Nato as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests. [Pursuing this strategy] would create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The author? William Burns, now director of the CIA, whose job involves managing the consequences of his rejected advice.
Critiques of expansionism are not new nor are they confined to the left. Thomas Friedman issued surprisingly sharp criticisms of US policy in two recent columns in the New York Times. In the first of these, he recounted his memories of 2 May 1998:
Immediately after the Senate ratified Nato expansion, I called George Kennan, the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union. Having joined the State Department in 1926 and served as US ambassador to Moscow in 1952, Kennan was arguably America’s greatest expert on Russia. Though 94 at the time and frail of voice, he was sharp of mind when I asked for his opinion.
He then quoted Kennan’s reply in its entirety:
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 expansionists] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.
Putin is a staunch anti-communist, of course, a devotee of both Mother Russia and the Orthodox Church. In 2017 he refused to mark the centenary of the February and October Revolutions, telling an Indian newspaper proprietor (whom I had primed before their private meeting in Moscow) that ‘these revolutions are not part of our calendar.’ At a recent press conference, Putin denounced Lenin as the father of Ukrainian independence. This is partially true. Lenin despised Great Russian chauvinism and the nationalism of oppressor nations. He celebrated the tsarist defeat at the hands of the Japanese which triggered the 1905 revolution. In June 1917, at a critical point between the two revolutions, Lenin condemned the Provisional Government for refusing to carry out ‘an elementary democratic duty’ by declaring support ‘for the autonomy and for the complete freedom of secession of the Ukraine’. Later, he insisted that the constitution of the Soviet Union should contain a clause allowing all nations in the union the right to national self-determination, i.e. the right to secede.
The Bolsheviks agreed soon after taking power that Finland, Poland and Ukraine should be granted independence. They knew that Ukraine was different, that its peculiar national texture (immigrant Russian proletariat and bureaucracy; ultra-nationalist peasantry resentful of Polish landowners and Jews) posed unique difficulties. It was Stalin, as the commissar for nationalities, who went to Finland to deliver the message. Nobody was dispatched to Ukraine, but the local Soviet, the Rada, proclaimed a People’s Republic and insisted that its intention was ‘not to separate from the Russian Republic’. As other Soviets sprang up throughout Ukraine, the national movement was divided between those who signed a separate treaty with Germany (and later with France) and those who remained with the new Soviet state. The Russian civil war split the country, as did the Second World War. Ukrainian defections to Hitler are well documented. In 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev, the Ukrainian leader of the Soviet Union, backed by the Presidium, enlarged Ukraine by adding Crimea. It was an emotional gesture. No political justification was provided. Few at that stage thought the Soviet Union might implode.
The emergence of a Russian peace movement is one of the more heartening developments of the last few weeks. Most Western politicians pay lip-service to the courage of young Russians facing state repression, but at home both Johnson and Starmer have denounced Stop the War. Putin attacks his dissenters as agents of Nato, which they staunchly deny. Here, Stop the War is traduced for supporting Putin by opposing Nato expansionism and its wars. They could hardly do otherwise: Nato is a military organisation designed to preserve US hegemony in Europe and beyond. By any means necessary?
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