President Obama’s restrained handling of the Ukraine/Crimea crisis is just about right, for now. Putin has legitimate grievances, but they don’t justify his illegal seizure of the Crimea. Some kind of reaction from the West was necessary, even though there is little of a forceful nature that can be done. But pragmatic considerations aside, US restraint is appropriate because this country bears a large historic responsibility for creating the raging sense of grievance that is driving Putin.
The roots of Putin’s rage go back to the beginning of the end of the Cold War. They have been aptly summarized by Ronald Reagan’s last ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock: “The US has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War.”
Let’s start with the expansion of NATO. NATO of course, was founded as a bulwark against the presumed threat posed by the communist Soviet Union to Western Europe. With the dissolution of the USSR and the end of communism, NATO might have been thought to have lost its raison d’etre. A dissolution of NATO following the collapse of the Soviets’ Warsaw Pact, both to be replaced by a new set of security arrangements encompassing East and West Europe, would have been a natural course of events. But NATO had also been the principal instrument by which the United States exerted its leadership role in European affairs. US policymakers had no interest in relinquishing that role, which, indeed, in the 90’s was being challenged by various rumblings of increased cohesion and self-assertiveness by our West European allies. So, the US pushed for the expansion of NATO eastward, giving new life to the alliance but also extending American power into Russia’s back yard. In 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became NATO members. By 2009, all of the former Soviet Union’s east European satellites had become incorporated into NATO, along with the three Baltic ex-Soviet Republics. The dream of czars and Joseph Stalin’s actual great foreign policy achievement—the construction of a security belt to Russia’s west, behind the iron curtain—had been reversed.
The Russians were naturally pissed: the Bush administration had pledged to Mikhail Gorbachev that the reunification of Germany would not be followed by any eastward expansion of NATO—after all, who but the Russians could NATO be aimed against? (The majority of US foreign policy intellectuals had also initially opposed NATO expansion, correctly expecting that it would needlessly antagonize Russia.) But that was just a verbal pledge, nothing subsequent US presidents were going to take seriously. To make matters worse, the Americans were adamant at restricting Russia to the sidelines in attempts to resolve the Balkan wars of the 90s involving Russia’s historic client, Serbia.
And, to make matters worse still, the United States pursued missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. Despite modifications by President Obama, plans are set for anti-missile systems to go forward in Poland and Romania. Missile defense of course doesn’t really work, so the prime function of those installations is to more closely bind those countries into America’s international sphere of influence. (American policymakers are nevertheless capable of claiming with a straight face that the anti-missile missiles are poised to protect Western Europe from the Iranian threat.) From the Russian point of view, they are basically a thumb in the eye—a reminder that American power extends to the very borders of Russia, and the Russians just have to like it.
I won’t even go into the history of US meddling in Russian domestic policy in the 1990s, which contributed to the collapse of the Russian economy while creating a new class of economic oligarchs. No hard feelings there.
The final straw was US and Western encouragement of the developments that precipitated what amounted to an anti-Russian coup in Kiev. (See the Dimitri Simes interview cited in my post of 3/12.)
So, if Obama’s respose for now is reasonable, what should he aim at moving forward? Ideally, he should encourage a new dispensation in Europe that at least implicitly acknowledges Russia’s grievances. Here is one set of ideas:
…We should acknowledge our broken promise to Gorbachev that we wouldn’t expand NATO if Russia didn’t object to a reunified Germany’s entry into NATO when the wall came down, and promise not to invite the Ukraine or Georgia to become members of our old Cold War military alliance.
We should be disbanding NATO and working for reform of the UN system so that it can fulfill its peacekeeping mission without archaic reliance on regional military competitive alliances. Further, we should remove our missiles from Poland, Romania and Turkey and negotiate the space weapons ban which China and Russia repeatedly proposed, and which only the US blocked for several years in the UN’s committee on Disarmament in Geneva which requires consensus.
We should also reinstate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty [with the Soviet Union/Russia–TG] which Bush walked out of in 2001 and take up Russia’s offer to negotiate a treaty to ban cyberwarfare, which it proposed after the US boasted about its virus attack on Iran’s enrichment facilities and which the US rejected out of hand.
Of course, none of this is likely to happen, partly because the inertia of established policy and the realities of US domestic politics pose huge obstacles. But partly, too, because the encirclement of a weak and potentially harmless Russia has created a self-fulfilling prophecy—an aggressive Russia that inevitably does make its neighbors fearful. Still, the above proposals represent an ideal against which actual policy should be assessed. A fair and realistic American policy toward Russia and Europe requires an honest recognition of our own role in creating the current mess.