The Ukraine Crisis – How Did We Get Here?



Russia will not accept a new wave of NATO expansion

It is quite understandable that comments about the crisis between Russia and the West tend to focus on Ukraine. After all, more than 100.000 Russian troops and a fearsome arsenal of weapons were positioned around the Ukrainian border. Still, such a narrow perspective distracts from an American strategic error that dates back to the 1990s and continues to reverberate.

During that decade, Russia was on its knees. Its economy had shrunk by nearly 40% as unemployment soared and inflation soared. (He reached a monumental 86% in 1999). The Russian armed forces were mess. Rather than seize the opportunity to create a new European order that included Russia, President Bill Clinton and his foreign policy team squandered it by deciding to expand NATO menacingly towards that country's borders. Such a misguided policy ensured that Europe was again divided, even as Washington created a new order that progressively excluded and alienated post-Soviet Russia.

The Russians were baffled – as they should have been. At that time, Clinton and company hailed Russian President Boris Yeltsin as a Democrat. (Never mind that he hit his own recalcitrant parliament in 1993 with tank bombs and triumphed in 1996 in a skewed, oddly supported by Washington). They praised him for launching a “transition” to a market economy, which, as Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich so poignantly expounded in her book Second Hand Time, would plunge millions of Russians into penury, “uncontrolling” prices and cutting social services provided by the State.

Why – Russians wondered – would Washington obsessively push a Cold War NATO closer to its borders, knowing that a tottering Russia was in no position to endanger any European country?


A covenant saved from oblivion

Unfortunately, those directing or influencing American foreign policy have not found the time to ponder such an obvious question. After all, there was a world out there for the planet's only superpower to lead, and if the US took the time to introspect, "the jungle" as the influential neoconservative thinker put it Robert kagan, would grow again and the world would be “threatened”. Thus, the Clintonites and their successors in the White House found new causes to promote the use of American power, a fixation that would lead to a series of campaigns of intervention and social engineering.

NATO expansion was an early manifestation of this millennial mindset, something that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had warned about in his classic book, The Irony of American History. But who in Washington was paying attention, when the fate of the world and the future were being conceived by us, and us alone, as the neoconservative columnist of the The Washington Post Charles Krauthammer celebrated in 1990 as the ultimate “unipolar moment— in which, for the first time, the United States would possess unrivaled power?

Still, why take this opportunity to expand NATO, which had been created in 1949 to prevent the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact from moving closer to Western Europe, given that both the Soviet Union and its alliance no longer existed? ? Wouldn't it be similar to bringing a mummy to life?

To that question, the architects of NATO expansion had stockpiles of answers, which their latter-day disciples still recite. The newborn post-Soviet democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as other parts of the continent, could be “consolidated” by the stability that only NATO would provide them once introduced into its ranks. Exactly how a military alliance was supposed to promote democracy was, of course, never spelled out, especially given a record of US global alliances that had included the likes of Ferdinand Marcos, the strongman of the Philippines, the Greece under the colonels and the Turkey governed by the armed forces.

And, of course, if the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union now wanted to join the club, how could they be properly denied? It didn't matter that Clinton and her foreign policy team hadn't hatched the idea in response to an impetuous demand for membership in that part of the world. Quite the contrary, they consider it the strategic analogue of Say's Law in economics: they created a product and followed the demand.

Domestic politics also influenced the decision to push NATO east. President Clinton resented his lack of combat credentials. Like many American presidents (31 to be precise), he had not served in the military, while his opponent in the 1996 election, Senator Bob Dole, had been seriously injured fighting in World War II. Worse still, his evasion of the Vietnam-era draft had been enjoyed by his critics, by which he felt compelled to show Washington's power brokers that he had the stomach and temper to safeguard American global leadership and military preponderance.

In fact, most voters were not interested in foreign policy, nem Clinton, and that gave an advantage to those who were deeply committed in the expansion of NATO under his administration. As of 1993, when discussions on the matter began in earnest, there was no one of importance to oppose them. Worse yet, the president, an experienced politician, realized that the project might even help him attract voters in the 1996 presidential election, especially in the Midwest, home to millions of Americans with roots in Central and Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, given the support NATO had acquired over a generation in the Washington national security and defense industry ecosystem, the idea of ​​decommissioning was unthinkable, as it was seen as essential to the continuation of American global leadership. . Serving as a protector par excellence gave the United States enormous influence in the main world centers of economic power at that time. And officials, thinkers, academics and journalists – all of whom wield far more influence over foreign policy and care much more about it than the rest of the population – found it flattering to be received in such places as a representative of the world's leading power.

In these circumstances, Yeltsin's objections to NATO's eastward move (despite the verbal promises made to the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, not to do so) could easily be ignored. After all, Russia was too weak to import. And in these final moments of the Cold War, nobody even imagined such an expansion of NATO. So, betrayal? Thought perishes! Never mind that Gorbachev firmly denounced such moves and did so again in December past.


You reap what you sow

Now Russian President Vladimir Putin is striking back, hard. Having built the Russian army into a formidable force, he has the muscle that Yeltsin lacked. But the consensus within Washington circles remains that their complaints about NATO expansion are nothing more than a ruse designed to hide their real concern: a democratic Ukraine. It is an interpretation that conveniently absolves the United States of any responsibility for ongoing events.

In Washington today, it doesn't matter that Moscow's objections long preceded Putin's election as president in 2000, or that, once upon a time, it wasn't just Russian leaders who didn't like the idea. In the 1990s, several prominent Americans they opposed it and were anything but leftists. Among them were members of the establishment with impeccable Cold War credentials: George Kennan, the father of containment doctrine; Paul Nitze, a hawk who served in the Reagan administration; Harvard historian of Russia Richard Pipes, another hard-liner; Senator Sam Nunn, one of the most influential voices on national security in Congress; Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US ambassador to the UN; and Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson's secretary of defense. Their warnings were all remarkably similar: NATO expansion would poison relations with Russia while helping to foster authoritarian and nationalist forces within it.

The Clinton administration was fully aware of Russia's opposition. In October 1993, for example, James Collins, the chargé d'affaires at the US embassy in Russia, sent a telegram to Secretary of State Warren Christopher as he was about to travel to Moscow to meet Yeltsin, warning him that NATO enlargement was “crucial for the Russians” because, in his eyes, it would divide Europe and leave them out . He warned that the alliance's expansion into Central and Eastern Europe would be "universally interpreted in Moscow as directed at Russia and Russia alone" and thus regarded as "neo-containment".

That same year, Yeltsin would send a letter to Clinton (and the leaders of the UK, France and Germany) fiercely opposing NATO expansion if it meant admitting former Soviet states and excluding Russia. This, he predicted, would actually "undermine Europe's security". The following year, he clashed publicly with Clinton, warning that such an expansion "would sow the seeds of distrust" and "plunge post-Cold War Europe into a cold peace". The American president dismissed their objections: the decision to offer former parts of the Soviet Union to join the first wave of alliance expansion in 1999 had already been taken.

Supporters of the alliance now claim that Russia accepted the enlargement by signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act 1997. But Moscow really had no choice, so it was dependent on billions of dollars on loans from the International Monetary Fund (only possible with the approval of the United States, the most influential member of that organization). Therefore, he made a virtue of necessity. That document, it is true, highlights democracy and respect for the territorial integrity of European countries, principles that Putin did nothing but defend. Yet it also refers to "inclusive" security across the "Euro-Atlantic zone" and "joint decision-making", words that hardly describe NATO's decision to expand from 16 countries at the height of the Cold War to the current 30. .

When NATO held a summit in Romania's capital, Bucharest, in 2008, the Baltic states were already members and the reshaped alliance had indeed reached Russia's border. However, the declaration post-summit praised Ukraine and Georgia's "membership aspirations", adding "we agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO". The administration of President George W. Bush could not have imagined that Moscow would sit back and wait for Ukraine to join the alliance. The American ambassador to Russia, William Burns – now head of the CIA – had warned two months earlier in a telegram that Russian leaders considered this possibility a serious threat to their security. That telegram, now publicly available, all but anticipated a disaster like the one we are now witnessing.

But it was the Russia-Georgia war – with rare exceptions erroneously presented as an unprovoked attack, initiated by Moscow – which provided the first sign that Vladimir Putin had already passed the point of issuing protests. Its annexation of Crimea in 2014, following an illegal referendum, and the creation of two “republics” in the Donbas, also part of Ukraine, were far more dramatic moves that effectively launched a second Cold War.


avoid disaster

And now, here we are. A divided Europe, with growing instability amid military threats from nuclear powers, and the imminent possibility of war, at a time when Putin's Russia, its troops and armaments gathered around Ukraine, demand that the expansion of NATO ceases, Ukraine is barred from the alliance, and the United States and its allies finally take Russia's objections to the post-Cold War security order seriously.

Of the many obstacles to avoiding war, one is particularly noteworthy: the widespread assertion that Putin's concerns about NATO are a smokescreen that obscures his true fear: the democracycia, particularly in Ukraine. Russia, however, repeatedly opposed NATO's eastward march, even when it was still hailed as a democracy in the West and long before Putin became president in 2000. Moreover, Ukraine has been a democracy (however tumultuous as it may be) since becoming independent in 1991.

So why the Russian climb now? Vladimir Putin is anything but a democrat. Still, this crisis is unimaginable without the continuing talk of Ukraine's one day induction into NATO and the intensification of military cooperation of Kiev with the West, especially with the United States. Moscow sees both as signs that Ukraine will eventually join the alliance, which - not democracy - is Putin's greatest fear.

Now the encouraging news: the disaster that finally approaches boosted diplomacy. We know that the hawks in Washington will deplore any political deal that involves a compromise with Russia as appeasement. They will compare President Biden to Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who, in 1938, gave way to Hitler in Munich. Some of them advocate a “massive airlift of weapons” to Ukraine, à la Berlin when the Cold War began. Others they go further, urging Biden to assemble an “international coalition of willing military forces, ready to detain Putin and, if necessary, prepare for war.”

Sanity, however, can still prevail through a commitment. Russia could settle for a moratorium on Ukraine's membership of NATO for, say, two decades, something the alliance should be able to accept because it has no plans to accelerate Kiev's membership anyway. To gain Ukraine's consent, freedom to obtain weapons for self-defense would be guaranteed, and to satisfy Moscow, Kiev would agree never to allow NATO bases or planes and missiles capable of hitting Russia on its territory.

The deal would have to extend beyond Ukraine if it were to ward off crises and wars in Europe. The United States and Russia would have to evoke their intention to discuss arms control there, including perhaps an improved version of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that President Trump abandoned in 2019. They would also have to explore confidence-building measures such as the exclusion of troops and weaponry from designated areas along NATO-Russia borders and steps to prevent the (now frequent) close encounters between American and Russian planes and warships that could get out of control.

Now it's up to the diplomats. Here I wish them the best.

*Rajan Menon is a professor of International Relations at the City College of New York. Author, among other books, of The Concept of Humanitarian Intervention (Oxford University Press).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the portal Tom Dispatch.


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