Chronicle of a War Foretold

Image: Konrad Ciężki


If Russia did not accept being the enemy again, then Russia would be pressured to become the enemy. 

I was in Eastern Europe in 1989 reporting on the revolutions that overthrew the ossified communist dictatorships that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a time of hope. NATO, with the dismemberment of the Soviet empire, became obsolete. President Mikhail Gorbachev reached out to Washington and Europe to build a new security pact that would include Russia. James Baker, secretary of state in the Reagan administration, along with West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, assured the Soviet leader that if Germany were unified, NATO would not be extended beyond its new borders.

The commitment not to expand NATO, also assumed by Great Britain and France, seemed to herald a new world order. We saw the peace dividends hanging before us, the promise that the huge arms spending that characterized the Cold War would be converted into spending on social programs and infrastructure that had long been neglected to feed the military's insatiable appetite.

At that time, there was an almost universal understanding among diplomats and political leaders that any attempt at NATO expansion was a folly, an unwarranted provocation against Russia that would obliterate the ties and bonds that had happily emerged at the end of the Cold War.

How naive we were. The war industry did not intend to reduce its power or its profits. It began almost immediately to recruit former Communist Bloc countries into the European Union and NATO. Countries that joined NATO, which now includes Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, were forced to reconfigure their armed forces, often through large loans, to become compatible with NATO military equipment.

There would be no peace dividends. NATO expansion quickly became a multibillion-dollar bonanza for companies that had profited from the Cold War. (Poland, for example, just agreed to spend $6 billion on M1 Abrams tanks and other US military hardware.) If Russia did not accept being the enemy again, then Russia would be pressured to become the enemy. And here we are. On the verge of another Cold War, from which only the war industry will benefit, while, as WH Auden wrote, small children die in the streets.

The consequences of pushing NATO to Russia's borders – there is now a NATO missile base in Poland 100 miles from the Russian border – were well known to policy makers. Still, they did it anyway. It made no geopolitical sense. But it made business sense. After all, war is a business, and a very profitable one at that. That's why we spent two decades in Afghanistan, even though there was almost universal agreement, after a few years of fruitless fighting, that we had sunk into a quagmire we could never win.

In a classified diplomatic cable obtained and released by WikiLeaks, dated February 1, 2008, written from Moscow and addressed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, NATO-European Union Cooperation, the National Security Council, the Russia-Moscow Political Collective, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of state, there was an unequivocal understanding that NATO expansion risked eventual conflict with Russia, especially over Ukraine.

"Russia has not only realized the encirclement [by NATO], and efforts to undermine Russia's influence in the region, but also fears unforeseeable and uncontrolled consequences that would seriously affect Russian security interests," the cable reads. “Experts tell us that Russia is particularly concerned that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community opposed, could lead to a major split, involving violence or, at worst, a civil war. In that event, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision that Russia does not want to have to face…

Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director of the Carnegie Center Moscow, expressed concern that Ukraine is, in the long run, the most potentially destabilizing factor in US-Russia relations, given the level of emotion and neuralgia triggered by its pursuit of NATO membership… Since accession remained a divisive issue in Ukrainian domestic politics, an opening for Russian intervention was created. Trenin expressed fears that elements of the establishment Russian were encouraged to meddle, encouraging the US to openly embolden opposing political forces, and leaving the US and Russia in a classic confrontational posture”.

The Barack Obama administration, not wanting to further inflame tensions with Russia, blocked arms sales to Kiev. But this act of prudence was abandoned by the administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. US and British weapons are being poured into Ukraine, part of the promised $1,5 billion in military aid. The equipment includes hundreds of sophisticated Javelins and NLAW anti-tank weapons, despite repeated protests from Moscow.

The United States and its NATO allies have no intention of sending troops into Ukraine. On the contrary, they will flood the country with weapons, which was done in the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia.

The conflict in Ukraine echoes the novel Chronicle of a foretold death, by Gabriel García Márquez. In the novel, the narrator acknowledges that “never was there a death so foretold,” and yet no one was able or willing to stop it. All of us reporting from Eastern Europe in 1989 knew the consequences of provoking Russia, and yet few raised their voices to stop the madness. The methodical steps toward war took on a life of their own, moving us like sleepwalkers toward disaster.

When NATO expanded into Eastern Europe, the Clinton administration promised Moscow that NATO combat troops would not be stationed in Eastern Europe, the decisive issue of “NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relationss” of 1997. This promise turned out to be, once again, a lie. Then, in 2014, the US backed a coup against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which sought to build an economic alliance with Russia rather than the European Union. Of course, once integrated into the European Union, as seen in the rest of Eastern Europe, the next step is integration into NATO. Russia, frightened by the coup, alarmed by the EU and NATO proposals, then annexed Crimea, largely populated by Russian speakers. And the death spiral that led us to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine can no longer be contained.

The state of war needs enemies to sustain itself. When an enemy cannot be found, an enemy is manufactured. Putin has become, in the words of Senator Angus King, the new Hitler, ready to grab Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe. The rallying cries, echoed unabashedly by the press, justify themselves by draining the conflict of historical context, elevating us as the saviors, and whoever we oppose, from Saddam Hussein to Putin, as the new Nazi leader.

I don't know where this is going. We must remember, as Putin reminded us, that Russia is a nuclear power. We must remember that once Pandora's box of war is opened, it unleashes dark and murderous forces that no one can control. I know this from experience. The match was lit. The tragedy is that there was never any dispute about how the conflagration would start.

*Chris Hedges is a journalist. Author, among other books, of Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Nation books).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the portal Scheerpost.


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