By Jonathan Power*
The Russian European dreamers have included Pushkin, Lenin, Gorbachev and, until relatively recently, President Vladimir Putin. They have all seen their country’s future as part of the “European house”. But history and events have not been kind to Russia. Napoleon’s invasion, revolution, two world wars including Hitler’s invasion, almost up to the gates of Moscow as was Napoleon’s, Stalin’s communism and, most recently, the expansion of NATO, have shattered the dream again and again.
At the end of the Cold War and with agreement on the NATO-Russia Founding Act it seemed that big steps towards that goal were being taken. First, Russia would have a seat at NATO’s table. Later it would join NATO. Later still, the European Union. Some experts said this would happen over ten years, others 20.
Then, smash-bang, the dream came to an end as President Bill Clinton, bucking America’s academic foreign policy elite, decided to expand NATO’s membership to former members of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact. George Kennan, America’s elder statesman on Russian issues, commented: “It shows so little understanding of Russian and Soviet history. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then the NATO expanders will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are- but this is just wrong.” He characterized it as the most dangerous foreign policy decision that the US had made since the end of the Second World War.
The director of Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Graham Allison, reports on an interview given by Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s secretary of state. If you want to talk about wisdom in foreign policy Kissinger has it. His career spans six decades. Kissinger has talked to Putin many times and concludes that Putin is essentially reacting to the talk of Ukraine entering NATO and the EU. This ignores Russia’s vital interests and Russia’s capacity and readiness to protect those interests. Russia’s security establishment—not just Putin—sees Ukraine as an essential buffer. There would be a lot of people to topple to change Russian policy on Ukraine.
Misinterpreting the drivers and dynamics of events in Ukraine, argues Kissinger, the US has had the goal of “breaking Russia”.
Kissinger suggests searching for a formulation in which Kiev would be militarily non-aligned, thus satisfying Russian concerns about a buffer, but also assuring Ukraine of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, which would require withdrawal of all Russian forces from Eastern Ukraine and Kiev’s control of its borders.
I have been in correspondence with the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union who served President Ronald Reagan. He wrote to me: “The problem in Putin’s eyes is far more than NATO expansion. It is the withdrawal from almost all arms control agreements, the extension of Jackson-Vanik for decades after it no longer legally applied, the outrageous Magnitsky Act, the illegal invasion of Iraq, etc., etc. And on top of that a campaign of personal vilification which undermined confidence in the possibility of coming to reasonable terms in the interest of both our countries”.
Matlock adds: “Russia’s objection was to the extension of NATO’s unified military structure to the east. That has been the main point all along. A lawyer could make a powerful argument that there were formal, written agreements that could be easily understood to prohibit it.”
Defending Clinton and, later, George W. Bush and Barack Obama who continued the NATO expansion policy, their supporters have said that in expanding NATO eastward the West did not break its promise to Moscow not to.
It did. As ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has said on many occasions there was a promise not to expand NATO “as much as a thumb’s width further to the East”. This is an echo of the US secretary of state, James Baker, when he spoke in St Catherine’s Hall in the Kremlin on February 9, 1990, saying, there would be “no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east”. Matlock says he heard Baker repeating it as they drove away from the hall.
Some re-writing of history has gone on. Now Baker has ambiguously denied there was any such agreement.
There has even been an effort to show that Gorbachev himself denies that there was an agreement. And it is true that in the last few years he has said one thing and then another. This is perhaps because he is embarrassed that he never asked for the US/German/British commitments in writing. He has defended that decision arguing, “The Warsaw Pact still existed at the beginning of 1990. Merely the notion that NATO might expand to include countries in the alliance sounded completely absurd at the time”.
Nevertheless, the evidence that a commitment was made not to expand is strong. Rodrick Braithwaite who was the UK’s ambassador to the Soviet Union and then the new Russia, has written, “After Germany reunited, Václav Havel, the Czech president, called for Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary to enter NATO. The British prime minister and foreign secretary assured Soviet ministers that there was no such intention. NATO’s secretary general added that enlargement would damage relations with the Soviet Union.”
Der Spiegel, the German political weekly, has been through the German and British archives. It found a minute of a conversation on February 10, 1990 when foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher spoke with Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Genscher said: “For us one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.” Because the conversation revolved mainly around the future of East Germany, Genscher added explicitly, “As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned this also applies in general”.
In a major speech on January 31, 1990 in Tutzing, Genscher said there would not be “an expansion of NATO territory to the east, in other words, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union”.
The British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, when meeting Genscher on February 6, 1990 to discuss Hungary’s forthcoming free elections, was told that the Soviet Union needed “the certainty that Hungary will not become part of the Western alliance”. The Kremlin, Genscher said, would have to be given assurances to that effect. Hurd agreed.
In April 2009 Gorbachev told the German newspaper “Bild”, “The West have probably rubbed their hands, rejoicing at having played a trick on the Russians.” It very much looks like it.
Biden has made it clear that the US will not intervene with its own troops in Ukraine nor declare a non-fly zone. So why move American troops into Eastern Europe? Just to show the hawks in Congress and the press that he is standing firm? For what? Nobody is threatening Poland or Bulgaria or the Baltic states.
The West has taken advantage of a weakened Russia when instead it should have been paving the way for Russia to enter the “European House”. History will not smile kindly on the dangerous and counterproductive expansion of NATO or the unnecessary war in Ukraine.
*About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com