By Jonathan Power
Trotsky, the one-time close comrade of Lenin, reportedly said, “You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you”.
This is how it seems to have been with President Barack Obama when it comes to his policy towards Russia. Having come to power with President Vladimir Putin open to a closer relationship after the aggressive pushing forward of NATO’s frontier during the time of presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama will leave the presidency with a state of hostility between the Russia and the U.S. that most thought had evaporated once the Cold War ended in 1991.
Now, instead of a life time of peace and cooperation ahead of us, as was widely thought, we have Russia engaged in nuclear sabre rattling and the U.S. expanding the frontier of NATO even further right up to Russia’s border and trying to put the heat on over Russia’s involvement in the upheavals in Ukraine, using economic sanctions.
Some observers talk about war between the West and Russia. Although this could not happen as long as Angela Merkel is Chancellor of Germany and France remains French it may be a “damned close-run thing” (as the Duke of Wellington was supposed to have said after victory over Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo).
It is up to President-elect Donald Trump who has become the Russians’ favourite flavour of the November month to decide if the confrontation is to continue. The Duma, the Russian parliament, burst into cheers on hearing the election result. Trump has said enough in the past to suggest that he regrets Obama’s Russian policies, criticising the Western role in Ukraine and supporting the return of Crimea back to Russia. Putin who has not said very much about Trump is reported to be happy that his American interlocutor will not be the hard-line Hillary Clinton who he never much liked.
Putin, I believe, is not interested in territorial aggrandisement but he is interested in Russia not being threatened.
It goes back to the time of President Boris Yeltsin, the first elected president of Russia, who was taken advantage of time and time again by Clinton, who often drove hard bargains late in the evening when Yeltsin, not always very well, was tired and had drunk too much vodka.
The Soviet Union’s president Mikhail Gorbachev who had been a partner of the West in ending the Cold War believed he had an understanding with President H.W. Bush and the German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher that in return for allowing Germany to be re-united and for a united Germany to be a NATO member there would never be any further expansion of NATO.
Indeed there was serious talk of Russia becoming a NATO member itself and Russia joining the “European House”, as Gorbachev expressed it, as did Putin.
No less than Clinton’s Secretary of Defence, William Perry, argued in a speech in March this year at a conference organised by the British newspaper, the Guardian, that the gains between Russia and the U.S. had been “squandered” more as a result of U.S. than Russian actions.
“In the last few years most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the U.S. deserves much of the blame. Our . . . first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in the eastern European nations.” He went on to say the decision reflected a contemptuous attitude among American officials towards the troubled former superpower.
The second major misstep, he said, was the Bush administration’s decision to deploy a ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe in the face of a determined opposition from Moscow. “We rationalised the system as being able to defend against an Iranian nuclear missile – but they don’t have any. The Russians said, ‘Wait a bit, this weakens our deterrence’. The issue again wasn’t discussed on the basis of its merits – it was just ‘who cares about what Russia thinks?’”
The Obama administration has since modified the missile system based in Eastern Europe, replacing long-range with medium-range interceptor missiles. Russia has welcomed this but demands rightly that the missiles could still be turned towards Russia. Moreover, with Iran having agreed to halt its nuclear program, there is no need for a missile system.
Later came the U.S. and EU decision to support the revolution in Ukraine, even though there was no good reason for it since an election was in the offering and it meant tolerating militants who were members of organisations with a fascist pedigree.
Instead of intervening in the political whirlwind of a very corrupt state Obama should have concentrated his energies on a reduction of nuclear arsenals held by the U.S. and Russia.
Can Trump do the right thing and repair the damage and prove Trotsky wrong?
*Jonathan Power syndicates his opinion articles. He forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS.