The seeds for the crisis in Ukraine were planted 25 years ago when the Clinton Administration decided to expand the North Atlantic Treaty into East Europe, accepting membership from former members of the Warsaw Pact. In doing so, Clinton turned his back on commitments from President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in 1990 not to “leap frog” over a reunified Germany in order to expand NATO. Bush and Baker made this commitment in private discussions with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in order to gain the removal of 380,000 Soviet troops from East Germany and several East European states. Without this compromise, the reunification of Germany would not have been free of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.
If the United States could find a way to acknowledge this betrayal and to concede that additional membership for Ukraine and Georgia would threaten Russia’s geopolitical universe, it would be possible to pursue a compromise to the current crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin reasonably wants guarantees that NATO must halt its eastward expansion and not deploy certain weapons systems on its borders. In return, the United States should insist on the return to the Minsk II agreement in 2015 that was designed to ensure a bilateral ceasefire, to create security zones on the border between Ukraine and Russia, and to decentralize political power in eastern Ukraine (the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions). Russia would be required to withdraw all foreign mercenaries from the regions.
Washington and Moscow were able to create a process for removing nuclear weapons from Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991; they should be able to find a compromise that recognizes Ukraine’s sovereignty but limits the Western military presence on Russia’s borders. Arms control negotiations opened the door to Soviet-American detente in the 1980s. A compromise on Ukraine would allow for improved bilateral relations in key areas between the United States and Russia.
Putin is not looking for either territorial gain or a revival of the Soviet empire in East and Central Europe, but the mainstream media is convinced that Putin is preparing a Russian military invasion of Ukraine that would destabilize all of Europe. An editorial in the Washington Post last week, pointed to the 90,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine as well as the seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Post and other major newspapers seen convinced that only the “political, economic, and military strength” of the United States will allow a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Media commentary cites Putin’s reference to the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe.” They fail to mention Putin’s view that, while it would take “no heart not to regret the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” it would take “no brain to believe that the Soviet Union could be reestablished.”
More importantly, the media fail to mention U.S. responsibility for the current tempest, which can be attributed to the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that unwisely expanded NATO, bringing Russia’s immediate neighbors and even former Soviet republics into an alliance that now has 30 members. NATO expansion is the major irritant in Russian-American relations and the leading cause of what appears to be the start of a new Cold War. Gorbachev’s willingness to accept German reunification without security guarantees explains the Russian vilification of Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze to this day. U.S. wholesale exploitation of Russian weakness in the 1990s explains Putin’s adamant insistence on calling a halt to the Western advance.
The United States has taken additional gratuitous steps on Russia’s doorstep over the past two decades. The administrations of Bush and Obama deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system in Poland and Romania, arguing that it was needed to counter a possible Iranian missile attack in Eastern Europe. Such nonsense! The U.S. and British navies continue to deploy naval combatants in the Black Sea that threaten to enter Russian territorial waters. Various NATO members in East Europe and the Baltics are requesting additional Western military systems as well as a permanent U.S. military presence. The presence of Germany military forces in the Baltics is a particular affront to Russia’s legitimate concerns about its safety and sovereignty.
President Joe Biden appears no wiser than his four predecessors. He met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in September, and they signed a “Joint Statement on U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership.” He sent Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Kiev in October to emphasize the importance of the “strategic partnership.” Austin’s references to a “best case” that means “we won’t see an incursion by the Soviet Union in Ukraine” is the kind of Freudian slip that reveals the Cold War thinking of Biden’s national security team.
Currently, a team from the U.S. Air Force is in Kiev to assess Ukraine’s air defense requirements, and last week U.S. nuclear-capable bombers were flying over the Black Sea, posing a threat to Russia. It doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate the U.S. reaction to Russian strategic aircraft and naval combatants operating in the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean.
Sending Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, an intense anti-Russian apparatchik, to Moscow to discuss the issue of Ukraine also points to the “group think” in Biden’s national security team. Nuland is well known for her meddling in Ukrainian politics prior to the Russian seizure of Crimea. When she was told that our European allies have problems with our hard line on Ukraine, her response on a cellphone conversation was “Fuck the EU.” Naming Nuland to the Department of State in the first place indicated that the Biden administration was tone deaf; sending her to Russia in the current circumstances is worse. Or perhaps Biden genuinely believes that facing off with Russia over Ukraine plays to the political benefit of the United States.
Reinhold Niebuhr concluded that one of the greatest challenges in international relations was “finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.” The expansion of NATO and the Russian annexation of Crimea have created one of these problems. It will be dangerous if the “group think” of Biden’s national security team, particularly the lack of any understanding of Russia’s “instinctive sense of insecurity,” prevents a diplomatic solution.
There is a Russian proverb that Biden’s national security team should take into account. “Don’t try to skin the Russian bear before it is dead.”