Russia/U.S. Clash: Where Was a Positive Cassandra?

The recent confrontation between the Russian and American representatives at the United Nations Security Council had all the makings of a high Cold War drama. While no shoes were bashed on the lectern or statements that the then-American Ambassador Adlai Stevenson would wait “until Hell freezes over” for a response from the Soviet ambassador about whether Russia had missiles in Cuba, the exchanges were sharp and “harsh.” Moscow had even attempted to block the meeting.

The current clash between the United States and the Russian Federation hinges on one moment: the end of the Soviet Union. From 1945 to 1991, the Cold War dominated foreign affairs. The binary antagonism between the members of NATO and those of the Warsaw Pact was the central focus of all international politics, well before the rise of China, 9/11 and the war on terrorism.

Greek mythology tells us Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo for refusing his advances. Her plight was to have the gift of correct prophecies that would not be believed, although citing her is usually associated with negative predictions of gloom and doom.

During the Cold War, what no Cassandra predicted was that the Soviet Union would implode. Fixated on the Soviet Union’s military might, potential invasion of Western Europe and the spread of communism throughout the world, the relevant think tanks – State Department Policy Planning, the Rand Corporation, EastWest Institute etc. – were unprepared for Gorbachev’s vision of perestroika and glasnost.

Despite all the possible scenarios by the Washington establishment such as Mutual Assured Destruction, there were no positive ones about the end of the Soviet Union and the liberation of the countries in Eastern Europe under its domination. And even if some people made the prediction, they were ignored, like Cassandra.

In sum, the West won the Cold War but was unprepared for victory. Where was the planning? What would it look like if the Soviet Union was reduced to the Russian Federation? How would the West deal with a reduced Russia?

In retrospect, what policy would you want the West to have taken? Would you want triumphalism? The end of history? Bound to lead? Or, would you want a more inclusive, moderate approach that was less arrogant? Understanding and empathizing with what must have been a traumatic experience for a once very proud empire? (What Putin keeps emphasizing.)

If we follow the second less triumphant approach, what kind of actions would have followed? Given the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in March 1991 after 36 years of existence, what should NATO, its rival have done? What was the reason for NATO’s continued existence given the disappearance of its principal adversary and a non-functioning Russian/NATO Council?

There were attempts at NATO during this period to reach out to the new Russian Federation. To be inclusive, NATO representations were opened in Kiev and Moscow. There were sincere attempts from the West to reconfigure a new European security architecture. (Disclosure: I was involved through a Swiss initiative in some of these attempts at NATO at the time.)

There were similar attempts from the Russian side to redesign the European architecture. Following the Russian/Georgian War of 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a treaty wherein NATO’s current borders would be fixed, Russian influence in the “near abroad,” would be recognized, and “rules of the game” would be established to foster peace and security in Europe.

Already in 2006, the Sovietologist Stephen Cohen had written an article on “The New American Cold War.” He updated it in 2007 with the following: “What must be done, however, is clear enough. Because the new cold war began in Washington, steps toward ending it also have to begin in Washington. Two are especially urgent…A US recognition that post-Soviet Russia is not a defeated supplicant or American client state, as seems to have been the prevailing view since 1991, but a fully sovereign nation at home with legitimate national interests abroad equal to our own; and an immediate end to the reckless expansion of NATO around Russia’s borders.”

The inclusive counterfactuals (Counterfactuals are what would have been under different circumstances) are pertinent today for they highlight why we are where we are. Time has moved on since 1991, but the fundamental question of Russia’s place in Europe has not been dealt with to all sides’ satisfaction. Stephen Cohen was one of the very few who saw Washington’s errors after 1991. The inclusive counterfactuals presented above will be harder to implement in 2022 as positions have hardened. One hundred thousand Russian troops are on Ukraine’s border. NATO troops are moving closer to a confrontation.

The West was not empathetic to Russia’s plight in 1991. It doesn’t seem more sensitive now. And even if Cassandra were to tell us how this will end, history and mythology tell us we will not listen.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.