BookReviews

Perils of cornering Russia

The debate over the Russia–Ukraine crisis has its genesis in the arguments over NATO expansion in the 1990s

Reviewed by Susan Eisenhower

Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault
By John Mearsheimer
Foreign Affairs Sep/Oct 2014

"Faulty Powers"
Response by Michael McFaul, Stephen Sestanovich, and John Mearsheimer
Foreign Affairs Nov/Dec 2014

Nothing underscores the peculiarities of the debate over the Russia–Ukraine conflict better than John Mearsheimer’s piece in Foreign Affairs,“Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” and the rebuttals to it in the current issue by former US ambassadors Michael McFaul and Stephen Sestanovich.

“The taproot of the trouble,” writes Mearsheimer, “is NATO enlargement ... the [European Union’s] expansion eastward and the West’s backing of the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine.” Mearsheimer, a distinguished professor of international relations at the University of Chicago, levels “most of the responsibility for the crisis” on the West. Washington and Brussels, he argues, sought to decouple Russia from a fraternal country that has long been seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence.

Michael McFaul rejects this thesis, saying that the only constant that led to this crisis is Russian politics, which includes recent America-bashing by Putin and his cronies. At the same time, Steve Sestanovich asserts that Russia is fundamentally aggressive — a notion belied in part by McFaul’s account of the bilateral progress that was made during the “reset” years when the West prioritised improving relations with Russia. 

I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with both the realist and liberal schools of thought, though Mearsheimer’s thesis comes closest to the point. The truth about Russia is simple: it is a country that yearns for security. It is also a deeply proud place; its people crave respect and desire acknowledgment for what they have accomplished. This drives much of their internal and external relations. Seen through this lens, it explains a lot about Russia’s seemingly contradictory behaviour towards the West since the end of the Cold War about a quarter century ago. It also explains the reasons why Western policy toward Russia has failed to meet our own objectives.

All three of these experts are right to reprise the past. Today’s conflict between Russia and Ukraine has its origins in the West’s post– Cold War strategy.

The stated objective after the Cold War was to create a “Europe whole and free” — principally through NATO. As laudatory as this goal might have been, the corresponding policy had at least one fatal flaw. The Russians consider themselves European. Most of the population lives west of the Ural Mountains, and Russian intellectual thought and artistic expression have been a touchstone of Western culture for centuries. The Russians are immensely proud of this — along with the indispensible role they played in the Allied victory over Nazism during the Second World War. Yet, even after the decision had been made to use NATO enlargement as the key mechanism for European security, there was no serious talk of working towards the goal of inviting Russia to eventually join NATO or the European Union. Moscow was essentially shut out.

Rather than some well-thought-through strategy, the response of the US and its allies at that time was the result of bureaucratic inertia, vehement disagreement on what to do next, a paucity of fresh ideas, and the arrival of a generation of people to power who were oriented towards politics rather than strategy. Instead of crafting a new security framework, the United States doubled down on a Cold War era institution, NATO, and used a set of criteria that, since the Bucharest NATO summit in 1994, has been increasingly watered down to accommodate evolving contemporary political appetites.

At the same time, the foundation of the new European project was based on, at best, a misunderstanding and, at worst, a breach of trust.

Not long after Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic were admitted to NATO in the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to talk directly to former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev about NATO expansion. He told me that, during the talks that were held on German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he had been verbally assured by “his friend Jim” — then–Secretary of State Baker — that no NATO military forces would expand into East Germany. But, Gorbachev added, he didn’t think to have this put into writing. The Warsaw Pact was still in place and it didn’t occur to him, he said, that the alliance would move beyond its new mission of securing a unified Germany in the Western alliance.

“I was swindled,” Gorbachev told me ruefully. “I thought we had a deal. If I had known what would happen I would have never agreed to the unification of Germany.” Gorbachev’s deeply held feelings may account for his vocal support today of Vladimir Putin’s policies with respect to Ukraine and Crimea.

For many grand strategists, the end of the Cold War and the eventual collapse of the Soviet system called for new creative solutions. Russia, however, was treated as the outsider. It was an odd, prejudicial development, considering the fact that it was Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost that inspired those Eastern Europeans who wanted change. It was also the Russians who kicked the communists out of power in Moscow and led the movement, under Boris Yeltsin, for the peaceful disintegration of the USSR. Dismissing these facts to the detriment of Russia was a fateful decision.

The Clinton administration wanted a fast and easy way to integrate and strengthen the former Soviet satellite countries, without waiting for the EU to come forward. If making military arrangements with countries once in Russia’s orbit prompted Russian protests, no big deal. As one NATO enlargement advocate told a group of us: “Russia will just have to get used to it.”

The older generation of national security experts, who had played significant roles in shepherding us through the perilous years of the Cold War, thought differently.

General Andrew Goodpaster, the former Supreme Commander of NATO forces, had helped develop the concept of Partnership for Peace in the early Clinton years. He believed it was a sound idea that was already helping to engage the militaries of the former Soviet bloc. This would give the West time to tackle the most important issue of all, he thought, helping to develop the economies of the newly emerging democracies of the former Warsaw Pact.

Paul Nitze, Reagan arms control negotiator and Cold War hawk, also opposed NATO expansion. He thought that a new strategic approach needed to be found rather than the enlargement of NATO’s already sizable military bureaucracy.

As Mearsheimer reminds us, George Kennan, the “architect of containment” wrote that expanding NATO would sow the seeds of later confrontation with Russia. Even Reagan hardliner and Harvard professor of Russian studies Richard Pipes signed an open letter warning the US administration of possible negative outcomes from NATO expansion, many of which have come to pass.

For their generation, the strategic objective after the Cold War was not dissimilar to the challenge faced after World War II: to settle the Russian (or German) question in a way that would assure that such a confrontation would never happen again. To their way of thinking, the countries of Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union would never be secure until Russia itself felt secure — and successfully integrated into the Western community. West Germany’s peaceful renaissance after World War II demonstrated that nothing in history is inevitable.

By the mid-1990s, however, America’s old wise men were far from power. A different generation was in the White House. President Clinton looked at most of the challenges facing the United States through the lens of national politics. In Detroit, two weeks before the 1996 election, and in front of an audience of Americans of Eastern European descent, he made the announcement that NATO would be offering its first invitations for membership. In his speech he emphasised that the accessions should be completed in time for the 50th anniversary of NATO’s founding.

Clinton knew little of the Russian mentality, but offering membership to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary made for good domestic politics. He, and later administrations, would miscalculate Russia’s desperate desire to become part of the West; just as later they would underestimate Russia’s humiliation at its rejection. As one Russian said to me many years later: “We put ourselves up for adoption, but there weren’t any takers.” 

Eventually Russia got more or less used to the status quo: the West had yet to cross Moscow’s red lines. Even so, Russian pro-Western democrats never emerged as the force they had been during the early years of Boris Yeltsin’s tenure as president. Much to the chagrin and pain of the average Russian, the country’s financial collapse in 1998 drew no specific support from the West. The crisis brought Vladimir Putin to power and things began to change.

After the September 11 tragedy in 2001, Putin tried to reach out to Washington. He was the first head of state to call President George W. Bush after the attacks, and the Russians willingly shared intelligence on Afghanistan. Hard-pressed to justify the deployment of troops in Iraq after no weapons of mass destruction materialised, the Bush administration changed course. It ushered in an era of “nation building” and democracy promotion — overt interventions that President Bush had rejected in the presidential campaign of 2000.

Soon afterwards, US support for the “colour revolutions” on Russia’s periphery convinced many Russians that the Americans had, and still do have, an unspoken policy to replace any regime that is not of Washington’s liking, including Russia’s own. This view provided justification for Putin to crackdown on Russian internal dissent, at a time when he also felt politically vulnerable to accusations that oligarchs had free reign in the country and that he had failed to diversify the economy. America’s more muscular role internationally and its support for regime change from Iraq to Egypt and Libya convinced him that “liberal thought” could jeopardise his own future. The ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was still more proof.

Like Mearsheimer, I agree that last northern winter was another turning point. The negotiated accord to end the violence in Maidan Square and establish earlier elections was supported by all the major players, including the United States and Russia. Had President Barack Obama upheld the accord on 21 February 2014 things could have been different. It would have signalled US support for a process, not a capitulation to “the streets.”

The United States had, at that moment, the opportunity to be an unbiased broker in the conflict. The narrative instead turned to one of East–West confrontation — on both sides. This time, in Putin’s view, the red line had been crossed. His own personal vanity was also challenged when Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was overheard calling the political shots in Kiev. Putin moved quickly to annex Crimea, which he deemed to be a vital Russian interest, even though it was a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. National pride and pent-up frustration were a part of his rise in public opinion polls.

In the final analysis, the success of a policy rests with the test of time. If Western strategy had been based on a 20-year time frame, we might have been able to boast that Clinton’s “strategy” had worked. But historical dramas often take longer to play out. In that context, the post-Cold War policy has thus far failed to create a “Europe whole and free.” And, given the unwillingness of Washington and Moscow to engage in meaningful talks, the future for this looks bleak.

There are also other strategic downsides, as Mearsheimer warns. As a result of developments this year, it will be harder than ever for the United States to leverage Russia’s cooperation in Syria, Iran, and in the war on terrorism. There will also be no more nuclear deals. And, after sanctions, the incentives for Russian cyber attacks are now greater than ever. Finally, the United States has inadvertently accomplished what it tried to avoid during the Cold War: pushing Russia and China closer together. These developments could be significant over time.

Today the Russian Westernisers have been marginalised for siding with a West that could not, or would not, take Russia’s interests into consideration. If any of the allied governments today think that pushing Putin from power would yield improved results, they should be cautious. The ranks of Russian Westernisers have thinned. Nationalism is on the rise. The outcome of any such objective could be wildly unpredictable.

As for Ukraine, Mearsheimer is right to be concerned about Ukraine’s future if we continue on this path. Steve Sestanovich, however, voices a sentiment often heard in Washington these days: “The best way to avoid an escalation of radical political confrontation inside Ukraine is not to resolve the big geopolitical questions [on NATO] but to defer them.”

Unfortunately, deferral of the issue will make it impossible for Ukraine to come to terms with the reality of its situation and undermine its ability to make wise choices. But deferral may result. Washington seems to have lost interest in this issue. As a colleague told me recently: “That was two crises ago.” Even as policymakers shift their attention to other global problems, personal smears are regularly directed to those who argue for a negotiated solution. Mearsheimer’s article seemed to evoke, if not direct personal attacks, then a high level of impatience from his respondents.

Whether Washington insiders like it or not, ultimately the United States must be involved in the Russia–Ukraine negotiations. The Russians know that the Americans are the ones who influence NATO, just as Washington has been behind the sanctions. Political expediency and short time horizons don’t bode well for the future. It is vital that we think anew about a long-term strategy and the formulations of a policy to support it. As Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year: “The demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.