Forgetting the Lessons of the Other 9/11

by Robert E. Hunter

Today is “9/11.” No, not the one with which we in the United States are all too familiar: the twin towers in New York, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. But the “other 9/11,” recognized in Europe, where they write their dates the other way around, as the day the Berlin Wall opened, 26 years ago on November 9, 1989.

The world began to change that day and keeps on changing. Little more than two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, European communism virtually disappeared, and each of the Soviet satellite states became independent in reality and not just in name. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and the Cold War was well and truly over.

There was great joy in Europe on that day just over a quarter-century ago. There was great promise, enshrined best in President George H.W. Bush’s historic ambition for the future, “a Europe whole and free and at peace.” This was grand strategy for the United States and potentially for all countries that could even remotely be called “European.” United Germany was incorporated into NATO and also into what is now called the European Union. The Western Alliance created a US-led Partnership for Peace that helped former communist states with the transformation of militaries and the teaching of democratic practice. Central European countries joined NATO, and the EU also expanded eastward. Ukraine was offered a place within the West, as was indeed the principal relic of the old Soviet Union, the Russian Federation. Militaries were shrunk; NATO and the EU began to work together. And, in order to validate the work of building a peaceful future on the continent, NATO allies swallowed hard to use military force to stop the war in Bosnia, the worst conflict in Europe since World War II.

How long ago that now seems. True, much of the new apparatus of security is still in place. NATO is now 28 members as is the EU. There has been a burst of prosperity in most of the newly Westernized states, and virtually all—with Hungary being the major exception—have continued to hew to democratic standards.

The Russian Exception

But something clearly has gone amiss, and that is the behavior of the Russian Federation under its current president, Vladimir Putin. Two years ago, Russia swallowed Crimea, claiming that it had been an accidental gift to Ukraine back in 1954, when lines on the map within the USSR didn’t matter (Crimea properly belongs to the Tatars, but Stalin “ethnically cleansed” them beginning in 1944). Aided by “little green men” from the Russian military, Russian-speaking peoples in southeastern Ukraine began a major insurrection, in an effort to shake off rule from Kiev, that still continues.

In the process, Putin and his cohort broke several major agreements, of which two stood out: the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which ruled out the changing of European borders by force, and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, under which newly independent Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees by Russia, Britain, and the United States. What was widely believed to have become a new form of security in Europe—beyond the balance of power, beyond spheres of interests, and beyond the use of force—lay in ruins at Putin’s feet.

NATO and the EU have responded to Russian and Russian-supported aggression with a series of measures. Some have been to reassure Central European allies, notably the three Baltic states, that the United States and the other allies will not permit Russia to encroach on their security. The West imposed sanctions on Russia. NATO has conducted military exercises in Central Europe and is in the process of establishing bases and facilities there, though less to be ready to “take on” Russian military forces than the draw a “line in the sand” against ambitions beyond territories already seized in Ukraine.

Many people in the West have begun talking about a new Cold War. Even the new chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said, in response to a question at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, that “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia.” That was quite a claim. “Existential,” after all, means a potential threat to the “existence” of the United States, surely far beyond anything remotely possible.

Western Missteps

The West also took what can only be seen charitably as missteps. Although George H.W. Bush worked to salve Russian pride at “losing the Cold War—thus trying to avoid what happened in Germany after World War I—George W. Bush abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Certainly, after the end of the nuclear balance of terror, it had virtually no significance. But it did give Moscow the appearance of still being at the “top table” with the only country that, in its view, was worth taking seriously, the United States. The US then proposed putting missile defenses in Central Europe, not directed against Russia (where they would be too small to be useful even if that were our plan), but against a potential future threat from Iran. By doing this, we showed Russia that we could do whatever we wanted in its back yard.

In 2008, NATO made the mistake of saying that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members. The overture to Ukraine broke a tacit understanding with Russia that its final security status would not be determined until after sorting out Russia’s situation. The Georgian president, meanwhile, decided to test the proposition that his county had just got a NATO security guarantee. In the ensuing mini-war with Russia, in which the Kremlin was also testing that proposition, not a single NATO ally came to Georgia’s military defense.

Perhaps worst of all, the West, and especially the United States under three administrations beginning late in Bill Clinton’s second term, forgot that serious work was still to be done to include Russia in some broader security arrangements for Europe, without at the same time weakening NATO. By the same token, Vladimir Putin found that he could exploit the bruised egos of the average Russian to pretend that Russia was returning to the ranks of the great powers and could exercise significant influence in what it calls its “near abroad.” Although long a common practice of countries able to do it—think “Monroe Doctrine”—it created a problem of serious magnitude in terms of trying to move beyond centuries of European behavior to create something new that could benefit everyone.

In the Middle East

Russia’s new engagement in Syria needs to be seen at least partly in this light: as a relatively cheap way for Putin to show off a still relatively limited military prowess. Thus, the firing of cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea against targets in Syria was a psychological demonstration rather than serious warfare. Putin is also showing that, where the United States has failed to create a coherent strategy for dealing with either the Syrian civil war or the emergence of Islamic State terrorism, Russia can fish in these troubled waters. Who knows, if Russia were to prove constructive from the West’s point of view—an hypothesis still in need of a proof—then maybe even this will help him find a way out of the problems he has brought upon his people. Russians will not forever tolerate economic sanctions without grumbling, especially now that the price of oil, their country’s major export, has tumbled.

Even more, Russia was helpful in negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran, and it has supported US (and NATO) efforts in Afghanistan. This has not been out of the goodness of Russian hearts—foreign policy is not an eleemosynary enterprise, someone once said—but reflects that the Kremlin is even more scared of Islamist terrorism than are either Europe or the United States.

Also, Russia is looking over its shoulder at Chinese ambitions in Central Asia and farther west. In this sense, it’s in Russian interests to try to gain some brownie points in the West and perhaps even a permanent engagement in the Middle East. (The Obama administration’s argument is that Russia is risking a “quagmire,” which will “spread and deepen, drawing Russian further in.” Well, maybe, though it is much easier to turn off the use of air power than to remove “boots on the ground.” US protests sound more like whistling past the graveyard).

Next Steps

The first thing we in the West and especially in the United States have to do is to recognize that, although Russia is no longer a midget—“Costa Rica with nuclear weapons” was an insult of two decades ago—it is not ten feet tall. Nations may tolerate sanctions when they have some security interest at stake, but that does not apply to gaining influence over bits of Ukraine. Sanctions incurred as the result of some marginal nationalist gains, with no impact on security, is a proposition of an entirely different character for a people impacted economically.

Second, Russia’s arrival on the scene shows that there is a greater connection between what is happening in the Middle East and the situation in Europe than the US administration or the Western allies have been willing to recognize. This should have been clear for some time, as evidenced most dramatically by the massive flow of refugees from the Near East to Europe. This influx poses one of the biggest problems for the EU in a long time and, except for Central Europeans worried about Putin’s intentions, the biggest “security” challenge by far at the moment, given the impact on domestic politics.

Third, it’s important to begin working back toward George H.W. Bush’s vision of a Europe whole and free. While Putin was skulking in the shadows and Dmitry Medvedev was Russian president, the latter made some proposals for new security arrangements throughout Europe (with NATO continuing to be important). The allies didn’t even give him a serious response, much less think through the possibilities. It still looked to too many people who should have known better that, having won the Cold War and with Russia still muddling along, the United States really didn’t have to think about a future in which Russia would again become consequential. This doesn’t mean that the Medvedev proposals could have been the basis for a new European security structure, even one supplementing existing NATO and EU arrangements. But at least we could have sat down with the Russians to talk about it. At some point, though not before Putin shows some willingness to pull in his horns in Ukraine and toward Central Europe, it will be in the Western interest to see whether that conversation can be restarted. Going back to George H.W. Bush’s vision has the potential to benefit everyone, including Russia, a lot more than the current situation.

Finally, the United States needs to start taking Europe seriously again, and not just by offering the Baltic states some security reassurances through NATO to show Putin that pushing farther westward would not be the wisest Russian policy. The central focus of such an approach should not be to look for added ways to punish Russia or talk  nonsense about a “new Cold War”—though at some point, not now,  the West may need to increase the pressure on Moscow. The primary and necessary focus needs to be on the United States again demonstrating to its allies and partners in Europe that it will play its traditional and necessary role as a full-fledged and committed European power. Alas, right now, the number of people in Washington, in and out of government, who genuinely rank Europe high in US priorities could fit into a reasonably small lecture hall.

One once-popular phrase now visibly absent from European discourse is “American leadership.” More than just a slogan, it has also had a reality for decades in the priority that Europe had in American thinking, acting, and sheer presence. Of course, Washington would like to share leadership with Europeans, but as of now only Germany’s Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is up to the task. Instead of taking a step back, however, the United States needs to take a step forward.

The European allies, all of them, sent military personnel to Afghanistan for one main reason: to ensure that the United States would remain pinned to the security and future of Europe and would deal effectively, consistently, and constantly with any problem that could emerge with Russia. We already demonstrated, during the deposing of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, that, although US military support was critical, we “led from behind,” the first time since the creation of the Western alliance that that had happened. Unfortunately, unfair or not, by downgrading Europe on its list of priorities, the United States has helped to reduce the chances that Europeans will again help out beyond the continent, even where, as in the Near East, they have more at stake than does the United States.

A few years ago, President Obama said that, wherever in the world the United States has something it wants to do, it would be better off doing that with North Atlantic partners than without them. Thus maybe Putin has done us an accidental favor, by demonstrating that, when the US loses interest in a place as intrinsically important as Europe—or fails to do serious, coherent strategic planning for the Middle East—others will take advantage in ways not in our long-term interests.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. While I usually enjoy and agree with the articles posted by Ambassador Hunter, I find this piece rather one-sided, but then Mr. Hunter was US ambassador to NATO. While I believe that Putin should rightly be blamed for some of his actions, the article puts the onus almost entirely on Russia. He seems to forget that the West gave a guarantee not to move NATO closer to the Russian borders after the fall of the Soviet Union (this has been confirmed by many informed sources, even if the pledge was not made in a written form). However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the West and most particularly the United States have assumed the status of the victors and at every turn have tried to humiliate Russia.

    Far from being a “Costa Rica with nuclear weapons”, Russia is by far the largest country in the world, with a population of 150 million, and with the fifth or the sixth largest GDP (by purchasing power parity). Its economy is bigger than that of any other European country, including Germany. Above all, it is the country with the second largest nuclear capability, and yes it can pose an “existential” threat to the United States in the case of a nuclear war.

    Ever since the ascendance of the neocons in US politics, the United States has been pursuing a unipolar policy and wishes to be the sole superpower, challenging both Russia and China at the same time (full spectrum dominance and all that). This is a dangerous and costly policy at odds with American ideals of a republic and a democracy. Instead of trying to demonize and isolate Russia we should have a new global security arrangement to jointly tackle many international crises, not least the scourge of terrorism, which Russia seems to be taking more seriously than the West.

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