By Robert E. Hunter
Russia, and especially Ukraine, have been centerpieces of the House impeachment hearings, as well as of massive media coverage. But largely lost in the domestic politics focused disarray is serious discussion of the foreign policy aspects of American engagement with these two countries. Factors relating to both are of course “fair game” for critics of President Trump’s tenure in office. But there is risk of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” as the saying goes. In this case, however, both are important.
It has been clear since before the breakup of the Soviet Union that Russia’s future is of great importance to the United States, as well as to U.S. allies and partners across Europe. Fiona Hill, formerly the senior National Security Council staffer for Russia (and related matters), was quite direct on this point in last week’s testimony to the House Impeachment hearings: “I do not think long-term conflict with Russia is either desirable or inevitable. I continue to believe that we need to seek ways of stabilizing our relationship with Moscow even as we counter their efforts to harm us .”
She is not alone. Among most—but not all—U.S. and allied strategists and political leaders, finding a way to deal with Russia, consonant with U.S. national interests, is critical to Western security as well as to the overall makeup of post-Cold War Europe. President George H. W. Bush proposed trying to create a “Europe whole and free” and at peace. On that basis, both he and President Bill Clinton worked to square several circles regarding the future of European security, primarily through NATO and the European Union.
Three Key Factors in Post-Cold War European Security
Three factors were key: first, taking Central European countries off the geopolitical chess board. This was done through NATO’s Partnership for Peace and, for some countries, NATO membership. The EU responded in kind. Second was trying to engage Russia in European structures, in order to try avoiding what happened with Germany following the First World War when the Treaty of Versailles required that Germany take full responsibility for causing that war. The Nazis used this clause as part of their propaganda that Germany had been victimized. To try avoiding a similar situation with Russia, NATO worked to bring Russia into Partnership for Peace (1994) and signed a far-reaching NATO-Russia Founding Act in May of 1997, before NATO took its first decisions on enlarging its membership. The Founding Act included major principles regarding security, set out 19 specific areas for NATO-Russia Cooperation, and created a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (in 2002 turned into a NATO-Russia Council).
The Ukrainian Dimension
The final element of this effort was to find a place for Ukraine. It couldn’t be consigned to a Russian sphere of influence. But while NATO stated that all countries in Europe should be able to choose their future orientations, Ukraine’s membership in NATO was quietly but effectively ruled out. NATO did argue that this would not make Ukraine a “buffer state,” but that was as much pretense as reality. Thus, NATO and Ukraine concluded a Charter and created a NATO-Ukraine Council (As US Ambassador to NATO, on behalf of the Alliance, I negotiated the final draft of the Charter with a senior member of the Ukrainian foreign service). It was recognized that Ukraine becoming part of the Russian “near abroad “ would be unacceptable to Western Europe, but also, bringing Ukraine formally into Western security and economic institutions—i.e. NATO and the European Communities—could have a similar impact in Moscow. It was a delicate balance.
Further, Ukraine is a complex country, with profound differences between a Western as opposed to an Eastern orientation, different languages predominating (one Ukrainian president spoke only Russian and had to learn Ukrainian after he was elected!), and different histories. Thus, the Crimean Oblast of the Soviet Union had been part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, transferred it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a “birthday present.” At that time, this made no difference, but it certainly did when the Soviet Union broke up.
Ukrainian public opinion was not all of one mind after the Soviet Union dissolved (and it still isn’t) about the country’s orientation. Indeed, the government in Kiev has been on-again, off-again about seeking membership in NATO, a fact that is now ignored in the U.S. impeachment hearings. This observation in no way justifies Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, nor continuing Russia-backed aggression in other parts of Ukraine (primarily Eastern-leaning). These actions were in direct violation of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. But it didn’t happen out of the clear blue sky.
US-Russian Relations Off the Rails
By the late 1990s, both the West and Russia lost sight of the elder Bush’s grand strategy of a Europe whole and free, which would benefit everyone. In practical terms, building on that idea meant that the West and Russia should work to try developing a viable West-Russian relationship and, at the same time, help stabilize Ukraine through making major progress both politically and economically, without violating either Western or Russian red lines. (For the West, that included respecting Ukrainian democratic aspirations.)
Maybe Vladimir Putin’s accession to power meant that these efforts were doomed to fail, and he certainly spoke a revanchist language. But the West, notably the United States, also dropped the ball. Late in the Clinton administration, it began a process of wholesale enlargement of NATO, beyond the inclusion of three countries, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary. Russia sat still for the inclusion of these three (but not more) because they surrounded Germany with NATO. That step served as reinsurance especially for Russia but also for France and some Central European states regarding the Federal Republic’s future—however much a repeat of past German ambitions can be ruled out. Indeed, this project was initiated by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
In 1995, Russia did support NATO’s effort to stop the Bosnia war and joined the subsequent Implementation Force. However, it opposed NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in1998, in part because it was not authorized by a United Nations Security Council Resolution. Then in 2002, President George W. Bush’s administration cancelled the U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It was no longer needed, but it was one of Russia’s few engagements with the United States that allowed it to pretend it was still a great power. U.S. deployment of anti-ballistic missile forces in Central Europe (directed not against Russia but North Korea and Iran) followed suit, with the same Russian sense of being ignored in an area of interest.
In 2008, at the NATO Bucharest summit, the Bush administration pressed to have Ukraine and Georgia given what were called Membership Action Plans, one step toward eventual formal membership. Almost nobody in NATO-Europe backed even this modest step. They were not prepared to defend either country if it were attacked. Thus ruled out was granting either one the NATO Treaty’s Article 5, which declares “that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” But to placate the U.S. president, the allies quickly cobbled together a form of words that sounded promising but was in fact designed to put the decision on membership off into the indefinite future, saying: “We agreed today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.” In their haste, they did not realize that this was the moment of commitment. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili read it literally and provided an excuse for Russia to invade two Georgian separatist regions. Putin also added this NATO declaration to his assertion, for domestic consumption, that NATO was planning to “encircle” Russia. Further, as Fiona Hill last week told the impeachment hearing, she learned from a senior Georgian official “that Putin had said directly to Saakashvili, ‘Your Western allies, your Western partners, promised a great deal. They didn’t deliver. I threatened, I delivered.’”
End to Tacit Agreement on Ukraine
In November 2013, Russia began the process of breaking the “tacit agreement” on Ukraine when the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to ratify an association agreement with the EU. Protests led him to flee the country for Russia, and opposition grew in what became known as “the EuroMaiden,” a reference to Kiev’s central square, the focal point of the protests. Russian seizure of Crimea followed in February 2014. This was after the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs was caught on an open telephone line talking with the U.S. ambassador in Kiev about who the U.S. would like to see emerge as Ukrainian president —tugging Ukraine to the West as Russia had been trying to tug it to the East. Russia, which no doubt leaked the phone conversation, used that U.S. “interference” (paralleling Russia’s!) as an excuse for seizing Crimea.
The chance to build something positive for European security in which Russia would somehow be included and Ukraine would not be pulled one way or the other therefore died. But the major problem remains of what to do about both Russia and Ukraine. Regrettably, the necessary strategic and diplomatic efforts were put in the deep freeze, where they remain.
Russia in U.S. Domestic Politics
Following what for so many American pundits was the surprising election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, many Democrats could not accept that a large part of the reason for Hillary Clinton’s loss derived from a poorly run campaign, as well as reaction against the bicoastal elites, a problem that had been growing for many years in significant parts of America (Clinton didn’t help herself by saying during the campaign that “half of Trump’s supporters are in what I call a basket of deplorables”).
The charge by many Clinton supporters was that Russian interference in the U.S. election was a prominent, perhaps decisive, factor in Trump’s election. It thus became a major issue in U.S. domestic politics, overshadowing other causes for Clinton’s defeat. Then, the Russia factor became central as the best means for getting rid of Trump through impeachment—calls for which began even before he was inaugurated. It has proved to be a useful cudgel.
Whatever the truth regarding the extent and impact of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, once in the White House Trump did try to change the dynamics of U.S.-Russia relations. Whether he did that because of some personal affinity for Vladimir Putin as opposed to valid foreign policy reasons , the result in U.S. domestic politics is there can now be no progress in trying to figure out a way of dealing with Russia that does not just mean Cold War II, from which no one can benefit.
One critical difference today from the Cold War is that now there are areas in which the U.S. and Russia do work together despite hostile Russian actions in Europe and Western sanctions. These include the International Space Station, the Arctic, anti-terrorism cooperation, aspects of the Afghanistan conundrum, and “deconfliction” of U.S. and Russian air combat sorties in Syria.
However, there is common agreement in U.S. foreign policy circles and among almost all NATO allies that Russian aggression in Ukraine and other threats to Western interests in Europe, including cyber, energy, and hybrid warfare, must be countered, and that military deterrent steps by NATO in Central Europe are critical parts of the Western response. But that is only one element; the other needs to be a renewed search for some way to move beyond confrontation, in recognition that Russia will inevitably return to the ranks of major powers (but not as a superpower), as George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton understood.
Popular perceptions of the “Trump connection” to Russia have gone so far as producing almost total unwillingness in the U.S. even to consider steps to try moving beyond confrontation. Indeed, that has included dismissing some useful proposals Putin made at the July 2018 Helsinki summit with Trump. Several had merit, including on arms control, that would serve both countries’ national interest. But the media and “all anti-Trump, all the time” commentators seized on what they perceived as Trump taking Putin’s word over that of the U.S. Intelligence Community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. While Trump should have spoken with greater deftness, his words need to be parsed precisely: “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” In the U.S. domestic political climate at the time, the fact that he did not actually take Putin’s line over the judgment of the U.S. Intelligence Community was lost, along with all possibilities of trying to find means of beginning to mitigate problems of U.S.-Russian relations.
Ukraine Replaces Russia in US Impeachment Debate
With the continuing Democratic search for grounds to impeach Trump, a new and potentially damning incident emerged, involving Ukraine. It was, of course, not that this incident (“quid pro quo”) led to the impeachment process, but rather that Democrats already wanted to impeach Trump and found a serious issue on which to hang their efforts.
The U.S. foreign policy problem is that consideration of the complexities of U.S. interests and actions regarding Ukraine and its part in any efforts to create a viable system of security across the European continent has virtually stopped. U.S. domestic politics has become the sole focus for thinking about Ukraine, as well as about Russia.
For many years, one major Ukraine-related debate within the U.S. and West European foreign policy communities has been about the nature of Ukrainian society—as noted above, is it really one country, other than in formal terms? This is in addition to NATO’s need to show the Russians “thus far and no farther,” without bringing Ukraine fully into Western institutions—thereby following Moscow in upsetting the delicate balance struck in the 1990s about Ukraine’s place in European security. This formula does not mean denying Ukraine’s access, as a society, to the “democratic West,” along with promoting its economic and political development (including the fight against corruption.)
The debate in the U.S. government and with NATO allies has for several years included whether to provide lethal arms to Ukraine. This is not a simple matter. It includes making difficult distinctions about different classes of arms. Thus, is an anti-tank missile a defensive or offensive weapon or both?) U.S. policy for many years, including under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, has been to provide enough weapons to Ukraine to help it defend itself, but not so much support (including types of lethal arms) that it could be tempted to enlarge the war. (That may be an unfair judgement for an outside power to make about another country’s definition of its security requirements, but three U.S. administrations have made it.)
US Foreign Policy Suffers
In sum, the future of U.S. democracy and the U.S. presidency (especially the future of Donald Trump) are the most critical matters for U.S. debate and decision. But in terms of American foreign policy, the most important issues tied to the impeachment process are U.S. relations with and critical decisions regarding Russia and Ukraine. Both are now treated more like symbols than substance, where the words “Russia” (or “Putin”) and “Ukraine” have become metaphors in U.S. domestic policy, while serious concerns about U.S. national interests are virtually ignored.
In regard to both countries, much needs to be done to secure America’s interests, and it is losing critical opportunities, in major part because of Russia and Ukraine being so deeply enmeshed in the impeachment debate, to the exclusion of foreign policy analysis and strategic planning. There are people in the U.S. government and outside able to put U.S. security interests regarding Russia and Ukraine back on track. But as things stand now, that is unlikely to happen so long as the impeachment and possible trial process remains unresolved and, indeed, until the American electorate decides next November who will be president. Two critical areas of U.S. foreign policy are thus pawns to domestic matters, as important as the latter clearly are.