by Robert E. Hunter
This coming Monday, President Barack Obama will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the UN General Assembly, their first meeting in 15 months. This will be no ordinary occasion, given Russian aggression in Ukraine, the West’s sanctions, and a lot of bad blood between the United States and the Russian Federation. Maybe the two leaders will be able to agree on some process for trying to deal with these very real mutual problems. Or maybe they will just talk past one another. Obviously, the world’s eyes will be on each twitch of the two men’s eyebrows. What follows does not recommend a course of action for dealing with Russia-in-Syria. Rather it will make the case that, after nearly a quarter century of Russia being a second-rate power, its interests and ambitions must again be taken into account, even when we oppose them.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its continued military action, direct and indirect, against other parts of Ukraine have now been joined by significant Russian military deployments to Syria. Other than the short conflict with Georgia in 2008, these are the first major Russian military ventures since the breakup of the Soviet Union, nearly a quarter century ago. For the West and particularly the United States, Russian behavior under President V. V. Putin is posing major challenges. But just how serious they will be and what should be done beyond steps already taken are questions still to be answered.
The collapse of the Soviet internal and external empires, along with Soviet and East European communism, produced a major victory for the West, both geopolitically and in terms of political-economic philosophies and practices. Indeed, there had never before been such an extensive transformation, without war. The magnitude of the change seemed to usher in a new era in great-power relations, including the conjecture (a bit premature, it proved) that this was the “end of history.” Even without such hubris, there was indeed a chance to transform a millennium of European history and politics and finally end the Great European Civil War of 1914-1989 that had been unleashed by the Industrial Revolution, the rise of nationalism, and competitive views of social and economic organization end. This was encapsulated in President George H. W. Bush’s wise and visionary grand strategy of seeking to create a “Europe whole and free” and at peace.
How long ago that now seems! The incoming chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph S. Dunford, has testified 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.” “Existential,” of course, is a big word, meaning in this case a threat to destroy the United States—obviously gross hyperbole and raising serious concerns about the judgment of such a senior official. Virtually all of the candidates for the US presidency in 2016, in warning of a renascent Russian threat, are vying with one another in hyping the danger. The person at the moment most likely to be the next president, Hillary Clinton, has said that “I think Russia’s objectives are to stymie and to confront and to undermine American power whenever and wherever they can”—ignoring, among other things, Russian cooperation with the United States on Iran’s nuclear program and its help in defusing the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons. She has recommended that “…we have to do more to get back to talking about how we try to confine, contain, deter Russian aggression in Europe and beyond.” “Confine, contain, deter” are also big words, with a Cold-War provenance. They don’t add up to a policy that any serious US president would pursue without having first tried less risky and more sensible alternatives.
But before reaching conclusions based on this analysis and acting upon them, let’s take a second look. If Russia, as principal legatee of the Soviet Union, has indeed become a major threat to the West, not just in Europe but now in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere tomorrow, the logical implications are enormous and could require the revival of much of the intellectual, political, economic, and military apparatus of the old Cold War. That would be a major, fateful, expensive step, with risks for all. Before taking such a step, what’s called for is not emotions but some cool calculations.
Obviously what Russia has been doing cannot be ignored. Certainly Russian aggression against Ukraine in particular needs to be countered, as NATO, the European Union, and individual Western states have been doing since 2014. But before a comprehensive, perhaps globe-spanning set of anti-Russian strategies are put together, we need to figure out how we got here and what role for Russia we should accept as legitimate.
In the early 1990s, anyone who honestly believed that Russia would continue to be a second-rate power, even after its economy revived and it adjusted to the new realities of being empire-less, was bound to be grossly mistaken. Some facts were always obvious: Russia is a huge country, it has more natural resources than any other, it has a basically well-trained and well-educated population, and it has a long history of taking itself seriously and expecting others to do so as well. It was never just going to “lie doggo.” There was no chance it would passively follow the Western lead on all things, permit us to do all the defining of Eurasia’s future, or, in one of the sneering comments made soon after the end of the Cold War, remain a “Guatemala with nuclear weapons.”
Finding a Role for Russia
This is precisely why, in 1989, President G.H.W. Bush proposed his grand strategy for all of Europe, including Russia, and was assiduous in never stigmatizing the Soviet Union (Russia) for having “lost” the Cold War. The key lesson was obvious, if imperfect as all analogies are. Under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, especially its “war-guilt clause” (co-authored by John Foster Dulles!), Germany had been severely punished far out of proportion to its role in causing the Great War. Versailles fed German revanchism and was exploited to a fare-thee-well by Adolph Hitler.
President Bush, along with German Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl and a few other leaders, understood that, to maximize the chances of avoiding a similar growth of revanchism in Russia, it would have to be accorded a respectable and respected role in any new political, economic, and security order for post-Cold War Europe. Indeed, both NATO and what is now called the European Union did just that—for a time.
Thus Russia was included in NATO’s Partnership for Peace. A NATO-Russia Founding Act (providing for 19 areas of Russia-NATO cooperation) was negotiated prior to NATO’s first expansion, which was deliberately limited to three countries (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.) The West, led by the EU, worked to help the Russian as well as Central European economies. And a tacit understanding was reached that Ukraine’s future and final status in regard to both NATO and the EU would have to wait until other matters were sorted out, including Russia’s future role in Europe and Ukraine’s own progress toward democratization and internal reforms. At the same time, Ukraine was included in Western institutions, notably NATO’s Partnership for Peace and a special NATO-Ukraine Charter and Council.
These sensible efforts all directly supported President Bush’s grand vision. Whether they could have prevented Russia’s recent actions, however, can never be told. Regrettably, the efforts were not continued. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration, inattentive to the needs of a “Europe whole and free,” especially to try insuring against the day when Russia would no longer be a third-rate power, unilaterally abrogated the 1972 US-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. With the end of the Cold War and hence the “balance of terror,” the ABM Treaty had little remaining practical utility. But it did confer something important on Russia: that it could claim still to be a major power, the “equal” of the United States in an important coin of military capacity and at least perceived status.
Under US prompting, NATO took in seven more countries in 2002. This expansion included the three Baltic states, which had once been part of the Soviet Union and which had historical and psychological reasons to justify their being given surety against the possible resurgence, however unlikely it then seemed, of a hostile Russia. But there was no security reason to take in the other four states or two more since then. Moscow began talking about Western plans to “encircle” Russia, even though, at the same time, NATO and Russia did agree to a modest improvement in their formal relationship.
Meanwhile, rather than doing all that was reasonable to help Russia’s economy and thus give its people a reason to look to the West for a productive future—as was being done throughout Central Europe—the West rebuffed Russia’s efforts to join the new World Trade Organization until 2012, on the grounds that it had not made necessary internal reforms. “Internal reforms” be damned: the objective was to give the Russian people a reason to think positively about relations with the West, not to meet some bureaucrats’ standards. It also took until 2012 for Congress to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which limited Soviet and then Russian export access to the US, in order to punish the Soviet Union for restrictions on Jewish emigration, even though those restrictions had collapsed two decades earlier along with the USSR.
The failure to build on possibilities for cooperation was not all one-sided, however. Notably, in January 2008, Russia suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE.) A Cold-War holdover of diminished relevance, the treaty was still useful in reassuring Central European states about the overall climate of security.
Georgia and Ukraine
In April 2008, NATO went a “bridge too far” in playing into Russian domestic propaganda about being “encircled,” when the Alliance’s summit in Bucharest “…agreed today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.” This statement, a throw-away line, was inserted to mollify President George W. Bush, who wanted to put the two countries on the path toward membership in the Alliance. Most European allies, on the other hand, were dead set against it: they did not want to throw sand in Russia’s eyes (Ukraine) or to take in a country (Georgia) of no strategic value to European security. But both the Russian president (Putin) and the Georgian president (Mikhail Saakashvili) judged NATO’s statement at face value. Indeed, it could only mean one thing: that NATO was, at that moment, extending its membership to these two countries. The Georgian president, acting on what he believed to be a NATO security guarantee (and ignoring US government appeals for caution), provoked Russia, and Russia struck back. Yet not a single NATO ally came to Georgia’s defense, showing the Bucharest summit commitment to be vacuous. (At the time, I expressed my worry that Russia might at some point in the future decide to make a similar “point” about Ukraine.)
Nevertheless, there was one more opportunity to avoid a breakdown of engagement between Russia and the West over the future of Europe. In November 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who had been the favorite Russian partner of the United States, a seemingly complaisant contrast to Putin, proposed a European Security Treaty that would embrace all the countries, in the old phrase, “from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” It would incorporate NATO, the EU, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the OSCE. Of course, this draft treaty would confer advantages on Russia related to its potential ambitions regarding contiguous countries, notably the following (Article 7/2):
…every Party shall be entitled to consider an armed attack against any other Party an armed attack against itself. In exercising its right of self-defense under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, it shall be entitled to render the attacked Party, subject to its consent, the necessary assistance, including the military one…
Such a provision would have opened up possibilities for unilateral Russian military intervention that the West would naturally and rightly find noxious. But, significantly, the United States and the other allies were not even prepared to give serious consideration to the Medvedev proposal, thus confirming the Russian contention that Moscow was to be excluded from development of alternative approaches to creating a “Europe whole and free.”
Indeed, when Russia later seized Crimea, in so doing violating the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1994 Bucharest Declaration, a common refrain was that it was also violating understandings on the post-Cold War structure of European security. That was certainly true—as seen in the West. But it ignored the fact that Russia had played virtually no part in reaching those “understandings,” and thus they were not understandings at all. Further, regarding military action against Ukraine, the Russians have been vociferous in accusing the United States of a double standard, especially in view of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (and also, with NATO, attacking Serbia in 1999). Although we may not like it, they have a point. Ukraine can thus be seen, in part, as one more negative fallout of the reckless US venture in Iraq.
The final “icing on the cake” prior to Russia’s seizure of Crimea in early 2014 was the US attitude toward the Sochi Winter Olympics that February, which for President Putin was a major showcase, both for himself and for Russian pride. Top US leaders pointedly did not attend, and officials up to and including President Obama voiced their strong support for respecting LGBT rights at the Olympics. In terms of human rights, this was perfectly appropriate, perhaps even necessary, in the face of Russia’s denial of gay rights. Nevertheless, it helped Putin complete his narrative about Russia’s being consistently “dissed” by the West and especially by the United States.
Let me be clear: none of the foregoing is intended to justify what Russia has done, especially its aggression against Ukraine. It is rather to show how Western and especially US failure to follow through on George H. W. Bush’s vision of a “Europe whole and free,” certainly in regard to Russia, has been grist to Vladimir Putin’s nationalist propaganda mill at home. Something similar has been true in regard to some actions the West has taken in response to Russian aggression. On the one hand, Moscow can hardly complain about NATO and EU efforts to reassure Central European states about their security. Given the relevant geography, Russia cannot legitimately claim that this is part of its being “encircled.” But on the other hand, efforts to bring Ukraine more fully into the West did break the tacit understanding of the late 1990s. And sanctions against Russia have had one undesired (but foreseeable) consequence: they have reinforced Putin’s message to the Russian people that Russia is being stigmatized for pursuing interests that differ from those of the West. We can reject this logic. But we should not ignore our role in helping to inspire it.
It shouldn’t have been surprising, then, that Russia has been substantially increasing its involvement in Syria. Whether in the Middle East or someplace else, greater Russian assertiveness became inevitable. Moscow’s message is clear: “We will be reckoned with.” Of course, Russia is still far from again becoming a major power. In Syria, it is seizing on an opportunity created in major part by the lack of clarity, purpose, and strategy in Western policy, especially on the part of the United States. Although having achieved an historic breakthrough with the Iranian nuclear program, the Obama administration has still not developed a comprehensive approach to the Middle East as a whole. This is particularly true regarding the geopolitical competitions in the region, the contending interests of individual countries (including US partners and allies), and a host of religious, ethnic, economic, political, and cultural factors that we hardly understand, much less control, and that in some cases are being made worse by countries with which we are closely involved.
In the meeting Monday between the US and Russian presidents, they may simply “agree to disagree.” But it is also conceivable that they can begin a process, as diplomats say, for finding a way to disengage from the controversies that have dominated Russian-Western relations and to keep differences of interest from escalating further.
But one thing is clear: whether President Putin chooses to be “part of the problem” or “part of the solution,” Russia can no longer be ignored or its activities simply dismissed as illegitimate interference with some U.S. right to define the future of world order.