Mikhail Gorbachev has a long history with American/Russian relations. His concerns should be our concerns. He fears that the situation in the Ukraine has the potential to explode into open warfare: “Such a war today would inevitably lead to a nuclear war. But statements from both sides and the propaganda lead me to fear for the worst.”
His comments come on the heels of President Obama’s misguided comments during his State of the Union Address: “…we are demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We are holding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukrainian democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies…Well today it is America that stands strong and united with its allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.” Those are bellicose words! How did we get to this dangerous crisis?
For those among us who do not remember him, Mr. Gorbachev was the head of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. His attempts to reform the broken socialist regime resulted in the collapse of that once feared empire.
Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan presided over the end of the Cold War and issued in a period of peace not experienced since the close of World War I. Everyone hoped for lasting peace and believed that the new bilateral commitments by both nations would assure the end of hostilities between the east and west for many years.
However, the situation turned sour for Russia when its political structure and economy collapsed along with the rise of separatism among elements of its old empire. Soon many nations began to break away, first in Eastern Europe then later among other ethnic enclaves within the former Soviet Union itself.
Gorbachev believes that many of the problems today between Russia and NATO began with events that unfolded at this time. When Russia was weak, America seized the opportunity to expand its influence.
For those lacking a historical background, after the defeat of Hitler the world did NOT experience peace. Russia quickly filled the vacuum in Eastern Europe, purged rising democratic political elements, and imposed its harsh military rule.
The world seemed poised for another war. The Western allies created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a counter force to Stalin’s aggressive expansionist policies in Europe. In Churchill’s words an “Iron Curtain” fell between east and west.
In the Helsinki Act of 1975, though unpopular to many in the West, the Soviet Union was granted hegemony over the Baltic nations and Eastern Europe. That region was accepted as in the Soviet’s Sphere of influence. This had the effect of cementing Stalin’s “Iron Curtain.”
Then the Soviet Union collapsed. In the Paris Charter of 1990 both East and West recognized the changed dynamics of a world without the Soviet Union. But they also recognized that to maintain peace NATO must adapt to new circumstances: “In fulfilling its fundamental objectives and core security functions, the Alliance will continue to respect the legitimate security interests of others.” That implies not threatening the former Soviet Union by expanding NATO. One would believe, therefore, that once that threat had subsided, even the need for NATO would diminish. Certainly Russia thought so.
At the London Summit, the Western Allies agreed to move away from the concept of forward defense towards a reduced forward presence. This implied a “pull back” of military assets to acknowledge the new peaceful arrangement between East and West designed to reassure Russia of our peaceful intentions.
However, it did not take long for NATO to alter its posture and begin an aggressive, expansionist phase while mother Russia lay confused, debilitated, and distracted. In 1990 Germany joined NATO. In 1999 Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined. In 2002 Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania gained admission. In 2009 Albania and Croatia attained membership. Other hopefuls seeking admission today are: Cyprus, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Georgia. In the words of Gorbachev: “Unfortunately, America then started building a global empire, a mega empire.”
To put it simply, NATO has embarked upon a process, from the Russian perspective, of breaking off their former spheres of influence, attaching them to NATO, and pushing further east thus surrounding Russia. Recently, additional arms have been deployed to these new members. This is a violation of the London Summit and not perceived as peaceful to Russia. How would we feel?
Further complicating matters, NATO under President Clinton, violated its founding principles. According to its charter: “Alliance strategy will continue to reflect a number of fundamental principles. The Alliance is purely defensive in purpose: none of its weapons will ever be used except in self-defense, and it does not consider itself to be anyone's adversary.”
President Clinton violated this maxim when he pushed NATO to invade Yugoslavia, a Russian ally, without United Nations’ approval. There was nothing defensive about this war on a civilian population. A weak Russia disapproved, but could do nothing to protect its traditional ally. NATO’s attack left a mark…especially in the mind of a young KGB Colonel named Vladimir Putin who was rapidly ascending the ranks of government in Moscow at the time.
The combination of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and aggressive military offensive action in Yugoslavia caused deep concerns within a now better organized Russia. According to Gorbachev, when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev sought to sit down and discuss matters with western leaders: “…to work on a new security architecture, [he was] arrogantly ignored by the west. We are now seeing the results.”
Now the Ukraine. Like it or not, Ukraine has been part of Russia since 1783, the same year the American Revolution ended. Russia considers it a part of itself. Thus, one must consider Russia’s sensitivity on matters pertaining to Ukraine. They view it as an internal problem. Whether or not we agree. Remember, we are viewing this from the Russian perspective.
When pro-western elements, likely encouraged by the west, protested against the pro-Russian elected government there, one can understand Russia’s anger. This was their backyard! Remember the leaked phone conversation from US. Diplomat of European Union Victoria Nuland to U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt on February 7, 2014?
These two Obama diplomats openly discussed their involvement in the internal affairs of Ukraine. According to the BBC: “… this transcript [of their phone conversation] suggests that the US has very clear ideas about what the outcome should be and is striving to achieve these goals. Russian spokesmen have insisted that the US is meddling in Ukraine's affairs.”
Soon thereafter, street protests turned violent. Some moderate Ukrainians on the scene believe “rightwing” elements provoked violence through sniper attacks on both sides. Whatever the case, extremists overthrew the elected pro-Russian Ukrainian President in violation of an agreement signed by the West. America unaccountably recognized the “new government” as legitimate, though unelected. Russia immediately accused the United States of involvement in a coup. Hard to deny.
Ukraine soon plunged into revolution. Crimea, an essential Russian military base, with a strongly pro-Russian population, seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia through a plebiscite. Possession of Crimea is a matter of national security for Russia because Crimea provides Russia with the only warm water port for its navy. The United States rejected the popular vote despite forcing Russia to accept similar votes for a series of secessions in Yugoslavia. Hypocrisy?
The new government in Ukraine, supported by the U.S., protested about Crimea and fighting began. Eastern Ukraine, also strongly pro-Russian, likewise sought independence. Civil War erupted. President Obama and Europe accused Russia of involvement and imposed economic sanctions. Russia accused of the United States of secretly supplying weapons and other assets to Ukraine, likely true. Relations deteriorated.
Although several efforts at a cease-fire have been negotiated, all have failed. Most recently, this past week. The problem has become more complex. The collapse of oil prices and the imposition of sanctions have severely damaged Russia’s economy. Russia and Putin are in a desperate situation. The West’s questionable but persistent denials of involvement appear to lack truth, but their accusations against Russian activities persist. These all combine to create a dangerous mix accentuated by President Obama’s State of the Union inflammatory comments.
Russia is being forced into a corner by an incompetent American Administration. The Russian population has rallied around Putin. A Levada-Center poll in December 2014 has Putin with 85% support. (Obama enjoys 46%) What causes greater anger is that some Russians believe the West seeks to overthrow Putin. Which means they believe America seeks control over Russia’s internal affairs. Putin feeds these anxieties.
Finally, the long history of perceived abuse by the West and NATO has expressed itself as Gorbachev warned. In their view, the West failed to be gracious to Russia in 1990, and instead began a program of isolation and domination. Under Obama this process has become more aggressive and demeaning. Considering the facts… it’s hard not to be sympathetic to their position.
As a result, President Obama’s State of the Union comment appeared as a challenge…Putin has taken it up. Ukraine exploded within 48 hours…connection?? Should this conflict expand, the consequences are difficult to calculate. What if Putin decides to test NATO willingness to commit to open warfare in Europe? Never push someone into a corner because desperate people do desperate things.
President Obama’s proven inexperience in foreign affairs is in complete display. He must stop rattling his sabre and attempt meaningful dialog with Putin and Russia. He appears more than willing to discuss terms with radical Islamists in Iran who are bent on the west’s destruction, but refuses to open a path for peace with a nation who could be a great ally in the coming struggle with Islam.
This foreign policy blunder could have grave consequences. Like Gorbachev, I too am: “...truly, deeply concerned.”
Ron Chapman is a columnist, businessman and college professor. He lives in St. Bernard Louisiana.