By Bharat Dogra*
At a time when the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the subject of much well-justified criticism, a different but related question must also be raised. Would Ukraine have become such a serious point of crisis if the United States had sincerely adopted a policy of peace towards Russia for the past 35 years or so?
Revisit the Russia of three decades ago. There was confusion during the fast break, a lot of uncertainty. A sincere hand of friendship from the superpower would have been enough for Russia to accept a less than equal position in the arrangement, as long as it was treated honourably. Unfortunately, the United States and its allies have adopted a policy of hostility that has manifested itself in decisions regarding NATO’s eastward expansion.
An important understanding reached between Gorbachev and Bush in 1989 was that the United States would not expand NATO membership eastward near Russia’s borders. Jack F Matlock, then US Ambassador to the Soviet Union and a leading expert on Soviet politics for years, had an overview of the crucial talks. He recalled recently (February 15, 2022, “Responsible Statecraft”), that Gorbachev had been assured, though not in a formal treaty, that if a unified Germany was allowed to remain in NATO, there would be no displacement of NATO jurisdiction to the east, not an inch.
However, the United States began to move away – rapidly – from this assurance. 1997 was a landmark year for this return to important insurance. At that critical moment, June 26, 1997 to be precise, no less than 50 prominent foreign policy experts, including former senators, retired military officers, diplomats and academics sent an open letter to President Clinton, outlining their opposition to NATO expansion (see the full statement to the Arms Control Association, Opposition to NATO Expansion).
They wrote: “We, the undersigned, believe that the current US-led effort to expand NATO, … is a political error of historic proportions. In Russia, NATO enlargement, which continues to be opposed across the political spectrum, will strengthen the undemocratic opposition, undermine supporters of reform and cooperation with the West, bring Russians to challenge the entire post-Cold War settlement and will galvanize resistance in the Duma to the START II and III treaties.
This letter from 50 experts concluded: “We urge that the NATO enlargement process be suspended while alternative actions are explored.” Alternatives suggested by these experts included “supporting a NATO-Russia relationship.”
Around the same time in 1997, Ambassador Matlock was asked to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said NATO expansion would be the most strategic blunder since the end of the Cold War.
Ignoring the wise advice of many high-ranking diplomats and foreign policy experts, the US government proceeded with several waves of adding new members to NATO – eastward, ho! At the same time, the United States was also withdrawing from important arms control treaties. During the 1990s, Western interests were associated with promoting the economic policies of the Yeltsin years that impoverished large numbers of Russians, leading to a deeply worrying drop in life expectancy.
The expectations of many Russians for economic aid and the consideration of essential security concerns have been neglected and instead they have witnessed repeated violations of their economic and security interests. In addition, sanctions were also imposed. In 2014, the United States intervened decisively in Ukraine, playing an important role in installing an anti-Russian regime.
In 2019, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a study titled “30 Years of US Policy Towards Russia – Can the Vicious Cycle Be Broken”, which lamented the many problems created by the hostile US policy.
In 1997, Ambassador Matlock said NATO enlargement would be the most strategic mistake since the end of the Cold War.
To break the impasse, the study concludes, the United States, for its part, will need to make several key adjustments to its policy toward Russia, including — halting NATO’s eastward expansion, make it clear to Ukraine and Georgia that they should not base their foreign policy on the assumption that they will join NATO (while establishing strong security cooperation in other ways), revising and by restraining the sanctions policy towards Russia and leaving Russia’s internal affairs to their own devices (without interfering in them).
These and other suggestions were ignored by American policymakers who continued to engage in provocations. Just before war broke out, Matlock asked a question (see “Responsible Statecraft”, February 15, 2022: “I was there – NATO and the origins of the Ukrainian crisis”): the crisis was- it avoidable? His answer was – Yes.
He explained: “Given that Putin’s main demand is the assurance that NATO will not take any more members, and in particular not Ukraine or Georgia, it is obvious that the current crisis could not have no basis if there had been no enlargement of the alliance after the end of the cold war, or if the expansion had taken place in harmony with the construction of a security structure in Europe including the Russia.
So while the invasion of Ukraine deserves the criticism it attracts, Russia’s real concerns also deserve attention. In the longer term and in the larger context, the United States is leading west and the already troubled world will gain nothing and lose much from a policy of encirclement and threat from a major nuclear power like Russia. .
A century ago, Germany, in difficult times, trying to find a place of rightful honor, was pushed and pushed too hard, and the rest is very unfortunate history. The current situation in a world of weapons of mass destruction is of course much more risky.
American and Western policymakers are surely wise enough to see the big picture. The talk on the streets is that US arms companies get more business, that Germany and Japan are pressured to acquire more destructive weapons in cooperation with the US, than the US fuel market. Europe is becoming more tied to American interests despite the obvious advantages of getting better and cheaper supplies much closer to Russia. Western and American policy makers should certainly be able to rise above these narrow concerns.
There is clearly a different path, one based on peace and sincerity, and by making this the basis of its Russian policy, the United States can contribute much more to its own interests and even more to world peace. It can also contribute very quickly to solving the current crisis and, in the longer term, to creating a safer world for this generation and future generations.
* Honorary Organizer, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Planet in Peril” and “Protecting Earth for Children”