The peace that could have been

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The peace that could have been

After the Cold War, the West had an opportunity to bring Russia into the fold.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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There is no justification for Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is a scarcely believable act of aggression. A nation’s sovereignty and democratic will is being destroyed by Russian missiles, Russian tanks and Russian soldiers. There can be no doubt where responsibility for the coming misery and bloodshed must lie – at the end of a long table, where Putin is no doubt now sat.

Yet it’s also necessary to step back and ask ourselves how it came to this. How is it possible that, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is witness to this grim parody of the Cold War? Many will be content to blame Putin alone. They will say, as they have done at least since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, that this is all down to Putin’s attempt to revive the ‘Soviet empire’. A last desperate attempt to ‘renegotiate the end of the Cold War’ on the part of an ageing dictator, dreaming desperately of a grand, heroic legacy.

But that obscures the far greater role played by Western powers in creating the geopolitical context in which Putin has taken the decision to invade Ukraine. In particular, it ignores the West’s decades-old role in perpetuating and exacerbating the antagonisms of the Cold War. This conflict may have effectively ended in 1989. But in the years that followed, the US-led West ultimately remade the post-Soviet world in the image of the Cold War. Not exactly, of course. And not with the same ideological content – this was no longer a case of the ‘free world’ of capitalism versus the authoritarianism of Communism. But approximately, using a similar ‘security’ architecture. This was a ‘New World Order’, to use the words of President George HW Bush, but it was one with a striking affinity to the world order it superseded, with Russia still ultimately occupying the role of the West’s main antagonist.

This is why the persistence, expansion and hyperactive interventionism of that most Cold War of institutions – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – after the end of the Cold War is so important. NATO’s post-1989 afterlife is no accident, or quirk of the historical process. It is the institutional expression of the victorious Western powers’ determination to order the post-Cold War world precisely in the Manichean terms of the Cold War, demarcating West from East, successful states from ‘failed’ ones, and, ultimately, the righteous, ethical interventionist powers from the former seat of the evil empire. What we are seeing in Ukraine right now is, in many ways, the result of allowing this opposition between the West and Russia, embodied in and fuelled by NATO, to become irreconcilable.

What gives this narrative its tragic aspect is that it all might have been so different. As the Warsaw Pact fragmented in the late 1980s, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, there was, perhaps, a chance to move beyond the them-and-us-ness of the Cold War. There was a chance, perhaps, not to have Russia as the perpetual enemy of the West it has become today. Maybe even a chance to abandon the militarised, adversarial dichotomy of East and West. ‘An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony’, as President Bush senior put it in 1990.

Think back to June 1992. Then Russian president Boris Yeltsin stood by the side of his American counterpart, Bush, and basked, or so it seemed, in the promise of a brave new post-Cold War world. It was to be a world in which America and Russia were no longer adversaries. A world of new alliances that transcended the violent, atomic-fringed antagonism of the 20th century. A world in which, as Yeltsin put it in a nod to the Space Race, Russia and America could work together to put men on Mars.

President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 (Credit: National Archives.)
President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 (Credit: National Archives.)

The possibility of such comity between Russia and the US may be a trick of the historical light. Yet, as Mary Elise Sarotte’s excellent Not One Inch shows, there was certainly a possibility then of freeing the world from the antagonistic framework of the Cold War — perhaps even from the broader postwar order. Indeed, on 21 September 1989, as Hungary and Poland tried to break free of the Warsaw Pact, US secretary of state James Baker and his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, discussed allowing Poland and Hungary to move towards, in Baker’s words, ‘more of a free-market system’. Shevardnadze came up with what he described as a ‘reasonable proposal’: ‘Let’s disband both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Let’s release your allies and ours. While NATO exists, the Warsaw Pact also exists.’ (1) As Sarotte makes clear, this exchange shows that it wasn’t just the future of the USSR in the balance, but that of the institutional framework of the entire Cold War itself.

Nothing came of that proposal, of course. But the question of NATO’s future remained central to negotiations between the US, its allies and the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union during the early 1990s. And no wonder. In the midst of their defeat, the Soviets wanted reassurances that the US-led West’s victory would not later turn into a threat to Russia and its then allies. Much of the debate at the time centred on the prospect of a reunified Germany’s NATO membership, not to mention the future of nuclear arms in Europe. But with Poland and Hungary pushing hard to join NATO, presidents Gorbachev and then Yeltsin also sought to win concessions from Western powers on NATO expansion eastwards. At points, they even talked about Russia possibly joining NATO, or replacing NATO with some new form of pan-European security alliance, ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’.

And it did look, certainly in Moscow’s eyes, as if it had won concessions from the US on NATO. In one now infamous exchange, in February 1990, Baker asked Gorbachev the following question: ‘Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no US forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?’ Gorbachev said that any expansion of the ‘zone of NATO’ was unacceptable, to which Baker answered, ‘we agree with that’.

This exchange is now the source of much controversy. Putin invokes it as proof of Western perfidy. And NATO’s champions deny that such a non-written agreement could have ever had any validity. The problem for those who deny its significance is this proposal to limit the expansion of NATO was not confined to Baker’s conversation with Gorbachev. German chancellor Helmut Kohl said the same thing to Gorbachev a few weeks later – that if Moscow agrees to remove itself from the German Democratic Republic and allow reunification, ‘NATO could not expand its territory to the current territory of the GDR’ (2). Likewise, on 17 May 1990, NATO chief Manfred Wörner stated that ‘the very fact’ that the alliance was willing ‘not to deploy NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic [of Germany] gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees’ (3).

As we know of course, it was not to be. During the early to mid-1990s, at every significant moment in negotiations over the new agreements that have come to govern Europe – be they on German unification, EU expansion or of course NATO – Moscow was blind-sided, or often just too politically and economically weak to resist the will of the West. Yeltsin’s ill-fated decision to begin a brutal war in Chechnya in 1994 did not help Russia’s case either. It never did win any formal limit on NATO’s expansion eastwards, let alone seriously challenge the continued existence of a US-led military presence in the heart of Europe. And those pushing for NATO expansion within the Bush and Clinton administrations, from the likes of Dick Cheney to senior figures in the US National Security Council, were ascendant by the mid-1990s.

Yet, as it became clear that the institutional expressions of the West, from NATO to the EU, were not just set on expanding, but also doing so to the detriment of Russia, Yeltsin did publicly register his anger in a telling moment in December 1994. Speaking on the opening day of the 52-nation Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) summit in Budapest, Yeltsin, sitting close to President Clinton, accused the Western powers of excluding Russia from the new security order in Europe:

‘No major country would live in isolation and any country would reject such a game with itself. Why sow the seeds of mistrust? Europe has not yet freed itself from the heritage of the Cold War [and] is in danger of plunging into a Cold Peace.’

Viewed in the harsh light of today’s conflict in Ukraine, these are telling words. Yeltsin expressed the resentment and insecurity felt by many in Russia, as Bush’s New World Order started to look as if it were built in direct opposition to Russia. It was a theme he returned to on 10 May 1995, during a three-hour meeting with Clinton at the Kremlin. ‘I see nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed [with NATO enlargement]. How do you think it looks to us if one bloc continues to exist while the Warsaw Pact has been abolished?’

But, as it turned out, Western powers, especially the US, didn’t really care how this New World Order looked to Russia. Old members of the Soviet alliance, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, joined NATO in 1997, with Clinton insisting simply, that ‘It is the right thing to do’. Under George W Bush, the US continued to use NATO to fashion a Europe almost directly defined against Russia. Putin’s half-baked appeals for Russia’s own membership were repeatedly met with blank looks, while the Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became NATO members in 2004. And in 2009, Croatia and Albania were also admitted. As Putin remarked in a famous speech in Munich in 2007, ‘We have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?’. He knew the answer. And with each expansionist move, each shifting of a militarised border ever closer to Russia, so the ground for today’s conflict in Ukraine was being laid.

A soldier of the Polish Army mans a tank during the NATO Noble Jump military exercises in Zagan, Poland, 18 June 2015.
A soldier of the Polish Army mans a tank during the NATO Noble Jump military exercises in Zagan, Poland, 18 June 2015.

It is not as if there were no warnings of the folly of building a New World Order along old Cold War lines. As Sarotte explains, as early as 1990 the US State Department released an analysis of ‘Eastern Europe and NATO’ full of grim foreboding. It explained that opening up NATO membership to former Russian allies ‘would not only look predatory but could even “lead to a reversal of current positive trends in Eastern Europe and the USSR”’ (4). Seven years later, the hard-headed US diplomat George Kennan wrote a scathing piece about NATO’s expansion in the New York Times, calling it ‘the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era’. He warned Clinton of the perilous consequences of trying ‘to expand NATO up to Russia’s borders’.

At that point, in the mid-1990s, even the most enthusiastic champions of NATO enlargement baulked at the prospect of turning Ukraine into a military outpost of the Western alliance. Ukraine had been the second largest Soviet republic after Russia, and shared so much with it, from its largely Slavic populace and Orthodox tradition, to deep, familial links. To turn this, of all nations – ‘something Russians of all political stripes think of as part of their own body politic’, as a US ambassador to Moscow put it in 1991 – into a NATO protectorate, and therefore cast its fallen neighbour as a potential enemy, was at the time widely considered a diplomatic folly too far.

But not for long. By the mid-1990s, Western powers’ foreign policymaking had acquired a deeply troubling aspect. The end of the Cold War was certainly deemed a victory. A source, even, of triumphalism. But it had deprived Western powers of the international and domestic threat – Communism – against which they defined and secured themselves. Foreign policy, with NATO its embodiment, was being turned into the means by which they re-found this purpose and point. This was most clearly demonstrated in 1994, when Western powers intervened in Bosnia. US fighter jets in the service of NATO shot down four Serbian planes carrying out a bombing mission in violation of a UN no-fly zone – this was NATO’s first ever combat action since its founding in 1949. It was hailed as proof that Western powers, through military action, were a force for good.

From that point, as the idea of humanitarian intervention developed and provided NATO with its raison d’etre, NATO’s expansion acquired an irresistible moralistic logic. NATO no longer had to justify itself on the grounds of protecting a limited group of nations against a definite, specific threat; it could justify itself on the grounds of protecting a rapidly expanding group of nations against an unlimited, indefinite series of threats. Right up to the Russian border.

Unsurprisingly, given the rise of humanitarian interventionism, any qualms about bringing in the likes of Ukraine disappeared during the 2000s. NATO, to its champions, was only a threat to the bad guys, like the Taliban or Colonel Gaddafi.

In 2008 NATO membership was offered to Ukraine and Georgia. It was a decision that effectively prompted a war in Georgia and, alongside the EU’s eastwards flirtation, fuelled tensions in Ukraine which were to erupt in Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The conflict has rumbled on in Ukraine ever since, culminating in Russia’s desperate and outrageous decision to launch a full invasion.

The New World Order of the 1990s promised so much. But it’s difficult to avoid the impression that contained within its Cold War-framing are the seeds of our current crisis. There was a chance to bring Russia into the fold, rather than isolate it as an enemy. And it was missed.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

(1) Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, by ME Sarotte, Yale University Press, 2022, p53

(2) Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, by ME Sarotte, Yale University Press, 2022, p92

(3) Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, by ME Sarotte, Yale University Press, 2022, pp130-131

(4) Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, by ME Sarotte, Yale University Press, 2022, p109

Unless stated otherwise, all pictures by: Getty Images.

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