The ongoing and ever-worsening crisis in Ukraine, which began last November when then-President Viktor Yanukovych chose to accept a generous aid package offered by Russia over the austerity demanded by the European Union, is rapidly approaching a critical juncture. Squabbles over a rag-tag jihadi army in Iraq are one thing, a deliberate confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia is another.
The last thing the world needs is a war in Europe pitting the erstwhile superpowers against each other, something that never happened even during the 40-odd years of the first Cold War. Yet that’s just what it’s getting.
The origins of this new Cold War lie in the ashes of the old one. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Mikhail Gorbachev struck a deal with us. He agreed to peacefully withdraw from Eastern Europe and to permit even former Soviet republics — the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as Georgia, and, most crucially, Ukraine, a part of Russia for more than 300 years and the birthplace of Russia itself 1,000 years ago — with the expectation that NATO would not expand (which had been assured him by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl), in the words of former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, “one inch” into Eastern Europe.
Gorbachev understood that Communism’s day was done and that Russia itself would be integrated into a Western-style market system. With this, there would be no further need for NATO itself, whose unofficial purpose had been to contain Russia militarily. Gorbachev understood perfectly well that the United States would not disband NATO, its most forward military position as well as its principal means of retaining geopolitical control over the European Union.
What he hoped to do was to keep Eastern Europe as a demilitarized zone. He recognized that the East would be integrated economically with the rest of Europe, as Russia itself would largely be, and that some degree of coordination between NATO and Russia’s former satellites was inevitable. What he wanted to assure was that NATO would not formally expand into this territory, ringing Russia with potentially hostile bases and bringing rockets up to its borders.
In short, Gorbachev was willing to concede the reality that the U.S. would move into the military vacuum left by Russia’s abandonment of the satellite states. All he wanted, or at any rate could hope for, was the fig-leaf of a guarantee that NATO itself would not overtly annex the region.
Gorbachev received only oral assurances to this effect, and his successors, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, would have no means of enforcing the agreement. Whether George H. W. Bush would have kept Kohl’s word had he been reelected president in 1992 is a matter of conjecture. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not.
As the states of Eastern Europe were admitted one by one into the European Union, NATO membership and deployment followed. When antimissile defenses were set up in Poland, ostensibly to meet a nonexistent threat from Iran, Putin publicly protested, but to no avail. Russia was to be quarantined and reduced to the quasi-colonial status of a supplier of natural gas to Europe, at least until alternate sources could be developed.
All of this reflects Russia’s anomalous status as both a Western and a Pacific power. Even in its truncated form — it lost one-third of its land area and nearly half its population when the Soviet Union collapsed — it is still too large for the European Union to accommodate, let alone integrate.
Adolf Hitler realized that the U.S. would ultimately have to choose between Germany and Russia as its organizing partner in postwar Europe. We chose Germany, but were obliged to share Europe as a condominium with Russia when Stalin occupied the Eastern territories he had conquered. Gorbachev’s withdrawal from them left the continent to us, with Germany taking the economic spoils and the U.S. the military ones. That is where we are today.
The last and most vital prize for Western expansion was Ukraine, the most sizable state in Europe after Russia itself and strategically critical to the isolation of Russia as well as the completion of NATO’s southern tier with Turkey. NATO, of course, has long since ceased to be a regional alliance and has become an arm of American expansion into Africa through Libya and the Middle East through places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia could do little about this except to cultivate its few assets abroad, notably in Syria.
Even so, Putin has cooperated with the U.S. in Afghanistan, and he rescued Obama from the corner he had backed himself into in September 2013 over his threatened bombardment of Syria. Ukraine, however, was a red line for Putin. It is home to Russia’s most important naval base, located in Crimea (retained on a long-term lease from Ukraine), and its factories were an indispensable supplier to the Russian military. It contained, in its southern and eastern regions, millions of ethnic Russians who were deeply and, as the event proved, justifiably fearful for their situation in a Ukraine partnered with NATO.
These were the circumstances under which the Ukrainian crisis unfolded. No sooner had Yanukovych rejected the European Union’s terms than Western-backed, if not instigated, demonstrators occupied Maidan Square in Kiev, demanding his ouster. Although Yanukovych offered early elections and a power-sharing arrangement with his opposition, all concessions were rejected, and he was deposed in a coup.
A right-wing oligarch, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was installed as the U.S. State Department’s hand-picked head of an unelected interim government, and his successor, the candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, repudiated Yanukovych’s agreement with Russia, accepted the immiseration terms demanded by the European Union and launched a military offensive against ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 2,000 lives. Russia has supported the rebels — it could hardly have done less — while trying to mediate a ceasefire. Poroshenko, armed and backed by the U.S., demands unconditional surrender instead.
These shenanigans are nothing new. The U.S. has, by its own admission, poured $5 billion into Ukraine since 1991 in anticipation of the great day when it would be ripe for the plucking. That day, it apparently calculates, has now arrived.
When the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, discussed the U.S. choice of whom to support in Ukraine (on which the EU had been indecisive), Victoria Nuland, who runs the U.S. State Department’s European desk, replied to him, “Fuck the EU.” You can hear the actual phone call for yourself; it’s posted on YouTube. Our NATO lackey in Europe, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, promptly fell in line, denouncing Russian defensive activity (Moscow’s re-annexation of Crimea was part of this) as aggression.
Certainly not since the first Cold War have I heard such incendiary propaganda whipped up against Russia and so one-sidedly disseminated in the media. There is much debate about what we should be doing in Iraq and Syria (short answer: not what we are doing), but nothing has been said about the policy that is leading us once more to the brink with Russia.
Apart from isolated figures such as Princeton University professor Stephen F. Cohen, for decades one of our foremost experts on Russia but now persona non grata in policy circles, there has been virtually no dissent from the official line. An exception is the newly published “Flashpoint in Ukraine: How the U.S. Drive for Hegemony Risks World War III” (Clarity Press), which, despite the unevenness of its contributions, contains sober and valuable analysis.
World War III may not be at hand, but the next generation is already shaping up as a contest between the West and the ever-more likely alliance of Russia and China, which have just concluded a $400 billion natural gas trade agreement. This would be a replay of the alignments of the early Cold War, and no less dangerous. At a time when global cooperation is ever more imperative, America’s imperial gamesmanship in Ukraine is as irresponsible a provocation as any great power has ever engaged in.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].