Russia Has Been Warning About Ukraine for Decades. The West Should Have Listened
My time as a journalist. The Times(London) In Moscow, December 1992, I was shown a copy of Andrei Kozyrev’s speech. He warned that the West would soon attack Russia’s vital interests and ignore Russian protests. A British journalist had scrawled on it a note to an American colleague, “Here are more of Kozyrev’s ravings.”
Andrei Kozyrev is the Russian foreign minister who was most pro-Western. In his speech, he explained that his concern about Western behavior stemmed from the fear of Westward backlash. We see that he proved correct. However, when he spoke out in rational and moderate terms about his fear, western observers instinctively dismissed him as insane.
This history shows that Russia’s current crisis has roots that extend far beyond Putin. Russia, like the United States has a security and foreign blob. It is based on a series of semi-permanent views about Russian vital interests that are rooted in the nation’s history and culture. These beliefs are widely shared by large sections of its population. These include the exclusion of hostile military alliances from Russia’s neighborhood and the protection of the political position and cultural rights of Russian minorities.
While the Yeltsin government was strongly opposed to NATO expansion beginning in 1990s, Russia quickly became accustomed to NATO membership for its former Soviet satellites in Central Europe. But from the very beginning of NATO expansion in the mid-1990s, Russian officials and commentators—including liberal reformists—warned that an offer of NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine would bring confrontation with the West and an acute danger of war. These warnings were echoed by George Kennan, the original architect of the strategy to contain the USSR and the State Department’s greatest ever Russia expert, as well as by Henry Kissinger and other leading American statesmen.
The Russian attitude towards Russia is neither extreme or mysterious. In the first place, Western language about NATO expansion establishing a “Europe whole and free” implies the exclusion of Russia from Europe and from a role in Europe—a matter of deep offence to Russians, and Russian liberals in particular, especially since this Western rhetoric was imbued with the assumption (a racist one, by the way) that the word “European” equates to “civilized.” And that Russia isn’t part of that idea.
Continue reading:Putin is afraid of the Man
Russian fears about the expansion of a potentially hostile military alliance to Russia’s borders should be understandable to any American who has heard of the Monroe Doctrine. The Soviet Union also has issues in Georgia and Ukraine. These include the Ossete separatist movements, and Russia’s resulting ethnic conflict. Such ethnic conflicts over territory, with the involvement of outside powers, are all too common during and after the fall of empires: think for example of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and Ankara’s establishment of an (internationally unrecognised) mini-state for the Turkish Cypriot minority.
NATO membership in Ukraine meant that Russia was expelled from Sevastopol, a naval base in Crimea. This city is of great strategic importance for Russia. It also created a strong international border between Russia and Ukraine’s Russian-speaking and Russian-speaking minority communities, which together make up over a third of Ukraine’s population.
In addition to the fear that NATO could be used as cover for state-backed Ukrainian ethnic nationalalism, which is intended to decimate Russian culture and Russian language in Ukraine, the Russian establishment also fears this. These fears were increased by what happened in Estonia and Latvia, where after independence the national governments broke their previous promises to Russia and the local Russian minorities to respect their political, educational and linguistic rights—which did not prevent them joining NATO and the E.U.
None of this is intended to justify Russia’s actions, which have often been stupid as well as criminal—as with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But they’re not uncommonly so given the circumstances of fallen empires and the aftermath. Is it possible that the British behaved better when their empire fell apart than the French, Portuguese, or Turks. While a Frenchman could believe so, an Algerian might disagree.
Even more important, the Russian actions have been tied to specific post-Soviet issues as well as Russian regional goals. They are not part of some grand malign design to destroy international order, or to act as a wilful “disruptor.” Insofar as Russia has set out deliberately to damage Western interests (for instance with social media disinformation campaigns) it has been as a way to put pressure on the West in pursuit of those goals. It may also be pointed out that in the Middle East, it is the U.S. that has frequently acted as a disruptor as with the invasion of Iraq, the destruction of the Libyan state, and Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear agreement with Iran, while Russia has often defended the status quo—partly due to a fear of Islamist terrorism that it shares with the U.S.
In other words, while the terms of any compromise with Russia over Ukraine would involve some tough negotiation, we can seek such a compromise without fearing that this will open the way for further Russian moves to destroy NATO and subjugate eastern Europe—a ridiculous idea for anyone who knows either the goals of the Russian establishment or the character of Poles and Estonians. These countries are members of NATO, and they are committed to it. There is no way for Russia to remove them without a direct attack on NATO—a hideously dangerous undertaking that forms no part of the Russian establishment’s plans. NATO, within its current borders, is actually entirely secure. The threat to NATO’s safety and prestige are largely of its own making with its empty commitments to countries that it has neither the will nor the ability to defend.
Three elements could be part of a deal with Russia. Two have been in fact already accepted by the West. First, a treaty or moratorium for 10 to 20 years regarding Ukrainian membership in NATO. Since it is obvious that Ukraine will not be able to join NATO while its ongoing conflicts with Russia remain unresolved, the West does not lose anything. The U.S., NATO and other countries have stated that they can and won’t defend Ukraine using force.
The second is the return to (Adapted Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement), which limits NATO forces in east Europe, and Russian forces in territories contiguous. And the third is internationally-guaranteed autonomy for a demilitarized Donbas within Ukraine, according to the Minsk II agreement of 2015 brokered by Germany and France but since in effect rejected by Ukraine.
Although it is unlikely that any new Russian aggression on Ukraine will occur, it looks likely that at least some of the initial efforts towards reaching a compromise have failed. However, this does not necessarily mean that there will be an invasion large scale. If war breaks out, the Russian military march will be followed up by an offer from Russia for a settlement in return for Russian withdrawal. The only difference between then and now will be that NATO will have been humiliated by its inability to fight, the West and Ukraine will be in a much weaker position to negotiate a favorable deal—and that in the meantime, thousands of people will have died.