To understand the roots of the Ukraine crisis, a good place to start is with the State of the Union address in 1992. That’s when George H. W. Bush intoned, “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.”
Bush must have felt he had to say it. He was under fire from the conservative wing of the Republican Party for his Chicken Kiev speech in August 1991, when he warned against the “suicidal nationalism” of a complete breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He was on the verge of a re-election campaign in which a Democratic Party nominee had yet to emerge; his approval ratings were sky-high, in the aftermath of the first Iraq war.
Bush probably found gloating distasteful. Mikhail Gorbachev liked to say that the end of the Cold War was “our common victory.” That’s how the Germans described their remarkable peaceful reunification, which the Russians had blessed. Bush clearly preferred some outcome other than the breakup of the USSR into fifteen separate nations. That was the point of his speech in Kiev.
But Boris Yeltsin had already won the presidency of the Russian Federation in June 1991; in August he led the opposition to an attempted coup; Ukraine seceded in December; and the USSR dissolved three weeks later. Had he won re-election, Bush might have backed away from his statement.
But Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, and Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all since adopted the triumphalist stance. Vladimir Putin’s surge in the Russian polls can be best understood in terms of widespread resentment from his countrymen building over a period of nearly twenty-five years.
All this from Jack F. Matlock, US ambassador to the USSR, 1987-91, who argued in The Washington Post in March that the US had been behaving like a bully for more than twenty years. If there is a far-sighted George Kennan-like figure in the present day, it is Matlock. In fact he was Kennan Professor of History at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for many years.
In The United States Has Treated Russia Like a Loser Since the Cold War, Matlock describes what happened next:
President Bill Clinton supported NATO’s bombing of Serbia without U.N. Security Council approval and the expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries. Those moves seemed to violate the understanding that the United States would not take advantage of the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe. The effect on Russians’ trust in the United States was devastating. In 1991, polls indicated that about 80 percent of Russian citizens had a favorable view of the United States; in 1999, nearly the same percentage had an unfavorable view.
Vladimir Putin was elected in 2000 and initially followed a pro-Western orientation. When terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, he was the first foreign leader to call and offer support. He cooperated with the United States when it invaded Afghanistan, and he voluntarily removed Russian bases from Cuba and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.
What did he get in return? Some meaningless praise from President George W. Bush, who then delivered the diplomatic equivalent of swift kicks to the groin: further expansion of NATO in the Baltics and the Balkans, and plans for American bases there; withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; invasion of Iraq without U.N. Security Council approval; overt participation in the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; and then, probing some of the firmest red lines any Russian leader would draw, talk of taking Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Americans, heritors of the Monroe Doctrine, should have understood that Russia would be hypersensitive to foreign-dominated military alliances approaching or touching its borders.
Retired from the Institute now, Matlock maintains a blog. Last week found him touting a proposal by peripatetic Anatol Lieven, of the New America Foundation, that as part of a Ukrainian settlement, Russia, NATO and the European Union commit to “a lengthy moratorium on any new offer of accession or partnership,” and Ukraine should undertake to pass a constitutional amendment stipulating that accession to any international organization would require a referendum majority of at least 70 percent.
Something similar was hinted at by Hans-Werner Sinn, Germany’s leading policy economist, writing yesterday in The Wall Street Journal of all places. In Why We Should Give Putin a Chance, Sinn stated flatly that “the present crisis was triggered by the West.” NATO’s overtures to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine “had threatened to encircle Russia’s Black Sea fleet in the only ice-free port at its disposal.” Russia had protested as energetically as the US did when threatened by the Cuban missile crisis. On the next page, the combat-happy crusaders of the WSJ editorial page pressed their case for giving Ukraine anti-tank mines and modern artillery.
It’s a strange pass. Both Obama and Putin are playing mainly to their domestic constituencies. “In Cold War Strategy, Obama Writes off Putin,” Peter Baker reported last Sunday in The New York Times that Obama intends to cut off its economic and political ties to the outside world, “limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state.”Mitt Romney meanwhile sought to top that, reiterating on a Sunday morning talk show his conviction that Russia is America’s “geopolitical adversary” and that Obama “should have had the judgment from the very beginning to understand that Russia was not our friend, it had very different interests and ambitions than we did.”
Clearly Russia will be an issue in 2016, especially if Hillary Clinton chooses to run. Winston Churchill spelled out the moral of his history of World War II this way: “In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity, In Peace: Goodwill.” The Cold War ended differently from that.