On Playing to Win

America’s enthusiasm for NATO expansion has become a deadly obsession. 

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I was something more than surprised last week when I read The Two Blunders that Caused the Ukraine War, a “Weekend Interview” with Robert Service in The Wall Street Journal. An emeritus professor of Oxford University, Service is a distinguished historian of twentieth-century Russia, author of biographies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky.

The first blunder, Service said, was an act of “shambolic mismanagement” by the West: the November 10 signing of a Charter on Strategic Partnership between Ukraine and the United States, which reasserted America’s support for Kyiv’s intention to pursue membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “Nothing was done to prepare the Ukrainians for the kind of negative response that they would get,” Service said.  For Vladimir Putin, the measure was “the last straw,” he continued. Russian preparations for possible war began the next day.

The second blunder was Putin’s underestimation of the reception an invasion would receive, both in Ukraine, and from its supporters in the West.

It was the Charter Agreement that was news to me.  I looked on the State Department site, and found it at once. Then I searched the Web for news at the time of its consequences. The best I could find was this shrewd piece by Jonathan Guyer of the news site Vox: How America’s NATO expansion obsession plays into the Ukraine crisis.

Too little attention has been paid to the origins of the war in Ukraine.

There seems to be universal agreement, outside Russia at least, that Putin was crazy to invade Ukraine.  If so, it was the same kind of crazy that led George W. Bush to successfully order US military forces to invade Iraq in 2004 – just something he was determined to do. A fearful symmetry exists between Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine and Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

There are differences between the two wars, of course, but the similarities are more striking: both invasions aimed at “regime change,” expected a welcome, encountered fierce resistance instead, and outraged world opinion.  A key difference was the domestic resistance that eventually brought the American war to an end.

The facts of America’s war in Iraq are too well-known to detain us: President Bush’s personal animosity towards Saddam Hussein (“he tried to kill my dad”); the emotional but non-existent link with the 9/11 attacks; the manufactured evidence that Iraq was developing “weapons of mass destruction;” US mainstream media’s support for the invasion; its grandiose ambitions; and disastrous consequences.

The facts of the build-up to war in Ukraine are much less well-established.

During the administration of George H. W Bush, the US offered informal assurances that, in exchange for the reunification of Germany as a member of NATO, the Cold-War military alliance would expand no further east. Then Bill Clinton defeated Bush in 1992, and, in the wake of the dissolution of the USSR, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were invited in 1994 to join the NATO pact. Russian was in no condition to object.  In 2004, seven more nations were added, including the three Baltic nations – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – the Soviet Union had incorporated by force 60 years earlier.

Russian objections to NATO expansion increased in the Nineties, then grew bold, especially after the US invaded Iraq despite Putin’s unsuccessful attempts to dissuade America’s European allies in its “coalition of the willing.”. In 2008, Russia fought a short war in Georgia to discourage that former Soviet Republic’s s aspiration to NATO membership. And in 20014, after Kyiv once again veered toward European Union and NATO membership, Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula and encouraged the formation of pro-Russia breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

Since then Putin has demanded ever more firmly than ever that NATO take off the table its offer of membership, until February 24, when he ordered Russian troops to begin their invasion. Debate about the war in Ukraine has recently taken the form of talk about realism vs. liberal internationalism, which is policy-school jargon for the difference between  taking account of one’s  rival’s views, however repugnant they may be,  as opposed to simply asserting the moral superiority of one’s own.

What’s to be said about US strategy in the matter since 1993? New York Times columnist Bret Stephens summed it up last week with a story about Ronald Reagan. “Here’s my strategy for the Cold War,” Reagan told a friend in 1977. “We win, they lose.” That was the strategy carried on by Bill Clinton the Nineties, that was continue by George Bush and Barack Obama, and reembraced by Joe Biden las year.  Stephens urged American leaders to continue to “play to win.”

But the Twenties are not like the Seventies. Reagan was confident; he could afford to be patient as well as firm. The Soviet Union was already coming apart.  Biden, on the other hand, inherited a profoundly dangerous situation, contrived by three of his predecessors and complicated by the corrupt interregnum of Donald Trump.  Could Biden have taken a (another) leaf from Trump’s book and eased up on the obsession of NATO expansion, proceeding more cautiously towards a negotiated solution. Who knows?  He didn’t. Instead, barely a year into office, Biden quietly gave Putin a slap on the face.

What about the second blunder that led to war? Putin’s underestimation of the strength of the opposition? His overconfidence that Ukrainians would lay down the arms supplied to them by NATO and accept his army’s occupation? There is, as yet, no persuasive accounting for that. The photographs seem to tell a story of a man isolated from those upon whom he depends for information.  The dispatches from Moscow describe the successful suppression of domestic opposition to the “special military operation” in Ukraine. How long can it last?  It depends on the outcome of this dreadful war.

And therein lies the key difference between George Bush’s occupation of Afghanistan and his invasion of Iraq, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  Civil society is much better established in American than in Russia. Feedback mechanisms work slowly, but they work.  Eventually even NATO expansion will come under the lens.  Whether Russia and China can recover from their own delusions of grandeur in time to cooperate in the management of the climate will remain open questions for years.

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In April 2016, I began a book about US-Russian relations in the expectation that Hillary Rodham Clinton would be elected president in November. I intended to warn against the policy toward Russia she was likely to pursue. Donald Trump was elected instead. So I spent 2017 covering Trump’s adventures, mostly with Russia, for the weekly, and writing seven new pieces for the book.

These  I combined with 29 columns that had narrated Harvard’s Russia scandal as it unfolded, and, in May 2018, sent Because They Could: The Harvard-Russia Scandal (and NATO Enlargement) after Twenty-Five Years, via Amazon’s CreateSpace, out into the world without so much as a title page.

The book contained at least one prescient sentence: “Hoping to repair the relationship [with Russia, Trump] has made it worse.”

Time flew.  When Joe Biden was elected, he installed a NATO-expanding State Department team that Mrs. Clinton herself might have chosen.  The intransigence that had worried me increased in both Washington and Moscow, leading more quickly than I imagined it might to this heartbreaking war.

Enough! So many terrific journalists are covering the US-Russia-Ukraine story with access and intelligence that I have nothing to add except skepticism, and soon I expect there will be more of that. So I will henceforth put the book and its issues behind me in order to return to the project that for two years I paused. I am not saying I’ll never write about the topic it again, but it won’t happen often.  It is back to economics for me.