March 1, 2022
In my last post, I said that President Putin would probably resist ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine because a bloody conflict will zero out his theory about the Russians and Ukrainians being one people. I proved wrong. It seems that the risks of leaving lasting scars on the Ukrainian psyche, the potential loss of life, and suffering did not stop him. Thus, despite repeated denials of any intention to take military action, President Putin ordered a premeditated full-scale invasion of Ukraine in defiance of international law, the UN Charter, and Russia’s own definition of the so-called rules-based international order. In the long term, even the people of Russia may see this invasion, not as a glorious conquest but as a sad chapter of Russian history.
President Putin has criticized NATO for the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. The bombing he referred to came four years after the massacre of more than 7000 Bosnian boys and men in April 1995, in Srebrenica.
In a recent article Thomas Friedman of the New York Times tells us how he had reached out to George Kennan on May 2, 1998, to get his reaction to the Senate’s ratification of NATO expansion.[i] This was a day after the US Senate overwhelmingly approved the NATO membership of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, the first wave of Alliance expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Friedman refers to George Kennan as “the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union and one of the great American statesmen of the 20th century”, an opinion shared by many. This was Mr. Kennan’s reaction:
”I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. ”I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”
”What bothers me is how superficial and ill-informed the whole Senate debate was,” added Mr. Kennan, who was present at the creation of NATO and whose anonymous 1947 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, signed ”X,” defined America’s cold-war containment policy for 40 years. ”I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.
”And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia,” said Mr. Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in 1952. ”It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”
These were words of wisdom and one can only wish that history could have been written differently. However, past failures do not justify the Russian invasion since Ukraine’s joining the Alliance was not a possibility in the foreseeable future, regardless of what was said in the 2008 Bucharest communique.
President Putin has kept the world on edge for months and that still is the case. The immediate question is where would he stop? Would more bloodshed stop him? Would he annex Donbas, link the region with Crimea, and cut Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov? Would he install a puppet government in Kyiv and order it to join the Union State with Russia and Belarus? Is this just about preventing further NATO expansion or more? Nobody knows. But his more often than not references to Russians in Ukraine must have led to growing concern in countries with Russian minorities. He has blamed communist Russia for creating Ukraine after the Bolshevik revolution “in the sloppiest way in relation to Russia”, but he is following the example of communist Russia’s suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Two years thereafter, Prime Minister Imre Nagy was executed for “treason”.
I have repeatedly referred to “President Putin’s decisions” because Foreign Minister Lavrov said, a month ago during an interview, that once Washington’s and NATO’s written responses to Russia’s treaty proposals were received, he and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu would report to President Putin because they were acting on his direct instructions – this was his initiative.[ii] Surely, both Ministers are acting under the instructions of President Putin. Nonetheless, Mr. Lavrov’s underlining that this is his initiative has attracted my attention.
The reality is Ukrainians are alone. It has been made clear all along that Ukraine was not NATO territory, that the Alliance would not send troops there in the event of an invasion. So, the question is how Ukraine ended up being invaded by Russia. The answer, despite differences in language, appears to be the widespread admission that Kyiv was encouraged to take a too pro-Western, too pro-NATO stand, thus it overreached itself, and then was left to its devices in confronting Mr. Putin. Some add, “despite the lessons of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war”. Ukraine’s leaders should have been in a better position than those in the West to know that Moscow would not let them go easily. They could have waited longer to voice their aspirations to join the EU, for the post-Cold War European security architecture to evolve, and for Russia to digest the loss of an empire and waves of NATO expansion.
For months, the US has been threatening Moscow with harsh, massive sanctions on an unprecedented scale. These are now taking shape and must have surprised the Kremlin. Certain Russian banks have been expelled from SWIFT. Moreover, the German government has announced that it will send 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 “Stinger” class surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine. The Netherlands has also decided to send anti-tank weapons. And the US has announced 350 million dollars worth of defense assistance to Ukraine for a package that will include further lethal defensive assistance to address the armored, airborne, and other threats it is currently faced with. The EU has closed its airspace to Russian aircraft.
In announcing these measures, the challenge for the US and European countries is not the financial cost of such support but walking a fine line between providing Ukraine with defense assistance and not provoking President Putin to widen the scope of his military assault. This is a delicate balancing act. Because more Western military involvement in the conflict may blunt whatever domestic opposition may emerge to the invasion in Russia. President Putin should admit that pushing too far for Ukraine’s surrender would surely backfire in the long term. The fierce propaganda war between Russia and the West may continue, but what is clear is that this conflict would end with no winners, and the most to suffer would unfortunately be the Ukrainians. Presidents Biden and Putin must understand that their people do not want a prolonged confrontation. They do not want the conflict to turn into a show of domestic and external power. What they want is to put the pandemic behind and turn to global economic recovery.
As for China, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin said that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and upheld. “At the same time, we recognize that the Ukraine issue has a complex and special historical context and understand Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues. China maintains that all should discard the Cold War mentality and eventually put in place a balanced, effective, and sustainable European security mechanism through dialogue and negotiation,” he added. In response to a question, he also said, “The truly discredited countries are those that wantonly interfere in other countries’ internal affairs and wage wars in the name of democracy and human rights.” This was an allusion to the US invasion of Iraq and Western regime change projects in the Middle East.
With the Russian assault on Ukraine, the Montreux Convention has also come under focus.[iii] Ankara has now closed the Turkish Straits to all warships. The Montreux Convention is not just about the technicalities of passage through the Turkish Straits. It is a regional security arrangement that has prevented the Black Sea from becoming a conflict zone even during the Cold War. It is a pillar of Turkish security, the honest and transparent implementation of which has earned Turkey international respect. Thus, it is more than a foreign policy tool.[iii]
Turkey should also extend more humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine.
I cannot but admire the courage, the calm, and the poise of the people of Ukraine in the face of a major military assault. All along I have strongly disapproved of some Western media references to President Zelensky as the “comedian president”, regardless of the words of praise which followed. Now, it appears that these are no longer in use.