Tuesday, September 09, 2014

NATO and the Ukraine crisis

Stephen Walt looks at the recent past of NATO in NATO Owes Putin a Big Thank-You Foreign Policy 09/04/2014, reminding me in the process that I wasn't so totally off-base in thinking there was a good chance the crisis over the Iraq War in 2002-3 would finish off the alliance.

His immediate point is that the Ukrainian crisis gives NATO a new mission to justify its existence:

Undertaken, like the old British Empire, in a "fit of absentmindedness," NATO expansion [after the fall of the USSR] rested on the assumption that these various guarantees would never need to be honored. It was not until the brief Russo-Georgian war of 2008 that a few Washingtonians (and a larger number of Europeans) begin to recognize that these commitments might actually involve some cost and risk. But by then it was too late, because any challenge in Eastern Europe would be seen as a test of U.S. credibility and NATO's resolve. Needless to say, this is precisely how most people -- including President Barack Obama, who has called the Ukraine crisis a "moment of testing" -- are now interpreting the tussle over Ukraine. [my emphasis]
Walt finds his "realist" assumptions surprised by the survival of NATO post-Cold War:

Until the Ukraine crisis arose, NATO looked like a nearly extinct dodo that had somehow managed to last into the 21st century.
NATO's survival after the Cold War remains something of an anomaly. Alliances normally arise in response to threats, and many previous alliances collapsed quickly once the external danger was gone. Mindful of this tendency, NATO's proponents have been searching for a convincing rationale for its continued existence ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But their efforts have been mostly stillborn; despite annual summits, earnest communiqués, and a lot of brave rhetoric, the alliance's capabilities, importance, and coherence have been visibly declining for two decades. [my emphasis]
Walt is not impressed with NATO's major military undertakings of the last two decades: "The Bosnian intervention in 1995 and the war in Kosovo in 1999 were at best partial successes; they took longer, cost more, and produced more ambiguous results than NATO's defenders like to admit. NATO's efforts in Afghanistan have been mostly a failure, and no member of the alliance wants to do anything like that again." (my emphasis)

Walt also reminds us that the expansion of NATO to the former Soviet bloc countries was a high-risk undertaking, though the American public and political elite didn't generally perceive it that way:

But as George Kennan, Michael Mandelbaum, and other experts warned in the 1990s, NATO expansion turned out to be a fundamental strategic misstep. It alienated Russia without making NATO stronger; on the contrary, expansion involved extending security guarantees to mostly weak countries that would be the hardest to defend should Russian power ever recover.
Melvin Goodman recalls Kennan's cautions on NATO expansion in The Flaw in ‘Cornering’ Russia Consortium News 03/10/2014:

In expanding NATO, the United States has been guilty of betraying a guarantee that Secretary of State James Baker gave to Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1990, when the United States stated that it would not “leapfrog” over East Germany to place U.S. military forces in East Europe in the wake of the Soviet military withdrawal from Germany. ...

President Clinton seemingly had no appreciation of the great difficulty involved in Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s acceptance of the unification of Germany and German membership in NATO in view of Russian historical memories and huge World War II losses. One of the few sources of Soviet pride in foreign policy was the Soviet defeat of the German Wehrmacht, which was the key to the U.S. and British victory on the Western front. Three-fourths of the German Army fought on the Eastern front, and three-fourths of German losses took place on the Eastern front.

U.S. diplomats and academics, particularly those with expertise in European policy and the Soviet Union such as George Kennan, made a valiant effort to convince President Clinton that the expansion of NATO was bad strategic policy. Even members of the administration, including Secretary of Defense William Perry, tried to dissuade the President from his strategic blunder. In using military power against Serbia in the late 1990s, Clinton seemed to have no idea of the long historical ties between Russia and Serbia. [my emphasis]
The Cheney-Bush Administration also contributed "to the alienation of the new Russian leadership by sponsoring NATO membership for former Soviet Republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania); abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was the cornerstone of strategic deterrence; and deploying a national missile defense system in California and Alaska," Goodman writes.

One of the continuing disputes over the origins of the Cold War was the extent to which the Soviet Union was reacting to a perception of Western encirclement after the Second World War. This discussion has echoes of that dispute.

But even assuming abundant bad will on both sides during the early years of the Cold War, the post-Cold War situation of Russia was blatantly different than that of the Post-World War II USSR. The USSR was left after the Second World War in practical military control of most of eastern Europe: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Georgia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and eastern Germany. After the Cold War, it was the US and NATO that expanded their anti-Russian military alliance to most of those countries.

In any pragmatic view, including the Realist foreign policy theory of which Walt is a leading practitioner, that expansion would have produced a defensive response from Russia sooner or later. We may even be surprised the Russian pushback took as long as it did. The Russo-Georgia War of 2008 was part of it. Their pressure on Ukraine today is another part of it.

This doesn't rule out more proximate causal factors, of course. Including neocon Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland's overt sympathy for regime change against the elected (though authoritarian) pro-Russian government of Ukraine of a few months ago. (Ed Pilkington, US official apologises to EU counterparts for undiplomatic language Guardian 02/06/2014; Top U.S. official visits protesters in Kiev as Obama admin. ups pressure on Ukraine president Yanukovich CBS News 12/11/2013)

Mark Mardell noted of Nuland's infamous "f**k the EU" comment that "it's the larger conversation, which shows the US is manipulating Ukraine just as much as Russia, that is the real diplomatic disaster." (Victoria Nuland: Leaked call shows US hand on Ukraine BBC News 02/07/2014)

See also Robert Perry's Neocons and the Ukraine Coup Consortium News 02/23/2014.

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