Melvin Goodman / CounterPunch
(December 8, 2021) — The seeds for the crisis in Ukraine were planted 25 years ago when the Clinton Administration decided to expand the North Atlantic Treaty into East Europe, accepting membership from former members of the Warsaw Pact. In doing so, Clinton turned his back on commitments from President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in 1990 not to “leap frog” over a reunified Germany in order to expand NATO.
Bush and Baker made this commitment in private discussions with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in order to gain the removal of 380,000 Soviet troops from East Germany and several East European states. Without this compromise, the reunification of Germany would not have been free of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.
If the United States could find a way to acknowledge this betrayal and to concede that additional membership for Ukraine and Georgia would threaten Russia’s geopolitical universe, it would be possible to pursue a compromise to the current crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin reasonably wants guarantees that NATO must halt its eastward expansion and not deploy certain weapons systems on its borders.
In return, the United States should insist on the return to the Minsk II agreement in 2015 that was designed to ensure a bilateral ceasefire, to create security zones on the border between Ukraine and Russia, and to decentralize political power in eastern Ukraine (the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions). Russia would be required to withdraw all foreign mercenaries from the regions.
Washington and Moscow were able to create a process for removing nuclear weapons from Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991; they should be able to find a compromise that recognizes Ukraine’s sovereignty but limits the Western military presence on Russia’s borders. Arms control negotiations opened the door to Soviet-American detente in the 1980s. A compromise on Ukraine would allow for improved bilateral relations in key areas between the United States and Russia.
Putin is not looking for either territorial gain or a revival of the Soviet empire in East and Central Europe, but the mainstream media is convinced that Putin is preparing a Russian military invasion of Ukraine that would destabilize all of Europe.
An editorial in the Washington Post last week, pointed to the 90,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine as well as the seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Post and other major newspapers seen convinced that only the “political, economic, and military strength” of the United States will allow a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Media commentary cites Putin’s reference to the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe.” They fail to mention Putin’s view that, while it would take “no heart not to regret the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” it would take “no brain to believe that the Soviet Union could be reestablished.”
More importantly, the media fail to mention US responsibility for the current tempest, which can be attributed to the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that unwisely expanded NATO, bringing Russia’s immediate neighbors and even former Soviet republics into an alliance that now has 30 members.
ÓNATO expansion is the major irritant in Russian-American relations and the leading cause of what appears to be the start of a new Cold War. Gorbachev’s willingness to accept German reunification without security guarantees explains the Russian vilification of Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze to this day. US wholesale exploitation of Russian weakness in the 1990s explains Putin’s adamant insistence on calling a halt to the Western advance.
The United States has taken additional gratuitous steps on Russia’s doorstep over the past two decades. The administrations of Bush and Obama deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system in Poland and Romania, arguing that it was needed to counter a possible Iranian missile attack in Eastern Europe.
Such nonsense! The US and British navies continue to deploy naval combatants in the Black Sea that threaten to enter Russian territorial waters. Various NATO members in East Europe and the Baltics are requesting additional Western military systems as well as a permanent US military presence. The presence of German military forces in the Baltics is a particular affront to Russia’s legitimate concerns about its safety and sovereignty.
President Joe Biden appears no wiser than his four predecessors. He met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in September, and they signed a “Joint Statement on US-Ukraine Strategic Partnership.” He sent Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Kiev in October to emphasize the importance of the “strategic partnership.” Austin’s references to a “best case” that means “we won’t see an incursion by the Soviet Union in Ukraine” is the kind of Freudian slip that reveals the Cold War thinking of Biden’s national security team.
Currently, a team from the US Air Force is in Kiev to assess Ukraine’s air defense requirements, and last week, US nuclear-capable bombers were flying over the Black Sea, posing a threat to Russia. It doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate the US reaction to Russian strategic aircraft and naval combatants operating in the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean.
Sending Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, an intense anti-Russian apparatchik, to Moscow to discuss the issue of Ukraine also points to the “group think” in Biden’s national security team. Nuland is well known for her meddling in Ukrainian politics prior to the Russian seizure of Crimea. When she was told that our European allies have problems with our hard line on Ukraine, her response on a cellphone conversation was “Fuck the EU.”
Naming Nuland to the Department of State in the first place indicated that the Biden administration was tone deaf; sending her to Russia in the current circumstances is worse. Or perhaps Biden genuinely believes that facing off with Russia over Ukraine plays to the political benefit of the United States.
Reinhold Niebuhr concluded that one of the greatest challenges in international relations was “finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.” The expansion of NATO and the Russian annexation of Crimea have created one of these problems. It will be dangerous if the “group think” of Biden’s national security team — particularly the lack of any understanding of Russia’s “instinctive sense of insecurity” — prevents a diplomatic solution.
There is a Russian proverb that Biden’s national security team should take into account. “Don’t try to skin the Russian bear before it is dead.”
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump (Opus Publishing, 2019) and Containing the National Security State (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
The Best-case Scenario in Ukraine
Rather than risking war, the US would be wise
to accept neutrality for Russia’s western neighbor
(December 2, 2021) — Soldiers swarmed over the tarmac of an airport in Ukraine for several days in mid-November. They were unloading 80 tons of American weaponry. As they worked, Ukraine’s defense minister was being welcomed with an “enhanced honor cordon” at the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pledged that the United States would give Ukraine “unwavering support” in its suddenly escalating confrontation with Russia.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Russian troops have massed near the Russia-Ukraine border. Ukrainian troops are massed on their side. Some in Washington fear that war is approaching. Pledges like Secretary Austin’s suggest that the United States could be drawn into it. That would be disastrous.
Ukraine has a 1,300-mile border with Russia, so Russia sees the possibility of it allying with the United States much as we would see a foreign-allied Mexico. It is half a world away from American shores and has little strategic value for us other than as a tool against Russia. Our arms shipments and pledges of unlimited support send a dangerously misleading message to our Ukrainian friends. Despite all our bluster, the United States would be highly unlikely to send troops to support Ukraine in a war with Russia. Instead, we should promote a settlement that would turn Ukraine into a Slavic version of Finland or Austria: open to all, West-oriented if its people so desire, but militarily neutral.
Today’s Ukraine emerged 30 years ago from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. Its current leaders are strongly anti-Russian and would like to bring Ukraine into the US-dominated NATO military alliance. Russia says it will do whatever is necessary to prevent that. Since 2014, Russian troops have occupied two pieces of Ukraine that are inhabited mainly by Russian speakers, including the strategic Crimean Peninsula. Ukraine threatens to seize them back. Russia may try to take more. Rather than seek to calm this dispute, the United States is pouring gasoline on the smoldering embers.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently called the US commitment to Ukraine “ironclad.” Note to President Volodymyr Zelensky: Don’t take him literally. Going to war on the presumption that the United States will send troops or gunships to fight Russia would be a grave miscalculation. It’s good to reassure your friends, but if war breaks out, this promise is likely to prove falser than vows made in wine.
Russia has strong reasons for restraint. If it invaded Ukraine, it would certainly suffer heavy sanctions from the European Union. In some areas, its ground forces would encounter fierce resistance. Even if successful, Russia would have a hard time controlling a country that is twice the size of Britain.
For the United States, the list of dangers is even longer. Countering a Russian force on the battlefield in Ukraine would require large deployments, produce casualties, and quite possibly result in defeat. War would create economic upheaval across Europe and distract Congress from President Biden’s cherished domestic agenda. The big winner would likely be the Chinese, since isolation from the West would all but force Russia into their arms. China could even decide that with the United States at war with Russia, the time would be right to strike against Taiwan.
Despite this shared interest in peace, both sides are engaged in high-stakes geopolitical gambling. Russia holds better cards. It cares far more about Ukraine than we do, and it is willing to sacrifice far more to secure its position there. “If some kind of strike systems appear on the territory of Ukraine, the flight time to Moscow will be 7-10 minutes, and five minutes in the case of a hypersonic weapon being deployed. Just imagine,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday. “What are we to do in such a scenario? We will have to then create something similar in relation to those who threaten us in
Ukraine is hardly the first European country to find itself torn between East and West. During World War II, the Soviet Union failed to overrun Finland and settled for an accord guaranteeing Finnish neutrality. Over the decades that followed, Finland studiously avoided provoking Moscow. It did not participate in US-sponsored projects like the Marshall Plan and did not join NATO. In exchange for this deference, the Soviets generally respected Finland’s independence and democracy.
A similar arrangement shaped Austria. American and Soviet troops that occupied the country after World War II withdrew in 1955. As part of the deal, which took years to negotiate, a declaration of “permanent neutrality” was added to the Austrian constitution. “In all future times,” it says, “Austria will not join any military alliances and will not permit the establishment of any foreign military bases on her territory.”
President Eisenhower didn’t like this deal. He wanted Austria to be on our side, not neutral. Today many in Washington feel the same way about Ukraine. They see it as a valuable chess piece in our campaign against Russia. Allowing it to be neutralized would end this contest without victory. In the United States, where the “will to win” is deeply ingrained in both security policy and collective consciousness, that feels close to defeat.
In fact, it would be the opposite.
The greatest defeat the United States could suffer in Ukraine is to be drawn into war there. An accord that Russia and Ukraine signed in 2015 provides a basis for peace, but it is languishing. Now, as war drums beat, is the time to revive it. Eisenhower swallowed hard and accepted permanent neutrality for Austria. Biden should follow his example and seek the same for Ukraine.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.