The whys and whats of Ukraine crisis – We are today facing an avoidable crisis between the United States and Russia that was predictable, deliberate, but easily solvable with common sense.
But how did we get to this point?
Allow me to inject a little history into the current crisis. Every day before 24 February 2022, we learned that war in Ukraine could be imminent. Russian troops, we were told, were massing on Ukraine’s borders and could attack at any time. American citizens have been advised to leave Ukraine and relatives of American embassy staff have been
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian president has advised against panic and made it clear that he does not believe a Russian invasion is imminent. Vladimir Putin has denied that he intends to invade Ukraine. He is demanding that the process of accepting new members into NATO be halted and that Russia be given assurances that Ukraine and Georgia will never become members.
President Biden has refused to give such an assurance, but has made it clear that he is willing to discuss further issues of strategic stability in Europe. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has made clear that it has no intention of implementing the 2015 agreement to reunite the Donbass provinces with Ukraine with a high degree of local autonomy – an agreement with Russia, France and Germany that the United States agreed to.
Was this crisis avoidable?
Recently I have learned some insights from a key American official knowledgeable of the history involved. He is Jack Matlock. He was a Russia expert at the National Security Council, Director of the Soviet Affairs in the Department of State and finally served as the US Ambassador in Moscow as the Soviet Union was in the throes of coming to an end. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many observers mistakenly believed they were witnessing the end of the Cold War, when in fact it had ended at least two years earlier through negotiation and was in the interest of all parties.
President George H.W. Bush hoped that Gorbachev would succeed in keeping most of the 12 non-Baltic republics in a voluntary federation.
Since Putin’s main demand is an assurance that NATO will not admit any more members, especially Ukraine or Georgia, there would obviously have been no basis for the current crisis if there had been no enlargement of the Alliance after the end of the Cold War, or if enlargement had taken place in line with building a security structure in Europe that included Russia.
Was this crisis foreseeable?
Absolutely. NATO enlargement was the biggest strategic mistake made since the end of the Cold War.
I think the administration’s recommendation to admit new members to NATO at this time is misguided. If adopted by the United States Senate, it could go down in history as the biggest strategic mistake made since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the nuclear arsenals are capable of ending civilization on Earth the way we know it.
If NATO is to be the main instrument for unifying the continent, then logically it can only do so by expanding to include all European countries. But that does not seem to be the goal of the US government, and even if it were, it cannot be achieved by accepting new members piecemeal.
The decision to expand NATO piecemeal was a reversal of the American policy that brought about the end of the Cold War. President George H.W. Bush had proclaimed the goal of a “complete and free Europe”. Gorbachev had spoken of “our common European home”, welcomed representatives of Eastern European governments that had broken away from their communist rulers, and ordered a radical reduction of Soviet forces, declaring that a country could only be secure if there was security for all.
President Bush also assured Gorbachev at their meeting in Malta in December 1989 that the United States would not “exploit” this process if the countries of Eastern Europe could choose their future direction through a democratic process. (The admission to NATO of countries that were then members of the Warsaw Pact would, of course, be “taking advantage”). Gorbachev was assured, though not in a formal treaty, that if a united Germany was allowed to remain in NATO, there would be no shift of NATO jurisdiction eastwards, “not one inch”. In the spirit of friendship, Gorbachev took them at their word.
These statements were made to Gorbachev before the Soviet Union broke apart. After the collapse, the Russian Federation had less than half the population of the Soviet Union and a demoralized and completely shattered military. While there was no reason to expand NATO after the Soviet Union recognized and respected the independence of Eastern European countries, there was even less reason to fear the Russian Federation as a threat.
Was this crisis deliberate?
Unfortunately, the policies of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have helped bring us to this point.
The admission of Eastern European countries to NATO started with the administration of Bill Clinton and through the activities of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright continued under the George W. Bush administration, but that was not the only thing that aroused Russian objection. At the same time, the United States began to withdraw from the arms control treaties that had for a time put the brakes on an irrational and dangerous arms race and formed the basis for ending the Cold War. Most important was the decision to withdraw from the Treaty on the Elimination of Ballistic Missiles, which had laid the foundation for a series of agreements that brought the nuclear arms race to a halt for a time.
After 9/11, Putin was the first foreign leader to call President Bush and offer his support. He kept his word and facilitated the attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At that point, it was clear that Putin was seeking a security partnership with the United States, because the jihadist terrorists who were targeting the United States were also targeting Russia. Nevertheless, Washington continued its course of ignoring Russian (and also allied) interests by invading Iraq, an act of aggression that not only Russia but also France and Germany opposed.
Although President Obama initially promised to improve relations through his “reset” policy, the reality showed that his administration continued to ignore the most serious Russian concerns and duplicated earlier American efforts to disengage former Soviet republics from Russian influence and even to promote “regime change” in Russia itself. American actions in Syria and Ukraine were seen by the Russian president and most Russians as indirect attacks on them.
And as for Ukraine, the US interfered deeply in the country’s domestic politics and actively supported the revolution and overthrew the elected Ukrainian government in February 2014, the Maidan rebellion was born.
Relations continued to deteriorate during President Obama’s first term particularly through activities of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Things deteriorated further during Donald Trump’s four years in office. Trump, accused of being a Russian fool, passed every anti-Russian measure that came his way, while at the same time flattering Putin as a great leader.
Can the crisis be solved by applying common sense?
Have we so quickly forgotten the lesson of the Cuban missile crisis?? It was solved through effective negotiation. At this stage this will not be an easy task because things have deteriorated so much. So far there has never been an attempt by a neutral party to bring the warring sides to negotiation. Each time it has been tried it has been by partisans who have their own stakes in things. Switzerland with its rich history of neutrality is in a far better position than any of the others. I am personally cooperating with the Neutrality Initiative to help achieve this noble goal.
* Pascal Najadi is an international investment banker and, as a director of the Dresdner Bank Group, London, was responsible for Central Asia, Russia, Africa, Central Europe and the Middle East. He is interested in international affairs and civic debate in Switzerland. He also produced the film “Grounding” about the bankruptcy of Swissair. He currently lives in Switzerland in retirement.