Russia: Bruised Feelings or Self-Inflicted Pain?

Donald Blinken (Ambassador to Hungary, 1994-1998)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Blinken’s January 13, 2015 special to to The Huffington Post.

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Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, Russia’s is using complaints of humiliation by the West to support its seizure of the Crimea, its military presence in Eastern Ukraine, and its provocations in the Baltics.

One of the chief abuses Moscow cites it is the eastward expansion of NATO. In fact, however, expanding NATO has enhanced Russia’s security by extending the frontiers of stability. Since the 1990s, peace and quiet have prevailed along the NATO-Russian border. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland – much less any of the Baltic states – were not, and are not, about to invade Russia. Meanwhile, the terrorist attacks suffered by Russia over the past two decades have all come from places to the east, like Chechnya and other former Islamic states of the USSR.

Nevertheless, Russia’s complaint about its humiliation at Western hands is being taken seriously in many circles, particularly this version of history: Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the U.S. and its allies deceived then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev by promising him that a reunited Germany would not join NATO, nor would Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) be offered NATO membership.

It is a cleverly concocted story, but the facts say otherwise.

Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was a major participant in the events of 1989-90, made precisely that point when he was honored in October by the American Academy in Berlin. In the course of an interview before some 200 guests he was asked about “the claim that in 1990 promises were made by the West, by the United States, by you” to the Soviets. Baker replied:

“When we first started talking about German unification with the Soviets…we said what if we agree that NATO’s jurisdiction would not be extended eastward? Three days later, well, nobody picked up on that. President Gorbachev didn’t say, ‘Fine, we’ll do it, we’ll take that and put it in our bank.’ Three days later, the United States changed its policy, and we did so publically, and there was never one complaint from the Soviet Union. Why did we change our policy? Because it didn’t make sense to have half a country in NATO and the other half out of NATO, and so it wasn’t a workable solution. Never once did the Soviet’s complain.”

“And then we had a treaty that the Soviets signed that actually permitted the unification of Germany as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with one caveat, that there would not be, for a period of time – I don’t know whether it was three years or something – no forces other than the Bundeswehr on the territory of the GDR.”

“In May of 1990 President Gorbachev came to the White House and President [George H.W.] Bush asked him this question: ‘Do you think that a country should have the right to choose the alliance to which it wants to belong? And Gorbachev said yes. So the obvious answer to that is Germany can choose which one. Well Germany chose NATO.”

As it turned out, the reunited Germany waited three years to accept a full NATO presence, and Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were proposed as members in 1996 and joined at the turn of the century.

I was the American Ambassador to Hungary in 1996 under President Clinton and welcomed this expansion of NATO. My reasoning, and that of the administration, was that the U.S. had a moral obligation to help the former Soviet satellites make the transition to stable democracies, and that enlargement of NATO eastward would offer them the same political, economic, social, environmental and human rights benefits that the alliance had brought to Western Europe nearly half a century before.

Russia was fully informed of these developments and was given a clear and open window through which to observe NATO’s plans and activities. These included a Russian presence at NATO meetings as well as its willingness to join NATO’s 1996 peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. I was privileged to visit a Russian battalion stationed there as part of NATO’s presence. The Russians I spoke to did not appear humiliated, but rather were proud to join in this important endeavor.

By joining cooperative alliances, including a revitalized NATO and an enlarged European Union, the Germans, the Central Europeans, and the Baltic states seized the moment. The Russians, however, failed to take advantage of a free and peaceful Europe by embracing a constructive relationship with NATO. Their “humiliation” is self- inflicted.

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