May 31, 2018


The Roots of Russian Aggression (JAMES KIRCHICK, May 24, 2018, National Review)

Long before the collapse of their empire, Soviet leaders endorsed this conception of state sovereignty by signing the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which committed signatories to respect one another's "sovereign equality," the "inviolability of frontiers," the "territorial integrity of states," "non-intervention in internal affairs," and the "peaceful settlement of disputes." Collectively, these resolutions constituted the act's "first basket" of agreements. The second basket incorporated trade and scientific cooperation, while the third committed states to uphold human rights, freedom of emigration, and freedom of the press. At the time, the Soviets were eager for such an agreement because it essentially legitimized their post-war domination of Central and Eastern Europe, where they had installed Communist puppet regimes (which, along with the United States and its Western allies, were also party to the Helsinki accords). While the Eastern Bloc governments had no intention of actually upholding the act's "third basket," their formal recognition of it came back to haunt them in the form of dissidents who cited these written commitments in making their case for great political freedom. So, too, were the Soviets and their allies taken by surprise when national independence movements referenced the act's sovereignty provisions to expose the fundamental illegitimacy of the Warsaw Pact, all along a fa├žade for Russian colonialism. That the Soviets (and, later, Russians) never intended to take the human-rights and sovereignty provisions of the Final Act seriously is a repudiation not of the Final Act itself but of the leaders who disingenuously signed it.

Soviet leaders again endorsed the principle of national sovereignty when, in 1989, they supplanted the Brezhnev Doctrine, which permitted Warsaw Pact countries to intervene militarily against "forces hostile to socialism" in other member nations, with the "Sinatra Doctrine," whereby Eastern Bloc states could do it their way. Though it was not Gorbachev's intention, this momentous decision ultimately led to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The first post-Cold War conflict to erupt between Russia and the West was in the Balkans, where the United States and its allies intervened militarily to avert ethnic cleansing carried out by Moscow's traditional ally, the Serbs. Confronting internal economic and political instability, and prosecuting a scorched-earth war in Chechnya, Russia was in no position to challenge NATO in the former Yugoslavia. This inability to contest Western intervention in what Moscow considered its imperial backyard bred feelings of resentment among a rising generation of Russian nationalists, who would later choose to fixate on the Western military alliance as the greatest threat to Russian security.

The subject of NATO's post-Cold War enlargement, and more specifically the false claim that Western leaders promised their Soviet counterparts that NATO would refrain from incorporating new members, has won credibility of late. Particularly after the Ukraine crisis, Russia's Western sycophants, seeking to justify Putin's aggression, trotted out the claim that NATO's "encircling" of Russia had somehow forced Putin into invading his neighbors. It is remarkable how pervasive this narrative has become. Touring the United States over the past year to promote my book about Europe, I have never addressed an audience in which someone did not mention, if not endorse, this argument.

Assertions of Western "triumphalism" with regard to NATO enlargement gained strength in December when an outfit called the National Security Archive at George Washington University selectively published a series of recently declassified U.S.-government documents purporting to show, once and for all, that Western leaders had indeed offered their Soviet interlocutors a "cascade of assurances" that NATO would not expand. Despite its official-sounding name, the National Security Archive is a left-wing organization committed to exposing the Cold War sins, real or alleged, of America through the highly selective publishing of tendentiously presented documents, and nothing in the latest dump tells us anything new. As is already known, James Baker, then the secretary of state, promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "one inch eastward." The archive attempts to embellish this statement by releasing some extraneous once-classified documents. But Baker made that pledge solely in the context of East Germany, a country that, like the Soviet Union, would soon cease to exist. At the time, it was inconceivable that places such as Poland or Czechoslovakia (another state not long for this world), never mind the soon-to-be independent Soviet Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, might one day join NATO.

Russia and its Western apologists can offer no evidence of a promise not to enlarge NATO, because such a promise was never made. Gorbachev should have the final word on this matter: "The topic of 'NATO expansion' was not discussed at all, and it wasn't brought up in those years," he said in October 2014. "I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991." Only years later would the prospect of former Warsaw Pact states' joining NATO become a subject of more than academic discussion, when the alliance offered membership to Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. In 1997, all three joined.

But relitigating what assurances the West did or did not make to the collapsing Soviet Union about NATO's future status is a distraction from the more fundamental question: What right does Russia have to decide whether its former satrapies can join a defensive military alliance of their own free will? In the words of the former State Department official Kirk Bennet, "NATO enlargement was driven by demand, not supply." The newly independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe all desperately wanted to join NATO, and given their histories with Russia, it's not hard to understand why. The practice of invading European neighbors because they stray from the true socialist path -- employed by the Russians in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively -- is a model of interstate behavior that was supposed to have been forever discredited with the collapse of the Soviet Union. (As events in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine six years later demonstrate, however, it has unfortunately been revived.)

The principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity initially laid out in the Helsinki Final Act were later enshrined in the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe, agreed to by the Soviet Union and, following its dissolution, its legal successor state, the Russian Federation. In 1994, Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum with Ukraine, Great Britain, and the United States, which saw Kiev surrender its ample nuclear-weapons stockpile to Moscow in exchange for guarantees of its territorial integrity. As with practically every understanding it signed in the post-Cold War period, Russia later violated this pledge. [...]

Our present-day problems with Russia stem from two utterly different, and fundamentally irreconcilable, understandings of what the end of the Cold War meant. It wasn't just a side that lost but a whole understanding of how the world should work. From the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to the Sudeten crisis to the division of Germany, most of the 20th century's major conflicts erupted over border disputes in Central and Eastern Europe. Vladimir Putin's refusal to acknowledge that small countries have the same rights as larger ones has pitted a rules-abiding West against a rules-flouting Russia. Faced with neighbors wishing to break free of their post-imperial yoke, Russians have not paused to consider that maybe it's their behavior, past and present, that has led the former "captive nations" to be wary of Moscow's designs. Rather, Russians have internalized, in the words of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, the attitude that "nobody likes us, what's wrong with everybody?" For Western policymakers to endorse such myopia is like giving car keys to a drunk.    

No one asked if Russia wanted to redefine sovereignty and no one cares that they don't.

Posted by at May 31, 2018 4:44 AM