The Flaw in ‘Cornering’ Russia

Official Washington, including its compliant mainstream media, paints Moscow as the “black hat” in the Ukraine crisis but the fuller picture would show that the supposed U.S. “white hats” are the ones who have violated the deal that ended the Cold War, writes ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman.

By Melvin A. Goodman

Twenty years ago, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union marked a virtual end to the long-standing military and ideological threat that Moscow represented to the United States.

Yet, instead of “anchoring” Russia to the political and economic architecture of the Western alliance system, which George F. Kennan’s “containment doctrine” endorsed, successive U.S. administrations have not only kept the Kremlin at arm’s length but have drawn the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) closer to Russia itself. This is central to the current crisis over Crimea.

U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan who is credited with devising the strategy of deterrence against the Soviet Union after World War II.

U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan who is credited with devising the strategy of deterrence against the Soviet Union after World War II.

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.

The administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ignored that commitment when the United States sponsored the entry of eight former Warsaw Pact members as well as three former Soviet Republics into NATO. The Obama administration, meanwhile, appears ignorant of the geopolitical context of its foreign policies, which have not taken this betrayal into account in the Crimean crisis.

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.

President Bush made further significant contributions 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.

The Bush administration’s disdain for multilateral diplomacy and arms control, as well as its reliance on the use of force, particularly the unnecessary war against Iraq, angered the Russian leadership as well as many European leaders. President Bush explained that national missile defense as well as the regional missile defense in East Europe would not be aimed at Russia, but rather  the “world’s least-responsible states,” which the President did not name. Of course, no one in the Kremlin believed him.

While a warning to Russia, the Bush administration was a welcome relief to the neoconservative community. The appointment of right-wing ideologues who brandished a deep animosity to the Russian state included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, CIA Director Porter Goss as well as such Pentagon luminaries as Douglas Feith, William Luti, and Abram Shulsky.

In his memoir Duty, Gates prides himself for opposing any improved relations with Russia, since “making the Russians happy wasn’t exactly on my to-do list.” During meetings with his Russian military counterparts, Gates passed a childish and churlish note to Secretary of State Condi Rice stating “I’d forgotten how much I really don’t like these guys.” President Bush even favored the expansion of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia, and U.S. military support for Georgia played a significant role in the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

President Obama initially received some credit for pushing the “reset” button in relations with Russia, but it was soon obvious that the button was simply symbolic and that no effort was being made to institutionalize bilateral relations. The Obama administration also ignored Secretary of State Baker’s verbal commitment against “leapfrogging” over a united Germany by basing U.S. fighter jets in Poland as well as favoring the deployment of a sophisticated regional missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. He is using the Crimea crisis to base additional fighter jets in Poland and is considering the expansion of fighter patrols over the Baltic States.

At present, there is no U.S. ambassador in Russia, and Secretary of State John Kerry has been holding talks with his Russian counterpart without any senior Russian experts at his side. The intemperate remarks of Kerry’s assistant secretary of state for European affairs last month as the crisis in Kiev was worsening speaks to the lack of diplomatic experience at Foggy Bottom.

During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union played a key role in convincing President John F. Kennedy that, if the United States gave Moscow some diplomatic room, the Kremlin would find a way to withdraw its missiles and bombers from Cuba and thus avoid a military confrontation.

In the Crimean crisis, President Obama seems to be unnecessarily accommodating the right-wing criticism of his administration from politicians and pundits instead of finding a diplomatic solution to the current imbroglio. If the United States offered guarantees against the further expansion of NATO and invited Russia to take part in a multilateral economic aid program for beleaguered Ukraine, then it is possible that President Vladimir Putin would find a way to lower the Russian military presence in the Crimea.

In the meantime, the U.S. reliance on modest military steps, travel bans and economic sanctions will not bring any favorable change to the situation on the ground in Crimea. These steps will only worsen the crisis in the Ukraine and ensure that the United States and Russia cannot discuss important geopolitical matters on arms control and disarmament, nonproliferation and counter-terrorism, which finds them essentially in agreement.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and an adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. He was a CIA analyst from 1966 to 1990, and a professor of international security at the National War College from 1986 to 2004.  His most recent books include National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism and The Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. [This article previously appeared at Counterpunch and is reprinted with the author’s permission.] 

14 comments for “The Flaw in ‘Cornering’ Russia

  1. March 15, 2014 at 15:03

    “If the United States offered guarantees against the further expansion of NATO and invited Russia to take part in a multilateral economic aid program for beleaguered Ukraine, then it is possible that President Vladimir Putin would find a way to lower the Russian military presence in the Crimea.”

    As the article points out, that bridge has already been burned. Nobody over the age of 15 would believe such guarantees after our recent history.

    However given the flexibility of the domestic media these days, there is plenty of room left to wiggle out of our cold war posture and just let Russia formalize their popular control of Crimea in exchange for something, such as Russia’s recognition a pro-western government in Kiev. We could further sweeten the deal by asking our Ukranians partners to disown their neo-Nazi wing, which would help re-establish our sanity in the eyes of our European allies, who must be quite annoyed by yet another random episode of our dart-board diplomacy.

    Anyhow, a great article- Thanks!

  2. March 12, 2014 at 19:19

    Here’s an easy way to end all hostilities and pretexts for wars in Eastern Europe: Invite Russia to become a member of NATO. Convert weapons manufacturers to produce farm equipment and military vehicles into transport for trade. Everyone wins.

    • Elijah_John
      March 18, 2014 at 23:21

      Kate for Secretary of State!

      Anybody second that?

  3. Henk Middelraad
    March 12, 2014 at 05:07

    Excellent article Melvin !!!
    Do you remember me sending you articles on the application of para-psychology for diplomatic and peaceful use in international relations?
    It is more than time to stop the international war mongering activities orchestrated by the elites in this world that apparently don’t have proper background knowledge for making useful decisions.

  4. incontinent reader
    March 12, 2014 at 04:06

    Superb article.

  5. Michigan
    March 12, 2014 at 03:56

    “If the United States offered guarantees against the further expansion of NATO … President Vladimir Putin would find a way to lower the Russian military presence in the Crimea.”

    Forget “if” and and get real. The intention of the Anglo-Zionist empire is a total takeover of the globe. These maniacs will keep pushing the boundaries as far as they can unless and until someone like Putin stops them in their tracks (and then they’ll try again another time). It’s clear to me that expansion of NATO and pushing the Russians out of their Crimea base (immediately suggested by the Kyiv regime) was always the goal. Why in the hell would Putin even dream of backing off on Crimea? I wouldn’t. It’s as good as a done deal, now. After the referendum, I hope Putin sends Nuland flowers with a thank you note.

    Never in my life have I had so much disgust for this DC gang – and that’s saying a lot after Bush, Clinton, Bush. Egyptians have righteous contempt for the US, now, Libya has been destroyed and left to Islamic warlords, Gaddafi murdered – over which that psychopathic hag, Hillary, cackled – and Syria! flooded with insane jihadists, backed by the US and “allies”, nearly became the flashpoint for WWIII, all thanks to Mr Nobel Peace Prize and his administration of thugs. Thank God, the Russians outfoxed them on that, too.

    The US is an empire in decline and at it’s most dangerous. I really fear what stupidity may be pulled next by these fools. The criminals in Washington should be locked up along with the lying media presstitutes who do their bidding.

    • L.A.
      March 12, 2014 at 21:40

      Thank you Michigan!

  6. rosemerry
    March 11, 2014 at 16:43

    The USA offers nothing and cares not at all for anyone else, being proud of its historical ignorance. NATO enables constant warfare and is against any attempts at peace. Not only should the expansion of NATO never have occurred but NATO, like the Warsaw Pact, no longer needed, should have been broken up. Peace would be welcome, and negotiations are essential for that.

  7. Joe Tedesky
    March 10, 2014 at 23:41

    Khrushchev said, “We will bury you”, sounded scary to Americans when we first heard him. What he was speaking to was how the west would basically screw ourselves with capitalism. Thus he would bury all of us…since we all killed each other over money.

    Since we slowed downed the printing press I/e QE whatever number we are on, this has put a weight on the BRIC nation economy’s. My question, between all these nations who we are pissing off, how long until they unite against us. Maybe us and Israel to that fact. In fact, how many nations could be sanctioned until they are a enough to form a union?

    For to long our government’s foreign policies have relied on covert operations, and military processes. There is never any accountability to no one, ever. It would be funny if it weren’t that fact these same crazies have the largest military and have the biggest nuclear arsenal of all. See why we make great deal makers!

    It would be good to forget NATO ambition, and let Germany take care of this Ukraine problem with Putin. Before war separate Ukraine into 2 countries.

    We as a nation need to get rid of all the Neocon’s in our foreign policies, yet that sounds naive compared to how many they are. What we could use now would be whatever noise we all were all making when America decided to not bomb Syria back a while ago…or was I just fooling myself?

  8. March 10, 2014 at 20:13

    There is a fundamential flaw in the result of this otherweise correct analysis. The flaw is this one:

    “… If the United States offered guarantees against the further expansion of NATO and invited Russia to take part in a multilateral economic aid program for beleaguered Ukraine, then it is possible that President Vladimir Putin would find a way to lower the Russian military presence in the Crimea….”

    That’s a total delusion. The problem is, that, as this article points out well, the US and it’s western partners are known to breach any guarantees and promises whenever it likes. Just like the US promise to not expand NATO eastwards didn’t last long and NATO even launched a non-UN-legitimzed war against Russia’s partner Yuguslavia, the EU-Russian-sponsored agreement of February 21 in Ukraine didn’t last even 24 hours, before it was broken by the western side. So whatever promise the US gives on any paper, Russia can’t rely on it because the US and it’s western partners are well-known for not keeping the promises it gives Russia or abiding by any treaty. So what Russia needs to feel safe of further NATO expansion is a physical guarantee. Russian troops in Crimea are such a physical guarantee, and it’s hard to imagine any other guarantee that could replace this, because it can’t be a guarantee on paper.

    If the US – and it’s western partners – really wants to make a deal with Russia, then it should tell the Kiev putsch regime that it is not legitimate, refrain from dealing with that regime, and demand from this putsch regime, that it gives up the power which it has taken illegitimately and that the Ukrainian opposition now turned coup regime must follow the deal agreed on 21 Feb. That would assure Russia that the west has given up it’s old scheme of staging violent coups and “color revolutions” against Russian interrests and it would allow it Russia and the pro-Russian constituency in Ukraine to feel safe that procedures are followed and thereby they are safe, so that Russian troops are not needed.

    If the US doesn’t do this, and continues to follow the way of trying to engineer coup after coup Russia will simply do what is neccessary to protect the well-being of it’s constituency in Ukraine and it’s own interests, whether the west likes it or not, even if that means to have Russian tanks stationed in Kharkov, Donetsk, Odessa and Kiev.

    • Bob
      March 12, 2014 at 17:45

      Yugoslavia was never Russia’s ally idiot they bled their economy dry paying for a military to keep themselves out of the Warsaw Pact, how does none of this criticism seem to mention the brutal leadership of the Soviet/Russian regime over peoples in Eastern Europe? If people in Ukraine want to be out from under Russia’s thumb, power to them. If the U.S. pressed the international community to freeze the funds of Russian oligarchs, revoke all foreign national Russian visas, and send natural gas to Europe, Russia’s economy will collapse on itself and they will abandon Crimea in a month.

    • L.A.
      March 12, 2014 at 21:30

      I agree. Russians (as many other nations) have been deceived by US so many times. I even think they never tell the truth. What kind of government is that?
      Unfortunately for American people.

  9. F. G. Sanford
    March 10, 2014 at 18:56

    Yikes – it’s Yats! Hold on to your sneakers, CN readers! There’s a new development that is sure to thrill the Neocon foreign policy geniuses that have brought us this latest round of international stability. Yats – Yikes! Turns out he’s a Scientologist! And, a “high ranking” one! For those of you who don’t know, there isn’t room here to hash out what that really entails. But it’s been banned in Germany as a fascist organization. France has conducted several high profile prosecutions against the “church” of Scientology for fraud, and Russia labels it an “extremist organization”. The best – and this is no joke – most accurate explanation of Scientology was the “South Park” episode on that subject. Like spoofing Sarah Palin, they don’t actually have to make anything up, they just repeat what she actually said. It’s the same with Scientology! Yats is coming to DC this week to garner U.S. support. John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Kirsty Alley may be the welcoming committee! Let’s wait and see how the European Union responds to this spiritually unifying piece of good news. Type “Yatsenyuk Scientology” into your search engine, and read all about it! Hallelujah! Space aliens may save us all!

  10. March 10, 2014 at 16:23

    actually i have an ambiguity about the role of us in this case.

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