Premature US Victory-Dancing on Ukraine

Exclusive: The post-coup election of a pro-Western politician as president of Ukraine and the escalating slaughter of lightly armed anti-coup rebels in the east have created a celebratory mood in Official Washington, but the victory dance may be premature, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

Washington’s role in the coup d’etat in Kiev on Feb. 22 has brought the U.S. a Pyrrhic victory, with the West claiming control of Ukraine albeit with a shaky grip that still requires the crushing of anti-coup rebels in the east. But the high-fiving may be short-lived once the full consequences of the putsch become clear.

What has made the “victory” so hollow is that the U.S.-backed ouster of elected President Viktor Yanukovych presented Russia’s leaders with what they saw as a last-straw-type deceit by the U.S. and its craven satellites in the European Union. Moscow has responded by making a major pivot East to enhance its informal alliance with China and thus strengthen the economic and strategic positions of both countries as a counterweight to Washington and Brussels.

Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who pushed for the Ukraine coup and helped pick the post-coup leaders.

Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who pushed for the Ukraine coup and helped pick the post-coup leaders.

In my view, this is the most important result of this year’s events in Ukraine, that they have served as a catalyst to more meaningful Russia-China rapprochement which has inched forward over the past several decades but now has solidified. The signing on May 21 of a 30-year, $400 billion natural gas deal between Russia and China is not only a “watershed event” as Russian President Vladimir Putin  said but carries rich symbolic significance.

The agreement, along with closer geopolitical cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, is of immense significance and reflects a judgment on the part of Russian leaders that the West’s behavior over the past two decades has forced the unavoidable conclusion that for whatever reason U.S. and European leaders cannot be trusted. Rather, they can be expected to press for strategic advantage through “regime change” and other “dark-side” tactics even in areas where Russia holds the high cards.

This Russian-Chinese rapprochement has been a gradual, cautious process somewhat akin to porcupines mating, given the tense and sometimes hostile relations between the two neighbors dating back centuries and flaring up again when the two were rival communist powers.

Yet, overcoming that very bitter past, Russian President Putin a decade ago finalized an important agreement on very delicate border issues. He also signed an agreement on future joint development of Russian energy reserves. In October 2004, during a visit to Beijing, Putin claimed that relations between the two countries had reached “unparalleled heights.”

But talk is cheap and progress toward a final energy agreement was intermittent until the Ukraine crisis. When Russia supported Crimea’s post-coup referendum to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the West responded with threats of “sectoral sanctions” against Russia’s economy, thus injecting new urgency for Moscow to complete the energy agreement with China. The $400 billion gas deal the culmination of ten-plus years of work now has provided powerful substantiation to the Russia-China relationship.

Indeed, you could trace the evolution of this historic détente back to other Western provocations and broken promises. Six months before his 2004 visit to China, Putin watched NATO fold under its wings Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Five years before that, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic had become NATO members.

A Major Missed Opportunity

Not only were these Western encroachments toward Russia’s border alarming to Moscow but the moves also represented a breach of trust. Several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, President George H. W. Bush had appealed for “a Europe whole and free.” And, in February 1990, his Secretary of State James Baker promised Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would move “not one inch” to the East, if Russia pulled its 24 divisions out of East Germany.

Yet, a triumphant Washington soon spurned this historic opportunity to achieve a broader peace. Instead, U.S. officials took advantage of the Soviet bloc’s implosion in Eastern Europe and later the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. As for that “Europe whole and free” business, it was as if the EU and NATO had put up signs: “Russians Need Not Apply.” Then, exploiting Moscow’s disarray and weakness, President Bill Clinton reneged on Baker’s NATO promise by pushing the military alliance eastward.

Small wonder that Putin and his associates were prospecting for powerful new friends ten years ago first and foremost, China. And, the West kept providing the Kremlin with new incentives as NATO recruiters remained aggressive. NATO heads of state, meeting in Bucharest in April 2008, declared: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”

That led to some very foolish adventurism on the part of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had been listening to the wrong people in Washington and thought he could play tough with the rebellious regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including attacks on Russian peacekeeping troops. Russian forces gave the Georgians what Moscow normally calls a “resolute rebuff.”

The 2008 declaration of NATO’s intent is still on the books, however. And recent events in Ukraine, as a violent putsch overthrew elected President Yanukovych and installed a pro-Western regime in Kiev, became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

During an interview with CNBC on May 23, 2014, President Putin bemoaned the still-pending NATO expansion in the context of Ukraine: “Coup d’état takes place, they refuse to talk to us. So we think the next step Ukraine is going to take, it’s going to become a NATO member. They’ve refused to engage in any dialogue. We’re saying military, NATO military infrastructure is approaching our borders; they say not to worry, it has nothing to do with you. But tomorrow Ukraine might become a NATO member, and the day after tomorrow missile defense units of NATO could be deployed in this country.”

Putin raised the issue again on May 24, accusing the West of ignoring Russia’s interests in particular, by leaving open the possibility that Ukraine could one day join NATO. “Where is the guarantee that, after the forceful change of power, Ukraine will not tomorrow end up in NATO?” Putin wanted to know.

Forward-Deployed Missile Defense

Putin keeps coming back specifically to “missile defense” in NATO countries or waters because he sees it as a strategic (arguably an existential) threat to Russia’s national security. During his marathon press conference on April 17, he was quite direct in articulating Russia’s concerns:

“I’ll use this opportunity to say a few words about our talks on missile defense. This issue is no less, and probably even more important than NATO’s eastward expansion. Incidentally, our decision on Crimea was partially prompted by this. … We followed certain logic: If we don’t do anything, Ukraine will be drawn into NATO …  and NATO ships would dock in Sevastopol. … [Key elements of the latest missile defense system are ship-borne.]

“Regarding the deployment of U.S. missile defense elements, this is not a defensive system, but part of offensive potential deployed far away from home. … At the expert level, everyone understands very well that if these systems are deployed closer to our borders, our ground-based strategic missiles will be within their striking range.”

On this neuralgic issue of missile defense in Europe, ostensibly aimed at hypothetical future missiles fired by Iran, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has taken a perverse delight in having increased concerns in Moscow that such a system might eventually be used against Russian ICBMs.

In his book Duty, Gates defends himself against accusations from the Right that it was his concern for Russian sensitivities that prompted him to revise the missile defense plan for Europe. The revised system included sea-based missiles that were not only cheaper but also more easily and cheaply produced. (Does anyone see why Putin might have been concerned about NATO ships based in Crimea?)

“I sincerely believed the new program was better, more in accord with the political realities in Europe and more effective against the emerging Iranian threat,” Gates added. ”While there certainly were some in the State Department and the White House who believed the third site in Europe was incompatible with the Russian ‘reset,’ we in Defense did not. Making the Russians happy wasn’t exactly on my to-do list.”

Gates proudly noted that the Russians quickly concluded that the revised plan was even worse from their perspective, as it eventually might have capabilities against Russian intercontinental missiles.

As for President Obama, in an exchange picked up by microphones during his meeting with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Seoul in March 2012, Obama asked him to tell incoming President Putin to give him some “space” on controversial issues, “particularly missile defense.”

Obama seemed to be suggesting that he might be able to be more understanding of Russian fears later. “After my election I have more flexibility,” Obama added. But it seems a safe bet that Putin and Medvedev are still waiting to see what may eventuate from the “space” they gave Obama.

Since taking over as Secretary of State in February 2013, John Kerry seems to be doing his best to fill Gates’s “tough-guy” role baiting the Russian bear. Kremlin leaders, after watching how close Kerry came to getting the U.S. to start a major war with Syria on evidence he knew was, at best, flimsy, simply cannot afford to dismiss as adolescent chest-pounding Kerry’s nonchalant remarks on the possibility that the troubles in Ukraine could lead to nuclear confrontation.

As much of a loose cannon as Kerry has been, he is, after all, U.S. Secretary of State. In an extraordinary interview with the Wall Street Journal on April 28, Kerry made clear that the Obama administration and the U.S. military/intelligence establishment are “fully aware” that escalation of the crisis in Ukraine could lead to nuclear war. Are we supposed to say, “wow, great”?

A Half-Century Perspective

Though my Sino-Russian lens is 50 years old, I think that the perspective of time can be an advantage. In January 1964, as a CIA analyst, I became responsible for analyzing Soviet policy toward China. The evidence we had mostly, but not solely, public acrimony made it clear to us that the Sino-Soviet dispute was real and was having important impact on world events. We were convinced that reconciliation between the two giants was simply out of the question.

Our assessments were right at the time, but we ultimately were wrong about the irreconcilable differences. It turns out that nothing is immutable, especially in the face of ham-handed U.S. diplomacy.

The process of ending Moscow’s unmitigated hostility toward China began in earnest during Gorbachev’s era, although his predecessors did take some halting steps in that direction. It takes two to tango, and we analysts were surprised when Gorbachev’s Chinese counterparts proved receptive to his overtures and welcomed a mutual agreement to thin out troops along the 7,500-kilometer border.

In more recent years, however, the impetus toward rapprochement has been the mutual need to counterbalance the “one remaining superpower in the world.” The more that President George W. Bush and his “neo-conservative” helpers threw their weight around in the Middle East and elsewhere, the more incentive China and Russia saw in moving closer together.

Gone is the “great-power chauvinist” epithet they used to hurl at each other, though it would seem a safe bet that the epithet emerges from time to time in private conversations between Chinese and Russian officials regarding current U.S. policy.

The border agreement signed by Putin in Beijing in October 2004 was important inasmuch as it settled the last of the border disputes, which had led to armed clashes in the Sixties and Seventies especially along the extensive riverine border where islands were claimed by both sides.

The backdrop, though, was China’s claim to 1.5 million square kilometers taken from China under what it called “unequal treaties” dating back to the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. This irredentism, a staple of Chinese anti-Soviet rhetoric in those days, has disappeared.

In the late Sixties, the USSR reinforced its ground forces near China from 13 to 21 divisions. By 1971, the number had grown to 44 divisions, and Chinese leaders began to see a more immediate threat from the USSR than from the U.S. Enter Henry Kissinger, who visited Beijing in 1971 to arrange the precedent-breaking visit by President Richard Nixon the next year.

What followed was some highly imaginative diplomacy orchestrated by Kissinger and Nixon to exploit the mutual fear that China and the USSR held for each other and the imperative each saw to compete for improved ties with Washington.

Triangular Diplomacy

The Soviet leaders seemed to sweat this situation the most. Washington’s clever exploitation of the triangular relationship was consequential; it helped facilitate major, verifiable arms control agreements between the U.S. and USSR and even the challenging Four Power Agreement on Berlin. As for Vietnam, the Russians went so far as to blame China for impeding a peaceful solution to the war.

It was one of those rare junctures at which CIA analysts could in good conscience chronicle the effects of the Nixon-Kissinger approach and conclude that it seemed to be having the desired effect vis-à-vis Moscow. We could say so because it clearly was.

In early 1972, between President Nixon’s first summits in Beijing and Moscow, our analytic reports underscored the reality that Sino-Soviet rivalry was, to both sides, a highly debilitating phenomenon. Not only had the two countries forfeited the benefits of cooperation, but each felt compelled to devote huge effort to negate the policies of the other.

A significant dimension had been added to the rivalry as the U.S. moved to cultivate simultaneously better relations with both. The two saw themselves in a crucial race to cultivate good relations with the U.S.

The Soviet and Chinese leaders could not fail to notice how all this had enhanced the U.S. bargaining position. But we analysts regarded them as cemented into an intractable adversarial relationship by a deeply felt set of emotional beliefs, in which national, ideological and racial factors reinforced one another.

Although the two countries recognized the price they were paying, neither could see a way out. The only prospect for improvement, we suggested, was the hope that more sensible leaders would emerge in each country. At the time, we branded that a vain hope and predicted only the most superficial improvements in relations between Moscow and Beijing.

On that last point, we were wrong. Mao Zedong’s and Nikita Khrushchev’s successors proved to have cooler heads, and in 1969 border talks resumed. It took years to chip away at the heavily encrusted mutual mistrust, but by the mid-Eighties we were warning policymakers that we had been wrong; that “normalization” of relations between Moscow and Beijing had already occurred, slowly but surely, despite continued Chinese protestations that such would be impossible unless the Russians capitulated to all China’s conditions.

For their part, the Soviet leaders had become more comfortable operating in the triangular environment and were no longer suffering the debilitating effects of a headlong race with China to develop better relations with Washington.

The Détente

Economics now is clearly an important driver from both Moscow’s and Beijing’s point of view, but the sweeping $400 billion natural gas deal, including provision for exploration, construction and extraction is bound to have profound political significance, as well. If memory serves, during the Sixties, annual trade between the USSR and China hovered between $200 million and $400 million. It had grown to $57 billion by 2008 and hit $93 billion in 2013.

Growing military cooperation is of equal importance. China has become Russia’s arms industry’s premier customer, with the Chinese spending billions on weapons, many of them top of the line. For Russia, these sales are an important source of export earnings and keep key segments of its defense industry afloat.  Beijing, cut off from arms sales from the West, has come to rely on Russia more and more for sophisticated arms and technology.

Author Pepe Escobar notes that when Russia’s Star Wars-style, ultra-sophisticated S-500 air defense anti-missile system comes on line in 2018, Beijing is sure to want to purchase some version of it. Meanwhile, Russia is about to sell dozens of state-or-the-art Sukhoi Su-35 jet fighters to the Chinese as Beijing and Moscow move to seal an aviation-industrial partnership.

Those of us analysts immersed in Sino-Soviet relations in the Sixties and Seventies, when the Russians and Chinese appeared likely to persist in their bitter feud forever, used to poke fun at the Sino-Soviet treaty of Feb. 14, 1950, which was defunct well before its 30-year term.

Given the deepening acrimony, the official congratulatory messages recognizing the anniversary of the Valentine’s Day agreement seemed amusingly ironic. Nevertheless, we dutifully scanned the messages for any hint of warmth; year after year we found none.

But there is another treaty now and the relationship it codifies is no joke. Just as the earlier Sino-Soviet divide was deftly exploited by an earlier generation of U.S. diplomats, clumsy actions by the more recent cast of U.S. “diplomats” have helped close that divide, even if few in Washington are aware of the significant geopolitical change that it symbolizes.

The treaty of friendship and cooperation, signed in Moscow by Presidents Putin and Jiang Zemin on July 16, 2001, may not be as robust as the one in 1950 with its calls for “military and other assistance” in the event one is attacked. But the new treaty does reflect agreement between China and Russia to collaborate in diluting what each sees as U.S. domination of the post-Cold War international order. (And that was before the U.S. invasion of Iraq and before the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine.)

Earthquakes Begin Slowly

Like subterranean geological plates shifting slowly below the surface, changes with immense political repercussions can occur so gradually as to be imperceptible, until the earthquake hits and the old order is shaken or shattered. For a very long time, the consensus in academe, as well as in government, has been that, despite the rapprochement between China and Russia over the past several years, both countries retained greater interest in developing good relations with the U.S. than with each other.

That was certainly the case decades ago. But I doubt that is the case now. Either way, the implications for U.S. foreign policy are immense. Anatol Lieven of King’s College, London, has noted:

“Whether in the Euro-Atlantic or the Asia-Pacific, great power relations are becoming more contentious, with a loose Eurasian coalition emerging to reduce the U.S. domination of global politics. … The consolidation of Russia’s pivot to Asia is an important result of the first phase of the Ukraine crisis, which will continue to reshape the global strategic landscape.

“The U.S. has no other than Victoria Nuland, and Hillary Clinton who installed her as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, to thank for this foolish mess.”

As the folks from the old People’s Daily used to say, this could “come to a no-good end.”

Ray McGovern was chief of the CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch in the early Seventies, and served at CIA for 27 years. He worked on the President’s Daily Brief under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. He now works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.


12 comments for “Premature US Victory-Dancing on Ukraine

  1. Chessmaster5k
    June 3, 2014 at 12:39

    A wonderful strategic analysis.
    Remember, there was once a time when it was US geopolitical strategy to try to prevent a ‘sino-soviet’ coming together.

    Here’s my more tactical take on what is going on. From my seat far, far away, it seems like the Kiev government is doing everything it can to create provocations to draw Russia into invading Ukraine. Kidnapping journalists, constantly escalating the attacks on its own citizens, more and more provocations near Russia’s borders, etc.

    Mr. Putin would appear to be trying to avoid this. Russia public opinion at this time would strongly back his coming to the rescue of the native Russians trapped under Kiev’s authoritarian rule. Yet, Mr. Putin appears to be waiting as long as he possibly can.

    Mr. Putin appears to be letting the atrocities mount while constantly finding moves to try to de-escalate the situation. This way, if he does have to move, there is more and more evidence that the continually escalating atrocities and attacks on Ukrainian citizens mount thus providing justification. And Russia will be seen has having done everything possible and even taken steps where its willing to cede a bit to try to keep the peace.

    This of course won’t matter in DC and London. But it will matter in the rest of the world as the pro-NATO propaganda in support of its authoritarian Kiev regime will be more and more revealed as lies. Thus, beyond the NATO warlords trying to impose their ‘exceptional’ rule on the world, the rest of the world will be more and more supportive of an eventual Russian move.

    And, if such a move turns out not to be necessary, Russia wins. They are creating and solidifying the BRICS alliances, and Ukraine will become a basket-case after the EU ‘austerity love’. You’ll probably see a large majority of Ukrainians, including many Maiden supporters, calling eventually for an end to rule by the EU bankers and a return to close relations to Russia. Ukraine will come back to Russia, and meanwhile Russia will have gained much from showing restraint in the face of obvious NATO backed atrocities.

  2. Catherine
    May 31, 2014 at 14:31

    Господину Рэю Макговерну, руководителю советского Филиала Внешней политики ЦРУ, чей стаж службы в этом ведомстве 27 лет, человеку с шотландской фамилией пять баллов за такую статью.

  3. Penelope Powell
    May 30, 2014 at 23:43

    We may be able to avert a chemical attack in Ukraine. Post everywhere that the story Polish Death Squad Fighting In Ukraine warns of a poisonous shipment secretly arriving in Ukraine. Fighting in Slavyansk is to clear the area for Shell to drill. Kiev is obligated by contract to seize from the owners where Shell wishes to drill.
    Story: Polish Death Squad Fighting In Ukraine is on Globalresearch dot ca.

  4. no more banksters
    May 30, 2014 at 08:29

    End of an era for the West

    The support of neo-nazis in Ukraine destroys the last pretexts and wakes up nightmares of the past

  5. F. G. Sanford
    May 28, 2014 at 22:33

    Ray, where’s your optimism? This will all work out just fine. China’s investment portfolio could always use a few more collateralized debt obligations, derivatives and hedge-fund portfolios. Parker Brothers never runs out of Monopoly money, and they manufacture that in China now too. Ukraine is already paying for itself. Yeah, yeah I know, they say that $1.8 billion in gold bullion flown out of Kiev didn’t really go to the European Central Bank, wink wink.

    Here’s how it’s gonna go. Victoria Nuland has honed her diplomatic skills to a fine razor’s edge under Hillary’s guidance. Her sister-in-law, Kimberly Kagan, has been refining her military expertise at the prestigious Institute for the Study of War under the watchful eye of her husband, Fred. That internship she did guiding General Petraeus through difficult hurdles in Afghanistan will make her a crack strategist when she becomes Secretary of Defense in Hillary’s administration. Fred, who is a honcho at the American Enterprise institute, will bring lots to the table. Victoria, of course, will be Secretary of State. Penny Pritzger, who has mastered economic recovery initiatives at Commerce will move up to Fed Chairman. Given her warm hearted and folksy knack for breaking the ice, Samantha Power will move to Health and Human Services. Her Husband, Cass Sunstein, will be called upon to serve as White House Press Secretary. His cognitive Infiltration specialty will be helpful at diffusing any dissonance between reality and official policy. Susan Rice will move over to CIA Director, where she will dutifully assume custody of Hillary’s notorious “enemies list”, just for safe-keeping, mind you. Vice President is anybody’s guess, but I’m thinking General Breedlove. He’s shown plenty of that General “Buck” Turgidson spunk that will allow Hillary some leeway and help diffuse any concerns that she might be too soft on military intervention or regime change. David Frum will be enlisted to write all of the speeches. People will joke about the “Battle-axes of Evil”, but it’ll all be in good fun. After he reforms Ukraine’s corrupt economy and demonstrates his capitalistic prowess, Hunter Biden will be Secretary of the Treasury. That’ll be a ‘bone’ thrown to Joe to keep him out of the primary. Now that Chelsea’s mother-in-law is making a bid for Congress, it’ll be kinda “all in the family”. The girls will get together on Thursday nights, play Mahjong and make chicken soup. It’ll be one big, happy Jewish Mother’s-in-law klatch. Every acre of Ukraine will be plowed with a John Deere tractor and planted with a Monsanto seed.

    You’ll see, Ray, it’ll all work out. Cheer up buddy, it’s gonna be OK.

    • Cold Wind
      May 29, 2014 at 10:49

      Demons everywhere!

    • Ray McGovern
      May 30, 2014 at 01:31

      Thanks, F.G. I needed that. I am feeling so much better! ray

    • Inevitable
      June 3, 2014 at 12:46

      In 2008, Hillary pushed the idea that it was ‘inevitable’ that she was the next President … much like she is today. That didn’t work out so well for her last time, and there is no guarantee it will work this time.

      A large part of the Democratic Party base rejected Hillary in 08. There’s no reason to expect them to support her now.

      Hillary is starting to smell like one of these politicians that’s been around for ever, but can’t win a national election, and who more and more looks like a pathetic loser. Starting to smell a bit like old Bob Dole with his cry that ‘its my turn’. That didn’t work so well either.

  6. May 28, 2014 at 18:45

    I’m sure Mr. McGovern realizes that the Ukraine policy was decided by the Deep State, not Nuland. International banksters and a few very rich families devised this additional attack on Russia’s security. Despite Mr. McGovern’s valid comments I think we must see the current situation as a devastating loss for world security– if it stands.

  7. John Mearsheimer
    May 28, 2014 at 17:31

    This analysis is first rate, especially how McGovern shows that NATO expansion was the taproot of the present crisis over Ukraine. He also nicely explains how US mistakes on Ukraine have helped drive China and Russia together in ways that are disadvantageous to the US. In essence, his analysis is a powerful indictment of American foreign policy.

  8. May 28, 2014 at 14:58

    “China’s president called Tuesday for the creation of a new Asian structure for security cooperation based on a regional group that includes Russia and Iran and excludes the United States.”

    How do you read this? Do you think the Chinese President would make the statement if he did not intend to follow through?

  9. May 28, 2014 at 13:44

    Very worth reading. I worked 45 years in Africa and Asia… and I am NO to EU and NO to NATO girl… it is a pleasure to read someone who has been there done that who can SEE what is going on and value it correctly and with humility. Thank you.

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