The story on Ukraine, as most commonly told, has Vladimir Putin, calculating autocrat, out to gobble up a weak neighbor – while the US and EU watch helplessly. But the evolving geopolitical map of eastern and central Europe tells a different story.
It will be 25 years this November since the Berlin Wall fell. In 1989, West Berlin (with Norway, Italy, Greece and Turkey) marked the easternmost extent of the US sphere of influence, in the form of its military alliance, NATO; and-or its economic partner, the EC (now the EU). Berlin is about 600 miles east of Paris and 1100 miles west of Moscow.
Since the Wall fell, every former member or the Warsaw Pact – NATO’s one-time rival – has joined NATO, or is applying to join, including former constituents of the USSR itself. The list is impressive: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia and Croatia have all joined NATO.
Imagine an alternate history in which the US lost the Cold War, and over the past 25 years saw one former ally after another – France, Germany, Italy, the UK – leave NATO to join the Warsaw Pact and the Russian sphere. Imagine Canada wobbling in its allegiance: protestors on the streets of Ottawa, Russian politicians with them, expressing support for efforts to depose Canada’s pro-US president. Then comes the revolution, and installation of a pro-Russian president in Canada, who Russia immediately recognizes, legitimizes, and begins to aid.
“Kiev” in a Russian ear has the warm familiarity that “Toronto” has for an American – but more so, because Russia and Ukraine have for centuries been much more closely tied than have been the US and Canada. Ukraine’s defection to the US sphere is terrifying to Russians – as well it should be. Kiev is 500 miles from Moscow – about the same distance as Toronto to New York, and a bit closer than Ottawa to Washington.
It isnt that Russia lost the Cold War. Russia has been losing ever since the Cold War ended. The past 25 years have seen the US sphere expand more than 1000 miles eastward. And it’s still expanding: when 2014 began, the line between east and west ran through Kiev, where an embattled pro-Russian president struggled with a legislature and local population that favored the EU. Now Kiev is firmly in the US sphere. In just the past few months, the line has moved 500 miles farther east – to Donetsk and Luhansk, which is actually east of Moscow!
To fully appreciate the events in Ukraine, one looks even farther east – to Georgia, another former constituent of the USSR, which for centuries had also been part of the Russian sphere. Georgian relations with Russia have been strained since it gained independence. Crimea might be said to have first played out in Georgian Abkhazia; while war in Eastern Ukraine has its precursor in the Georgian region of South Ossetia. No less a leader than Eduard Shevardnadze – Gorbachev’s Foreign Affairs Minister – put Georgia on track for both EU and NATO membership during his tenure as Georgian president. While Georgia is a long way from Moscow, it shares a border with Russia’s restive Chechnya region – and Russia has often accused Georgia of lending aid and support to Chechen rebels.
Until his death this past July, Shevardnadze denied that the US promised Gorbachev that NATO would never expand east of Berlin – much less east of Germany. His counterpart, former US secretary of state James Baker, also denies that such a promise was made. However Gorbachev maintains that he received explicit assurances, and recently declassified documents suggest that Shevardnadze was lying all along, likely to aid Georgia’s own NATO aspirations.
Our purpose is to put current events in Ukraine in perspective – not to excuse Russia’s practice of old-fashioned European land-grabbery: its 2008 seizure and ongoing occupation of South Ossetia, its recent annexation of Crimea, and its sponsorship of rebellion in Eastern Ukraine today.
But we must acknowledge the US’s own aggression, though it differs in its manifestation. John Quincy Adams authored the Monroe Doctrine and, with it, the geopolitical strategy that the US has followed for two centuries. Eschewing colonialism, and restricting land grabs to contiguous North America, the US seeks to expand its sphere of influence, not its nominal land holdings. The US has always been extremely aggressive about bringing countries into its sphere – and keeping them there. Toward that end, the list of foreign governments that the US has overthrown or helped to overthrow is impressive, and may yet include that of Viktor Yanukovych.
what the US may (or may not) have promised Gorbachev:
war in Georgia:
a very different take on Russia:
and a rebuttal: