This blog post is a partial apology to a couple of progressive friends of mine here in Salem, Oregon who I've argued with via email about the extent to which Putin was justified in viewing NATO's expansion into the former Soviet bloc countries as a provocation that he used as one of his excuses to invade Ukraine.
I vociferously said that the NATO expansion was none of Russia's business, since NATO is all about defending member countries from attack, with Russia being the prime potential attacker. My friends, though, said in strong words that the United States and our allies engaged in a bait-and-switch with Russia, initially promising that NATO expansion to the east wouldn't happen, then making it happen anyway.
I just came across an article by Keith Gessen in the June 12, 2023 issue of The New Yorker on this subject -- How Russia Went from Ally to Adversary: The Cold War ended. The United States declared victory. Then things took a turn. I'd read the article back in June and saved the issue so I could share some excerpts from it, since it provided perspectives on NATO and Russia that I wasn't aware of before.
Those excerpts are below. The whole article is well worth reading. Gessen explains how several recent books about the fall of the Soviet Union paint a complex picture of how American hubris combined with Russian dysfunction to create the mess that is Russia today. I tried to select excerpts that are comprehensible without the context of the full lengthy article.
In early December of 1989, a few weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, Mikhail Gorbachev attended his first summit with President George H. W. Bush. They met off the coast of Malta, aboard the Soviet cruise ship Maxim Gorky. Gorbachev was very much looking forward to the summit, as he looked forward to all his summits; things at home were spiralling out of control, but his international standing was undimmed. He was in the process of ending the decades-long Cold War that had threatened the world with nuclear holocaust. When he appeared in foreign capitals, crowds went wild.
Bush was less eager. His predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had blown a huge hole in the budget by cutting taxes and increasing defense spending; then he had somewhat rashly decided to go along with Gorbachev’s project to rearrange the world system. Bush’s national-security team, which included the realist defense intellectual Brent Scowcroft, had taken a pause to review the nation’s Soviet policy. The big debate within the U.S. government was whether Gorbachev was in earnest; once it was concluded that he was, the debate was about whether he’d survive.
On the summit’s first day, Gorbachev lamented the sad state of his economy and praised Bush’s restraint and thoughtfulness with regard to the revolutionary events in the Eastern Bloc—he did not, as Bush himself put it, jump “up and down on the Berlin Wall.” Bush responded by praising Gorbachev’s boldness and stressing that he had economic problems of his own. Then Gorbachev unveiled what he considered a great surprise. It was a heartfelt statement about his hope for new relations between the two superpowers. “I want to say to you and the United States that the Soviet Union will under no circumstances start a war,” Gorbachev said. “The Soviet Union is no longer prepared to regard the United States as an adversary.”
As the historian Vladislav Zubok explains in his recent book “Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union” (Yale), “This was a fundamental statement, a foundation for all future negotiations.” But, as two members of Gorbachev’s team who were present for the conversations noted, Bush did not react. Perhaps it was because he was recovering from seasickness. Perhaps it was because he was not one for grand statements and elevated rhetoric. Or perhaps it was because to him, as a practical matter, the declaration of peace and partnership was meaningless. As he put it, a couple of months later, to the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, “We prevailed and they didn’t.” Gorbachev thought he was discussing the creation of a new world, in which the Soviet Union and the United States worked together, two old foes reconciled. Bush thought he was merely negotiating the terms for the Soviets’ surrender.
...In February, 1990, two months after the summit with Bush on the Maxim Gorky, Gorbachev hosted James Baker, the U.S. Secretary of State, in Moscow. This was one of Gorbachev’s last opportunities to get something from the West before Germany reunified. But, as Mary Elise Sarotte relates in “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate” (Yale), her recent book on the complex history of NATO expansion, he was not up to the task.
Baker posed to Gorbachev a hypothetical question. “Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no U.S. forces,” Baker asked, “or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?” This last part would launch decades of debate. Did it constitute a promise—later, obviously, broken? Or was it just idle talk?
In the event, Gorbachev answered lamely that of course NATO could not expand. Baker’s offer, if that’s what it was, would not be repeated. In fact, as soon as people in the White House got wind of the conversation, they had a fit. Two weeks later, at Camp David, Bush told Kohl what he thought of Soviet demands around German reunification. “The Soviets are not in a position to dictate Germany’s relationship with NATO,” he said. “To hell with that.”
...In almost every former Communist state, the story of reform played out in the same way: collapse, shock therapy, the emergence of criminal entrepreneurs, violence, widespread social disruption, and then, sometimes, a kind of rebuilding. Many of the countries are now doing comparatively well. Poland has a per-capita G.D.P. approaching Portugal’s; the Czech Republic exports its Škoda sedans all over the world; tiny Estonia is a world leader in e-governance. But the gains were distributed unequally, and serious political damage was done.
In no country did the reforms play out more dramatically, and more consequentially, than in Russia. Boris Yeltsin’s first post-Soviet Cabinet was led by a young radical economist named Yegor Gaidar. In a matter of months, he transformed the enormous Russian economy, liberalizing prices, ending tariffs on foreign goods, and launching a voucher program aimed at distributing the ownership of state enterprises among the citizenry.
The result was the pauperization of much of the population and the privatization of the country’s industrial base by a small group of well-connected men, soon to be known as the oligarchs. When the parliament, still called the Supreme Soviet and structured according to the old Soviet constitution, tried to put a brake on the reforms, Yeltsin ordered it disbanded. When it refused to go, Yeltsin ordered that it be shelled. Many of the features that we associate with Putinism—immense inequality, a lack of legal protections for ordinary citizens, and super-Presidential powers—were put in place in the early nineteen-nineties, in the era of “reform.”
When it came to those reforms, did we give the Russians bad advice, or was it good advice that they implemented badly? And, if it was bad advice, did we dole it out maliciously, to destroy their country, or because we didn’t know what we were doing? Many Russians still believe that Western advice was calculated to harm them, but history points at least partly in the other direction: hollowing out the government, privatizing public services, and letting the free market run rampant were policies that we also implemented in our own country.
...Short argues convincingly that Putin came into the office ready to work with the West. He had a tense first meeting with Bill Clinton (“We’re going to miss ol’ Boris,” Clinton remarked to Strobe Talbott, his Deputy Secretary of State), but then a much warmer summit with George W. Bush in which Bush claimed to look into Putin’s eyes and see his soul. A few months later, Putin was the first world leader to call Bush in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. He actively supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and didn’t complain too much, at first, about NATO expansion: most of the Visegrád states had joined in 1999, under Clinton, and the Baltic states were up next.
But from the high-water mark of 2001 the relationship with Putin continuously declined. The Russian leader did not enjoy the Bush Administration’s “Freedom Agenda,” whether it took the form of the full-scale invasion of Iraq or the much milder cheerleading for the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine. (In this case, the U.S. did, symbolically, jump up and down on the Berlin Wall.) Putin was deeply disappointed by Western criticisms of his continuing war against Chechen separatism. To Putin, it looked like the same war on terror that the West was waging, “gloves off”; to the West, it looked like human-rights violations and war crimes. Having supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Putin was furious when the U.S. and the U.K. refused to extradite Chechen leaders.
...By the logic of co-transformation, we urged brutal free-market policies on Eastern Europe, and then imposed them on ourselves. Having participated in the creation of the Russian monster, we are now forced to become monsters to battle it, to manufacture and sell more weapons, to cheer the death of Russian soldiers, to spend more and more on defense, both here and in Europe, and to create the atmosphere and conditions of a second Cold War, because we failed to figure out how to secure the peace after the last one.
The development of Russia in the post-Cold War period was not the result of a Western plot or Western actions. Russian officials chose, within a narrow range of options, how to behave, and they could have chosen differently. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February, 2022, was no more inevitable or foreordained than the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2003. Still, it’s worth asking what other course we might have followed.
Sarotte, in her book on NATO, argues that a slower pace of expansion might have caused less damage to Russian internal politics; in time, with less pressure from an expanding West, Russia might have come around. Ther suggests that, in place of Western triumphalism and complacency, a more serious reckoning with the revolutionary ideals of 1989—a striving for democracy and freedom of the sort that was utopian even by Western standards—could have led to a different result.
In Zubok’s book on the demise of the Soviet Union, the top American officials—Scowcroft, Baker, and Bush—are depicted as thoughtful and sympathetic but also, in the end, keeping their cards, and their cash, too close to their vests. Everyone in the former Soviet bloc looked to America for guidance and inspiration. Never had the prestige of the United States been higher in that part of the world. We had an astonishing amount of moral capital. What did we do with it?
Ultimately, the West chose the West. We extended our writ where we could, and dug in where we had to. This meant, among other things, keeping the structures we already had in place and expanding them, as opposed to inventing new ones. Back in 1990, three months after the “not one inch” meeting, Gorbachev had waxed lyrical to Baker about a new pan-European security arrangement. The American Secretary of State’s response was polite, but firm: “It is an excellent dream, but only a dream.”