Bill Clinton, one of only two incumbents to serve two terms as president of the world’s sole unchallenged superpower, liked to dismiss foreign affairs with the catchphrase “It’s the economy, stupid.” It won him the presidency in 1992 against George H.W. Bush, who promised not to raise taxes, then did, wiping out the prestige he had won by presiding over the collapse of the Soviet Union and leading a coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of oil-rich Kuwait in the First Gulf War.
No one imagines that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is all about the economy – Russia’s or Ukraine’s. More surely it is about history and geography. US political realists say it is all about NATO, and it’s America’s fault. Clinton, however, did not foresee this when in 1999 he sponsored NATO’s admission of three members of the former Warsaw Pact – Czechs, Poles and Hungarians. He still says the NATO excuse for the Russian invasion of Ukraine is “bullshit.”
“Bulls**t.”Bill Clinton on the NATO excuse for the Russian invasion of Ukraine
In fact, Russia’s first post-Soviet president Boris Yeltsin conceded that Lech Walesa’s Solidarity-led Poland had the right to join NATO now that the Cold War was over.
Clinton argued disingenuously that it was natural that Warsaw Pact countries should want to be admitted, given the history of their domination by Russia, while at the same time arguing that NATO was no longer directed at Russia.
The Chechen wars
In 1994, Yeltsin took on Muslim Chechen separatists in a war that in many ways resembles the one in Ukraine today. It ended in a Chechen victory, public disapproval, and a peace treaty in 1997. But after Russia’s envoy in Grozny was murdered, it resumed in 1999. Yeltsin was dying, and Vladimir Putin was prime minister.
The Second Chechen War was officially over a decade later after incredible atrocities by both sides. Having degenerated into a war on terror, Chechnya’s renewed subordination to Russia – and the collaboration of several of its former independence leaders with Moscow – it is a scenario that observers of the war in Ukraine should study, especially since Putin as president depicted the Chechen separatists, like Ukrainians, as Nazis.
Clinton told Putin, as the war got going again in 2000, that NATO was not directed at Russia’s new liberal regime but that, together with Russia, NATO could be directed toward defending the free world, including Russia, against non-state foes like international Islamist terrorism, an issue to which Russia, facing Chechen terrorist attacks on its own soil, could subscribe. It was perceived as an oblique offer to join NATO.
“Why not? Russia is part of Europe. I do not consider my own country in isolation from Europe”Vladimir Putin when asked by Bill Clinton to join NATO
“Why not? Russia is part of Europe. I do not consider my own country in isolation from Europe,” Putin told Clinton. But he then set conditions that he and Clinton may have known were unacceptable.
As a NATO member, Putin could have vetoed the admission of further ex-Warsaw Pact or former Soviet republics. Although Russia’s economy was in terrible shape at the time, he also expected the privilege of a veto power over NATO actions.
He did not, however, consider joining the European Union, nor was his admission considered. Putin conceived of post-Soviet Russia as a bastion of the Russian Orthodox tradition and a partner of Christian Europe only in the confrontation with Islamic terror.
WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH took office in 2001, Putin had matured. He thought Bush senior had deceived Gorbachev about NATO’s intentions to expand eastward, though Clinton was the first actually to do so. But his ruthless campaign against Chechen separatists and suppression of Chechen terror attacks in Russia induced him after 9/11 to call Bush before any other leader did and extend his condolences and offers of assistance.
It might have been a good moment to renew the offer of a NATO alliance with Russia against international terrorism. The Russian economy was now looking up, as oil prices rose and Putin had restored some order to it. But the same reasons as before deterred Russia and the US from pursuing that tack.
Under Yeltsin and Clinton, Russia had been accepted instead into the Group of Seven most prosperous Western industrial democracies. However, in what was now the Group of Eight, Russia was admitted as a political, not a financial, member to discuss terror, drug trafficking, arms control and the like. Putin appeared content until his expulsion in 2014 after he seized Crimea.
Meanwhile, in the wake of 9/11, Bush Jr. went on to invade Afghanistan, and then Iraq in 2003, despite Russia’s opposition and that of France and Germany. Putin perceived that Russian weakness enabled Bush to take unilateral action as leader of the sole superpower without deference to his European allies.
Just as important had been the humiliation to Russia of Clinton’s armed intervention in fragmented Yugoslavia in 1999, a European issue in which again the US took the lead. Clinton circumvented Putin’s veto against the bombing of Belgrade in the UN Security Council on the grounds that this was not an invasion of another country but a humanitarian intervention to prevent Serbian ethnic cleansing of Albanian Muslims in Kosovo. This time, the terrorists were Christian allies of Russia.
Post-communist Christian Orthodox Serbia, Russia’s traditional Slav ally, claimed that Kosovo, now having an Albanian majority, was the ancient heart of Serbia’s homeland. Putin, who considered Ukraine to have been ripped away from Russia by Lenin, warmed to such ancient historical claims.
America, which had little feel for history but did have international responsibilities and the ability to exert its power in their defense in Europe and the Middle East, inspired a dozen further applications to NATO, including four from former regions of Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia.
Breaching Russia’s near abroad
Most political realists, like the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, say that no large state is going to allow a smaller neighboring state to go its own way if it undermines its larger neighbor’s perceived national interests, whether it is Cuba next to America or Ukraine next to Russia. Nevertheless, communist Cuba without missiles did survive next to America, if shunned and subjected to economic sanctions.
The realists largely blame the current war in Ukraine on the US which, under Bush Jr. at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 issued a statement, to which France and Germany objected that “NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine,” two former Soviet republics deep in the underbelly of Russia. But Bush added, as Clinton did, “The new NATO we are building is not designed to defend against Russia. The Cold War is over. Russia is not our enemy. We’re working toward a new security relationship with Russia.”
“The new NATO we are building is not designed to defend against Russia. The Cold War is over. Russia is not our enemy. We’re working toward a new security relationship with Russia.”George W. Bush
The timing of the Bucharest Summit statement could hardly have been worse for a paranoid Russian president. A few months earlier, Putin had accused the United States at the 2007 Munich Security Conference of creating a “pernicious” unipolar world “in which there is just one master and one sovereign.” He claimed the right to ask what purpose NATO now served. The barb was aimed not at Western support of Ukraine, which at the time was not on the agenda, but at actions like the US invasion of Iraq, the bombing of Serbia, and the accumulation of Eastern European states into NATO on Putin’s watch, which he considered to be a violation of international law and a form of creeping aggression against Russia.
France and Germany, which had opposed the Iraq invasion and did precious little to stop the Serbs in Kosovo and Bosnia, looked on aghast as the US seemed to encourage the NATO ambitions of Georgia and Ukraine, fueling Putin’s view that NATO states were America’s puppets.
Their view and that of political scientist John Mearsheimer has been shared even more radically by many American authorities like George Kennan, the advocate of Soviet containment, and Henry Kissinger, the grandmaster of détente. The Munich speech is now regarded as Putin’s declaration of independence from the West which, after the Bucharest Summit, put Ukraine in the European spotlight and in the crosshairs of Putin’s gun sights.
Up to that point, Russia had declined in its own eyes a great distance even from the 1950s and ‘60s when Nikita Khrushchev would thump the UN rostrum with (or without) his shoe, denounce stooges of American imperialism, and confidently predict the final victory of international socialism. Khrushchev, never thinking the Soviet Union would one day collapse, donated Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 during his bid to improve Soviet agriculture and win Ukrainian support for his post-Stalin leadership bid.
President Barack Obama did not respond to Putin’s swift and near bloodless seizure of Crimea in 2014, following the Euromaidan protests and the ousting of Ukraine’s narrowly elected pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych who reneged, at Putin’s insistence, on a Ukrainian application to join the EU. For the thousands of young protesters, the issue was their economic future. But for Putin, as has been well said, the EU was a “stalking horse” for NATO, as virtually all members who qualified for one qualified for and were accepted by the other.
One fascinating hypothetical question emerges. If Donald Trump had been re-elected, he might have withdrawn the US from NATO, would have been more amenable to Putin’s claims on Ukraine and, if compelled to take a stand against Putin, would certainly have been less capable of uniting Europe and less generous with military aid, facilitating a speedier Russian victory with fewer casualties. So why didn’t Putin invade Ukraine on Trump’s watch?
For President Joe Biden, however, the next election is likely to be all about Ukraine, whose victory, however it will be defined, is essential if he is to be re-elected and not condemned for what will be termed the wasteful expenditure of lives and US taxpayers’ money if the war turns firmly against Ukraine.
And if history is less important to the US, it is important to Europe. France and Germany, countries with a history of invading Russia which they would rather Russia forgot, have sought compromise but are now under US pressure, increasingly drawn into the enthusiasm that Ukraine’s stunning resistance has engendered.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, Time Magazine’s 2022 Person of the Year, along with “the spirit of Ukraine,” has been lauded by many as a new Churchill, single-handedly confronting a new evil empire. But the parallel is not exact. For one thing, compromise with Nazi Germany was not an option. Nor could Britain have prevailed without a full-scale US military intervention, which Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war forced on the US after more than two years of war.
In Ukraine’s case, compromise is essential because no such full-scale intervention is feasible unless Putin decides to declare war on NATO or America. There has been talk of it and of using tactical nuclear weapons; but talk, like the talk of Ukraine’s future accession to NATO, is not grounds for invasion.
PUTIN INVADED Ukraine out of sheer resentment about the West’s ability to attract a fellow east Slav state. He has labeled the Ukrainian elected administration, like Chechen Islamists, a Nazi regime.
In his 2021 essay on the “Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” he claims that Russians and Ukrainians are one people with one language. He points out how the Catholic Habsburgs who controlled western Ukraine before 1918 persecuted Orthodox Christian believers.
Russia’s problem with Ukraine is certainly about geography too, but Putin is less bothered by the proximity of the three Baltic NATO states on Russia’s northern border because they are not Slavs.
The war is not about economic resources. One reason Yeltsin acquiesced in Ukraine’s decision to opt for independence rather than a Slav confederation with Russia and Belarus was his recognition that economically, Russia did not need Ukraine, but Ukraine needed Russia. Putin argued too that Ukraine would have been more prosperous in union with Russia, not that Russia would have been more prosperous with Ukraine.
No Russian is expecting economic benefit from the war. History is the banner around which Putin has aroused a spirit of patriotism, and the Soviet defeat of Nazism in the “Great Patriotic War” is surely the event most Russians can easily relate to, even if, in his essay, Putin emphasized more the common roots of Russia, Ukraine and the Russian Church in 9th-century Kievan Rus.
TWENTY-THREE YEARS ago, on becoming Russia’s president, it was hoped that Putin would settle for a warm, mutually beneficial relationship with the West based on growing economic prosperity and trade. That was Mikhail Gorbachev’s hope, and Putin blames Gorbachev, not Yeltsin, for what he calls katastroika – the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
But it was Yeltsin, together with the presidents of Belarus and Ukraine, who formally dismantled the Soviet Union. When the economy rebounded under Putin’s watch, largely thanks to a trebling of oil prices, Putin looked to be a man of a practical materialist outlook, sharing with the West a common foe in Islamic terrorism.
But he was changing. Western democracy was not his game. Brooking no opposition, Putin took to using hit men. This may have started with the lessons he learned in dealing with Chechnya. Its current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, switched sides in the Second Chechen War, was appointed president by Putin as Putin was by Yeltsin, and has been Putin’s greatest supporter and alleged hit man in the war against Ukraine and against Putin’s liberal opponents.
Just like the Second Chechen War compared with the first, the second year of war in Ukraine is likely to become a far more ruthless affair than it was in the first year as both sides deploy still heavier weapons and go for broke in the bid for victory. ■