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Temperatures Rising in US-Russia Cold War Over Ukraine
Biden mulling Stinger missiles as Putin continues Ukraine border buildup
A new wave of Cold War fever has pushed the Ukraine crisis into the most dangerous confrontation between the United States and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago this month.
Determined to halt NATO’s steady expansion into Eastern Europe and its former Soviet republics, Russia has declared Ukraine a bridge too far. In recent weeks, Moscow has massed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine in what U.S. intelligence says is preparation for an invasion sometime next month that could involve as many 175,000 troops in motorized infantry units backed by tanks and self-propelled artillery.
Tensions escalated last week when President Joe Biden warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a virtual summit that an invasion would trigger severe, multilateral economic sanctions that would cripple Russia’s already sputtering economy. While Biden made it clear he will not send U.S. troops to defend Ukraine, he recently sent Kyiv a $60 million security assistance package with enough small arms and ammunition to make any Russian invasion highly costly and painful.
The well connected Washington Post national security columnist David Ignatius reported on Sunday that the administration was considering sending Kyiv shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, which proved devastating to Soviet helicopter gunships in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In the view of many analysts, Putin’s troop buildup is no more than a crude tool to hammer the U.S. and NATO into a security agreement more to his liking: a pledge that NATO will not incorporate Ukraine and limitations on the alliance’s military activities in Eastern Europe, including its defense cooperation with Ukraine and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
The reaction among Washington’s Cold Warriors has been predictable. Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rejected Putin’s terms out of hand, charging they amounted to a list of concessions that the United States and NATO must make to appease Putin’s enlarged ego. He also accused Putin of “trying to create a pretext for war.”
“The Russian Federation made these demands with the full understanding they are impossible to accept,” Risch said in a statement. “Putin knows the United States and our 29 NATO allies do not, and will not, negotiate away the future of sovereign nations, like Ukraine, that must be able to make their own choices.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) even suggested that the United States could use nuclear weapons preemptively to keep Russian soldiers from crossing the border.
What is forgotten by many in Washington these days is that back in 1990, when the United States and its NATO allies were negotiating the reunification of Germany with the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker, along with the leaders of Britain, France and West Germany, provided Moscow with numerous assurances that NATO would not expand eastward into formerly Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact countries.
Here’s an example, drawn from declassified official documents during that period.
“Neither the President nor I intend to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place,” Baker told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev according to an official State Department record of their conversation on Feb. 9, 1990. Baker added: “Not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.”
“It goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable,” Gorbachev responded.
Baker affirmed: “We agree with that.”
Baker understood Gorbachev’s concerns, which were deeply ingrained in Russian memory. Russia has a long history of invasions from the West. Napoleon’s armies reached the gates of Moscow in 1812 before the harsh Russian winter forced their retreat. In the Crimean War of 1853-1856, Russia lost to an invading alliance of Britain, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire. In 1941, Hitler’s armies advanced within 10 miles of Moscow before the Russia’s infamous freezing winter—and a determined Soviet resistance—forced their retreat as well. But not before 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians had died in the fighting.
Beside its desire to export Marxism-Leninism beyond its borders, the memory of that death toll was the driving force behind Moscow’s creation of a buffer zone made up of the Warsaw Pact alliance of Eastern European nations and the Soviet republics that bordered on Europe.
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, debate soon began within the Bush administration over the wisdom of restricting NATO’s growth. Some in Washington feared the European Union might fill the security vacuum left by Moscow in Eastern Europe and threaten America’s new status as the world's only superpower. Once Republicans took control of Congress in the 1992 midterms, a bipartisan consensus emerged that NATO’s eastward expansion would cement U.S. hegemony.
After decades of suffocating Soviet control, newly independent Eastern European states were eager to join the alliance. But as momentum built to bring these countries into the alliance, so did Russia’s concerns about the West’s eastward push into their historic “near-abroad,” or sphere of influence.
In a declassified State Department cable from Dec. 6, 1994, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering wrote of “strong domestic opposition across the political spectrum to early NATO expansion; Russian suspicion, fed to some extent by U.S. press reports, and European complaints, that the U.S. has been pushing harder for NATO expansion than we have been telling the GOR [government of Russia] in diplomatic channels.”
Sweeping aside such opposition, the U.S. and its NATO allies first admitted Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic into the alliance, to be followed by Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 2004.
Russia was particularly upset by NATO’s expansion into the Baltic states. Moscow viewed its former republics as part of its near abroad, where government policies should align with Moscow's strategic interests. But in Russia’s weakened, post-Cold War state, President Boris Yeltsin could do little to prevent their membership in the western defense alliance.
In early 2008 NATO also dangled the prospect of future NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. By then, Putin had replaced Yeltsin, and the former KGB operations officer saw that invitation as a direct provocation. After pro-Western protesters drove Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych into exile in Russia in 2014, Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in what many believe was a preemptive move to secure Russia’s continued control over its strategic Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol. He also began supporting a separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Russian-speaking Donbas region.
Since then, the tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine has intensified. Since 2015, the United States has been training Ukrainian troops and holding regular joint military exercises. It also has provided Ukraine with $2.5 billion in weapons and military aid, $400 million in 2021 alone. The recently passed fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act includes another $300 million in Ukraine military assistance.
No U.S. government would accept a similar arrangement between Russia and, say, Mexico or Canada. Indeed, ever since 1823, the United States has maintained the Monroe Doctrine, which holds that any political or military intervention by foreign powers in the Western Hemisphere will be seen as a potentially hostile act against the United States. In other words, the entire Western Hemisphere is our own “near-abroad.” In 1962, the United States nearly went to war with the Soviet Union over its positioning of nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland.
The fact is, geography matters and always has. Yes, Ukraine is an independent country with the right to pursue its own foreign policy. But it also lives next door to Russia, a far larger and more powerful country whose concerns and history also must be taken into account.
A Marriage Postponed
In June, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said his government was “ready to join” NATO, but the U.S.-led alliance has not said when it would be prepared to consider Kyiv’s membership bid. Ian Lesser, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a transatlantic think tank, said last week “there’s very little enthusiasm” in NATO for issuing a formal invitation.
The Biden administration has said it’s prepared to negotiate a Ukraine settlement on the basis of the Minsk Protocols of 2014 and 2015, which would create some form of autonomy for the Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region. Putin apparently dismissed that idea during his Dec. 8 videoconference with Biden, saying that Ukraine was violating terms of the agreement, according to Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov.
Now Putin wants a guarantee that NATO will not admit Ukraine to its ranks, along with a pledge that U.S. missiles capable of striking Russia will not be stationed in NATO’s Eastern European countries and an agreement to revive the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF Treaty), from which President Donald Trump officially withdrew in August 2019.
Given the memory of 27 million dead in the last world war and the proximity today of U.S. and NATO forces to Russia, it’s a mystery to me why Washington would expect Putin to react any differently.
Unlike Sen. Risch and other hardliners who see Putin’s demands as a pretext to go to war, it’s far more likely that they are the Russian leader’s opening position and a basis for negotiations. The military buildup certainly forced Washington and NATO finally to pay attention to Moscow’s concerns about the alliance’s eastward expansion.
A senior Biden administration official said the United States and NATO intend to bring their own concerns about Russia’s actions to the negotiating table, along with the key principles upon which European security has been built. They include the right of a country to decide its own foreign policy, including the right to join NATO.
So it’s the diplomatic version of an unstoppable force confronting an immovable object.
‘We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” Dean Rusk, President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of State, said as Moscow backed down in the ninth day of the Cuban missile crisis, saving the world from a nuclear war. Nearly 60 years later, it’s far from certain that Putin will do the same.
SpyTalk Contributing Editor Jonathan Broder has been covering wars and foeign policy, here and abroad, for decades.