The US and Russia

The US and Russia

Russia and the US have a deep shared interest in their own and global security. They form, in effect, the Western and Eastern boundaries of the Atlantic community. Conflict between the two helps neither.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

In 1991, 25 years ago, the USSR dissolved into a collection of independent states leaving the Russian Federation as its internationally recognized successor. (As the legal successor state, Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s seat in the UN Security Council.) The states of the former Eastern Bloc had already broken free of Soviet control. German unification was a fact by the end of 1990. It might have seemed that the Cold War was over with NATO’s mission of protecting the West from Soviet aggression no longer needed. But in fact, NATO did not disappear but began moving east into the former Warsaw Pact countries. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined in 1999. By 2004, NATO took in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania, thereby even moving beyond the former boundaries of the USSR. In 1999, I asked colleagues working on Europe in the Clinton National Security Council (NSC) why the US was pushing NATO expansion east when Russia might naturally see this as a provocation. The reply was quite simple, that the US had “won” the Cold War, the USSR had “lost” and Russia was now just a second class power of little consequence.

Further NATO expansion remains on the books. The NATO website explains (my emphasis added):

  • NATO’s “open door policy” is based on Article 10 of its founding treaty. Any decision to invite a country to join the Alliance is taken by the North Atlantic Council on the basis of consensus among all Allies. No third country has a say in such deliberations.
  • NATO’s ongoing enlargement process poses no threat to any country. It is aimed at promoting stability and cooperation, at building a Europe whole and free, united in peace, democracy and common values.
  • Montenegro was invited to start accession talks join the Alliance at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on 2 December 2015, while encouraged to make further progress on reforms.
  • The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been assured that it will be invited to become a member as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the issue over the country’s name has been reached with Greece.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina was invited to join the Membership Action Plan (MAP) in April 2010 but its participation is pending the resolution of a key issue concerning immovable defence property.
  • At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, the Allies agreed that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO in future (since 2010, Ukraine has not been formally pursuing membership).

NATO – i.e., the US – sees its “open door” as nobody else’s business, good for Europe and a threat to no one. Moving into the Balkans, Albania and Croatia were admitted in 2009. Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia are on the doorstep. Reaching deeper into the former USSR, NATO unilaterally decided to eventually bring in the Ukraine and Georgia.

It demands great credulity to believe that Russia would not have seen this expansion east as a form of aggression. Russia has a long history and a deep culture. It also possess a formidable military, nuclear weapons, and the seat on the Security Council. Moscow essentially swallowed the first waves of NATO expansion but balked at Georgia (where Stalin was born) and in 2014 drew the line in Ukraine. None of this should have been surprising. That President Putin, for partly political reasons, played to Russian nationalism in his reaction to NATO’s pretensions should not hide the fact that Russia and the Russian people had good reason to feel brazenly provoked.

During the Yeltsin years, the US made efforts to support Russian “reform.” But Americans have little appreciation of the particularities of other countries – historical, social, cultural, political – and expected too much and gave too little. With Putin the trajectory has been mostly down. But the events in Ukraine, Russian resilience to sanctions, and Moscow’s reclaimed role in the Mideast suggest that it was always foolish to see Russia as simply a second class power of no consequence. The US and Europe – as the Germans at least understand – need Russia.

Russia and the US have a deep shared interest in their own and global security. They form, in effect, the Western and Eastern boundaries of the Atlantic community. Conflict between the two helps neither. They face a common threat from Islamic fundamentalism and the regional chaos in Syria and Iraq. They both must contend with the “rise” of China. That the two countries have different political systems is not unusual and reflects their very different histories. It should not take Donald Trump to note that the Russian people have chosen their president and still support him. Sanctions have not weakened Putin because the Russian people need no help in determining for themselves that they are yet another example of US efforts to weaken them.

What should be done? Washington’s political class should make up its collective mind to deal with the Russia that is rather then the one it might wish. NATO expansion into Ukraine is not required by US national interests and should be dropped. EU membership for Ukraine should be left to the EU to process (or not). The US played a large role in Syria and Iraq’s descent into chaos. Washington should accept that Russia has interests in Syria and that Assad’s fate needs to be negotiated. More generally, Washington should commit itself to working multilaterally and with it’s partners on the Security Council, especially Russia. Achieving compromise approaches with Russia may not be easy. Trust has been frayed. But as their work together on Iran nuclear matters shows, things can get done. And the US needs partners that don’t always simply say “yes.” Those “coalitions of the willing” are not protection from making more mistakes.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. After leaving the US State Department, he served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor. He has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, George Washington University, Drake University and the Daniel Morgan Academy and now works as an independent consultant in Washington, DC.

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