There are dangerous provocations along Russia’s western border that have received little or incredibly one-sided coverage by the U.S. media. Thus the US public is not aware of the possibility of a major conflict between two nuclear-armed powers occurring due to an accident or misinterpretation. The genesis of this current situation goes back in ancient history to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
After the fall, the US along with the West German leader Helmut Kohl, pushed for the reunification of West and East Germany. The Soviet Union allowed reunification based on the promise made by US Secretary of State James Baker (under President H.W. Bush). Baker said if the Soviets would allow reunification, that NATO would not expand "one inch" further east.
This promise was key for the Soviets who remembered previous devastating invasions by Western European nations. For example, during WWII estimates are that the Soviet Union lost over 26 million people, about 13% of its 1939 population. The Soviet Union was thus understandably concerned about a possibly hostile military group coming closer to its border.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US had unchallenged military power. Given this situation, the Washington establishment increased the risk of a new cold war and the possibility of an eventual war with Russia. President Bill Clinton started this process when, in violation of the promise made to the Soviets, he supported the eastward expansion of NATO.
In 1996, George Kennan, architect of the US containment policy towards the Soviet Union after WWII, warned that NATO’s expansion into former Soviet territories would be a "strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions." In 1998, Thomas Friedman solicited Kennan’s reaction to the Senate’s ratification of NATO’s eastward expansion. Kennan said: ”I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else."
Unfortunately, Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to heed Kennan’s wisdom and continued NATO’s eastward expansion. Given Russia’s weakened state in the 1990s, the political establishment thought there was little risk. However, while the US was destroying Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia rebuilt its military. Blinded by its hubris, the US political establishment was slow to grasp the impact of the rebirth of a strong rival.
In April 2008 at a NATO summit in Bucharest, NATO temporarily postponed discussion of membership for Georgia and Ukraine. At the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly opposed NATO membership for both of these nations on Russia’s border, viewing their membership as a security threat.
Reinforcing this point, later in 2008 Russia used military force to protect two breakaway provinces of Georgia with the goal of preventing Georgia from joining NATO. Despite Putin’s strong warning and military action, after the 2010 election of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the US increased its support of Ukrainians who favored connections with the West.
Removing Yanukovych, who opposed NATO membership, was the first step. In February 2014 after months of nonviolent protests, Yanukovych reached an agreement, mediated by EU foreign ministers, with the nonviolent political opposition for early elections. However, immediately following this compromise, members of the far right used violence and intimidation to oust Yanukovych. George Friedman, CEO of Stratfor, a US firm known as the ‘Shadow CIA’, said: "It really was the most blatant coup in history."
In response, in late February and early March 2014, Russia deployed some of its forces already in Crimea under a treaty and took control, conducted a vote that showed overwhelming support for rejoining Russia, and then annexed Crimea. The results of a vote in this situation may be suspect. However, it is likely that a vote conducted without the presence of the Russian troops would have yielded similar results. The US also alleges that Russia provided militarily support to the Ukrainians in breakaway areas who opposed the far-right coup. There was initially intense fighting in these breakaway areas. Even though there have been ceasefire agreements, attacks by the Kiev government continue today with neo-Nazis playing an important role in the violence against the coup opponents.
Since these events, the US and NATO have raised the ante by placing additional weapons systems and planning on rotating thousands of additional troops in Eastern Europe. The US and NATO claimed their actions were prompted by Russia’s actions in Crimea and the breakaway areas. In response to these moves, Russia announced plans to create three new divisions.
Posturing continues by both sides. During US military exercises with Poland in the Baltic Sea in April 2016, two unarmed Russian jets came dangerously close to the USS Donald Cook, a guided missile destroyer. Adding to the tension, NATO recently concluded military exercises in the Baltic Sea area and also a massive military exercise with approximately 30,000 troops in Poland. The US also has temporarily deployed a guided missile destroyer, the USS Porter, to the Black Sea for a brief tour there.
A mistake or misinterpretation could spark a conflict that no one wants. Given this possibility, why does the US continue along this path when further expansion of NATO is not vital to US security? Of particular importance and relevance, remember that this expansion is in violation of a US promise not to expand NATO to the east. Since Russia views the expansion as a major threat to its security, Putin and Russia cannot back down. Amazingly, when we need statesmen, the geniuses in our political establishment think provoking another nuclear-armed power is a sane policy. If this establishment doesn’t face reality soon, Kennan’s worst fears could be realized.
Ron Forthofer is a retired professor of biostatistics, having taught at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. Since his retirement in 1991, he has been an activist for peace and social justice.