The Knot At the Heart of the Ukraine Crisis

The origin of the Ukraine crisis is consistently reported in the West as an unfortunate and unpopular choice by President Viktor Yanukovych to go with an economic alliance with Russia over the economic alliance offered by the European Union. The package offered by the European Union is portrayed as benign and Yanukovych’s rejection of it as a betrayal.

But it was the European Union’s offer, not Yanukovych’s rejection of it, that was the betrayal.

It has often been reported that when Russia agreed to allow Germany to become part of NATO, NATO and the U.S. agreed not to move “one inch” further east than Germany. The history of the promise isn’t that clear or that simple, but there was a promise.

At a February 9, 1990 meeting, George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, promised Gorbachev that if NATO got Germany and Russia pulled its troops out of East Germany “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction one inch to the east.” But according to Professor of Russian and European Politics, Richard Sakwa, this promise meant only that NATO would not spill over from West Germany into East Germany. The promise of not “one inch to the east,” meant only that NATO wouldn’t militarize East Germany.

But the logic of the specific assurance implies the larger assurance. Russia wouldn’t have it as a security concern that East Germany not be home to NATO forces if there were NATO forces in all the Soviet Republics between East Germany and the western border of the Soviet Union. The value of the promise not to militarize East Germany is contingent upon the understanding that NATO won’t militarize east of East Germany.

So the question of militarizing east of Germany never had to explicitly come up: it was implicitly understood. Sakwa says, “The question of NATO enlargement to the other Soviet bloc countries simply did not enter anyone’s head and was not discussed.”

The promise was made on two consecutive days: first by the Americans and then by the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. According to West German foreign ministry documents, on February 10, 1990, the day after James Baker’s promise, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, told his Soviet counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze “‘For us . . . one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.’ And because the conversation revolved mainly around East Germany, Genscher added explicitly: ‘As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general.’”

Former CIA analyst and chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch Ray McGovern reports that the US ambassador to the USSR at the time of the promise, Jack Matlock – who was present at the talks – told him that "The language used was absolute, and the entire negotiation was in the framework of a general agreement that there would be no use of force by the Soviets and no ‘taking advantage’ by the US … I don’t see how anybody could view the subsequent expansion of NATO as anything but ‘taking advantage. . . .”

Mikhail Gorbachev thinks there was a promise made. He says the promise was made not to expand NATO “as much as a thumb’s width further to the east.” Putin also says the promise was made. In 2012, Putin said, “And what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them.”

Putin then went on to remind his audience of the assurances by pointing out that the existence of the NATO promise is not just the perception of him and Gorbachev. It was also the view of the NATO General Secretary at the time: “But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr. [Manfred] Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: ‘the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.’ Where are those guarantees?”

McGovern says that when he asked Viktor Borisovich Kuvaldin, a Gorbachev adviser from 1989-1991, why there was no written agreement, Kuvaldin replied painfully, “We trusted you.”

The significance of this agreement today is that this strand of history becomes tangled in a knot when it combines with the contemporary strand of the European Union economic offer to Ukraine. The offer was not the benign one presented by the Western media. It was not just an economic offer.

According to Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton, Stephen Cohen, the European Union proposal also “included ‘security policy’ provisions . . . that would apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO.” The provisions compelled Ukraine to “adhere to Europe’s ‘military and security’ policies.” So the proposal was not a benign economic agreement: it was a security threat to Russia in economic sheep’s clothing.

So, after NATO engulfed Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999; Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004 and Albania and Croatia in 2009, the economic offer made by the European Union to Ukraine was, in fact, the most recent and most serious security threat to the Russians and the most recent and most serious betrayal of the cold war promise.

Russia had no problem with E.U. expansion. Russia was willing – even anxious – to work with and cooperate with Europe. Sakwa says, “ . . . there was no external resistance at this point to EU enlargement. On its own it posed no security threat to Russia, and it was only later, when allied with NATO enlargement . . . that enlargement encountered resistance.” And that is the problem with the E.U. offer to Ukraine: it is allied with NATO.

Sakwa says “EU enlargement paves the way to NATO membership” and points out that, since 1989, every new member of the E.U. has become a member of NATO. It’s not only that the E.U. package subordinated Ukraine to NATO, since the E.U. Treaty of Lisbon went into effect in 2009 all new members of the E.U. are required to align their defense and security policies with NATO.

The E.U.’s Association Agreement with Ukraine was not just an economic agreement, as consistently presented in the Western media. Article 4 says the Agreement will “promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area.” This article is a betrayal of the cold war’s closing promise and a violation of NATO’s “firm security guarantee” to Russia.

Article 7 speaks of the convergence of security and defense, and Article 10 says that “the parties shall explore the potential of military and technological cooperation”.

So the knot at the heart of the Ukraine conflict is the entanglement of two agreements: the first agreement – between NATO and the U.S.S.R. – promises that NATO will not metastasize into the Russian sphere of concern, while the second, between the E.U. and Ukraine commits the country that holds the paramount position in the Russian sphere of concern to moving into the NATO sphere.

Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.

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