The year 1989 showcased one of history’s great moments of human liberation. The Soviet Union loosed its grip on its European satellites. Communist dominoes toppled. The Berlin Wall fell.
So ended some of the most odious regimes in human history. A variety of barbarous, collectivist regimes were swept away, and with surprisingly little violence. Hundreds of millions of people were freed.
Americans and Western Europeans also benefited from the end of the Cold War. The threats, however unlikely, of a cataclysmic nuclear exchange or a Red Army sweep across the European continent, disappeared. It was a moment to be celebrated, even cherished. But it had dramatic implications for the continent’s security architecture.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization had existed for three decades, dedicated, in the words of the alliances first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, to keeping the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out. Despite some disquiet about German reunification after communism’s collapse, Germany had ceased to threaten Europe’s peace years before. The revival of Prussian militarism is about as likely as the reincarnation of Napoleonic aggression.
With the collapse of communism, military force was no longer needed to keep the Russians out. The Warsaw Pact dissolved, its members shifting westward to NATO. The Soviet Union collapsed, with a third of its population fleeing the Russian imperial embrace. The Red Army declined, becoming a pale imitation of the behemoth which defeated Nazi Germany.
As a result, there was no reason to keep America in Europe. That continent’s prosperous and populous states faced no threat of outside aggression and are able to meet any remaining security needs. The only enemy they found in the last two decades was Serbia, a pitiful replacement for the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Moreover, the European Union, not NATO, has proved to be the best means of spurring continental integration.
All this was in America’s interest. But it was not in the interest of NATO apparatchiks.
Whereas alliances once were a means to an end in this case, to neutralize Germany while protecting Western Europe from Soviet aggression they now became the end. Desperate policymakers, committed to retaining NATO without a Warsaw Pact, began proposing new tasks for the Western alliance, such as fighting the illicit drug trade, promoting environmental protection, and encouraging student exchanges. In the same spirit I suggested turning tanks into bookmobiles and sending them rolling across Europe.
NATO soon turned to “out-of-area” operations, such as in the Balkans. Yet the conflicts spawned by Yugoslavia’s dissolution were of only marginal security interest to Europe and of none to America. Washington’s attack on Serbia grew out of a foreign policy which Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University famously likened to social work. So long as no American interest was at stake, the Clinton administration wanted to get involved. In doing so, it relieved pressure on Europe to take responsibility for its own security.
Nevertheless, many Europeans were embarrassed by their dependence on America. During the Kosovo war analysts estimated that Europe had but 10 to 15 percent of America’s combat capability. The continent’s large conscript militaries had limited combat value and were particularly ill-suited for more sophisticated, high-tech operations expected to dominate future conflicts.
Thus, over the last decade Europeans have talked about taking on a greater international role. The European Union established an “European Security and Defense Policy” and hired Javier Solana, formally known as the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union. But European governments prefer to spout abstract rhetoric than to spend real resources.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, last year the combined defense expenditures of Europe’s 24 members ran about $212 billion; the U.S. spent two and a half times as much. Yet the Europeans had a collective GDP of $14.2 trillion, about a trillion dollars more than America’s economic output; their aggregate population was 535 million, almost 80 percent more than that of the U.S.
But the Europeans really can’t be blamed for free-riding on America. European voters understandably prefer more munificent welfare programs to more armored divisions.
After all, they have little reason to fear Moscow. Russia’s GDP last year was $1.67 trillion, less than one-eighth that of NATO’s European NATO members. Russia’s population was 142.1 million, little more than one-fourth that of the European states. Moscow’s armed forces ran about one million, while the Europeans had 2.2 million men and women under arms. And while Europe faces its own birth dearth, Russia’s population is imploding, dropping about 700,000 annually. Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation reports that by mid-century Russia could have fewer than 100 million people.
Europeans see no other threats worth defending against. The continent’s greatest security problem undoubtedly is terrorism, but it is aggravated rather than ameliorated by “out of area” military activities in the Middle East.
Thus, it is time for the U.S. to go home. Peace and stability in Europe are obviously of more interest to Europe than to America. Yet Europeans see no need for expansive and expensive modern military forces. Without a hegemonic, anti-American power threatening the continent, Washington also has no cause to worry, let alone to keep some 100,000 troops on the continent.
Bringing these forces home would not end military cooperation where Washington’s and Europe’s interests coincided. But today NATO delivers little of value to the U.S. The Europeans did not hesitate to disagree with America on side issues even during the Cold War, when they rebuffed Washington by supporting the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and building a natural gas pipeline to the Soviet Union. More recent disagreements over U.S. policies towards terrorism and Iraq have been equally sharp. In the future the Europeans are ever less likely to allow themselves to be treated like “America’s vassal states,” as former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski put it.
Today the Europeans are helpful in Afghanistan, though the value of their aid currently about 20,000 soldiers is limited by small national deployments, home opposition, and varying rules of engagement. But the most valuable European support has come outside of NATO. The United Kingdom has provided serious manpower and firepower in Iraq, a conflict in which NATO could not act because of internal opposition. Moreover, if the U.S. stopped wasting bountiful resources on Europe, it would be better able to handle contingencies elsewhere in the world.
Even after disengaging, Washington should maintain friendly relations with Europe which will pose no difficulty, given the extensive historical, cultural, commercial, and political ties across the Atlantic. The U.S. should replace permanent bases with agreements for base access; joint operations, intelligence sharing, and regular consultation should continue. But Europe’s defense should be left to Europe.
The importance of doing so has become more evident with tensions between Estonia and Russia rising to a fever pitch. As critics of NATO expansion pointed out, bringing the former Soviet satellites into NATO did nothing for allied security: if the U.S. and its traditional NATO partners could live with Estonia as part of the Soviet Union, they certainly could live with an independent Estonia living in Russia’s at times dark shadow. The latter might not be a good thing, but then, neither had been the USSR’s forcible incorporation of the Baltic states decades before. The question for NATO is what interests warrant going to war, and guaranteeing Estonia’s independence was never one of them.
Russia’s relations with newly independent Estonia and Lithuania, in particular, were never going to be easy (there were fewer disputes with Latvia). Moscow’s brutal reign left little love for things Russian, yet many ethnic Russians remained after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In Estonia 28 percent of the population is Russian; by and large, Russian “immigrants” during the Soviet era were not granted citizenship, and two-thirds remain largely disenfranchised, denied full employment and voting rights. Moreover, Russian politicians have found Estonia a good cause for periodically flaunting their nationalist credentials. In fact, many analysts long expected some sort of bilateral explosion focused on the second class treatment of the ethnic Russian minorities.
That isn’t the current issue between Russia and Estonia, at least directly. Rather, it is the decision of the Estonian government to remove a bronze statue of a soldier symbolizing the Soviet “liberation” of Estonia from the Nazis.
While the resistance of average Soviet citizens to the Nazi invasion was truly heroic, many subject peoples, from the Baltic states to Ukraine, originally viewed the German invaders as liberators. After Stalin’s repression, terror, purges, impoverishment, and mass starvation, who could blame them? The Estonians had particular cause for complaint the Red Army moved in uninvited in June 1940, after which hundreds of thousands of Estonian citizens disappeared into the Gulag, similar numbers of Russians were imported as replacements, and Moscow waged a systematic campaign to eliminate every last vestige of Estonian culture, language, and life.
Hitler’s preference for racial subjugation and extermination eventually caused even his erstwhile allies to fight to expel his forces, but they did not welcome the Soviets back. Indeed, sporadic armed resistance to renewed Soviet rule persisted for years, especially in Ukraine. Thus, the Soviet-imposed statue in the central square of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, was aptly seen by Estonians more as a symbol of tyranny than of liberation. The only surprise is that the Estonians waited 16 years after the USSR’s breakup to relocate the monument (along with the bodies of 13 Soviet soldiers) to a military cemetery on the city outskirts.
But ethnic Russians, who make up about half of Tallinn’s population, protested violently, leading to mass arrests and the death of one Russian citizen. The Russian government vehemently objected; thugs surrounded Estonia’s embassy in Moscow and threatened Estonian diplomats; Russian firms suspended contracts with Estonian enterprises; and the Russian government launched cyber-attacks on Estonian government websites and interrupted coal, gasoline, and fuel oil supplies to Estonia. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained that the Estonian action was an attempt “to rewrite history” and “to make a mockery of history,” which “cannot fail to anger us.”
Boris Gryzlov, chairman of Russia’s lower house, the Duma, called the action “wild vandalism” and said the Estonians were “actually justifying Nazism.” Other Russian officials denounced Estonia for being “pro-fascist” and engaging in “discrimination” and “repression” of ethnic Russians.
Estonia’s membership in the EU immediately involved the Europeans in the dispute. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet contended that “The European Union is under attack, because Russia is attacking Estonia.” In response, the EU has threatened to block Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.
In the case of a military assault, however, the Europeans would undoubtedly turn to the U.S. Despite all the fury so far lots of smoke but not much fire the U.S. could remain cheerfully aloof if Estonia was not a NATO member. But, unfortunately, the alliance entangles America.
So the U.S., alone and through NATO, has explicitly backed Estonia. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves to express his support. The alliance indicated that it was “deeply concerned by threats” from Russia and indicated that “these actions are unacceptable and must be stopped immediately.” Moscow must “cease those unacceptable actions.” The bilateral tensions “must be resolved diplomatically.”
The Bush administration has invited Ilves to the U.S. as a sign of support. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denounced the “unacceptable pressures on a sovereign country” and phoned Ilves to voice Washington’s backing. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey indicated that “We are concerned” by Russia’s actions.
Seeking to uphold diplomatic norms in this way usually would be unexceptional, but the Estonians likely expect more than just rhetoric. Journalist Leon Hadar reports on an Estonian diplomat who declared at a Washington conference held before the crisis: “Estonia, as a close U.S. ally, has committed its military forces to fight on the side of the Americans in Iraq,” adding that: “We rushed to lend you a hand when you needed it, and we expect you to come to our help when we face a similar threat.” This is an amazing bit of effrontery Estonia intervened with all of 35 soldiers but through NATO Washington has committed to go to war against Russia to defend Estonia (as the other Baltic states, Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania).
Given the alliance ties, Russia has broadened its complaint to America and the Europeans. For instance, Lavrov charged that “certain organizations such as NATO and the EU connive with these attempts” to rewrite history, which he saw as “an element and an instrument of the foreign policy of certain countries.” Alexei Borodavkin, Russia’s representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, similarly declared: “What happened in Estonia … cannot fail to affect relations between Russia and the European Union and the North Atlantic alliance.” He also complained of EU and NATO “Indifference and connivance.”
Although the Russian government has used the controversy for its own ends, the popular passions are real. A website entitled “Bronze Soldier: Forgive Us” presents the Russian case against moving the “Soldier-Liberator Monument.” It shows pictures of beaten and shackled Russian-Estonian demonstrators, denounces “genocide” and Estonian “executioners” with their “concentration camp” for protesters. The Estonian authorities are accused of “brutality,” “blasphemy,” “terror,” and “human rights violations,” of launching a “witch hunt” against opponents of the move. The authors derided “lawlessness in ‘free’ Estonia.”
Behind the overwrought rhetoric is Russian nationalistic pride. The Soviet Union played the biggest role in defeating Nazi Germany and paid an enormous price in doing so. Even some outside Russia sympathize with the statue’s defenders. Columnist Charley Reese contends: “Just as the sins of Hitler should not be visited on the present-day Germans, so, too, the sins of Stalin should not be visited on today’s Russia. That statue does not symbolize Soviet occupation. It symbolizes the Red Army’s victory over the Third Reich. And it is a statue of a common soldier, not of Stalin.”
Perhaps, though Estonians naturally see the victory of the Red Army as synonymous with the reinstallation of Soviet tyranny. As Ilves puts it, “We are sorry that so many people were murdered by the Soviet regime.” In any case, 60 years after the statue was erected, the Estonian people are entitled to decide who and what to celebrate in their capital city.
Still, prudence suggests that Estonia tread carefully regarding an emotional issue so important to its powerful neighbor, which dwarfs the small nation of just 1.3 million. As Reese puts it: It is in the interest of Moscow’s small neighbors “to cultivate good relations with Russia.”
But Tallinn cares little about its relations with Moscow when it can turn to Europe and America: “little kids with big bodyguards are always quick to employ their surrogate muscle,” writes Reese. The problem is not Estonia: who can blame it for deploying its free bodyguards? The problem is the U.S. allowing itself to be used.
Nor is Estonia the only dependent which might treat the White House number as its personal 911 line. Until NATO expansion only Turkey shared a border with the Soviet Union. Now Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania all have direct contact with Russia. At the moment Lithuania and Poland both have unpleasant economic and political disputes with Moscow.
Some NATOphiles would push even further, bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance, thereby further encircling Russia. In Pat Buchanan’s words, this “would commit us to go to war with Russia over control of the Crimean peninsula and the Russian-speaking Donbass of eastern Ukraine, and over the birthplace of Stalin and who should control South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”
Local pro-Western elites desire precisely this result. Former and possible future Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko argues that the West must blunt Russia’s “imperial ambitions.” How is only too obvious.
Washington risks having to pay a high price for promiscuously issuing military guarantees. Although Estonia is an attractive friend, it is irrelevant to U.S. security. Russia, in contrast, matters greatly. Moscow remains the one other nuclear superpower, the only country on the planet though China may eventually get there with the ability to annihilate American society.
Of course, no one seriously imagines war between the U.S. and Russia over Estonia, but seemingly sober people sometimes make unexpected, disastrous mistakes. As the summer of 1914 dawned no one believed that all of Europe’s major powers would soon be at war. Although Washington’s security guarantee to Estonia presumably deters Russia from taking extreme action, that commitment also ensures that America will become involved if deterrence fails. And a dependent nation like Estonia is more likely to provoke and less likely to conciliate its antagonist if it believes it can rely on a more powerful state for its defense.
In effect, the U.S. is turning the decision about war and peace over to a small, nationalistic country with abundant grievances against a large, nuclear-armed neighbor. Washington’s promise to defend Estonia might make the latter more secure, but it endangers America.
Much more than war is at stake. At the conventional level the Soviet breakup has greatly weakened the Russian state, preventing Moscow from competing with the U.S. militarily around the world. However, Russia remains an important international player with significant regional military capabilities, and is growing stronger. Moscow is well-positioned to impede and even block some American initiatives. Russia also is able to join other nations, possibly including the rising powers of China and India, to balance against America.
A new Russian foreign policy strategy, recently published in Moscow, suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided on “no more Mr. Nice Guy.” The document declares: “Under the banner of fighting new threats and challenges, attempts are continuing to form a ‘unipolar world.'” However, “a strong, more self-confident Russia” will insist on “a partnership with the United States on the condition that it will be built on principles of equality and mutual benefit.”
Notably, so far, at least, Moscow has avoided conflict with the U.S. Putin is insisting that Russia’s interests be taken into account, not that America’s interests be sacrificed. Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies observes: “The Russians don’t want a return to the Cold War. But on issues they care about, they’re going to play harder ball.” Russia’s ambassador to America, Yuri Ushakov, says simply: “The 1990s, when Russia was rather deferential to the United States, are long over.” But relations are likely to worsen if Washington doesn’t get the hint.
Ominously, Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule does not mean he lacks public support. Indeed, polls indicate that Russian citizens believe his most important accomplishment has been increasing Russia’s international status.
Moscow could use that increased status against America in many ways. After all, the U.S. is seeking Moscow’s cooperation on a range of issues. For instance, arms control remains a top concern. The Russian military has threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.
Moreover, President Putin has announced a “moratorium” on implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Putin complained that NATO nations were “building military bases on our borders [Bulgaria and Romania] and, more than that, they are also planning to station elements of antimissile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.” Washington claimed the latter was directed against Iran, but Moscow is understandably suspicious.
Russian Army Chief of Staff Yury Baluyevsky said of the allied plans: “If we see that these installations, which could be set up in Europe, represent a threat, then we will definitely plan actions against them.” Similarly, Nikolai Solovtsov, head of Russia’s missile forces, warned that “the Strategic Rocket Forces can take adequate measures to offset the threat that could arise.”
Perhaps even more important, Washington is seeking Russian cooperation to help persuade both Iran and Korea to eschew and abandon, respectively, the development of nuclear weapons. Moscow has been arming Venezuela, over Washington’s objections. The U.S. wants Russia’s acquiescence on the UN Security Council for the independence of Kosovo from Serbia.
Further, Russia is a major energy producer. Western Europe as well as Russia’s neighbors are highly dependent on Russian oil and natural gas supplies. President Putin says his nation’s energy resources are a “powerful lever of economic and political influence in the world.”
Until the Iraq debacle reached full bloom, Washington persisted in believing that America remained the unipower, the essential nation whose benighted leadership would be accepted by all nations that value truth, justice, democracy, and, of course, the American way. Washington’s diminished stature means that relations with Moscow matter even more. Argues Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation:
"At best, deep mutual hostility between the U.S. and Russia represents a serious distraction from America’s infinitely more important and urgent problems elsewhere, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the rise of China, and the deterioration of U.S. influence in Latin America. At worst, this tension could lead to Russia arming Iran, joining global energy cartels to put pressure on the West, and inflicting on Washington geopolitical humiliation on the territory of the former Soviet Union."
And the very worst case would be war. Thankfully, conflict is almost as unlikely as it is unthinkable. But great powers have clashed before over issues of less import than the imbroglio involving Estonia and Russia.
In short, Washington is risking much for no cause. Russia has no desire to do America ill. Its ambitions are regional rather than global; it remains a declining rather than rising power despite its modest, ongoing revival. The U.S. might find Moscow’s behavior obnoxious at times, but in this way Russia is little different than many other authoritarian, corrupt, and prideful regimes. When the Soviet Union tottered nearly two decades ago, notes Lieven, “A Western policymaker who advocated such megalomaniacal, horribly dangerous projects as drawing Ukraine and Georgia into an anti-Russian military alliance, and taking responsibility for their security, would have been regarded as completely insane.”
Washington would do well to step back and rethink its approach to both Europe and Russia. The Europeans are and will remain good friends, but they do not need defending by Washington. If they want to suppress conflict around their continent and eliminate Russia’s influence over even its neighbors, they are welcome to try, but without America’s help. If, in contrast, they decide that geopolitical squabbles on Russia’s border, like Estonia, or minor civil wars at the continent’s periphery, like in the Balkans, are not worth military intervention, then neither should the U.S. Washington can remain watchful and wary of any potential hegemonic threats which could overwhelm Europe, but today an invasion from Mars seems more likely.
The U.S. should make better relations with Moscow a priority. Russia may not be where Washington policymakers would like it to be, but it has moved far from two decades ago. And even an authoritarian, assertive Russia poses no threat to U.S. security. Without global ambitions fueled by an hegemonic ideology, bilateral disagreements are unlikely to involve fundamental interests.
Indeed, good relations often require little more than good manners. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not much. With some justification, Moscow feels betrayed: it ended the Cold War peacefully and withdrew its troops from Eastern Europe voluntarily in the belief that the U.S. and its allies would not impinge on fundamental Russian geopolitical interests. Even if the Soviet implosion was inevitable, the peaceful nature of the collapse was not. One Russian complained to Simon Jenkins of the Guardian: “We have done well in the past 15 years, yet we get nothing but rebuffs and insults. Russia’s rulers have their pride, you know.”
Moreover, the Western-supported process of privatization and economic reform looked more like gangster than market capitalism. Fair or not, average Russians have little affection for the presumed liberals who remain favorites in the West. Hence popular support for President Putin’s campaign against financial oligarchs and for state ownership of important economic assets.
Now NATO seems determined to expand almost within view of the Kremlin’s spires. Worries former Sen. Gary Hart: “forces are at work to demonize Russia, to isolate and alienate it from the West, and to continue to treat it as an enemy.” Even worse, in the name of democracy and human rights valid concerns, but ones that cannot be enforced by the West there is by some what Justin Raimondo calls a “relentless campaign to further humiliate an empire already humbled and shattered.” Reviving even the hint of the Cold War is foolhardy in the extreme.
Instead, the U.S. should develop a cooperative relationship geared to promoting American interests. Lieven points to preventing proliferation of Russian nuclear weapons, discouraging Islamic revolutions in the Caucusus and Central Asia, preserving “reasonably open international access” to energy in the same regions, and avoiding regional conflict. Equally important, if a bit further afield, is cooperating to resolve shared international geopolitical concerns, such as North Korean and Iranian acquisition of nuclear arsenals. While Washington can usefully press Moscow to respect human rights, success is more likely to be achieved through quiet diplomacy than hypocritical public incantations, especially from a U.S. administration which cheerfully blesses far worse behavior in other nations.
The time to reconsider existing policy towards Europe and Russia is now. The dispute between Estonia and Moscow isn’t likely to quickly disappear. Nor is this likely to be the last international spat between Russia and its neighbors. Washington should ensure that next time America is not caught in the middle.