The prophet Cassandra’s curse was that when she told the future, no one listened; history’s curse is that when it tells the past, no one does.
The West has no shortage of charges it hurls against Russia, but most of them can be grouped into one of three categories: that Russia intervened in the American elections, that Russia is dragging the world into a new cold war, and that Russia is becoming increasingly aggressive and expansionist. Sometimes when charges are brought against you, the best witness you can call to your defense is history.
This history of Russia, America and political intervention begins right at the beginning of the history of the Soviet Union. But, it was not the Soviet Union doing the interfering.
The story of America and the West’s interference in the birth of the Soviet Union is not well-known. It began with propaganda but metastasized well beyond words. By mid 1918, 13,000 American troops were on Soviet soil. They would remain there for two years, killing and injuring thousands. Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev would later remind America of “the time you sent your troops to quell the revolution.” Churchill would record for history that the West “shot Soviet Russians on sight,” that they were “invaders on Russian soil,” that “[t]hey armed the enemies of the Soviet government,” that “[t]hey blockaded its ports, and sunk its battleships. They earnestly desired and schemed for its downfall.”
America would interfere more specifically in Russian elections upon the death of the Soviet Union. In late 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin won a year of special powers from the Russian Parliament: for one year, he was to be, in effect, the dictator of Russia to facilitate the midwifery of the birth of a democratic Russia. In March of 1992, under pressure from a discontented population, parliament repealed the dictatorial powers it had granted him. Yeltsin responded by declaring a state of emergency, re-bestowing upon himself the repealed dictatorial powers. Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that Yeltsin was acting outside the constitution. But the US sided – against the Russian people and against the Russian Constitutional Court – with Yeltsin.
Intoxicated with American support, Yeltsin dissolved the parliament that had rescinded his powers and abolished the constitution of which he was in violation. In a 636-2 vote, the Russian parliament impeached Yeltsin. But, President Clinton again sided with Yeltsin against the Russian people and the Russian law, backed him and gave him $2.5 billion in aid. Clinton was interfering in the Russian people’s choice of leaders.
Yeltsin took the money and sent police officers and elite paratroopers to surround the parliament building. Clinton “praised the Russian President has (sic) having done ‘quite well’ in managing the standoff with the Russian Parliament,” as The New York Times reported at the time. Clinton added that he thought “the United States and the free world ought to hang in there” with their support of Yeltsin against his people, their constitution and their courts, and judged Yeltsin to be “on the right side of history.”
On the right side of history and armed with machine guns, Yeltsin’s troops opened fire on the crowd of protesters, killing about 100 people before setting the Russian parliament building on fire. By the time the day was over, Yeltsin’s troops had killed approximately 500 people and wounded nearly 1,000. Still, Clinton stood with Yeltsin. He provided ludicrous cover for Yeltsin’s massacre, claiming that “I don’t see that he had any choice…. If such a thing happened in the United States, you would have expected me to take tough action against it.” Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said that the US supported Yeltsin’s suspension of parliament in these “extraordinary times.”
In 1996, America would interfere yet again. With elections looming, Yeltsin’s popularity was nonexistent, and his approval rating was at about 6 percent. According to Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton, Stephen Cohen, Clinton’s interference in Russian politics, his “crusade” to “reform Russia,” had by now become official policy. And, so, America boldly interfered directly in Russian elections. Three American political consultants, receiving “direct assistance from Bill Clinton’s White House,” secretly ran Yeltsin’s re-election campaign. As Time magazine broke the story, “For four months, a group of American political consultants clandestinely participated in guiding Yeltsin’s campaign.”
“Funded by the U.S. government,” Cohen reports, Americans “gave money to favored Russian politicians, instructed ministers, drafted legislation and presidential decrees, underwrote textbooks, and served at Yeltsin’s reelection headquarters in 1996.”
More incriminating is that Richard Dresner, one of the three American consultants, maintained a direct line to Clinton’s Chief Strategist, Dick Morris. According to reporting by Sean Guillory, in his book, Behind the Oval Office, Morris says that, with Clinton’s approval, he received weekly briefings from Dresner that he would give to Clinton. Based on those briefings, Clinton would then provide recommendations to Dresner through Morris.
Then ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering, even pressured an opposing candidate to drop out of the election to improve Yeltsin’s odds of winning.
The US not only helped run Yeltsin’s campaign, they helped pay for it. The US backed a $10.2 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan for Russia, the second-biggest loan the IMF had ever given. The New York Times reported that the loan was “expected to be helpful to President Boris N. Yeltsin in the presidential election in June.” The Times explained that the loan was “a vote of confidence” for Yeltsin who “has been lagging well behind … in opinion polls” and added that the US Treasury Secretary “welcomed the fund’s decision.”
Yeltsin won the election by 13 percent, and Time magazine’s cover declared: “Yanks to the rescue: The secret story of how American advisers helped Yeltsin win”. Cohen reports that the US ambassador to Russia boasted that “without our leadership … we would see a considerably different Russia today.” That’s a confession of election interference.
Fifteen years later, Russia would accuse America of meddling still. When protests broke out over flawed parliamentary elections in December 2011, Putin said that Hillary Clinton "set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal." He accused the State Department of supporting the protesters. The accusation could be dismissed if the State Department hadn’t declared its intention to "establish a direct relationship with the Russian people over the Kremlin’s head."
A New Cold War
Western political discourse and the Western media constantly repeat the charge that Russia is pulling the world back into the Cold War. But, it was America that put the Cold War on life support when Russia wanted to let it go. In his new book Russia Against the Rest, Russian expert and Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, Richard Sakwa, argues that, at the close of the Cold War, Russia wanted to transcends the blocs and divisions, but America insisted on preserving them. Russia wanted to join a transformed international community freed of blocs and made up of equal partners who cooperated with each other; America offered Russia only an invitation to join an enlarged American led community as a defeated and subordinate member. Russia wanted to end the Cold War and transcend blocs; America wanted to maintain the Cold War and simply enlarge its bloc. Russia sought to end the Cold War. If was America that couldn’t imagine a new paradigm and continued it.
Gorbachev offered the world Russia, but Bush could still only see the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev had brought about what Sakwa calls a "self-willed disintegration of the Soviet bloc" in favor of transcending blocs and ending the Cold War. Sakwa says that "it was not Western pressure that forced the Soviet leadership to end the Cold War but a decision of the Soviet leadership . . . that accepted the possibility of a stable and enduring cooperative relationship . . .."
Gorbachev’s vision preceded the end of the Cold War: it was not a concession that came after. It was the Soviet Union, and not the United States that ended the Cold War. James Matlock, the US ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time, complains that American politicians were only able to see "the end of the Cold War as if it were a quasi-military victory rather than a negotiated outcome that benefited both sides." Matlock tries to remind the West that "it was Gorbachev’s initiatives and not Western military pressure that ‘defeated communism’." Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton, says that Gorbachev ended the Cold War "well before the disintegration of the Soviet Union." But the US was unable to recognize the Soviet invitation to exit the Cold War world structure and refused to reciprocate: "the Cold War [had] ended in Moscow," Cohen says, "but not in Washington." It was the West, and not Russia, that resumed the Cold War after disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact voluntarily dissolved on March 31, 1991. NATO never did.
As recently as 2000, Putin was still answering the question of whether Russia would join NATO with "Why not?" He saw Russia as part of a transformed community where Russia was "part of European culture . . . part of the ‘civilized world,’" where "seeing NATO as an enemy is destructive for Russia." Sakwa says that in the early 2000s, Putin entered seriously into informal talks about NATO membership until the US vetoed the idea.
Sakwa says that Putin continued to engage the West and to attempt to forge a post Cold War partnership. Immediately after 9/11, Putin offered America logistical and intelligence support and helped take out the Taliban. Sakwa quotes an American official who rated Russian support after 9/11 as "as important as that of any NATO ally." Rather than taking the hand Russia was offering in partnership, America slapped it by pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and announcing that it would now welcome the Baltic States into NATO.
Despite Russian attempts to integrate Europe and the international community into a world order that transcended Cold War divisions, pacts and rivalries, Europe and the West continued to maintain and expand those divisions. 2008 saw the creation of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). Sakwa explains that the aim of the EaP was to draw Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia into the Western sphere. WikiLeaks has exposed a US cable that confesses that the aim of the EaP was to "counter Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe," and admits to looking "for ways to enhance western influence beyond NATO’s eastern border." Russia was trying to end, to transcend, the Cold War; America kept trying to push it.
Gorbachev and Putin always hoped the West would reciprocate Moscow’s voluntary dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and the ending of the Cold War. George Keenan, the American diplomat and father of the "policy of containment" of the Soviet Union, mourned the missed opportunity in a 1998 interview: "Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime."
When Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union, he hoped to dissolve it into a transformed world that was no longer separated into rival blocs. It was Washington and the West that lacked the vision to leave the Cold War behind and that continuously failed to seize that transformative vision because they were ossified in a Cold War way of seeing the world.
Aggression and Expansionism
Russian interventions, especially in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, have repeatedly been offered in evidence of the Western charge that Putin’s Russia is becoming increasingly aggressive and expansionist. But Russia’s interventions have never been expressions of policy. Instead, they have been isolated responses to a larger systemic Western policy of expansionism.
The West wasn’t supposed to expand. 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 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 that "It was clear that [the promise] did not refer just to the former German Democratic Republic.”
The promise was made on two consecutive days: first by the Americans and then by 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 certainly 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. Putin has asked, “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?”
Recent scholarship supports the Russian version of the story. Sakwa says that "[r]ecent studies demonstrate that the commitment not to enlarge NATO covered the whole former Soviet bloc and not just East Germany."
The promise made to Gorbachev was shattered: 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. It was the West, and not Russia, that was being expansionist.
When, in 2008, NATO promised Georgia and Ukraine eventual membership, Russia perceived the threat of NATO encroaching right to its borders. It is in Georgia and Ukraine that Russia felt it had to draw the line with NATO encroachment into its core sphere of influence.
Sakwa says that the war in Georgia was "the first war to stop NATO enlargement; Ukraine was the second." The Georgian war was less an example of Russian expansionism than a defense against Western expansionism. And, even in the attempt to stop Western expansionism, Russia was not the initiator of aggression.
When Georgia declared independence from Russia in 1991, South Ossetia sought independence from Georgia. In August 2008, separatists responded to the massing of troops on the border of South Ossetia by attacking. Hours after a cease fire had been declared, Georgia launched a surprise attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. An estimated 160 South Ossetians were killed in the attack, as were 48 Russian soldiers.
Swarka says that Russian forces arrived and defeated the Georgian army "in response to the Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali." Russia was not the initiator. The EU’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, headed by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini condemned the Georgian attack: "None of the explanations given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification for the attack" were legitimate. Nor, she found, was the bombardment "necessary and proportionate." She concluded that, though, the conflict had long been simmering, the "full-scale" hostilities were started by Georgia.
Russia responded, it did not initiate. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers saw no evidence that South Ossetia attacked Georgia before Georgia attacked Tskhinvali in violation of the cease fire.
Ukraine was the second Russian intervention to stop NATO enlargement and encroachment. The catalyst seized upon for the Western backed coup in Ukraine was President Yanukovych’s abandonment of an economic alliance with the European Union in favor of an economic alliance with Russia.
But, the economic alliance with the EU was not the benign one presented to the Western pubic. It was not just an economic offer. According to Stephen Cohen, the EU 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.
Russia had no problem with EU expansion. Sakwa says that "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 why the E.U. offer to Ukraine is an example of Western expansionism: it was allied with NATO.
Sakwa says "EU enlargement paves the way to NATO membership" and points out that, since 1989, every new member of the EU has become a member of NATO. It’s not only that the EU package subordinated Ukraine to NATO, since the EU Treaty of Lisbon went into effect in 2009 all new members of the EU are required to align their defense and security policies with NATO.
The EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine was no simple economic agreement. 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." 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 annexation of Crimea was not part of a larger, consistent policy of Russian expansionism. It was a defensive reaction to Western encroachment deep into its sphere of influence and right up to its borders. It was a specific response to a threat, not a general hunger for expansion. That may be why when the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine tried to follow Crimea back to Russia, Putin tried to prevent their referendums, while accepting Crimea’s. When they went ahead with their referendums anyway, Putin refused to accept or be bound by their results. Crimea wasn’t Russian expansionism. It was a specific response that Russia felt was forced upon it by a Western coup that was intended to escort Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence and into an expanded NATO that stretched right to Russia’s door step.
The two cases offered by the West in evidence of its claim that Russia is increasingly aggressive and expansionist were really specific defensive responses forced on Russia by Western expansionism that had taken earlier NATO expansionism too far.
Like the charges against Russia of election interference and aggressive expansionism, the charge of inciting a new cold war requires a blinding dose of hypocrisy and a strong case of historical amnesia. The witness that gives the defense the best chance of answering the charges is history itself. But, only if we listen.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.