Ukraine, USA, Russia, and Spheres of Influence

On September 1, 2021, President Biden met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House and continued the American push into Russia’s sphere of influence that has made Russia feel so threatened.

Zelensky has been frustrated because he has been pushing for this meeting since his election in May 2019. Despite the delay, Biden clearly meant to make a bold statement to Russia since Zelensky is only the second European leader to be invited to the White House since Biden’s election. In July, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Biden at the White House.

And the message Biden sent was clear. He referred to "Russian aggression" and said "the United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity." He used code words for NATO encroachment when he pledged his "support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations" and American support for Ukraine’s "being completely integrated in Europe." Zelensky deciphered the code for anyone who didn’t get it when he bluntly declared that he "would like to discuss with President Biden here his vision, his government’s vision of Ukraine’s chances to join NATO and the timeframe for this accession." These comments are deeply threatening to Russia.

To make the threat worse, Biden referred to the "Strategic Partnership Commission between our nations" and the "new strategic defense framework" before announcing "a new $60 million security assistance package." The New York Times quotes an unnamed official who, having added it all up, says that the "Biden administration has now provided more than $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine this year." The new security package includes Javelin anti-armor missiles and other lethal weapons. Biden’s move is a significant escalation of the Obama/Biden administration that refused to provide lethal aid to Ukraine. According to CNN, Zelensky and his defense minister, Andrii Taranto also held meetings at the Pentagon where they signed the new "strategic defense framework."

Talk of NATO and lethal aid emanating from the White House will be very loudly heard in Russia where, after over two decades of NATO encroachment, Russia felt the line had to be drawn at Georgia and Ukraine. Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent Richard Sakwa says that the war in Georgia was “the first war to stop NATO enlargement; Ukraine was the second.” Biden’s talk of Ukraine’s integration into Europe and lethal aid has to be taken as NATO encroachment into the heart of Russia’s sphere of influence and as a taunting of Russia’s red line.

Russia Did Not Steal Its Sphere

The official cold war story told in the textbooks and media in the west is a lie. What Russia objects to as encroachment into countries in their sphere of influence is often dismissed in the west as liberating countries stolen by Stalin. But Stalin did not steal those countries: he accepted them when Roosevelt and Churchill gave them to him.

Roosevelt told congress and the world one story when he came home from the conference in Yalta, but he told Stalin a different one while he was there. When Truman was asked what Roosevelt was like, he famously replied, "He lies."

Stalin didn’t march into Eastern Europe and take it: Roosevelt traded it to him. So did Churchill. In exchange for Soviet support for the creation of the United Nations, Roosevelt secretly agreed to Soviet predominance in Poland and Eastern Europe; in exchange for keeping Greece as a roadblock against Soviet movement into India and the oilfields of Iran, Churchill gave Stalin Romania. Contrary to the story that we are raised on in the west, the sphere of influence that Putin is protecting was not stolen from the free world, it was handed to Russia.

NATO Encroachment

It was not the Soviet Union who stole the nations of Eastern Europe, but it was NATO and the west that stole them back.

At the close of the cold war, at a meeting held on February 9, 1990, 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, NATO would not expand east of Germany and engulf the former Soviet states. Gorbachev records in his memoirs that he agreed to Baker’s terms “with the guarantee that NATO jurisdiction or troops would not extend east of the current line.” In Super-power Illusions, Jack F. Matlock Jr., who was the American ambassador to Russia at the time and was present at the meeting, confirms Gorbachev’s account, saying that it “coincides with my notes of the conversation except that mine indicate that Baker added “not one inch.” Matlock adds that Gorbachev was assured that NATO would not move into Eastern Europe as the Warsaw Pact moved out, that “the understanding at Malta [was] that the United States would not ‘take advantage’ of a Soviet military withdrawal from Eastern Europe.”

That promise was not made just once, and it was not made by just one country. The promise was made at least twice: 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.’”

A few days earlier, on January 31, 1990, Genscher had said in a major speech that there would not be “an expansion of NATO territory to the east, in other words, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union.”

As a witness, Putin calls 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?”

The most recent scholarship supports the Russian version of the story. Richard 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." And Stephen Cohen, former Professor Emeritus of Politics at Princeton University and of Russian Studies and History at New York University, adds that the National Security Archive has now published the actual documents detailing what Gorbachev was promised. Published on December 12, 2017, the documents finally, and authoritatively, reveal that “The truth, and the promises broken, are much more expansive than previously known: all of the Western powers involved – the US, the UK, France, Germany itself – made the same promise to Gorbachev on multiple occasions and in various emphatic ways.”

Despite those repeated promises, in 1999, President Clinton led NATO into Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia would follow in 2004. In 2009, Albania and Croatia would be engulfed followed by Montenegro. Now Russia is feeling Biden’s breath in Ukraine.

It Wasn’t Just Eastern Europe

An even less told story is that the Soviet Union did not just feel the West’s breath on its European borders. What would later happen in Europe was being presaged in the Middle East. According to Jerome Slater in Mythologies Without End, Soviet activity in the Middle East during the cold war was motivated by security and defensive concerns and was taken as defensive responses to American activity. The Soviet Union was worried about its southern front and the 1,800 miles of border it shared with the Middle East. Khrushchev told Nasser – not without reason, according to Slater – that "Soviet policies were designed to prevent ‘capitalist encirclement’ of the Soviet Union: the same fear Russia fears today. Slater quotes a former high State Department official who specialized in the Arab-Israeli conflict as concluding that "The Soviets since the early 1950s had felt threatened by what they saw as a U.S. network or relationships in the Middle East intended to encircle the Soviet Union . . .." In the Middle East, as in Europe, the Soviet Union feared the US encroachment that was surrounding it.

Western Europe and Latin America

Another part of the story that is seldom told is that the encroachment into each other’s spheres of influence was not symmetrical, was not equally reciprocal. While the US broke their Yalta and East German promises, Russia largely kept theirs. While America suspected the Soviet Union lurking behind every communist movement, that paranoid belief was largely a projection of their own persona.

Keeping his promise on the Greece for Romania trade, Stalin told the Greek communists not to resist as the British backed government moved into power. In The Jakarta Method, Vincent Bevins points out that Stalin did the same in other parts of western Europe: the Italian and French communists put down their arms when Stalin told them to.

What was happening in western Europe was happening in Latin America too. In 1963, when the US strangled the Brazilian economy en route to the coup, Goulart sent an envoy to the Soviet Union to ask for economic help. But the Soviets told him that "Brazil was in the US orbit and they ‘did not want to be mixed up with communism in Brazil’,’’ says Bevin, quoting Michael Weiss.

The Soviet Union also told the communists of Chile the same thing they were telling communists all over Latin America: that they should work within the democratic system and let democratic elections be their vehicle to hopeful power. When Salvador Allende went to Moscow, as the Brazilians had before him, he got the same response and returned with little to show for his visit. That is because, as Bevins says, the Soviet Union "continued to view Latin America as Washington’s sphere of influence."

Unlike the US, with the important exception of Cuba, the Soviet Union restrained itself from encroaching into the US sphere of influence. They did so in Iran too. After World War II, Bevin says that the Soviets told the itchy Iranian communist party, the Tudeh, to forget about a revolution. During the oil crisis and the lead up to the Iranian coup, despite the trumped-up claims about the threat of communism as the cause of the concern, in Oil Crisis in Iran, Ervand Abrahamian says that "the Soviets remained remarkably inactive in Iran throughout these years." The CIA was fully aware of the Soviet’s self-imposed containment to their own sphere: their working assumption, Abrahamian says, was that the Soviet reaction to events in Iran would continue to be limited in nature. Abrahamian cites a British report that that said that the "Russians have shown no sign of wishing to intervene in the crisis" and an American one that said that the "USSR has been content to maintain silence."

This history is a history that is seldom told, but it is the history that Putin and Russia remember well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sits in the White House discussing European integration, NATO and lethal weapons. It is a history of broken promises and unrequited encroachment. It is a history that will inform the fear that Russia feels as America gets closer and closer to Russia’s red line.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.