This article appeared in 19FortyFive on December 28, 2021. Click here to view the original article.
Thirty years after the Soviet Union dissolved on December 31, 1991, events in its former space seem headed in the opposite direction. Despite initially remaining passive as the USSR split into fifteen independent states, Moscow has more recently steadily pursued a hegemonic agenda, increasingly bold and increasingly successful. It provoked hostilities (notably Ukraine) and exploited weaknesses (as in Belarus) possibly leading to outright re-annexation. Existing “frozen conflicts” (Armenia versus Azerbaijan, Moldova/Transnistria, and Georgia) remained frozen or became more severe. Less-visible Kremlin economic and political initiatives are afoot across Central Asia, and in Tajikistan, Moscow’s largest military base in the former USSR outside Russia itself, its border forces never left.
How and why the West misjudged what was brewing inside Russia following the USSR’s demise is already vigorously debated. After a widespread but sadly erroneous 1990’s optimism Russia would embrace Western institutions and values, hopes for constitutional, representative government are in retreat. Despite the collapse of Europe’s Communist regimes, communism and its ways persisted. The Cold War’s winners could not impose anything comparable to post-World War II denazification, so authoritarian memories, habits, and methods endured even without their prior ideological veneer. Outsiders collectively failed to appreciate that profoundly deep Russian sentiments of revanchism and irredentism persisted below the surface, seeking opportunities to make Russia’s “near abroad” much less “abroad.” History had not ended, notwithstanding the “peace dividend” bled from the U.S. and other NATO militaries.
We can’t say, however, we weren’t put on notice. Vladimir Putin said in 2005, “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” Just days ago, Putin called the breakup “a tragedy as for the vast majority of the country’s citizens. After all, what is the collapse of the USSR? That’s the collapse of historical Russia called the Soviet Union.”
The West made two fundamental mistakes in the years since Russia’s new flag was first raised over the Kremlin. In an understandable rush to add to NATO states escaping the defunct Warsaw Pact and resuming their rightful places in the West, America, in particular, failed to delineate where the expansion would end. One can debate where that endpoint should be, but by failing to decide the question explicitly, we created a “grey zone,” an ambiguity Russia is now exploiting. Today, we and grey-zone nations like Ukraine, are paying the price.
Moreover, too many Europeans believe the continent’s relative post-1945 peace is due to the European Union rather than NATO. “This is the hour of Europe, not the hour of the Americans,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos in 1991, as the EU presided over Yugoslavia’s catastrophic breakup and continuing Balkan instability. Intense EU navel-gazing, such as focusing on “deeper” rather than “broader” European integration, implicitly downgraded the concerns of “New European” members and aspirants. The EU’s bizarre apotheosis came in winning the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. But this is all fantasy. Europe was bound together for security purposes by NATO. Germany’s political readmission to the West came via NATO long before an EU superstate appealed to anyone but its theologians and altar boys. There was no remilitarization, as after World War I, because from 1945 forward, not a sparrow has fallen in Europe’s military-industrial complex unknown to NATO. The EU did not win the Cold War, and its disproportionate role in dealing with Russia today hinders the West’s resolve.
Unfortunately, NATO’s inadequate end-state planning and EU delusions have hindered developing a coherent strategy against a resurgent Russia. The Kremlin has suffered no such disability and now demands multiple security guarantees from NATO and the United States, embracing not just Eastern Europe, the current crisis epicenter, but also the Central Asian republics. Moscow wants an agreement that NATO to not admit Ukraine or other non-members into the alliance; not deploy “offensive weapons” in countries (NATO members or not) adjacent to Russia; and not conduct military exercises near Russia’s borders above brigade levels. China has essentially endorsed Russia’s demand.
Despite a Putin-Biden virtual summit and threats of economic sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, the Kremlin appears unimpressed. That does not mean hostilities are imminent; Putin is likely doing a continuous, real-time, cost-benefit analysis to decide what he can get away with at what cost. Today’s crisis remains volatile and unlikely to recede meaningfully in the foreseeable future. Yet again, Putin is outmaneuvering his Western counterparts.
So, as Lenin once asked, what is to be done?
Beyond doubt, NATO must finally decide which grey-zone countries it is prepared to admit, and which it isn’t. NATO should also reaffirm that all former republics, in Central Asia (since Russia has dragged them into the discussion) as well as Europe and the Caucasus, must be free to make their own decisions about their allegiances. While they decide, NATO should give Russia a general “hands-off” notice regarding them all.
The EU needs to get serious about Russia’s renewed threat which, after all, is on their border, not America’s. Nord Stream II should be canceled, with no prospect of resurrection until Russia withdraws its troops behind its borders, absent specific requests by grey-zone countries. European NATO members should meet their Cardiff commitments to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. Additional allied weapons should immediately be surged into Ukraine, and nearby NATO members as Bill Schneider has suggested. U.S. and other NATO countries should increase troop rotations into Ukraine for joint training and exercising, not to engage in combat, but so Russian generals can contemplate the karma of being ordered to invade Ukraine in close proximity to new NATO deployments. Western ministers of defense and their joint staffs’ chairmen should be converging on Kyiv, Chisinau, Tbilisi, and even Minsk for consultations.
NATO has been history’s strongest defensive alliance. Neither the USSR nor Russia has ever dared confront it directly, which means its deterrent capabilities are as tested and proven as anyone could conceive. With this record and the enormous internal weaknesses of Russia in mind, this is no time for Washington, let alone the great capitals of Europe, to fear putting NATO front and center.
Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.