Features Australia

Old-fashioned realism could have avoided the Ukrainian crisis

The truth is the West lied to Gorbachev

19 March 2022

9:00 AM

19 March 2022

9:00 AM

Russia’s actions are illegal and may constitute war crimes. That will be of little consolation if Ukraine is reduced to ashes, thousands are killed and nuclear war breaks out. Potential deleterious consequences for Australia include US and European distraction from the Indo-Pacific, a stronger Moscow–Beijing axis and China as the big strategic victor of the European war, with increased leverage over both Russia and the West.

China’s red lines on Taiwan are universally understood and respected. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan – which, legal fiction aside, is an independent country, comparable in size to Australia, a vibrant democracy and a middle-class market economy – is not even accorded the dignity of diplomatic recognition, official embassies and membership of international organisations. What if we granted full diplomatic recognition, exchanged embassies, entered into a security alliance and stationed allied troops there? As a sovereign state, it would have every legal right to do so, just like Cuba had the right to host Soviet missiles in 1962. Were China to react militarily, would analysts pin the blame solely on its ‘illegal and immoral aggression’ or also on needless provocations by others?

There’s general agreement that the harshness of the Versailles settlement helped create the enabling conditions for the rise of Hitler. Saying so doesn’t make one a Hitler apologist. When the US Senate ratified the decision to enlarge Nato in 1998, George Kennan, architect of the Cold War containment doctrine, said: ‘I think it is the beginning of a new cold war’. He added: ‘Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the Nato expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are’.

There is unbroken continuity in Russia’s Nato grievance from Mikhail Gorbachev through Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. On 9 February, 1990, Secretary of State James Baker assured Gorbachev that NATO would expand ‘not one inch eastward’. Gorbachev clarified later that the context of the conversation was limited to German reunification. Even so, according to declassified documents from the National Security Archive published in 2017, there were multiple assurances from US, UK, French and German leaders against Nato expansion in general. Gorbachev explained in his book In a Changing World, ‘Nato’s enlargement to the East’ after he left office ‘violated the spirit of the agreements reached during Germany’s unification and undermined the mutual trust that had been built through arduous efforts’.

Yeltsin similarly wrote in October 1993: ‘The spirit of the treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany… precludes the option of expanding the Nato zone into the East’. Yeltsin was told in October 1993 by Secretary of State Warren Christopher that the US was pursuing a Partnership for Peace for all European countries including Russia, not Nato membership just for selected countries. Foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, who had been present at the Christopher-Yeltsin meeting, boasted in mid-1994: ‘The greatest achievement of Russian foreign policy in 1993 was to prevent Nato’s expansion eastward to our borders’. Yet in September 1994, Bill Clinton told Yeltsin Nato expansion was under consideration.

The current CIA director William Burns was posted to Moscow when he wrote a memo in 1995: ‘Hostility to Nato expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here’. Burns returned to Moscow as ambassador and in February 2008 sent a cable to Washington entitled: ‘NYET MEANS NYET: RUSSIA’S NATO ENLARGEMENT REDLINES’. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned him the issue of Nato membership for Ukraine ‘could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene’. Despite the blunt warning, on 3 April, 2008, the Bucharest Summit Declaration affirmed Ukraine and Georgia ‘will become members of Nato’.

Americans tend to get lawyerly in response: ‘Put it in writing’. There were no treaty-based written pledges, but this history explains the Russian narrative that the US maximised its position at the cost of Russian interests and in breach of the agreed understandings by Russia on the terms of the post-Cold War settlement. In 2008 in Georgia and again in 2104 in Ukraine, Putin made it clear Russia had red lines that, if crossed by Nato and the EU, would provoke pushback.

Great powers rise and fall on the tide of history. Territorial borders, spheres of influence and buffer zones are under continual readjustment. Invasion is easier than occupation. Wars are easier to start and escalate than control and end. The biggest surprise so far has been the ferocity of Ukraine’s fightback, starting with President Zelensky’s rejection of the US evacuation offer. After the valour already shown by the President down to civilians fighting the invader, no matter the outcome, Ukrainians have earned the world’s admiration. History doesn’t do soft letdowns and will be unforgiving of Putin if he loses. Yet the odds of prevailing are still in his favour if his territorial and political goals are limited and don’t extend to permanent occupation and control of all Ukraine. It’s imperative to separate Russia’s core strategic interests in Ukraine from optional add-ons.

The fate of lesser powers caught in the crossfire of great power contests is determined as much by the outcome of those contests as by their own efforts. This is why it’s in the interests of the majority of states to deepen and consolidate the normative architecture that can act as some check on great power predations. To endure as a robust and resilient set of principles, institutional arrangements and state practices, this cannot depart too far from the underlying power distribution as a structural pull. It must also be universally and not selectively implemented.

Instead of a stable rules-based order, international politics is a never-ending struggle for the ascendancy of competing normative architectures based on a combination of power, values and principles. In the era of unchallengeable unipolar primacy, the US deployed military firepower to punish alleged breaches of global norms by others, for instance Iraq in 2003, while exempting itself from the Gulliver-like constraints of global norms. As former congresswoman and presidential contender Tulsi Gabbard put it in a TV interview on 8 March, US ‘leaders have this “F… you” attitude’. That double standard is not sustainable as US primacy wanes. Dangers lie ahead for Australia should China mimic past US unilateralism. We have a far greater interest than the US and UK in creating a genuinely rules-based order as a brake on unilateral military adventurism, one that is backed by the military power of our allies if it comes under threat.

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