At the end of 1991 a plan was put together to determine how NATO would relate to the newly independent states in Eastern Europe through creating a new organisation, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), open to all former Soviet Union republics as well as former Warsaw Pact members. One country, however stood out from the rest–Ukraine. The US ambassador to Russia stated that loss of Ukraine was a more revolutionary event than the fall of communism. Gorbachev was furiously opposed to US communication with Kiev, pointing out its large Russian population and its artificial borders that included Donbas and Crimea. The US “Draft Options Paper” thus recommended “the possibility of Ukraine joining the NATO liaison program at a later time.”
At this time the US was concerned with Ukraine’s possession of nuclear weapons and its policy that this was unacceptable, although some US officials argued that the problem would disappear if Ukraine joined NATO. Clearly, they believed that the nuclear weapons that would be kept would be pointing at Moscow and not at Washington.
The view that won out was one of a step-by-step NATO expansion that was not too obvious but that “will, when it occurs, by definition be punishment, or ‘neo-containment,’ of the bad Bear.” Even Yeltsin was compelled to complain of the creation of a “cold peace” while Bill Clinton believed “Russia can be bought off.” Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Borys Tarayuk told the US that “No matter what we say publicly. I can tell you that we absolutely want to join NATO.’
Under the Clinton administration the US became Russia’s largest foreign investor but this did not prevent it going ahead with new missile deployment–the Theatre or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system–reversing the previous view that it violated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, thus slowing down agreement over arms control. Later, in 1997, fifty former US senators, cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, and others signed a letter demanding that “the NATO expansion process be suspended.”
Russian policy proposed collaboration in the defence industry, with legal prohibitions on nuclear weapons in new NATO states and stationing of foreign troops, but neither got anywhere while Clinton approved the testing of new nuclear weapons systems. Promises from Yeltsin to potential NATO members of a security guarantee and complaints of Russian humiliation achieved nothing. In any case, Yeltsin was Washington’s man with Clinton stating that “Yeltsin drunk is better than most alternatives sober.”
Supporting ‘Yeltsin drunk’ meant helping procure condition-free loans of $10.2 billion from the IMF to ensure Yeltsin’s re-election as President in 1996, while Russian oligarchs met privately at Davos to ensure a victory that would assist their procurement of state assets. Despite suffering his second heart attack and virtually disappearing from public view he won the election. Yeltsin had used the money to travel the country dispensing it to buy votes in what his campaign staff in night-time planning sessions called ‘what-shall-we-hand-out-tomorrow’ meetings. As Clinton said, “If the Russian people knew how much I wanted him re-elected, it might actually hurt his chances.’ Time magazine hailed their intervention as “Yanks to the Rescue’ (July 15 1996.)
In effect, the US had interfered big time in the election to get its favoured candidate elected in a vote that involved “widespread voter fraud” according to a member of the OSCE election-observation team. This observer also claimed that he was pressured to keep quiet about the irregularities, including that in Chechnya fewer than 500,000 adults remained but more than a million had voted, 70 per cent for Yeltsin. All this puts into perspective more recent US Democrat complaints about purported Russian interference in Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton.
A new a NATO-Russia agreement in 1997 was sealed by yet more money from the US along with lots of promises, including that NATO had “no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons” or substantial combat forces. Privately Clinton was assured that his early assessment was correct that no absolute commitments had actually been made, the only real one being simply a commitment to meet. By the end of the year Madeline Albright was already telling the Russians that the US “would not consult on future infrastructure including on the territories of the three invitees’–the newly invited Central and East European members of NATO.
In 1998 Yeltsin asked Clinton for more help with IMF loans but the money flowed out of the country almost as quickly as it flowed in, prompting US officials to note that “the infamous oligarchs continue to put their personal interests above the common good.” They seemed not to consider that this was a result of the introduction of capitalism into Russia that they had promoted, or that putting ‘personal interests above the common good’ was one description of what capitalism is all about.
Some US officials were wary of being too openly antagonistic to Russia and its long-term consequences, while French President Jacques Chirac told the US National Security Advisor Tony Lake that “we have humiliated them too much” and that “one day there will be dangerous nationalist backlash.” Chancellor Kohl also worried about the long-term reaction to NATO expansion, and even the British worried about the Article 5 guarantee being too strong and risky to offer too widely. The American proposer of the original post World War II American containment strategy, George Kennan, argued in 1997 that NATO’s expansion was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-war era.”
None of this advice for a more cautious approach prevented the US and NATO bombing Serbia without a UN Security Council resolution, without invoking an Article 5 guarantee and without aggression by another state. To Russia this proved that NATO expansion was not about bringing peace to Europe and claims it was doing so were a lie, with Yeltsin’s critics saying ‘Belgrade today, Moscow tomorrow.’ The example of Kosovo and the justification for war was subsequently employed by Russia itself. The New York Times then reported that Russia had resumed “targeting NATO states with nuclear warheads.”
Looking back in 2015 Bill Clinton’s defence secretary Bill Perry concluded that arms control became “a casualty of NATO expansion” and that “the downsides of early NATO membership for Eastern European nations were even worse than I had feared.” The CIA noted in 1999 that Vladimir Putin was concerned over the capabilities of its conventional forces, the increased threat from NATO, the need for new nuclear capability and the fear “that a future conflict could be waged on Russian soil.”
NATO expansion was thus not a result of Russian aggression or threats, or of the need for NATO to establish peace in Europe, but a product of Russian weakness and US determination to impose the fruits of its victory in the Cold War. Bourgeois figures in many countries noted the provocations involved and the future risks entailed. Even Joe Biden admitted in 1997 that, rather than NATO membership, “continuing the Partnership for Peace . . . may arguably have been a better way to go.” Yet now we are to believe that none of this is relevant to the war in Ukraine, with its constitutional imperative to join NATO.
Today’s leaders of these countries deny that the expansion of NATO and the steps towards Ukrainian membership have anything to do with current Russian policy and actions. How incredible is it then that certain parties on the Left agree with them, going so far as to support Ukraine and defend NATO and in doing so further, in so far as they can, membership of the former within the latter? And all this under the flag of ‘anti-imperialism’ and a war of national liberation!
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