After reading the latest grim headlines from the Russia-Ukraine border today (Russia is apparently massing troops there, and show no signs of accepting western demands that it cancel this weekend’s planned secession referendum in the Crimea), I went trolling for something like a fresh perspective. And there, in a March 3 Atlantic column I had missed, Peter Beinart expressed a long-range perspective that has been nagging at the back of my mind whenever I read about Putin’s monstrous aggressiveness in threatening to absorb part or whole of a country that was part of his own for a couple of centuries prior to 1991.
It’s true that the Obama administration has withdrawn troops from Iraq and is withdrawing them from Afghanistan. But from where Putin sits, American power hardly seems in retreat. From his perspective, in fact, the reverse is likely much closer to the truth.
Under Ronald Reagan, the frontier of American power in Europe was Berlin. Then, in February 1990, as East Germany began wobbling, Secretary of State James Baker journeyed to Moscow to discuss German unification. According to James Goldgeier, author of Not Whether But When, the definitive history of NATO expansion, Baker promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that if the Soviets allowed Germany to reunify, NATO—the U.S.-led Western military alliance that took form after World War II—would not expand “one inch” further east, not even into the former East Germany itself. But as the year progressed, the White House developed different ideas, and by the fall it was clear that a unified Germany would enter NATO, no matter what the Russians thought.
The idea of admitting other Eastern European countries into NATO, however, was still considered recklessly provocative toward Russia. The New York Times editorial board and its star foreign-affairs columnist, Thomas Friedman, strongly opposed the idea. The eminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote that, “[H]istorians—normally so contentious—are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill conceived, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.” George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, was skeptical of the idea, as was Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, William Perry….
By 1997, it was clear Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic would enter the alliance. In 2004, NATO admitted another seven former Soviet bloc countries, three of which—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—had been part of the USSR. In 2009, Croatia and Albania joined the club. Six former Soviet republics—Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—now link their militaries to NATO’s via the “Partnership for Peace” program. All five former Soviet republics in Central Asia—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan—provide NATO countries with some basing, transit, refueling, or overflight rights for use in the Afghan war.
From Putin’s perspective, in other words, the United States hardly looks in retreat. To the contrary, the post-Cold War period has brought one long march by America and its allies closer and closer to the border of Russia itself. But there was no reason to believe that Russia—which under Putin has been regaining its confidence on the world stage—would go on contracting forever. And by 2008, when Russia sent troops into parts of Georgia, it was already clear that NATO’s expansion onto former Soviet soil had come to a halt.
Well, you might say, that’s all water under the Dneiper bridges. Why shouldn’t the U.S. and its allies insist on keeping Russian influence behind its newly defined boundaries? Didn’t Russia lose the Cold War, after all? Beinart has a good answer for that question, too:
[The eastward expansion of NATO] stopped for the same reason that General Dwight Eisenhower, determined at the end of World War II to keep the American death toll as low as possible, refused to push into Eastern Europe to prevent the USSR from dominating the region after the war. And for the same reason that President Eisenhower watched Soviet troops crush protests in Budapest in 1956, and President Johnson watched Soviet troops crush the Prague Spring in 1968. The frontiers of American power in Eastern Europe have long been set by Moscow’s willingness to send troops into countries where, by virtue of their geography, Russia is prepared to take casualties and the United States is not. (Just as the limits of Soviet power in the Americas were set in 1962 when John F. Kennedy proved more willing to risk war over Soviet missiles in Cuba than did Nikita Khrushchev.)
To say that the border of Western power has stopped expanding is not to say it has begun to contract. To the contrary, it’s still almost impossible to imagine any of the countries recently admitted into NATO falling back under Russia’s sway.
Beinart goes on to say the U.S. should provide whatever aid, material and moral, it can to protect Ukraine’s independence. But there are limits:
The Obama administration will also have to tell Kiev’s revolutionaries that while it supports a unified, democratic Ukraine, it does not support an anti-Russian Ukraine. Russia will not permit it, and at the end of the day, the United States cannot protect Ukraine from Russia’s wrath. It’s a bit like Finland’s dilemma during the Cold War or Taiwan’s now. Even if Ukraine regains control over its domestic affairs, it will never enjoy complete control over its foreign policy. The U.S. has a moral obligation to support democracy and self-determination. But it also has a moral obligation not to make promises it can’t keep.
That’s the most sensible analysis I’ve heard in a good while.