The Economist: Is there a positive outcome for the Ukraine-Russia debacle?
A few years ago, I was in the Ukraine to collect folk songs with my high school granddaughter and Lena, a folklorist from the Russian Academy of Science. Tongue-in-cheek because I was pretty sure I knew the answer, I asked Lena, “Does the Crimea belong to the Ukraine or Russia?”
The answer was instantaneous: “Russia, of course! Khrushchev gave it to the Ukraine in a drunken stupor, but it wasn’t his to give away.” I would have gotten the same answer from any Russian I questioned. So, when protests and violence began to unfold in Kiev, I knew there was trouble ahead.
Beginning in 1989 with my first trip to the Soviet Union, I have spent many months in Russia. I taught economics at Moscow State University, ran a small consulting firm dedicated to helping Russian companies learn how to do business in the new capitalist society into which they had been propelled, traveled across the country leading groups of friends with whom I wanted to share the beauty and turmoil.
The United States made two serious foreign policy mistakes in the early 1990s that I recall having pinpointed at the time; and now, they are coming back to haunt us. The first occurred in June 1994, the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. There was a massive, multinational celebration in Europe. Russia was not invited.
The rationale: They weren’t present at D-Day. And yes, that’s true. They were busy fighting more than half the German military on the eastern front, keeping them busy enough that the D-Day invasion could succeed. The Russians were insulted and hurt at being snubbed. I know. I was in Moscow and witnessed the blow first hand. It was thoughtless and stupid on our part and set a negative tone for things to come.
The second mistake was substantially more serious and far-reaching – keeping NATO in existence after 1991. Think about it. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in April 1949 to serve three purposes:
- Deter Soviet expansionism
- Forbid the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent
- Encourage European political integration.
Numerous events in the ensuing decades demonstrated the wisdom of that decision: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Berlin blockade, Afghanistan.
The excuse for maintaining NATO following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 was that the Alliance’s two other original, if unrecognized mandates, still held: to deter the rise of militant nationalism and provide the foundation of collective security that would encourage democratization and political integration in Europe. But Russia didn’t see it that way. NATO was created to contain the Soviet Union, which no longer existed. There was no reason for its preservation. Once again the Russians were offended when they were ignored. Once again the West was oblivious.
I said at the time we should shut NATO down. We could have created a new organization, housed in the same location with the same staff to support the other two mandates. Russia could have been invited to join, along with some or all of the former Soviet republics. What a different world we might have today!
None of this excuses a country for invading a sovereign nation and seizing a piece of its territory. What Russia has done in the Ukraine is unacceptable. Do we think Russia would happily allow Chechnya to vote to leave? Or wouldn’t object if Turkey invaded the Crimea to liberate the Tatars, who are terrified of Russian rule after Stalin. After all, the Crimea was part of the Ottoman Empire just a couple centuries ago.
And, while we are at it, if we are going to allow the rebuilding of an empire, perhaps France should invade Quebec to liberate the French speakers there. And Mexico could march north to Pueblo to regain lost territory and liberate the Spanish-speaking population. Of course, none of this is acceptable. Russia’s treatment of the Crimea is no different. What a mess!