A Spectre is Haunting Europe

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No, not THAT spectre. Nor that one, either.

No, I’m talking about nuclear war with Russia. This topic has been percolating for some time, but has recently reached something of a fever pitch, (no, not THAT fever pitch – and certainly not THAT one!) largely thanks to Russia’s 2014 actions in Ukraine. In a recent fit of electioneering, the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Hammond, spoke at RUSI on the dangers which Russia represented to the UK:
“In the case of Russia, for two decades since the end of the Cold War, we and our allies sought to draw our old adversary into the rules-based international system. We worked in a spirit of openness, generosity and partnership, to help Russia take its rightful place, as we saw it, as a major power contributing to global stability and order.
“We now have to accept that those efforts have been rebuffed.
“We are now faced with a Russian leader bent not on joining the international rules-based system which keeps the peace between nations, but on subverting it.”

This seems more than a bit incomplete, if not provocative. While we at BASIC hold no brief for President Putin, we do believe that he deserves a fair hearing, as does every world leader. Indeed, BASIC “seeks to engage diverse perspectives and broaden the scope of the discussion to find ways past existing frustrations.” We wrote that about our vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, and we think it is an excellent idea to apply it to international confrontations before they “go nuclear” – or even before they descend into threats of nuclear use.

Where does the “fault” lie in Ukraine? It is easy to point the finger at Russia for its military actions in Crimea and its serial provocations in eastern Ukraine, but the problems in that troubled country clearly go back much further in time. The evidence of more than a decade of (mostly) democratic elections in Ukraine reveals a society closely divided between those leaning toward Moscow and those facing West toward Brussels. This is not a popular idea with EU and NATO leaders, but it is true – former President Viktor Yanukovych, deposed by EU threats of sanctions against his administration in February 2014, won the 2010 election, judged free and fair by international observers, with 49% of the vote.

Then there was the March 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, where the Alliance promised (in paragraph 23 of the Summit declaration) both Georgia and Ukraine that they would eventually be Allies, completely ignoring repeated strong statements from Putin that this violated Russia’s most basic strategic redline. (And for those who cite the OSCE insistence that “spheres of influence” are illegitimate in this day and age, we refer one OSCE member, the United States, to that little island offshore that it recently (and finally) relaxed its embargo against.)

Ignoring one’s opponent is a kind of policy, but it certainly isn’t diplomacy. Nor is it what the architect of the Cold War containment policy, George Kennan, had in mind all those years ago:
“I think [NATO enlargement] is the beginning of a new cold war…I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”

This particular bit of prescience from “X” came in 1998, by the way. If only more modern commentators had the same breadth of perspective, including Erik Lindell. In laying all the blame on Putin’s Russia, he not only disputes Kennan and John Mearsheimer, he also evokes the warning raised in the last century by British diplomatic historian Sir Herbert Butterfield, who noted a previous occasion when strategic redlines were ignored to the eventual peril of the “victors” – the Treaty of Versailles:

“The struggle which began in 1914...was fought on a basis that was bound to give the maximum scope to the hysterias and frenzies associated with the fury of battle. Precisely because it was conducted as a war "for righteousness", a war "for the destruction of the wicked", that whole conflict was turned into one that could admit of no compromise. Precisely because of the myth of "the war to end all war", we made it more true than it had been for centuries that war breeds war, provokes revolution, generates new causes of conflict, deepens resentments, and produces those reversions which we call modern barbarism.” (Christianity, Diplomacy and War, 1953, p. 17.)

And if any of that sounds familiar from the last year or so in Ukraine, so it should. What is needed, we at BASIC believe, is to actually put in place what Foreign Secretary Hammond falsely claims has already been done: To bring Russia inside the tent of inclusive discussions on European security, in which nuclear threats – by any party – have no place on the agenda.

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About the author(s)...
  • Ted Seay, Senior Policy Consultant served at the US Mission to NATO as arms control advisor from 2008 to 2011.
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