​‘Lack of communication between US and Russia makes the world more dangerous’

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia.
​‘Lack of communication between US and Russia makes the world more dangerous’
With peace in Ukraine seemingly close, it is time for Russia and NATO to set new parameters to ensure the second conflict caused by their differences in six years, is the last.

David Cameron often strikes me as the kind of fellow happy enough bopping along to Cliff Richard who famously sang “We Don’t Talk Anymore" and Barack Obama just might be a Crazy Horse fan: “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” was one of their biggest hits and was later, with great commercial success, covered by Rod Stewart. Vladimir Putin speaks fluent German, lived in the country for years and could enjoy the folksy Hofmann sisters, who are solidly traditional. They had a smash with “Ein Leid in Unserer Sprache” which means, in English, “Suffering in our language”.

With the NATO-backed Kiev regime having effectively lost the military attempt to retake the south east of Ukraine from Russian-supported rebels, talking has become a necessity, but, I believe, it’s more than Ukraine that needs to be discussed. Winston Churchill famously opined: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war” and a lot more of the former is needed to avoid future conflict in the borderlands between the two powers. When two big bears target the same berries, something has to give.

The biggest obstacle is that Western leaders, apparently, want Putin to apologize for events in Ukraine and to return Crimea, against the will of its people, to Ukraine. It is clear that the Russian President has no intention of either and that he believes NATO created the problem by encouraging the Maidan protests, which led to the overthrow of the country’s – democratically elected – previous government.

It is impossible to see how Putin can return Crimea – the locals won’t countenance it – and it is also clear that the populace in Donbass and Lugansk are not going to accept direct rule from Kiev after the events of this summer. They might submit to remaining inside the Ukrainian state if autonomy is agreed.

NATO leaders watch a fly-past by the Red Arrows during the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor resort, near Newport, in Wales September 5, 2014. (Reuters/Rebecca Naden)

For their part, Western administrations appear unwilling to accept any responsibility at all for the disaster they fomented in Ukraine, despite the fact that their fingerprints are all over it. Without NATO enlargement, driven by US ideological doctrine (shared by some European policymakers) to spread Western liberal values to a region where support for them is far from unanimous, there would have been no war. That is a fact.

However, in this round of musical chairs, Obama is playing the ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ game. He canceled a meeting slated for September of last year because of Russia’s offer of asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and, together with other Western leaders, failed to turn up for June’s G8 summit in Sochi. Indeed, despite all the horror and tension in Europe this year, the US President has not met face-to-face with his Russian counterpart since the June 2013 encounter at a G8 summit in Ireland.

This could be forgiven in a time of stability but in a period where the entire world seems unhinged, with conflicts bubbling all over, a lack of personal contact between the leaders of the world’s two largest military powers is irresponsible at best and downright dangerous at worst.

What makes it even more ridiculous is that outside of Ukraine there is much the pair might agree and cooperate on. The Kremlin is likely equally concerned about Iraq’s IS (Islamic State) nut-cases and they could also, surely, work with Washington on Gaza and Iran, not to mention copious other disputes that are in danger of escalating. Plainly, a lack of communication between Washington and Moscow is making the globe ever more dangerous.

When silence is not golden

So how do we get them in Buddy Holly mood, singing "Words Of Love?” Obama and Putin must hold a summit to resolve the problems between NATO and Russia, which go back to Ukraine’s membership of the alliance’s (no, not a joke) ‘Partnership for Peace’ program in 1994, but have accelerated since 2004’s ‘Orange Revolution’, which Moscow saw as an attempt to wrest Ukraine out of its orbit.

“Why only Obama and not the other NATO leaders?” I hear you cry. This is simple, despite the charade in Wales this week, the USA is NATO and the organization is an extension of their foreign policy – if Washington withdrew in the morning, the rest might as well go home.

The root of the conundrum is NATO’s eastern expansion. While Russia tolerated the accession of the Baltic States, after much protest, trusting a 1997 treaty prohibiting the Western alliance from basing large amounts of troops in the east, it is clear Moscow will not acquiesce to further eastward expansion. It is also hazy as to how such moves benefit the US or Western Europe in the first place, offering security guarantees to – largely – unstable and divided states that do not have a huge inclination for liberal political values.

Furthermore, Western elites seem dazed and confused by what has unfolded in Ukraine. However, they were warned by serious thinkers in the 1990s that relentless expansion into Moscow’s backyard would lead to collision with the Kremlin. Then Russian President Boris Yeltsin cautioned: “When NATO comes right up to the Russian Federation’s borders... the flame of war could burst out across the whole of Europe.”

Yet, they didn’t need to look all the way to Moscow for advice. At home, George Kennan, the greatest American Kremlinologist of the 20th century, warned “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. There was no reason for this whatsoever (NATO expansion). No one was threatening anybody else.”

“It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. 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 – but this is just wrong,” he added.

In Britain, Tony Judt, the pre-eminent historian of his generation, wrote a seminal essay in 1995, ‘The Grand Illusion”, and in 2009, a year before his death he again counseled: “Russia is a great power in areas that matter to us. Russia borders on Iran, Russia borders on Turkey - well, not literally, but across the seas - Russia borders, much more importantly, on all the former Soviet states going right past Afghanistan and up to the Chinese border, which are the most volatile, most likely to matter to the US on issues of terrorism, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda.”

“You can’t conduct your foreign policy toward Russia on the basis of Polish attitudes or, indeed, Georgian attitudes,” continued Judt.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (RIA Novosti/Aleksey Nikolskyi)

And alarmism is not an answer

Despite all these warnings, factions within the US administration would not relent and their activities eventually led to the carnage in Ukraine. Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, estimated in December 2013 that America had invested more than $5 billion since 1991 to bankroll pro-Western movements in Russia’s neighbor. Now, Ukraine’s fragile unity is shattered, thousands are dead and Ian Bremmer, of New York’s Eurasia Group, is warning that the country’s economy "will collapse.” Washington’s meddling has turned a poverty-stricken, dysfunctional state into a failed one.

Many Western commentators now contend that other east European countries close to Russia are in danger from the Kremlin’s ‘ambitions’ – nations Judt labeled the “cassandra states”.

In my view, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania’s concerns have some validity. They are bordered by a huge military power, which was the largest entity in the multi-national Soviet Union, which once effectively colonized them. Due to understandably painful memories of that era, there is little doubt that Western propaganda, by creating alarmism, could stir feelings of endangerment.

However, nothing in Russia’s behavior suggests any aggression is imminent and Moscow understands that any attack would lead to World War Three, due to US guarantees on their security. Only a madman would risk a nuclear war to subsume three tiny countries, which despite large ethnic-Russian minorities, are largely harmonious. Vladimir Putin is not mad.

To get an understanding of Russia’s feelings towards NATO, I spoke to a senior Kremlin official who said: “We are not interested in confrontation at all. We prefer negotiations rather than hostilities. Nobody is thinking to attack the Baltics – why on Earth would we do it? But when we see military buildup on our Western borders we feel that this buildup is against Russia. Remember, the last time an attack came from the West in 1941, it took 27 million Soviet lives. All the major invasions (Hitler, Napoleon, Poles) came from the West – that is why we are genetically fearful about this alliance.

“Having this powerful potential at our borders leaves us feeling unprotected. We feel a kind of invasion could be initiated by the Americans from the Baltic territory - so this leads us to the conclusion that the military bases in the Baltic could be used in the future against Russia,” the source added.

Essentially, the East European states fear Russia, and Russia fears NATO. With all this trepidation swirling around, Europe has become destabilized. Hence, the only solution is to remove the panic before the general angst turns into full-blown anxiety.

To achieve this, Obama and Putin will have to 'jaw-jaw' and NATO and Russia must set new parameters on the world order – this could include talks on nuclear armaments and other mutual concerns to boot. The West needs Russia for many reasons, as Judt said, and Russia needs the West to continue its economic revival and modernization. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and much of Washington’s and US media thinking is fastened in that era.

Modern Russia is far from a closed country, it’s a vital cog in a global trading wheel and the age of sanctions risks dragging Europe into the economic abyss with Russia also, despite its access to Asian markets, seriously harmed.

Additionally, the new distrust between Moscow and the West, if unchecked, could, feasibly, lead to another cold war, which no rational person could desire.

During his last election campaign, Obama famously sang Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” - the president will also recall that Green sang "talk to me.. say something good to me.” Obama ought listen to the ‘Reverend’ and ignore Crazy Horse because not talking about it has plummeted NATO-Russia relations to the floor.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.