NATO: America’s clumsy foot in the Soviet past

As NATO, the hulking Cold War dinosaur, lurches towards the rising Sun without rhyme or reason, Russia is pulling in the welcome mat and battening down the hatches.

In May 1997, Russia, recently tossed into the jaws of a dog-eat-dog capitalist jungle, reluctantly agreed to NATO expansion when it became clear that its opposition to the plans would go unheeded.

Two months later, during the NATO summit in Madrid, the Cold War military bloc extended franchise invitations to the first wave of post-Soviet members: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. This marked the first phase of US President Bill Clinton’s assertive foreign policy initiatives, baptized in blood and fire during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia that lasted from March 24, 1999 to June 11, 1999. William Jefferson Clinton, after all, was not only aggressive with the ladies.

Clinton, either unwittingly or deliberately, cashed in on his close personal friendship with then Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the coin of US military expansion.

“The American president,” wrote James M. Goldgeier in The Washington Quarterly (Winter 1998) “led the alliance on this mission into the territory of the former Warsaw Pact and sought to make NATO’s traditional adversary part of the process through his personal relationship with Russian president Boris Yeltsin.”

While the jocular Yeltsin proved very talented at smashing up the Soviet Union like a delicate porcelain vase, he performed much less productively when attempting to talk down Clinton's NATO-expansion ambitions.

“Why are you sowing the seeds of mistrust,” he asked the 16 NATO members during an international security summit held in Budapest (Dec. 6, 1994). “Europe is in danger of plunging itself into a cold peace.”

Broken promises

When the Soviets yanked their military out of Germany in the 90s, NATO gave firm assurances to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that it would not expand beyond the borders of Germany. The Soviet leaders, displaying an inordinate amount of trust, took NATO for its word.

Vladimir Putin made reference to NATO’s pledge not to expand the Alliance in his now famous speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy:

“I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances out western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them. But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr. Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: ‘the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.’

“Where are these guarantees,” Putin implored his silenced and stunned audience, which included US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

The irony here is that Barack Obama, who is due in Moscow next week for talks with President Medvedev, accused Putin in a recent speech for his “cold war approaches” to relations with the United States, saying the Russian prime minister had “one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.”

Certainly the usually astute Obama let his novice speech writers handle this one. After all, is there a more blatant “cold war approach” to relations with Russia than to have NATO continue to creep toward Russia’s borders? Obama is simply twisting the realities in order to preempt exactly this sort of argument that he must be anticipating from his upcoming Russian hosts.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been the United States, not Russia, which misses the Cold War standoff the most. Russia lost its Soviet-era hangover about a decade ago, while American media, when reporting on this part of the world, can talk about little else besides a “resurgent Russia” in the very negative sense of the phrase. And now that the United States desperately needs a convenient smokescreen to conceal its floundering economy, Russia is being propped up across American living rooms as a great wooden diversion.

Reckless choices

But it is not only the Russians who are opposed to the idea of a sprawling NATO.

The Christian Century had this to say about NATO expansion in 1997:

“The Clinton administration’s aggressive promotion of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe carries enormous risks, including the… wrecking of nuclear arms accords, the resumption of divisive bloc alignments in Europe, the crippling of the most promising institutions for European security and cooperation, and the swelling of the military budgets of the U.S. and the economically fragile new NATO members.”

The article proved prescient as all of the above predictions have materialized in one form or another.

Today, NATO leaders are now knocking on the door of its two latest member hopefuls: Ukraine and Georgia. But here the NATO membership drive will, and has, hit some very turbulent weather. And it is not just from Russia where the voices of opposition will be heard. The last time NATO pulled into the Black Sea, its sailors were not able to depart from their boats due to the massive protests that awaited them.

Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian population, is vehemently opposed to joining the Alliance.

“Ukraine has strong cultural ties to Russia,” writes Ivan Eland for antiwar.com. “Right on Russia’s border, Ukraine’s admission to a hostile alliance could permanently cripple U.S. relations with Russia.

“The admission of Ukraine would naturally make Russia feel encircles,” Eland concluded.

As for Georgia’s chances of joining NATO, it has a better chance of seeing its wine back on Moscow’s store shelves.

Russia is not likely to forget its 5-day August war with the Caucasian nation, and the damage it inflicted on its international standings. Nor is Europe going to forget who fired the first shot that instigated full-scale hostilities. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, if granted NATO membership for his country, would be too tempted to provoke Russia into some sort of conflict, thus dragging the 28-member Alliance into something it doesn’t want or need.

Yet the western Alliance continues to show remarkable poor judgment with regard to this highly unstable country. Before the dust had even settled on the August war, NATO was in Georgia for military exercises, fomenting, in the words of Medvedev, an “overt provocation.”

“The planned NATO exercises in Georgia, no matter how one tries to convince us otherwise, are an overt provocation,” the Russian President said. “Once cannot carry out exercises in a place where there was just a war.”

With such examples in mind, Barack Obama will hopefully consider some of the very poor foreign policy choices made by his predecessors so that the United States, and NATO, will finally extricate that one foot that is still very much stuck in the Soviet past.

And only then can the United States and Russia stop drawing lines in the sand that separate them from full partnership.

Robert Bridge, RT