LAST WEEKEND’S Cold War revival at a security conference in Munich, Germany, featured a cynical Vladimir V. Putin against a reasonable Robert M. Gates, but the Russian president still scored points with his pointed anti-American speech. Putin complained that U.S. unilateralism and disregard for international law were making the world a more dangerous place, fueling insecure nations’ appetite for sophisticated weaponry, especially nukes. What made the speech so cynical was Putin’s built-in rationale for Russian arms sales to unsavory clients, including Iran, because he doesn’t want that nation to “feel cornered.”
Gates replied to Putin’s confrontational address a day later with disarming remarks about the bluntness of former spies, nostalgia for the simplicity of the Cold War and even acknowledgment that some of Washington’s recent missteps (mainly in the treatment of detainees) have eroded our credibility abroad. He also raised legitimate concerns, ever so tactfully, about the Kremlin’s increasingly autocratic drift.
Yet Putin’s tough talk undoubtedly played well, not only among those in the West and elsewhere who oppose the Iraq war, but among his domestic constituents who have deep-seated reasons for rejecting Gates’ assertion that the U.S. is a “force of good around the world.” These reasons have less to do with Iraq than with U.S. moves in the last decade to expand NATO to the east, in violation of what Russians felt was an implicit, if not explicit, deal: That in the twilight of the Soviet era, Moscow would allow for German reunification and pull its forces out of Eastern Europe as long as Washington didn’t stab the Kremlin in the back by enlarging NATO to Russia’s borders.
That is precisely what followed. A typical NATO communique in the aftermath of the unexpectedly peaceful conclusion of the Cold War stated: “Consistent with the purely defensive nature of our alliance, we will neither seek unilateral advantage from the changed situation in Europe nor threaten the legitimate interests of any state.” But within a few years, the U.S. turned vindictive victor in the eyes of Russia, allowing former Warsaw Pact members into NATO, including the formerly Soviet Baltic republics. The humiliation, and seeming encirclement, of Russia continues relentlessly to this day, with talk of someday bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the club.
NATO enlargement a decade ago was largely shrugged off in this country (though it was rightly opposed by this page), but Americans need to start realizing the extent to which this historical blunder drives how Russians interpret U.S. actions around the world. It helps explain why a hard-line nationalist such as Putin, despite his anti-democratic tendencies, remains hugely popular at home. The only surprise about his angry speech is that it took him this long to deliver it.
Here’s the U.S. State Department’s response in the form of a letter to the editor published by the Times:
Re “Putin’s NATO beef,” editorial, Feb. 13
One of the low points of the 20th century came at Yalta, when the Allies acquiesced to a Soviet sphere of influence over the eastern half of Europe.
By contrast, one of the 20th century’s happiest moments came late, when Josef Stalin’s line was erased in favor of a Europe whole, free and at peace. Europeans fought for and found freedom. To our credit, the United States and Western Europe helped. And this liberation, we pledged, would be complete, not sacrificed. We promised Europe’s new sovereign democracies that they would decide their own fate. So when they asked to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — and proved able to shoulder the responsibilities of membership — they were welcomed.
With this history, I was surprised by The Times editorial siding with President Vladimir V. Putin, who argued, in effect, that Russia deserved to recoup the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. This view is baffling. Nothing in today’s NATO or EU threatens or damages Russia. Strong democracies make good neighbors. We hope Russia will come to agree. But in no event will we cut a deal with Russia at the expense of free people in Europe. One Yalta was enough.
Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs
The U.S. government’s policy is not to “surround” or “humliate” Russia; such an impression can only be derived by Russians by relying on paranoia and/or their monstrous egos. The government’s policy is simply that it isn’t going to sell its allies down the river (again) in order to placate Russian feelings (would Russia even consider doing so if the roles were reversed? — if so, more’s the pity). One can readily see how bizarrely irrational Russian attitudes are by comparing them to those of Ukrainians, who see no danger in the protection of Eastern Europeans despite speaking a language very close to Russian and having been part of the Soviet Union and who don’t espouse the paranoid, rabid anti-Americanism (indeed, anti-Westernism) that is to be found in Russia.