AS far back as 2014, during the Ukraine crises of that year, the Euromaidan revolt, the Donbas secession and the Russian occupation of the Crimea, I decided not to visit Lithuania because I was worried that it might be attacked.
But a larger war in Eastern Europe didn’t happen. Till now.
It’s a funny thing, but for as long as Angela Merkel was talking to Vladimir Putin, there was no full invasion of the Ukraine.
Merkel, who speaks fluent Russian just as Putin speaks fluent German, and who was Chancellor from 2005 onwards, was supposed to be the one Western leader with whom Putin had a fairly good understanding.
But Dr Merkel ceased to be Chancellor of Germany on the 8th of December, 2021.
Though Russia had been building up troops on Ukraine’s border for most of 2021, the official story was that it was just an exercise.
Would Putin have moved to attack the Ukraine, and to go all the way to Kyiv, without Merkel’s restraining influence? I wonder.
I watched Oliver Stone’s interviews with Vladimir Putin, and it reminded me that Putin had all kinds of reasons for getting more and more nervous about the way that NATO was expanding toward Russia, even if that did not justify the invasion.
For one thing, the anti-ballistic missile treaties of the Cold War era had been ripped up by the United States.
Whether it was true or not, Putin also thought that contacts between the CIA and Chechen rebels in the 1990s were part of a scheme to aid the Chechens against Russia.
Other Eastern European countries got to join NATO after the end of the Cold War — more on this below — but not Russia.
Colonel Gaddafi, a great ally of Russia, was murdered by rebels encouraged by the West, after which Putin went in hard to back Assad in Syria, thereby worsening relations with the West.
Putin himself seems to have become more and more reliant on the Russian Orthodox Church and conservative Russian nationalists for his support, in ways that have helped to paint Putin into an ideological corner of opposition to the West, and to the independence of Ukraine.
I can’t help wondering whether Merkel’s departure tipped Putin over some kind of edge.
And these thoughts point to what’s probably the biggest issue of all.
You don’t have to be a cheerleader for Putin to admit that NATO expansion right up to Russia had almost certainly inflamed the issue.
An expansion not merely physical, but unconditional.
Back in the days of the Cold War, Norway was the only founding member of NATO to share a border with the Soviet Union, as it then was.
Sensitively, the Norwegians forbade any foreign bases or stationing of any foreign troops on their territory in peacetime and refused to allow any nuclear weapons into Norwegian territory and ports as well. These policies have been in force ever since Norway joined the brand-new NATO alliance, as a founding member, in 1949.
Norway was nuclear free, in that sense, for a long time before New Zealand became nuclear-free as well.
As an example of what could happen if such sensitivities were not observed, the example of the only other NATO power to share a border with the Soviet Union is instructive.
After Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it agreed to host American Jupiter missiles, each bearing a 1.44 megaton nuclear warhead over a potential range of 2,400 km from sites near İzmir, which meant that they could strike almost any target of significance in European Russia, roughly a quarter of an hour after being launched from İzmir.
The threat from the Jupiters led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962: a tit-for-tat response by the Soviet Union which ended when each side agreed to remove their missiles from their respective forward positions. (For good measure, the Americans also removed Jupiters from Italy.)
When Germany re-unified in 1990, a condition of the re-unification and the accession of the former East Germany into NATO was that the territory of the former East Germany had to become a nuclear-weapons-free zone as well. That condition is also upheld to the present day.
In the early nineties,the issue of potential NATO expansion toward Russia’s borders was seen as such a sensitive issue that Margaret Thatcher even argued that the Warsaw Pact, the alliance of several eastern European states with the Soviet Union, set up in 1955 as a counter to NATO, should be allowed to remain in existence even after the fall of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union!
The most sensitive issue of all was the Ukraine. It was one thing if Poland or Hungary wanted to join NATO. Quite another if the Ukraine wanted to join.
We tend to put ‘the’ in front of Ukraine, because the name of the country means ‘borderland’ in local languages. The borderland, as we thus concede it to be, has been fought over for centuries by the Poles, the Germans, the Austrians, the Russians, and the Turks.
There are lots of reasons why this is so. They include the rather strategic location of the Ukraine on the map; the fact that it is mostly flat and easy to invade; the fact that the same flat lands supply much of Europe’s grain; and the other natural resources that the Ukraine possesses.
The Ukraine has thus been a plaything of empires for almost the whole of its recorded history. Its inhabitants have only ever been allowed to rule themselves for short periods before the Ukraine has been gobbled up in whole or part by some neighbouring empire, which would justify its actions by saying that it was moving in to stop another empire from taking over.
Indeed, historians argue that the Ukraine was the cradle of both World Wars of the twentieth century, in the sense that both wars were started by German-speaking powers with the ultimate intention of wresting the Ukraine from Russian control.
A lot else happened in these wars, but the question of who would get to rule the Ukraine was what really got the fire lit, on both occasions.
And this was the big worry of the immediately post-Soviet era of the early 1990s. What if NATO expanded eastward and then got caught up in an old-fashioned clash of empires with Russia over the Ukraine, the cradle of the past two world wars?
Unfortunately, there was a lot of pressure from Eastern European nations to join NATO for protection: particularly so after Boris Yeltsin shelled his own Parliament in 1993 and flattened Chechnya in 1994. What would the Russians do next?
Margaret Thatcher’s idea that they should remain allied to Russia was a complete non-starter for most Eastern European nations apart from Belarus, which remained firmly attached to Russia.
As for the Ukraine, well, it was once more, ominously, ‘in play’, alternating between pro-Russian and pro-Western leaders and factions.
In the mid-1990s, wise heads argued that if the Eastern European countries spooked by Russian instability and the wars in Chechnya wanted to join NATO, this membership should come with enough strings attached to make it clear that their membership was purely defensive.
Eastern European countries should be members of NATO in the same way that Norway was, with no foreign troops or nuclear weapons on their soil. There was even a phrase coined to describe an officially two-speed NATO: The Partnership for Progress.
The same diplomats explicitly argued that if the Ukraine had only second-tier NATO states to its west, the Russians would have no excuse to invade the Ukraine; which could then start developing peacefully and with more independence than it had ever enjoyed in the past.
The Ukraine and Russia might well have close economic ties; perhaps even an invisible border of the kind that existed between the European countries of the Schengen zone and would soon exist between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
That all made perfect sense and would have kept the Russians happy as well.
The important thing was to get away from a world in which so sensitive a country as the Ukraine had to make a black and white choice as to whose side it was on. That always led to a war.
It’s at this point that American domestic politics got in the way. In the 1994 mid-term elections, the Republican Party made big gains by arguing that Eastern European countries should be allowed to join NATO unconditionally, that they should not be ‘second class’ NATO members. The Republicans made big gains in midwestern parts of the USA where Poles, Lithuanians and other Eastern Europeans provided the swing vote, in a belt of swing states.
President Clinton and his Democrats reversed those gains in 1996 by taking the same aggressive line.
The unexploded bomb of the Ukraine had now become an American football, punted and passed by a bunch of mid-Westerners who hadn’t a clue what game they were really playing.
By 1999, when NATO, which had never fired a shot in anger throughout the Cold War decided to bomb Russia’s ally, Serbia, the Partnership for Progress was dead. In that year, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic also joined NATO unconditionally, the first expansion of NATO since the nuclear-free accession of the former East Germany in 1990.
At the end of 1999, the ailing Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, chose a successor who he thought could stand up more effectively to the West: Vladimir Putin.
Seven more East European countries joined NATO unconditionally in 2004, including the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania between Poland and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, to their south, and St Petersburg and the region still known as Leningrad to their north.
At the northern end, the border is dominated by the Estonian city of Narva, 130 kilometres from downtown St Petersburg.
This is an area almost as sensitive as the Ukraine. Over the last few centuries, there have been no less than seven Battles of Narva, all of them fought between the Russians and a rotating cast of Western adversaries, intent on poking Russia in a region that could be thought of as its eye, in much the same way that the Ukraine could be thought of as Russia’s underbelly, or adjacent thereto.
So, you can see where Putin gets his madness from, even if his invasion is unconscionable and he himself indeed, as it seems, half-mad.
What you can also grasp is that the war in the Ukraine does have potential for escalation. But is there also hope for defusing the crisis?
One parallel that comes to mind is the so-called Winter War between Finland and Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940, in which the Finns lost some territory in the end and had to host a Soviet base until the mid-1950s, and to agree to neutrality and no foreign troops other than the ones at the Soviet base, but retained their independence and democratic way of life nonetheless.
Likewise, when Austria was partly occupied by the Soviet Union between the end of World War II and the mid-1950s, part of the terms of the Soviet pull-out was that Austria would be neutral and not join NATO.
On that form, it strikes me as quite likely that the war in the Ukraine could end on similar terms and that, indeed, that would be far from the worst outcome in view of the alternatives, such as a creeping escalation into World War III.
The tragedy is that even many leading figures in NATO supported the idea of a more-or-less-neutral and uncontested Ukraine some thirty years ago. And that there was abundant precedent for such an outcome in terms of Finland and Austria and even in terms of NATO’s own nuclear-free zones in Norway and eastern Germany, and the Partnership for Progress too; but that everyone has more or less painted themselves into a corner by way of various sorts of black-and-white declarations in the twenty-five years since.
When Ukraine is forced to choose, it seems that the world must lose.
Could Angela Merkel sort things out, if we brought her back?
Thanks to my editor Chris Harris, who helped out with research
I did visit some parts of Eastern Europe a few years ago all the same, and you can read about my journeys in A Maverick Pilgrim Way, available from this website, a-maverick.com.
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