by Doug Heath
American mass media and political discourse have been so relentless in blaming Russia alone for the prolonged escalating tension between our countries that most Americans probably cannot imagine how Russians could justify their behavior or criticize ours. This mindset is particularly dangerous now that the two governments are abandoning the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty “that broke the back of the Cold War nuclear arms race”1 and have stepped up to the starting line for a new nuclear arms race. It is imperative that we resume arms control negotiations but impossible until we escape the current American groupthink. This requires an examination our role in creating the current tension.
It is in this spirit — not with any intent to absolve Russia of responsibility for the consequences of its behavior — that I offer a summary of US and NATO actions since the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe’s former Soviet satellites, the Russian Near Abroad, and Russia itself. This is accompanied by four maps and an analogy intended to help Americans comprehend the Russian perspective. I conclude with a discussion of the risk of nuclear war, which is described as “two minutes before midnight” by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in its last two settings of the “doomsday clock.”2
US Behavior in Post-Soviet Russia
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, US economic advisers aggressively promoted “shock therapy” to privatize state-owned properties as fast as possible. Russian president Boris Yeltsin passively complied and tolerated corruption that facilitated the enormous theft of assets by what quickly became the new Russian oligarchy. Pauperization of the state sector shredded the social safety net. This triggered unprecedented downward mobility of the Russian masses highlighted by astonishing demographic statistics: a 9.5% decline in the lifespan of Russian men between 1991 and 1994 (from 63.4 to 57.4 years) and a 33% decline in the total fertility rate between 1991 and 1999 (from 1.73 to 1.16 children per mother).3
Yeltsin’s approval rating fell into the single digits, but he rallied to win re-election. How? Bold print on the cover of the July 15, 1996 issue of Time said, “YANKS TO THE RESCUE — THE SECRET STORY OF HOW AMERICAN ADVISERS HELPED YELTSIN WIN,” accompanied by a sketch of the smiling Yeltsin holding an American flag. It is the story of a team of American political campaign veterans who worked for months in Russia and spent millions of dollars on focus groups and negative ads to manipulate the electorate of this fledgling democracy and deliver Yeltsin’s improbable victory. What we actually did in Russia according to this celebratory account is as egregious as the worst of the allegations against Russians regarding the 2016 US election.
Beyond the ethical injunction against hypocrisy, we have a practical need to acknowledge the logical consequences of our own behavior. The last US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, Jr., addressed this need many years after he left Moscow. He wrote, “In 1991, polls indicated that about 80 percent of Russian citizens had a favorable view of the United States; in 1999, nearly the same percentage had an unfavorable view.”4 I think such a decisive reversal of public opinion is explained primarily by the severe damage caused by American-led “shock therapy,” but Matlock cites a different cause — the distrust generated by US and NATO actions just beyond Russia’s western border.
US and NATO Actions in Eastern Europe and Russia’s Near Abroad
Examining US actions on the margins of Russia requires looking back to 1990 after the Berlin Wall fell but before the Soviet Union collapsed. US, West German, and British officials made verbal promises to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward if the Soviet Union would accept the unification of East and West Germany.5 (See Figure 1.) But after unification, Germany began to host NATO forces in its formerly communist eastern region, and by the end of the decade Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary had joined NATO. This eroded the western buffer Russia had erected behind the Iron Curtain between 1945 and 1948 to prevent another invasion following the double devastation inflicted in World Wars I and II.
When the US Senate ratified the revised NATO treaty in 1998, George Kennan, the elderly architect of containment a half-century earlier, correctly predicted that “the Russians will gradually react quite adversely” and that this “is the beginning of a new cold war.” He criticized the Senate debate as “superficial and ill informed” and the act of expanding NATO as a “tragic mistake” in which “we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.”6
Ignoring Kennan’s insight, NATO doubled down in 2004 by moving into the former Soviet satellites of Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia and, more importantly, into three other states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — located in Russia’s Near Abroad. This term denotes the now-independent states governing territories that had belonged to the former Soviet Union. (See Figure 2.) Russians could only watch in anger, fear, and humiliation as NATO moved into what had been part of their country for most of preceding three centuries: part of czarist Russia from 1721 until 1920 and of the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991. Even more ominously, in 2008 NATO publicly offered prospective future membership to Georgia and the kingpin of the Near Abroad, Ukraine.
Russian sensitivities regarding the Near Abroad derive partly from Moscow’s loss of valuable geographic assets: rich farmland; vital fossil fuel and mineral deposits; billions of rubles of infrastructure investment; key facilities in the atomic weapons and space programs; and major military bases. Their sensitivity is even greater concerning the fate of the millions of Russians — approximately one of every seven — who woke up in their own beds one morning in December 1991 to discover that they were no longer living in their own country. Their citizenship and accompanying rights had been thrown into doubt. The six of every seven Russians living in territory still governed by Moscow make a fundamental distinction between the Near Abroad (recently part of their country) and Far Abroad (the rest of the foreign world). It would be unrealistic to imagine that Russians either inside or outside of post-Soviet Russia would tolerate bullying by a new government in Latvia or Kazakhstan. It would be absurd to suppose that Russians would accept criticism from Washington when Moscow acts to protect its interests in Estonia or Ukraine. Furthermore, the symbolic dimension cannot be ignored; more than a thousand years ago Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, was the capital of the first Russian state, the Kievian Rus.
Ukraine is an amalgam of territories including two Russian-populated regions that were transferred from Russia during Soviet times: the southeastern region in 1922 by Lenin and the Crimean Peninsula in 1954 by Khrushchev. (See Figure 3.) Neither had ever been part of Ukraine. Together they contain approximately half of the 20-25 million ethnic Russians living in the Near Abroad and Russia’s most important naval base at Sevastopol, which Russia maintained after 1992 under a 50-year lease from Ukraine.
Failure to provide this essential context should be considered journalistic or pedagogic malpractice. Without knowing that Moscow transferred these two historically Russian regions, Americans are left to make the logical but erroneous assumptions that Ukraine has always consisted of the same territory it contained at its time of independence and that Russians are foreigners who do not belong there. The result is a dangerously distorted perspective regardless of whether the journalist or teacher who makes this crucial omission does so out of ignorance, indifference, bias, or malice.
Rethinking US-Russia Relations with a Hypothetical American Near-Abroad
Americans who seek to understand the deterioration of US-Russia relations could conduct the mental experiment of imagining a role reversal at the end of Cold War: a massive collapse of the US federation, with America rather than the Soviet Union suffering political disorder, economic restructuring, and an unprecedented decline in the standard of living. Specifically, imagine the creation of an American Near Abroad in 1991 by fourteen seceding states that established themselves as new countries no longer ruled by Washington. (See Figure 4.)
Also imagine that in 1999 the Soviet Union reneged on its promises by expanding its Cold War alliance, the Warsaw Pact, to include Mexico, Cuba, and Haiti, as NATO expanded into Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. How would we respond to these Soviet actions in territory the Monroe Doctrine declared off-limits in 1823?
Take this a bit further by shifting focus from “our own backyard” to what had actually been states within the union. Imagine that in 2004 the newly independent governments in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont joined the Warsaw Pact, as the Baltics joined NATO. Would Americans think Russians are liars who break their promises?
Also imagine that the Soviet Union was spending millions of dollars after 2000 to establish and expand pro-Soviet organizations in Georgia and Texas, as our neo-conservative National Endowment for Democracy did for pro-American groups in Georgia and Ukraine. Would we think we were justified in condemning these Soviet actions in the American Near Abroad? And how would we Americans react in 2014 to a Soviet-supported coup in Texas against a democratically elected government led by a Texan who insisted on maintaining good relations with the US? This is the parallel to the US-supported coup7 in Ukraine.
Suppose that the independent country of Texas had been leasing us a crucial naval base like Sevastopol, one that we had built long ago near Houston. Then the US would be facing the prospect of the Warsaw Pact taking control of that base as well as the surrounding territory, which, in this analogy, would be a region whose majority population self-identifies as American more than Texan, like Crimea with its 70% Russian majority. Do you think the US would annex the naval base and surrounding area like Russia annexed Crimea just weeks after the coup?
Would Americans be deterred by the fact that our annexation would violate the principle of territorial integrity enshrined in international law? It is a safe guess that if we deigned to give any response to such a charge, it would be a categorical dismissal of international law.
Would we be deterred by the ensuing economic sanctions? Undoubtedly our president’s approval ratings would rise as we patriotically rallied against the countries that sought to punish us in this way.
Would we passively watch as the new Texan government used autonomous militias that committed atrocities against our fellow Americans in eastern Texas? (See the blue line around the white region in Figure 4.) It would be surprising to say the least if the US failed to respond with military force as Russia has done in eastern Ukraine.
What would we think if the Soviet mass media ignored many of those atrocities and the neo-Nazi character of some of those militias? It is well documented that this has been the pattern of American mass media coverage of eastern Ukraine since 2014.8
The Threat of Nuclear War
As a former State Department official with a visceral experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, William R. Polk argues that our increasingly reckless disregard of Russia’s sphere of influence has produced a perilous situation.
“Just as the Russians realized that Cuba was part of our sphere of dominance and so backed down in the Missile Crisis, they will probably set their response to our actions on the belief that we will similarly back down because of our realization that Ukraine is in their neighborhood and not in ours. The danger, of course, is that, for domestic political reasons and because of the urging of the neoconservatives and other hawks, we may not accept this geostrategic fact. Then, conflict, with all the horror that could mean, would become virtually inevitable.”10
It is well past time that we “accept this geostrategic fact” and act accordingly. Although there are serious nuclear dangers involving North Korea, India-Pakistan, and the Middle East, “our top priority should be to get back to the negotiating table…with Russia,” according to Joan Rohlfing, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Calling this “the most dangerous period since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Rohlfing says that it presents “the biggest existential threat that most people have never heard of.”10
The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty will become null and void on August 1, six months after the February 1 announcement of US withdrawal. This will make Europe more vulnerable to accidental nuclear war than it was even in the 1980s. NATO’s Able Archer 83 war game included at least four non-routine actions that matched Soviet predictions of what would accompany an American first strike, which created frantic communications in the Soviet military that could have triggered missile launches and Armageddon.11
Withdrawal from the INF in turn jeopardizes the prospects for maintaining the 2011 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) until its 2021 expiration and then either activating its optional five-year extension or replacing it with another treaty. New START, which covers long-range missiles, “drove American and Russian nuclear arsenals to their lowest levels in nearly 60 years,”12 but here, too, we may soon be reversing course.
We must preserve and update these treaties rather than abandoning them with no replacements in hand. In the recent words of former Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, and former US Secretary of State, George Schultz, the updates must
“address the changes in the security landscape that have occurred over the past decades — including missile defenses, precision conventional weapons, space systems, cyberthreats and the nuclear weapons of other countries. … Equally difficult problems have been solved in the past, once the two sides put their minds to it. We are confident this can be done again. …The United States and Russia must resume progress on a path toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. The alternative, which is unacceptable, is the continuing threat of those weapons to our very existence.”13
Although Gorbachev and Schultz are confident that we can make treaties that would secure a peaceful coexistence, the question here is whether we actually want to negotiate. We should want to, of course, but Americans have placed two massive obstacles in the road to negotiation, pushing us instead to make what Noam Chomsky calls a “march to disaster.”14 The first obstacle is US behavior vis-à-vis Russia. Specifically, after the American manipulation of Russia’s 1996 election, the US and NATO have consistently behaved in a manner that undermines Russia’s propensity to negotiate. This can be easily understood and properly appreciated by imagining how we would react if they had been able to make comparable moves within a hypothetical American Near Abroad and along its southern margin. The second obstacle is American groupthink about Russia. With only the rarest exceptions our mass media have reported and editorialized in a manner that encourages Americans to believe that we have done nothing to create conflict, clearly implying that Russia is entirely to blame and is therefore unworthy of consideration or cooperation on our part. These are the things we must find ways to change in order to free ourselves from life under the nuclear sword of Damocles.
Doug Heath retired as Professor Emeritus of Geography, Geology, and Environmental Studies at Northampton Community College. Since then he has taught a course in World Geography and Global Issues as an adjunct professor at Moravian College.
- Michael Krepon, “The New Age of Nuclear Confrontation Will Not End Well,” New York Times (March 3, 2019). https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/03/opinion/nuclear-weapons-congress.html
- https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/ and https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/past-announcements/ Unlike during the Cold War, climate change and information warfare and other disruptive technologies are also considered in setting the doomsday clock.
- The total fertility rate is a projection of the number of births per woman over her childbearing period, ages 15 to 44, based on the birth rates for 1991 through 1999. This and the male lifespan data come from the table, “Vital Statistics of Russia, 1946–2018.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Russia#After_WWII
- Jack Matlock, Jr., “The US has Treated Russia Like a Loser Since the End of the Cold War.” Washington Post (March 14, 2014). https://www.washingtnpost.com/opinions/who-is the-bully-the-united-states-has-treated-russia-like-a-loser-since-the-en-f-the-cold-war/
- The discovery in 2009 of notes taken at meetings in 1990 led Der Spiegel to conduct interviews to clarify the dispute over what had or had not been promised two decades earlier. The resulting article supports the Russian position that the promises were made and broken.
Uwe Klussmann, Matthias Scheoo, and Klaus Wiegrefe, “NATO’s Eastward Expansion: Did the West Break its Promise to Moscow?” Spiegel Online (November 26, 2009). http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nato-s-eastward-expansion-did-the-west-break-its-promise-to-moscow-a-663315-2.html
- Thomas Friedman, “Now a Word from X,” New York Times (May 2, 1998). https://www.nytimes.com/search?query=%22Foreign+Affairs%3B+Now+a+Word+from+X%22
- There is insufficient space to defend my usage of “coup,” but I concur with the detailed argument presented by Robert Parry, “NYT Still Pretends No Coup in Ukraine,” Consortium News, https://consortiumnews.com/2015/01/06/nyt-still-pretends-no-coup-in-ukraine/ (January 6, 2015).
- Stephen F. Cohen, War with Russia: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate. New York, NY: Hot Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2019.
Stephen F. Cohen, “The Silence of American Hawks about Kiev’s Atrocities,” The Nation (June 30, 2014). https://www.thenation.com/article/silence-american-hawks-about-kievs-atrocities/
Robert Parry, “Seeing No Neo-Nazi Militias in Ukraine,” Consortium News, https://consortiumnews.com/2014/09/08/seeing-no-neo-nazi-militias-in-ukraine/ (September 8, 2014).
- William R. Polk, “Ukraine War: A Reverse Cuban Missile Crisis,” Consortium News, https://consortiumnews.com/2015/02/24/ukraine-war-a-reverse-cuban-missile-crisis/ (February 24, 2015).
- Joan Rohlfing, interview on “All Things Considered,” National Public Radio, (February 2, 2019).
- “The 1983 War Scare: ‘The Last Paroxysm’ of the Cold War Part II,” The National Security Archive (May 21, 2013). https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB427/
- David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “US Suspends Nuclear Arms Control Treaty with Russia,” New York Times (February 1, 2019). https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/us/politics/trump-inf-nuclear-treaty.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article
- Mikhail Gorbachev and George Shultz, “Abandoning INF Threatens Our Very Existence,” Washington Post (December 5, 2018) https://www.wvgazettemail.com/opinion/gazette_opinion/columnists/gorbachev-shultz-abandoning-inf-threatens-our-very-existence-gazette-opinion/article_afbb1ea6-3c1b-55b3-ae97-bae4997452b3.html
- Noam Chomsky, interview on “The War and Peace Report,” Democracy Now! (December 31, 2018). https://www.democracynow.org/2018/12/31/a_march_to_disaster_noam_chomsky