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Biden’s mistaken Russia policy

There is a dangerous element in President Joe Biden’s foreign policy. It comes from his deeply embedded dislike of Russian president, Vladimir Putin. During the campaign he even called Putin a thug, which was not a very sensible thing to do if you are hoping to do business with him.

For all Biden’s conciliatory and pacific instincts which I described in my column last week his rigid position on Putin seems to lead him astray when it comes to US-Russian relations. While vice-president he was point man in Ukraine for President Barack Obama and thus presided over the creation of a false narrative of the events which led to the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovich. This precipitated Putin’s reaction- the seizure of Crimea and the entry of the Russian military into the southeast to help local militias fight for the autonomy of two of the Russian-speaking provinces.

In 2014 Biden, his associates and the EU argued that when the uprising against Yanukovich’s pro-Russian leanings got underway it was the government’s forces that turned violently on the pro-European demonstrators marshaled in the centrally located Maiden Square. In fact, as we now know, it wasn’t Yanukovich’s police which did the killing, it was right-wing militia whose pedigree went back to Hitler’s days. There is incontrovertible evidence that the shooting and killing were their doing. 

Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia, has written a lengthy analysis in the Washington Monthly of the Nato-Ukraine imbroglio He argues that Russian complaints about Western policy, especially in Ukraine and about the expansion of Nato, are groundless. He pours scorn on the suggestion of some critics that it was the expansion of Nato up to Russia’s borders that “provoked Russia into grabbing Crimea”.

McFaul’s other point is that the famous “re-set” in 2009 offered by Obama when Dimitri Medvedev took over as president from Putin, an effort to get Russian-American relations back on the rails, showed that the Russians at that time weren’t that much bothered by the expansion of Nato. Why should they have been? The first expansion was geographically limited, far from the Ukraine’s western border, and it was some years before the Ukraine crisis. (Anyone who knows about the history of Ukraine knows that Ukraine has been attached to Russia for 400 years. Even though at the end of the Cold War it became independent this large country of 45 million people could not fly off in another direction without upsetting the geo-political balance.)

The widely respected Russian scholar, Gordon Hahn, argued in a paper published last October, “McFaul omits two issues. First, he gravely obfuscates the causality chain, inferring that Moscow has stated that Nato expansion was a direct result of Putin’s Crimean annexation and reunification with Russia”. Wrong. Moreover, there were other reasons for Russian anger that McFaul avoids mentioning:

  • The West’s rejection of Medvedev’s proposal to negotiate a new European security architecture.
  • The European Union’s eastern European partnership that shut out Russia. It presented Ukraine with a false charge that a EU partnership was incompatible with Ukraine having a similar trade deal with Russia and its partners in the Eurasian Economic Union. In reality the two were not mutually exclusive.
  • The violation of the Helsinki Final Act’s clauses against interference in the domestic politics of member-states which happened when the US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt walked though the demonstrators in Maidan Square, handing out delicious cookies and encouraging the demonstrators to continue. The CIA must have had information about the fascist armed militias lurking in the background, but she led the demonstrators like lambs to the slaughter. In the circumstances she should have encouraged them to disperse. (Imagine the fuss that would have been made if Nuland’s Russian counterpart had turned up at the demonstrations at Washington’s Capitol two weeks before the inauguration.)
  • Ukraine’s  opposition’s violation of the agreement of February 20th 2014 between President Yanukovich, moderates from the Maidan movement and the ambassadors of France, Germany, Poland and Russia. It would have allowed Yanukovich to stay in power until the next general election in a few months’ time. When, very soon after, extremists rushed Yanukovich’s house the Western nations, inexplicably, let this agreement lapse, and with it a chance for a peaceful transition of power.
  • The continuing efforts and preparations  in Washington and Brussels to prepare Ukraine for Nato membership.

As Hahn points out, McFaul sets up a straw man. “No one has ever made the argument that Nato expansion was the immediate cause of Putin’s move in Crimea”. The truth is that it was only with the ouster of Yanukovich that Moscow felt it had good reason to believe that the “Maidan Revolution” would lead to Ukraine’s membership in Nato. 

An even more important omission in McFaul’s article is that he does not mention that at its April 2008 summit meeting in Bucharest Nato issued a highly provocative statement that both Georgia and Ukraine would someday become Nato members. A foreign policy spokesman for the Biden Administration has recently reiterated this objective. This statement was first made by President George W. Bush and then reiterated four times by the Obama administration at various summits. The last time it was made was at the height of the Ukrainian crisis. All along Yanukovich opposed this. He wanted, he said, “a non-aligned state. We don’t want to join any military bloc”. However, he said, he was happy for Ukraine to cooperate with certain of Nato’s programs which included the use of Ukrainian aviation and material in the transportation of cargo and personnel of Nato member states. Also of Ukraine’s participation in the peacekeeping of Kosovo. Nato even held military exercises on Ukrainian territory. 

How to put these missteps behind us? Stop what the US was and is doing- most recently the legacy of Donald Trump who sent into Ukraine lethal weapons meant for subduing the insurgents in the southeast. Resurrect the spirit of the agreement made between Russia, France and Germany. Keep the pressure for reform on the present government. Encourage Ukraine to have a close economic relationship with the EU but not to stand in its way if it also wants to forge a relationship with Eurasian Economic Union. End the policy of dangling membership of Nato in front of Ukraine. According to polls a majority of the Ukrainian people don’t want to join. Some polls say only 20% want to. 

Nato also needs to unravel its provocative, now large-scale, expansion. Its purpose needs to be re-examined. It is, in effect, posing a continuous threat to the Russian hinterland. It creates a state of permanent belligerence. Bit my bit, under successive US presidents, Nato has edged forward its boundaries, breaking the solemn promises to Mikhail Gorbachev not to when he was president of the Soviet Union.

The US is as much to blame for the state of US-Russian relations as the Kremlin, argues the William Perry, the Defence Secretary under President Bill Clinton. “It is as much our fault as it is the fault of the Russians, at least originally. It began when I was secretary…..If you look over a 20-year period and put the scoreboard together there are at least as many American mistakes as there were Russian”. For Perry the principle culprits were the expansion of Nato and the decision to send US-led Nato forces to Bosnia in 1996. “These were the first steps down the slippery slope.” Prior to that, Perry points out, “relations were going well, including four joint military exercises between Nato and Russia”.

Within the next few days, according to the White House and the Kremlin, Russia and the US will sign a 5-year extension to the historic agreement, New Start, made by Russia and America to cut their intercontinental nuclear weapons by 30%. The way will then be open to further cuts in strategic nuclear arms. Also it is important to re-introduce the nuclear disarmament treaties that Trump cancelled. (Whoever said that Trump was in Putin’s pocket?)

The extension signing will be a moment of goodwill. This is the time for both sides to agree to a new “re-set”, this one hopefully more fair, more realistic and copper-bottomed. And one that ends using Ukraine as a bargaining chip.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power for 17 years was a foreign affairs columnist of the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has written eight books on foreign affairs. His latest is "Conundrums of Humanity- the Big Foreign Policy Questions of the Day".

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