We must not underestimate the danger of the Russian buildup of some 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. While Russian President Vladimir Putin claims he does not want to initiate a war to protect his nation’s borders, he has warned the West that he means business.
This matters to us thousands of miles away because the consequences may directly affect our lives. First, there are the unknown costs in deaths and property destruction resulting in a major war in that part of the world. With American and European guarantees of Ukraine’s integrity, what may the outcome entail? While no one knows for certain, it may be dire for international peace and stability.
Second, we have seen how spending vastly increased in the last half of 2021. The result is inflation not seen in 40 years. It may yet worsen if there is military action as a result of the Russia-Ukraine standoff.
And third, the spike in the cost of natural gas and energy generally could be immense if war were to break out. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Ukrainian officials say an invasion would disrupt pipelines that carry Russian gas through their territory to Eastern and Western Europe.”
So, how has this come to such a dangerous point, even as American and Russian diplomats met in Geneva and Brussels to resolve the problem?
Once the Cold War began in the 1950s, the U.S. and the then Soviet Union began to amass great numbers of nuclear weapons in an arms race. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ strategy at the time to counter Soviet aggression has remained in place.
Called “containment,” the policy was designed to “contain” the Soviet Union by creating several military alliances. The idea was first outlined by the American diplomat George F. Kennan, who in 1947 in an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs noted, “It is clear that the mean element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
Kennan did not mean military containment or threats to stop Soviet aggression. As a diplomat, he meant that diplomacy would and could work to forestall Russian advances. We must, he said, “remain at all times cool and collected” so our “Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.”
In other words, always give them a way to save face through diplomatic means.
Dulles saw it differently. He set out to use military alliances to contain the Soviet Union. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, which still exists today, was already in place by 1949. ANZUS (Australia and New Zealand) followed in 1951, and then SEATO (Southeast Asia) in 1954. At its inception, NATO consisted of just 12 countries to forestall Soviet advances into Western Europe. Today, it numbers 30 member states.
As recently as 2008, NATO leaders indicated they would welcome Ukraine as a member. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has made clear his country’s interest in joining to protect against Russian aggression. In 2018, Ukraine officially became “an aspiring member” of NATO.
No Western diplomat underestimates the threat, because Russia has already demonstrated its military might: In 2014, a Russian-inspired insurgency broke out in Eastern Ukraine, and is ongoing. And then, Russia annexed Ukrainian Crimea.
Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at Brown University and former New York Times foreign correspondent, observed in the Boston Globe on Jan. 6 that “countries don’t like having hostile forces near their borders. That’s one reason the United States has built rings of bases around China, Russia, and Iran … Our NATO air base in Latvia is 500 miles from Moscow, and in Estonia, the NATO ground force, which is equipped with more than 100 tanks and combat vehicles, is based 70 miles from the Russian border.”
Putin has repeatedly said that the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” And he wants to rebuild the old Soviet Empire (or its predecessor, the tsarist Russian Empire). That was one reason he kept troops for so long in Chechnya to put down an insurgency, fearing it would secede from Russia. And why he oversaw the deployment of Russian troops into Georgia in the South Caucasus in 2014. Georgia was then, as now, an independent country.
Ukraine may be next. Talks between the Russians and Americans in Geneva to seek a way out, at this writing, do not look promising. Putin has unrelentingly demanded that NATO renounce all intentions of including Ukraine within its ranks. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov noted that Ukraine must “never, never, ever” join NATO, while the American Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman responded that the U.S. has always supported NATO’s “open-door policy.”
Ryabkov said if NATO does not give Russia its guarantee to exclude Ukraine, the “security of the whole European continent” will be at risk.
The problem is that no one knows for certain Putin’s intentions, including his closest advisors. The U.S. and Russia must act to overcome the diplomatic stalemate, one that will guarantee Ukrainian integrity and Russian security interests. If this happens, the three major threats to us in the West, outlined above, may well moderate, resulting in a more stable relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, many years ago studied Soviet content analysis at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Washington, D.C.