[WSF-Discuss] Reaping history's bitter harvest in Ukraine
Brian K. Murphy
brian at radicalroad.com
Thu May 1 11:22:17 CDT 2014
Reaping history's bitter harvest in Ukraine
By Chris Westdal | Apr 30, 2014 | iPolitics
In his Globe and Mail piece last week (see below), historian Michael
Bliss eloquently evoked George F. Kennan's 1997 lament that "the
expansion of NATO right up to the Russian borders is the greatest
mistake of the post-Cold War period". Bliss's questions - about
Russia, Ukraine, NATO's boundaries, European responsibility and
Canadian bellicosity - need answers before we invest more in what may
be "another of the West's dubious crusades."
Ten years ago in Moscow, when I was Canada's ambassador to Russia, I
got a call from Yegor Gaidar, who had been Boris Yeltsin's crucial
reform prime minister. Gaidar wanted to see me personally "as soon as
possible about an urgent matter."
Intrigued, I received him later that day. He came straight to the
point. He had come "to beg, to plead" with me to advise Ottawa
against further NATO expansion - which would, he warned, "bring out
the worst of Russian instincts."
He was talking about NATO's 2004 growth spurt, taking in Latvia,
Estonia and Lithuania. His real alarm, though, was over proposals for
NATO to expand further, into Ukraine and even Georgia.
Gaidar implored us to understand the ancient bonds between Russians
and Ukrainians. They shared a common cradle, Kyivan Rus, a thousand
years ago. They were home to each other's largest diasporas. They
intermarried. Their cultures intertwined. Their economies were
NATO's growth to that stage had been bad enough from Russia's
security perspective, but Ukrainian membership in the West's Cold War
military alliance would be something else entirely. For Russia,
Ukraine was different, by whole orders of magnitude, from the Baltics
or Poland or the other states of Eastern Europe. Ukraine was Russian
history, mythology, family and identity.
Gaidar pleaded with us to recognize the abiding significance of
Ukraine to the Kremlin, given Russia's history of being invaded and
the manifest strategic importance of relations and territory between
Russia and Germany and between Russia and Turkey.
The notion of Ukraine in NATO, he suggested, was worse than
preposterous - it was insulting. It was evidence, if more was needed,
that the West would not take Russia seriously, that it would not
concede that Russia had legitimate security interests it was bound as
a major power to protect. NATO growth was also resented as a clear
attempt to take full advantage of Russia while it was down, to
exploit its weakness.
The heart of Gaidar's fear was of the reaction of many powerful
Russians to the provocation and insult in NATO expansion - and in the
very word "containment." His essential plea was that we not stir
deeply-rooted paranoia or militant nationalism, not feed resentment
With respect to prospects for partnership, Gaidar's plea was not
unlike John A. MacDonald's, in a different setting: "Treat them as a
nation and they will act as a free people Call them a faction, and
they become factious."
At the time, the Canadian embassy, along with Western colleagues and
NATO's Information Offices, was trying to change Russian minds about
our "entirely defensive" military alliance. The Russians were having
none of it. They told us to ask the Serbs if NATO was purely
defensive. (They've since suggested we ask the Libyans.)
I needed no persuading by Gaidar. I had long feared the effects of
NATO expansion and had argued in policy discussions that Ukrainian
and Georgian membership would obviously be counterproductive.
I had come by my views honestly. In the mid-1990s, when I was
ambassador to Ukraine, the Canadian Embassy was NATO's contact
mission in Kyiv. I was thus involved in the negotiation of the
NATO-Ukraine Commission and the still-young state's "distinctive
partnership" with our military alliance.
The half-recanted promise made to Russia upon German reunification -
that NATO would not move east - was already suppressed in the Western
narrative; a measure of NATO expansion was mooted, cautiously, from
the start. Russia was on its knees then - its natural objections
could be ignored. Still, there was never any notion that NATO's
expansion might include Ukraine. Even with Russia at its post-Soviet
weakest, the idea that Moscow might end up renting the Sevastopol
base of its Black Sea Fleet from a NATO member seemed preposterous. I
shared that view.
My view did not prevail. Canada went along with the neo-con position
that Ukraine was in line for NATO membership and, for eight years
now, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, we have been the most
stubborn advocate of expansion - to include not only Ukraine, but
Georgia too, in the Caucasus. Bliss is right to ask just where we
think the "North Atlantic" ends, where we think a good fence should
be between Europe and Russia - and whether we shouldn't leave that
for Europeans and Russians to sort out.
There is no telling where we might be with Russia now had we not
expanded NATO. Past advocates of expansion will doubtless argue that
they are vindicated by Russia's current "imperialism." It is as hard
to say where we'd be if we'd done more to make Moscow a partner. Some
will doubtless argue we did too much, what with G-8 membership and
"re-sets" and all. Books will be written about NATO's march east -
one, I expect, by a future Barbara Tuchman, about its folly.
What I do know is that Yegor Gaidar was right that day ten years ago,
when he warned me that Russia would not take the NATO insult well at
all. We reap what we sow. Gaidar - like George F. Kennan, who also
yearned for comprehension and productive engagement in the West's
relations with Russia - must be writhing in his grave.
Christopher Westdal is a consultant, corporate director and
occasional commentator on international affairs. A former Canadian
diplomat, he was ambassador to Russia (2003-06), the UN in Geneva and
the Conference on Disarmament (1999-2003), Ukraine (1996-98), South
Africa (1991-93) and Bangladesh and Burma (1982-85). In Ottawa, he
worked in Foreign Affairs, CIDA and the Privy Council Office. Mr
Westdal lives in Chelsea, Quebec.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics
columnists and contributors are the author's alone. They do not
inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions
The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Apr. 23 2014
Why is Canada sending fighter jets to Poland?
By Michael Bliss
Canada is about to station combat-ready fighter aircraft in Eastern
Europe. The six CF-18s we are sending abroad will apparently be based
in Poland. The only reason for their presence is a perceived threat
from one country only - Russia.
While this gesture may be tokenism, be assured it will nonethless be
expensive (our contribution to the "liberation" of Libya came in at
around $100-million). And while it is mostly symbolic, symbolism
alone ought to generate a more thoughtful public debate than we are
What is NATO trying to do in Eastern Europe? For fairly obvious
reasons NATO denies that it is trying to guarantee the current
borders of Ukraine, not in any case a member state. In a general sort
of way, NATO is committed to help its new Eastern European members,
including Poland and the Baltic states, resist a perceived threat of
NATO seems to be drawing red lines, perhaps best explained in a
recent New York Times article suggesting that the Americans are
trying to be the architects of an update of the old Cold War
strategy. Then it was Soviet Communism that had to be contained; now
the threat is from Russian imperialism. With Canada's enthusiastic
support, Washington and NATO are said to be reviving the
"containment" ideas proposed by the great U.S. diplomat, George F.
Kennan, in 1947. These became the West's fundamental Cold War
George Kennan lived until 2004. In fact his recently-published
journals (The Kennan Diaries) make very clear his absolute
disagreement with the way in which NATO has intruded into the former
Soviet sphere of influence.
"The deep commitment of our government to press the expansion of NATO
right up to the Russian borders is the greatest mistake of the entire
post Cold War period. ...", Mr. Kennan wrote on Jan. 28, 1997.
"In the insistence on doing this senseless thing I saw the final
failure of the effort to which I have given so large a portion of my
life: the effort to find a reasonable area of understanding and
sympathy between the great Russian people and our own."
Mr. Kennan is surely writhing in his grave at the aggressive
bellicosity of NATO's anti-Russian manoeuvering, and at Western
simplifications of a terribly complicated situation in Ukraine.
Ottawa may not matter much on the big international stage, but should
not Canadians disregard our voluble Ukrainian lobby long enough to
ask some hard questions about investing our resources in what much of
the world sees as another of the West's dubious crusades?
Does Ottawa really believe that Vladimir Putin's Russia is a menace
to world peace? Will NATO expand into Ukraine? What are the
legitimate boundaries of the "North Atlantic"? Should we be
committing Canadian forces on missions surely best calibrated by
Europeans themselves? What kind of appetite do we for fanning icy
flames of a new Cold War?
The real George Kennan thought the United States and NATO were
imperilling world peace by systematically over-reaching. For the last
50 years of his life he was a neo-isolationist, urging Western
restraint in parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe and the
Middle East, in which we have little substantial interest and less
In 2014, have we Canadians not learned to ask hard questions about
serious projections of military power in far-off places? We assisted
in the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. We sacrificed many Canadian lives
- and many civilian lives - in Afghanistan. Our politicians cheered
as our air force helped NATO create ruin and anarchy in Libya. If he
had been in power in 2003, Stephen Harper would probably have sent
Canadian forces into Iraq. This is not a good track record.
Instead of vigorously debating the fundamentals of Canadian foreign
involvement, we seem to be just letting it happen. Our country's
default position takes no account of the arguments of a great
diplomat like George F. Kennan. Instead we defer to the warrior
mentality of spirits kindred to U.S. Senator John McCain and his ilk.
Michael Bliss is a historian, author and professor emeritus at the
University of Toronto.
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