[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 
or xenophobia.

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 Š 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 
of iPolitics.


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 
Russian expansionism.

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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