Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, besieged by the Russian army in August, 1996. (Photo by Eric Bouvet)
Artillery Row

The time to stop Russia is now

War in Ukraine is but the next step in the Soviet empire’s 30 year march

Russia is not a bear whom we have foolishly poked with a stick. Russia consists of human beings with a sense of right and wrong, whose leaders have consistently chosen to do wrong.

Of all the incredible excuses for his invasion of Ukraine, Putin has picked the worst: that NATO encirclement of Russia makes Russia fear for its security. Like most things Putin says and does, this originates in Cold War era Soviet propaganda, which also justified Soviet militarism by alleged “encirclement” by Western military bases.

One new addition is the allegation that, when Soviet forces retreated from Eastern Europe in early 1990s, the West promised there would be no NATO expansion: “not one inch eastward” is Putin’s favourite quotation now. Since then, of course, a dozen Eastern European countries have joined NATO, and Ukraine wants to be next.

By capturing Ukraine, Putin would achieve precisely that — a long border with NATO

Some of the difficulties with this excuse are obvious. Firstly, look at the map: Russia is not encircled by NATO, and is highly unlikely ever to be. Secondly, if Putin were really “afraid” of NATO, he would have left Ukraine alone: if there is any way of getting NATO to interfere with Russia (which is doubtful), starting a war in the middle of Europe is the surest. Thirdly, he is evidently not afraid of sharing a border with NATO. By capturing Ukraine, he would achieve precisely that — a long border with NATO in western Ukraine. Before the war, Ukraine might or might not have joined NATO in the future, but was neutral for the moment.

Furthermore, the allegation of NATO’s treachery in expanding eastward is a lie. No promises ever remain unwritten in international relations (at least not with Russia); all conversations are recorded, and where there is no treaty, there is a transcript. From the Russian archives, I have copies of verbatim records of virtually all international negotiations between Mikhail Gorbachev and Western leaders from 19891991. There were indeed talks about the future of NATO, one could even say there was a deal made but it was a different deal. It was that NATO may expand, but should be reformed to become more of a cooperation-oriented international organisation, genuinely open to any new members, including Russia if it wants to apply. The following quotation from the US-Soviet summit meeting on 31 May 1990 is typical:

“GORBACHEV: […] I see your efforts to change the functions of NATO, to try and involve new members into that organisation. If you seriously take a course towards a transformation of the alliance and its political diffusion in the common European process, that, of course, makes it an entirely different matter. But that would raise the question about turning NATO into a genuinely open organisation, whose doors would not be closed to any country. Then, perhaps, we also might think about a NATO membership for ourselves.”

The phrase “not an inch eastward” relates to a completely different issue, which arose out of the unification between West Germany, where NATO troops were stationed, and East Germany, with its Soviet troops. It was agreed that, for a transitional period until 1994, all troops would stay where they were. The Soviets would be given time to prepare their withdrawal, while the NATO troops would not move an inch eastwards into former East German territory. That promise was thus time-limited; and it was kept.

NATO is incapable of anything military except straightforward self-defence

So were the wider promises about reforming NATO. NATO is incapable of doing anything military except straightforward self-defence. Even facing naked military aggression in the middle of Europe, NATO stays out of the war because Ukraine is not a member; NATO has not even answered President Zelensky’s desperate pleas to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine to prevent a massacre of civilian population by bombs and missiles. The original NATO was urgently put in place in 1952 to protect Greece and Turkey from an imminent threat of Soviet invasion. There was no question of doing the same for Georgia in 2008 or for Ukraine now. It is still open to everyone, theoretically including Russia, but there is a complex application process and various criteria of democracy and rule of law to meet. A number of East European countries have chosen to take that trouble, because of concerns about the Russian military threat — concerns proven amply justified by recent events.

In Eastern Europe, they saw what I saw growing up in Moscow, but what the West has for so long refused to see. The 1991 victory over Soviet communism was incomplete; with hindsight the Soviet empire faked its own death. In particular, the bloodiest and falsest pillar of the regime, the KGB secret police, was never dismantled; it only changed its name. In the political crisis of 1993, President Yeltsin had to rely on KGB special forces to enforce a dissolution of parliament; that saved his power, but tied him in a Dostoyevskian “blood circle” with the Siloviki. With the now semi-democratic president as their hostage, the Siloviki immediately embarked on their quest to restore the Soviet empire.

Their first target was Chechnya, which they wanted to crush in a swift victorious war. Having faced gallant resistance, they then resorted to nothing short of genocide. It took a decade, during which a KGB president succeeded Yeltsin — to be hailed by the West as a valued ally in the global war on terrorism. Once Chechnya was finally drowned in blood and terror, an invasion of Georgia followed in 2008; then Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Helping to suppress opposition protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan, giving the green light to Azerbaijan’s war on Armenia, sending troops to save the Syrian dictator Assad, alliance with China — all this fits into the simple, if deluded, objective of restoring the Soviet empire, and fits no other theory. The present war against Ukraine is but the next step in this 30-year-long march.

Make no mistake: if Ukraine falls, it will not stop there. We have to face the monster the Western leaders such as George W. Bush created as they “looked Putin in the eye and saw” a beautiful “soul” which was not there. In fact, he is a maniac fidgeting with the nuclear button, bent on world conquest. The West has to defend itself, and it can no longer do so without taking serious risks. The question of a no-fly zone over Ukraine must be considered in this light. The unique opportunity we have today is to hit back at Putin, in a fairly limited way, while there is still a real chance of victory, as he is facing this unexpected difficulty of 40 million brave Ukrainians determined to stop him or to die trying. Having allies like that is a great advantage; to abandon them to their fate is treachery; to postpone plucking up our own courage until they are defeated, and Putin makes his next step further west, is folly.

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