George F Kennan was the originator of the concept of “containment”, the governing paradigm of Western policy towards the Soviet Union from the forties of the last century until its collapse in 1991. It originated in a famous “long telegram” sent to the State Department advising on the appropriate response to what was considered in the US to be a particularly belligerent speech by Joseph Stalin.
In 1997, Kennan wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times:
Why, with all the possibilities engendered by the end of the Cold War, should East-West relations become centered on the question of who would be allied with whom and, by implication, against whom in some fanciful, totally unforeseeable and most improbable military conflict?
Bluntly stated, expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion, to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy, to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.
A prophetic warning, it might be said. Twenty-five years later, on February 21st this year, Vladimir Putin announced the formal recognition by Russia of the entities called the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic. In the course of the announcement, he said:
I would like to be clear and straightforward: in the current circumstances, when our proposals for an equal dialogue on fundamental issues have actually remained unanswered by the United States and NATO, when the level of threats to our country has increased significantly, Russia has every right to respond in order to ensure its security. That is exactly what we will do.
We want those who seized and continue to hold power in Kiev to immediately stop hostilities. Otherwise, the responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of Ukraine’s ruling regime.
We have all been the witnesses of what happened three days later. February 24th, 2022 marks the collapse of an almost fifty-year-old security order in Europe. How did we get here? Mistakes were made on all sides, but the truly irrevocable, sinister, and decisive step in collapsing a world we all knew and had learned to manage was made by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who became general secretary of the CPSU in 1985, had by the late eighties come to the crucial conclusion that the USSR could not continue as it had for over seventy years. As he put it, “we cannot continue like this” ‑ a conclusion already arrived at by significant parts of the populations not only of Russia, but of other constituent parts of the USSR and of its Eastern European satellites. The image of the desired outcome in the case of Mikhail Gorbachev was “the common European House”. In somewhat jocular allusion to what was in progress, Georgii Arbatov, director of the Institute for US and Canada Studies of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, said at a meeting with US scientists in 1988: “Our major secret weapon is to deprive you of an enemy.” He doubtlessly further thought, but did not say: “What are you going to do now?” It is undoubtedly the case that Gorbachev’s vision of a common European house was widely shared, in Europe at least.
The order we had all become familiar with was that which resulted from the reunification of Germany and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91. It was in retrospect something approaching a miracle that a state like Germany, with its incomparable heft in the European system, should have been reunified by peaceful means and by agreement. That it should have come about in such happy circumstances is down to the Helsinki Final Act and to a whole series of statesmen who, in view of the implications of what they undertook, can only be called wise. The ending of enmity between East and West, Russia and NATO, was not to be a simple matter of drawing a line under the recent past, as in the words of the official Soviet spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, at the Malta summit between Gorbachev and George Bush in 1989: the progress was “from Yalta to Malta”, in other words, to something unprecedentedly new. Understandably in retrospect, the reorganisation of the European security architecture was to be time-consuming and complicated. The position of a reunified Germany, central not only in the geographic sense, would be crucial.
The negotiation of the place of Germany in the new order was essentially in the hands of four people: the president of the United States, George HW Bush, his secretary of state, James Baker, the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the foreign minister of Germany, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. In early 1990 Baker undertook intensive discussions centring on the place of the newly reunited Germany in relation to NATO. In the course of a meeting with Gorbachev, Baker urged on him that it would be undesirable to leave Germany outside alliances. He asked Gorbachev: “Would you prefer to see a united Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no US forces, or would you prefer a united Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?” Gorbachev replied that any expansion of the zone of NATO was unacceptable and, according to Gorbachev, Baker said, “we agree with that”. This was to be the single most controversial development in the whole new security construction that followed German reunification, the liberation from Soviet domination of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. The phrase “not an inch” has re-echoed down through the years and, as we shall see, it still does.
To start with, President Bush did not agree. A hard line was necessary, he said, because “we prevailed and they didn’t; we can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” Then Gorbachev did not ensure that the concession, such as it was, was agreed and recorded formally. In fact, the Americans concluded that the Russian side didn’t know what it wanted. There was also a degree of confusion on the German side, with Genscher the greater advocate of non-extension of NATO, and Kohl more attentive to the prospects of German reunification and accordingly to the vibrations from Washington. The East Europeans and the Balts were very exercised at the prospect of being left alone to deal with a possibly revanchist Russia. American domestic politics played strongly into this dynamic. In the mid-term elections of 1994, the Republican party targeted the Polish-American vote. Bill Clinton drew the lesson that his re-election prospects in 1996 needed to take account of twenty million Americans of East European descent in fourteen states, especially in Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio, states he calculated that he had to win.
Then there was the behaviour of Boris Yeltsin, who in 1993 shelled the White House, the seat of the Russian government, and in 1994 mounted a brutal operation against Chechen separatists, which resulted in the razing of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in an otherwise botched campaign which saw the Russian army send in 150 tanks to Grozny, 105 of which were lost. This added fuel to the Baltic/East European lobby, alarmed at the precedent. Crucial advocates of NATO membership for the group were Lech Wałęsa, the president of Poland, and Václav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic, who brought their immense prestige to bear. The concurrence of all these factors meant that NATO membership of the newly liberated nations became a matter only of time. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined in 1999; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004; Albania and Croatia in 2009; Montenegro in 2017; and North Macedonia in 2020.
The end of Yeltsin’s period in office saw a significant fall in enthusiasm for following a Western model of development, in both the political and economic spheres. In 1997, one of the revolving-door prime ministers of the period, Yevgeni Primakov, famously had his plane turn around on the way to the United States and return to Russia on learning of the NATO decision to bomb Yugoslavia. The end of the chaos of Yeltsin’s last years in power came with his nomination of Vladimir Putin as his successor in 1999. Putin’s accession to power was inevitably marked by the striking contrast he offered with his often drunk and incoherent predecessor. At first it seemed he was a man with whom, as the saying goes, one could do business. But even before he was elected president, and some would say, with an eye to this prospect, in 1999 he had as prime minister delivered himself of the sentiment that the way to solve the Chechnya problem was to “rub [those responsible] out in the shithouse”, an early example of the coarseness which he has manifested again recently. But his early period in office gave rise to some optimism in the West: his speech – mostly in German – to the Bundestag in 2001 was lauded as a would-be commitment to European values, and, also in 2001, he offered full Russian cooperation with the beginning of George W Bush’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan.
Very soon, however, Putin concluded that Russia’s future did not lie in becoming a part of the European project of Schuman, de Gasperi, Monnet and Adenauer. Rather, he set his eye on capitalising on predominance on the Eurasian landmass, with his project of a Eurasian Economic Union. Zbigniew Brzezinski, one-time national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, and second only to Henry Kissinger in the ranks of American geopolitical gurus (and a native Pole), in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, judged that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. In this judgment, there is no doubt that he echoed a Russian conviction.
The US/British invasion of Iraq in 2003, without a Security Council Resolution and on the patently empty pretext of Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction, led to a still further alienation, not only in Moscow, from any idea of being part of a US-led international order. And so, Putin turned to Ukraine. He intervened openly in the 2004 presidential election there, on the side of Viktor Yanukovich, where Yanukovich claimed victory. But, following widespread protests at election-rigging and a judgment of the supreme court, his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, was declared the winner in a re-run. There followed a chaotic administration in which the prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko, was constantly at odds with the president, and Yushchenko, in an act of great insensitivity to the highly delicate recent history of Ukraine, declared Stepan Bandera, a right-wing rebel who had collaborated with the Germans during the World War II occupation, a “Hero of Ukraine”.
At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin asked where were the guarantees Russia had been given in 1990 (“not an inch”), and criticised what he called the US’s monopolistic dominance in international relations and its “almost uncontained hyper use of force”. In April 2008, following a NATO summit in Bucharest, France and Germany refused to subscribe to a commitment to proceed immediately to procedural steps to admit Ukraine and Georgia, but agreed to a concluding statement which said that both countries “will become members of NATO”. In August of the same year, following joint training exercises the US conducted with troops from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine, which began at a military base less than 100 kilometres from the Russian border, and a visit to Tbilisi by the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, shelled the capital of the breakaway state of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali. Russian troops, who in all likelihood were awaiting this eventuality, responded immediately by invading Georgia proper, advancing to within 90 km of the capital, Tbilisi, before the conflict ended through the mediation of French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Yanukovich, whose origins are in Dnepropetrovsk in the extreme east of Ukraine close to Russia, was eventually elected president in due form in 2010, a post he held when Russia competed with the EU for the prime commitment of the country, Putin’s Eurasian Economic Community or Association with the EU – the latter maintaining that, under its Eastern Neighbourhood Policy, membership of the Russian-led group was incompatible with formal association with the EU. Yanukovich wavered, but, at the decisive moment, on the occasion of a summit in Vilnius in December 2013, he decided to accept Putin’s offer of assistance and did not sign. This set off the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, which eventuated in Yanukovich being removed from office by the Ukrainian parliament amid violent scenes on the Maidan Square in Kyiv, in circumstances which have as yet not been completely clarified. Yanukovich was forced to flee the country, while an aspect of the events on the square that led to much reverberation in Russia, adding to the allegations of “Nazi” involvement, was the activity of what is called the Right Sector, and its leader, Dmytro Yarosh, a declared follower of Stepan Bandera and an ardent opponent of Russification.
Putin’s reaction to this was to annex Crimea in February and March 2014, and to connive actively in the separate ambitions of what became the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which he formally recognised on February 21st last. The Minsk process, under which Germany and France have been trying with Russia to midwife a settlement which would maintain the integrity of Ukraine, made no progress over seven years, and has effectively been ended by the Russian invasion of February 24th.
What has been driving Putin and Russia in this unprecedented violation of the post-Soviet European order, which has, among many other appalling firsts, brought the first overt reintroduction (by Putin) of the nuclear factor since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962?
Many factors are at play of course. The prime one is that, after over twenty years in power, during which Putin has increasingly isolated himself, he has become convinced that Russia has been a loser in the evolution of the post-Soviet world in Europe and is intent on remedying this. An important element of this failure has been the lack of progress in making Russia a fully democratic and economically competitive part of the world community. This is distinctly not nostalgia for the Soviet Union, however much Putin may think its destruction was a geopolitical catastrophe. In Russia this year, two significant centenaries were marked. The first was the three-hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Russian empire by Peter the Great. The second was the centenary of the establishment of the USSR, precisely by the incorporation into it of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922. It is also worth noting that, by the same token, in the space of little over one hundred years, two Russian empires – the one established by Peter the Great, and the USSR – have collapsed. The history of the Russian state is very often presented as “the gathering of the Russian people”. Putin has a fixation on population, and has mentioned several times this year that were it not for the revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian state would have a population of five hundred million. The important elements in his conception of such a revitalised empire would undoubtedly be Ukraine and Belarus, the brother peoples appealed to in his 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of the Russians and the Ukrainians”. In this connection, it is also striking that one of the driving factors in Boris Yeltsin’s conspiracy with Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus at Belovezhskaya Pushcha in December 1991, where they put an end to the Soviet Union, was Yeltsin’s concern that Russia should not be left on its own with the Central Asian “stans”. A constant factor in Russian historical experience is the fear of a large land-based power on the Eurasian continent of being encircled. This indeed is a large part of the explanation why the Russian Federation is still the largest country in the world. We may be sure that Putin’s calculation also included the perceived disarray in the United States following the Trump presidency, the corresponding disarray in Britain following Brexit, the political interregnum in Germany, and the presidential election campaign in France. Finally, Putin will undoubtedly have had in mind his own re-election prospects. Although the next presidential election is not due until March 2024, he will be aware that there was a huge jump in his popularity after the annexation of Crimea and that a success of the operation in Ukraine now could have a similar positive effect on his electoral showing.
Much, importantly including the bizarre staged meetings with the heads of the foreign policy and security administration and later with business leaders in February, indicates that there is only one driving force in the formulation of the answers to the large strategic questions which Russia faces, and that this is Putin himself. He has agreed with Xi Jinping at their meeting in Beijing in January that there are “no limits” to their commitment to one another. What this implies has yet to be seen. But there is a deep historic sense in Russia that, despite many differences, the country is fundamentally a European one. The imbalance in population and economic heft between Russia and China inevitably implies that, given the isolation from the West which he has provoked, Russia runs the risk of becoming subordinate to the Asian giant, whose declared objective remains that of outranking in the course of the first half of this century the prime Western power: the United States. This is perhaps what Alexei Navalny meant when he said recently that the present war would end with the disintegration of Russia itself.
As for the West, February 24th has inaugurated a new era, one in which an attempt is being made by a permanent member of the Security Council to enforce a notion of fraternity on a neighbouring state in the mode ascribed by the German chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow, to a similar malefactor in 1903: Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein, so schlage ich dir den Schädel ein, translated: “if you won’t be my brother, I’ll bash your skull in”, an irony, surely, on the part of a man who last year published an essay on the historical unity of the Russians and the Ukrainians. The future of the rules-based multilateral order on which the European Union, a prime example itself of such an order, and its member states, especially the smaller ones such as Ireland. deeply inserted in the international system, depend, has been brought into question by a nuclear power which has violated the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in all of which Russia recognised and undertook to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
The eventual outcome remains unclear, even if there have been indications given by President Zelenskiy that the goal of Ukrainian membership of NATO may be dropped if certain security guarantees can be given. This is bound to raise the question of what his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, meant by enshrining this objective (and that of EU membership) in the Ukrainian constitution. Putin, for his part, has given some hints in his essay of last year that he may be content with some territorial adjustments. Since then, Russia has recognised, on February 21st, the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and there have been hints more recently of limited territorial ambitions on the part of Moscow. This too is obviously extremely problematic: can we conceive of Russia being rewarded for transgressing against the basic commitments of the prevailing order? That the question can be asked is is an indication of the extent to which the world we face after February 24th differs fundamentally from that of before that date.
Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs.