Two mistakes, committed on President Barack Obama’s watch, were the triggers for the end of the long post-Cold War period of good relations with Russia. They were the attack on Libya by the US, France and the UK and the subsequent killing of its long-time dictator, Muammar Gadhafi. The second was the crisis in Ukraine.
Russia was very angry about the first. Having been persuaded by Western diplomacy that the reason for their would-be intervention was essentially humanitarian to forestall any more mass killing in the Libyan civil war, the US and Nato double-crossed Russia. After having gained Russia’s abstention in a UN Security Council vote on a resolution authorizing military intervention the Western powers set about hunting Gadhafi.
With the second, Ukraine, Russia felt undermined. This was the result of the twin policies of Nato expansion up to Russia’s border-which the US, Germany, France and the UK had promised would never happen- and EU enlargement. Nato declared that Ukraine would be a Nato member. For its part the EU had pushed too early and too hard for an association agreement with the corrupt government of President Viktor Yanukovych. When demonstrations erupted in Kiev the US and the EU lent support and assistance to revolutionary elements and to endorsing a clearly illegal oligarch-ultranationalist revolt in February 2014, despite an agreement made by some of the European powers and Russia that essentially ensured Yanukovych’s departure from the presidency in ten months’ time.
Obama has confessed that Libya was his biggest foreign policy mistake. At least it helped lead him not to try and do the same thing in Syria.
But there are no mea culpas over Ukraine. The crisis continues into a fifth year with no end in site. The West appears to have ignored President Vladimir Putin’s suggestion of the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine.
Gone are the fashioning of benign policies America created before- a new nuclear arms reduction treaty, agreeing at the UN to impose tough sanctions on Iran, which led to the denuclearization accord, jointly negotiated, managing Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, the coordinated action to defuse violence in Kyrgyzstan, and Russia supplying engines for the US’s space rockets. There was also a vast expansion of the network used to transport American soldiers and supplies across Russia to Afghanistan.
Under Obama the spirit of cooperation had nearly all gone. But President Donald Trump wants to bring the era of goodwill back again. Unfortunately, because of his erratic leadership, no one is quite sure whether to trust him. Moreover, he says one thing about friendship with Russia while his Administration increases sanctions and does a go-slow on arms control. This leads to wondering who’s in charge. Is it the so-called Blob, i.e. the senior people in the National Security Council, the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon who seem to be able, together with their allies in the press and academia, to out-fox their commander in chief?
It’s hard to believe that not very long ago Putin was entertaining the possibility of joining Nato. As Zbigniew Brezinski, a pre-eminent foreign policy advisor to presidents, told me, if George H.W. Bush had not been replaced by Bill Clinton these bad mistakes would not have been made and Russia probably would be firmly attached to the West.
An influential member of the Blob is Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul. In a new book, “From Cold War to Hot Peace”, he pulls Putin to pieces. Although he confesses that before he joined the Administration he knew not much about the history of Russia nor about Cold War interactions with the country, he engaged in a campaign to persuade Obama to take a hard line with Putin.
The book is extremely one-sided. There are important omissions, such as Obama’s confession over the Libyan imbroglio. The Russian media is presented as monolithic and in Putin’s pocket. In fact in Russia if you want to know a different point of view, including Western ones, the are a couple of TV stations, a radio station and an up-market newspaper, all with nation-wide reach, who will give it to you. Russian bookshops have everything. The universities are fairly open-minded. The internet has free, uncontrolled, access. McFaul doesn’t mention that Obama didn’t have on his staff people who were knowledgeable enough to argue a counter point of view, for example the Harvard professor of international affairs, Stephen Walt, whose own book, “The Hell of Good Intentions” which will be published in October, provides that. Walt argues that “Few states have caused more harm to others in recent years that the US has, but not very many.” Finally, McFaul gives no space to the arguments of those who advocated staying friendly and engaged with Russia, whatever happened.
Let’s hope Trump means what he says about making Russia a friend again.