“Sitting at the embassy in Moscow in the mid-nineties, it seemed to me that NATO expansion was premature at best and needlessly provocative at worst.” This sentence is particularly timely now with tensions between the West and Russia escalating over Ukraine. Odd as it may seem, it came from one of America’s most seasoned diplomats, William J. Burns, then serving at the US Embassy in Moscow and now director at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
In his book, “The Back Channel,” Burns also writes that “stressing the attachment of [Former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and the country’s political elite to Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet space, I emphasized mounting Russian concern about expansion of NATO […] Before thinking seriously about extending offers of formal NATO membership to Poland and other Central European states, we recommended considering other forms of cooperation with former Warsaw Pact members and perhaps a new ‘treaty relationship’ between NATO and Russia […] After his re-election in November 1996, [former US president Bill] Clinton followed through on NATO expansion […] Nevertheless, as the Russians stewed in their grievance and sense of disadvantage, a gathering storm of ‘stab in the back’ theories slowly swirled, leaving a mark on Russia’s relations with the West that would linger for decades.”
I do not believe that there exists a better explanation on how we came to where we are today. Vladimir Putin is a manifestation, Russia’s answer to the arrogance of the West that believed it was done dealing with a superpower. Policy towards Moscow was driven by the – justified but not dispassionate – agendas of the European countries that had been under Soviet rule. Today, Moscow is once again a global geopolitical player.
Could history have unfolded differently? Obviously, if the United States and even Europe had handled the collapse of the Soviet Union more wisely and graciously. Former president George H.W. Bush applied this in practice when he refused to publicly celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall to avoid any international incidents. He knew that strategic hubris can come to haunt you. Clinton was from a different generation. He had a cerebral relationship with history; he had not lived through it.
I will always remember one Greek prime minister who spoke of how badly he felt during a summit of Western leaders to which Yeltsin had been invited. Earlier in the day, Clinton had joked that “tonight, we’re going to have fun” and proceeded to laugh at an inebriated Yeltsin eating caviar with his hands. What we are seeing today can obviously be explained by what took place 20-25 years ago. These events do not make the dilemmas facing the West any easier, but they are good to think about.