Tensions in Ukraine raise questions over promises made by the West |Opinion


The current crisis in Ukraine sounds like a call to history that leaves us with more questions than answers. Yet, in light of the recent buildup of Russian forces on the border of the threatened Eastern European nation, the past deserves our attention. It also raises questions about Western promises made to new friends at the end of the Cold War.

Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev was, arguably, the greatest statesman of the 20th century (I realize this is debatable, and I give my reasons below, but encourage you to consider biographer William Taubman’s account in “Gorbachev: His Life and Times”).

He (and some would say, with the help of his alter ego, sociologist soul mate and intellectual sparring partner Raisa, his wife) did more than usher in perestroika (reform) and Glasnost (opening); more importantly, he unwittingly triggered the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the liberalization of Russian politics and economics through his earnest efforts to reform communism.

He did so with little bloodshed – hence my assessment of him as a transcendent statesman. Although we still wonder about the role he played during the suppression of a 1991 putsch in Vilniusin Lithuania, as the Iron Curtain rose for the last time, his aversion to violence, which he felt during a state visit to besieged Beijing during the Tiananmen protests in 1989, strengthened his resolve not to use force to save the shattered remnants of our empire.

Years earlier, at the funeral of Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev’s predecessor, George Shultz, the Reagan-era Secretary of State, rightly viewed the fresh-faced former farm boy turned leader of the world’s declining communist regime as exactly what he was: a reformer. sincere. Margaret Thatcher validated such claims in the intense, if fiery, political battles waged in England over the relative merits of democracy and socialism. President Ronald Reagan added the avuncular bonhomie in Geneva then freezing Reykjavík that made arms reduction a reality.

The sad reality, according to Taubman, Gorbachev’s biographer, is that apart from encouraging Gorbachev’s reforms, Western leaders did little to strengthen Gorbachev’s precarious position, even as the political foundations and economic systems of Russia were disintegrating.

Yet, if there was little material help from the West, Gorbachev obtained an assurance – the one that now seems uncertain in the haze of historical memory: a promise that beyond a reunited Germany, the West would not recruit former Soviet territories into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “Not an inch east,” Secretary of State James A. Baker III reportedly declared (with the assurances of a chorus of Western European leaders). (See discussion of this crucial Cold War outcome, titled “NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard,” which is part of the George Washington University National Security Archive, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-12-12/nato-expansion-what-gorbachev-heard-western-leaders-early).

One reason for this was that Gorbachev’s conception of a post-Cold War Europe was to be very different from what we see today – divided along some of the same lines of the previous Cold War. Instead, he spoke of a unified and open Europe that integrated all the former territories together with their western neighbors into a single economic and political region – even if some elements of association between the former Soviet republics remained (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/from-the-archive-blog/2019/jul/10/gorbachev-vision-for-a-common-european-home—july-1989).

Such, as the current geopolitical map of Europe confirms, was not in the maps. History often drifts away in a fog of memory as the opportunity of a new day presents new possibilities. The European Union enlarged in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 21and century, to the benefit of Eastern Europe and the empowerment of Germany and France as working partners (a surprising result in the context of the previous century). Likewise, NATO – often searching for a purpose to exist in a post-Cold War world – has grown in the same direction.

Gorbachev has not disappeared from the geopolitical debate, even though he has aged and plays less of a role in Russian politics (he even tried to run for the presidency in 1996, totaling an abysmal 0.5% – yes, less of 1% – of the vote). For a time, he expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin precisely because the former KGB agent urged Western Europe to remember the deal they made – ‘not an inch east’ – in the aftermath of the Cold War and German reunification.

Gorbachev wisely backed away from his support for pugilist Putin, given the young leader’s embrace of authoritarianism, intimidation and democratic repression.

But here we are, three decades after the Western powers pledged “not an inch to the east”. Tanks are amassed along the Ukrainian and Belarusian borders. There is no easy political solution.

Under no circumstances should the United States capitulate to Putin. Moreover, circumstances can clearly change over time. But this scenario raises the question of how far past engagements play into contemporary diplomacy. Should these promises be honored or considered when formulating the tightrope calculation? How might they influence diplomatic versus military considerations? History and the present make decisions complicated.

Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses in world history. His opinions are his own.


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