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Reaping history’s bitter harvest in Ukraine PDF Print E-mail
Peace News
Written by Joan Russow
Saturday, 03 May 2014 08:50
By Chris Westdal | Apr 30, 2014 | iPolitics

In his Globe and Mail piece last week (see below), historian Michael Bliss eloquently evoked George F. Kennan's 1997 lament that "the expansion of NATO right up to the Russian borders is the greatest mistake of the post-Cold War period". Bliss's questions - about Russia, Ukraine, NATO's boundaries, European responsibility and Canadian bellicosity - need answers before we invest more in what may be "another of the West's dubious crusades."

Ten years ago in Moscow, when I was Canada's ambassador to Russia, I got a call from Yegor Gaidar, who had been Boris Yeltsin's crucial reform prime minister. Gaidar wanted to see me personally "as soon as possible about an urgent matter."

Intrigued, I received him later that day. He came straight to the point. He had come "to beg, to plead" with me to advise Ottawa against further NATO expansion - which would, he warned, "bring out the worst of Russian instincts."

He was talking about NATO's 2004 growth spurt, taking in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. His real alarm, though, was over proposals for NATO to expand further, into Ukraine and even Georgia.

Gaidar implored us to understand the ancient bonds between Russians and Ukrainians. They shared a common cradle, Kyivan Rus, a thousand years ago. They were home to each other's largest diasporas. They intermarried. Their cultures intertwined. Their economies were integrated.

NATO's growth to that stage had been bad enough from Russia's security perspective, but Ukrainian membership in the West's Cold War military alliance would be something else entirely. For Russia, Ukraine was different, by whole orders of magnitude, from the Baltics or Poland or the other states of Eastern Europe. Ukraine was Russian history, mythology, family and identity.

Gaidar pleaded with us to recognize the abiding significance of Ukraine to the Kremlin, given Russia's history of being invaded and the manifest strategic importance of relations and territory between Russia and Germany and between Russia and Turkey.

The notion of Ukraine in NATO, he suggested, was worse than preposterous - it was insulting. It was evidence, if more was needed, that the West would not take Russia seriously, that it would not concede that Russia had legitimate security interests it was bound as a major power to protect. NATO growth was also resented as a clear attempt to take full advantage of Russia while it was down, to exploit its weakness.

The heart of Gaidar's fear was of the reaction of many powerful Russians to the provocation and insult in NATO expansion - and in the very word "containment." His essential plea was that we not stir deeply-rooted paranoia or militant nationalism, not feed resentment or xenophobia.

With respect to prospects for partnership, Gaidar's plea was not unlike John A. MacDonald's, in a different setting: "Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people Š Call them a faction, and they become factious."

At the time, the Canadian embassy, along with Western colleagues and NATO's Information Offices, was trying to change Russian minds about our "entirely defensive" military alliance. The Russians were having none of it. They told us to ask the Serbs if NATO was purely defensive. (They've since suggested we ask the Libyans.)

I needed no persuading by Gaidar. I had long feared the effects of NATO expansion and had argued in policy discussions that Ukrainian and Georgian membership would obviously be counterproductive.

I had come by my views honestly. In the mid-1990s, when I was ambassador to Ukraine, the Canadian Embassy was NATO's contact mission in Kyiv. I was thus involved in the negotiation of the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the still-young state's "distinctive partnership" with our military alliance.

The half-recanted promise made to Russia upon German reunification - that NATO would not move east - was already suppressed in the Western narrative; a measure of NATO expansion was mooted, cautiously, from the start. Russia was on its knees then - its natural objections could be ignored. Still, there was never any notion that NATO's expansion might include Ukraine. Even with Russia at its post-Soviet weakest, the idea that Moscow might end up renting the Sevastopol base of its Black Sea Fleet from a NATO member seemed preposterous. I shared that view.

My view did not prevail. Canada went along with the neo-con position that Ukraine was in line for NATO membership and, for eight years now, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, we have been the most stubborn advocate of expansion - to include not only Ukraine, but Georgia too, in the Caucasus. Bliss is right to ask just where we think the "North Atlantic" ends, where we think a good fence should be between Europe and Russia - and whether we shouldn't leave that for Europeans and Russians to sort out.

There is no telling where we might be with Russia now had we not expanded NATO. Past advocates of expansion will doubtless argue that they are vindicated by Russia's current "imperialism." It is as hard to say where we'd be if we'd done more to make Moscow a partner. Some will doubtless argue we did too much, what with G-8 membership and "re-sets" and all. Books will be written about NATO's march east - one, I expect, by a future Barbara Tuchman, about its folly.

What I do know is that Yegor Gaidar was right that day ten years ago, when he warned me that Russia would not take the NATO insult well at all. We reap what we sow. Gaidar - like George F. Kennan, who also yearned for comprehension and productive engagement in the West's relations with Russia - must be writhing in his grave.

Christopher Westdal is a consultant, corporate director and occasional commentator on international affairs. A former Canadian diplomat, he was ambassador to Russia (2003-06), the UN in Geneva and the Conference on Disarmament (1999-2003), Ukraine (1996-98), South Africa (1991-93) and Bangladesh and Burma (1982-85). In Ottawa, he worked in Foreign Affairs, CIDA and the Privy Council Office. Mr Westdal lives in Chelsea, Quebec.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author's alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.


The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Apr. 23 2014

Why is Canada sending fighter jets to Poland?
By Michael Bliss

Canada is about to station combat-ready fighter aircraft in Eastern Europe. The six CF-18s we are sending abroad will apparently be based in Poland. The only reason for their presence is a perceived threat from one country only - Russia.

While this gesture may be tokenism, be assured it will nonetheless be expensive (our contribution to the "liberation" of Libya came in at around $100-million). And while it is mostly symbolic, symbolism alone ought to generate a more thoughtful public debate than we are having.

What is NATO trying to do in Eastern Europe? For fairly obvious reasons NATO denies that it is trying to guarantee the current borders of Ukraine, not in any case a member state. In a general sort of way, NATO is committed to help its new Eastern European members, including Poland and the Baltic states, resist a perceived threat of Russian expansionism.

NATO seems to be drawing red lines, perhaps best explained in a recent New York Times article suggesting that the Americans are trying to be the architects of an update of the old Cold War strategy. Then it was Soviet Communism that had to be contained; now the threat is from Russian imperialism. With Canada's enthusiastic support, Washington and NATO are said to be reviving the "containment" ideas proposed by the great U.S. diplomat, George F. Kennan, in 1947. These became the West's fundamental Cold War strategy.

George Kennan lived until 2004. In fact his recently-published journals (The Kennan Diaries) make very clear his absolute disagreement with the way in which NATO has intruded into the former Soviet sphere of influence.

"The deep commitment of our government to press the expansion of NATO right up to the Russian borders is the greatest mistake of the entire post Cold War period. ...", Mr. Kennan wrote on Jan. 28, 1997.
"In the insistence on doing this senseless thing I saw the final failure of the effort to which I have given so large a portion of my life: the effort to find a reasonable area of understanding and sympathy between the great Russian people and our own."

Mr. Kennan is surely writhing in his grave at the aggressive bellicosity of NATO's anti-Russian manoeuvering, and at Western simplifications of a terribly complicated situation in Ukraine. Ottawa may not matter much on the big international stage, but should not Canadians disregard our voluble Ukrainian lobby long enough to ask some hard questions about investing our resources in what much of the world sees as another of the West's dubious crusades?

Does Ottawa really believe that Vladimir Putin's Russia is a menace to world peace? Will NATO expand into Ukraine? What are the legitimate boundaries of the "North Atlantic"? Should we be committing Canadian forces on missions surely best calibrated by Europeans themselves? What kind of appetite do we have for fanning icy flames of a new Cold War?

The real George Kennan thought the United States and NATO were imperilling world peace by systematically over-reaching. For the last 50 years of his life he was a neo-isolationist, urging Western restraint in parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East, in which we have little substantial interest and less understanding.

In 2014, have we Canadians not learned to ask hard questions about serious projections of military power in far-off places? We assisted in the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. We sacrificed many Canadian lives - and many civilian lives - in Afghanistan. Our politicians cheered as our air force helped NATO create ruin and anarchy in Libya. If he had been in power in 2003, Stephen Harper would probably have sent Canadian forces into Iraq. This is not a good track record.

Instead of vigorously debating the fundamentals of Canadian foreign involvement, we seem to be just letting it happen. Our country's default position takes no account of the arguments of a great diplomat like George F. Kennan. Instead we defer to the warrior mentality of spirits kindred to U.S. Senator John McCain and his ilk.

Michael Bliss is a historian, author and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

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