I would like to share, if only for the record, the second thoughts I have developed with regard to some of the positions I argued for in the two above-mentioned articles posted on this website on 16 September and 5 October 2014, respectively.
In the first article I defended the sanctions the West had imposed on Russia in response to its intervention in Ukraine but added that they would be more in our interest if they could somehow go hand in hand with efforts to convince Russia that we were conscious of its fear of encirclement by the West. This would involve an admission on our part that Russia had a point, which might help foster the right conditions for a frank discussion about past and future NATO enlargement and such highly sensitive subjects as the recognition of ‘spheres of influence’ (or of ‘interest’) in our time. These were controversial issues, but they could all be addressed in an atmosphere of trust.
In the second article I described the divergent reactions I had received to these ideas. The people who had commented on the first article could be seamlessly divided into three categories:
1. those who had been directly or indirectly involved in the negotiations with Russia around 1990. These people tried to assure me that Russia did not have a point. There had been nothing unethical about the post-Cold War discussions on NATO enlargement: every step had been based on mutual agreement, and there had been no ‘promises’ that could subsequently be ‘broken’ by the West.
2. those who had closely followed the probe into the persistent Russian claim that the West had actually made promises to Gorbachev after the unification of Germany—most notably that NATO would not be expanded eastward. Some of these people drew my attention to former U.S. ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock, and professor Mary Elise Sarotte, author of The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, who had both written about the question of whether there had been a promise not to expand NATO. Both were critical of the way the West had handled the issue, but both concluded that there had been no such promise. Matlock described the process as one of “inconsiderate U.S. (and Western) actions met by Russian overreaction.” Sarotte concluded that “by design, Russia was left on the periphery of a post-Cold War Europe.” To this she added the following piece of information: “A young KGB officer serving in East Germany in 1989 offered his own recollection of the era in an interview a decade later, in which he remembered returning to Moscow full of bitterness at how “the Soviet Union has lost its position in Europe.” His name was Vladimir Putin, and he would one day have the power to act on that bitterness.”
3. a surprising number of Dutch people who took it for granted that the United States had taken advantage of Russia’s destitution after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I did not quite know what to make of this assumption, which did not seem underpinned by any serious investigation.
It occurred to me that many of these reactions had been prompted by my ill-advised link between support for the Western sanctions imposed on Russia on account of its ongoing aggression in Ukraine and our understanding for Russia’s fear of encirclement by the West. As a result, the whole exercise suddenly seemed pointless and even unreal to me. The reality was that Russia was committing aggression in Ukraine and for this, the West had imposed sanctions on it, period. What mattered was what happened today, not who was to blame for what had happened in 1990.
By then I had witnessed so much intimidation, menace and deceit emanating from the Kremlin that I felt I could no longer account for what I had written in ‘No Cold War II’ about Russia’s fear of encirclement by the West and the possible recognition of spheres of interest in this twenty-first century. Putin does not need our understanding, compassion or goodwill: he thrives on confrontation. His Ukraine policy has become crystal clear. He will gladly break any rule of international law to obtain the absolute assurance that Ukraine will never join NATO. He assures us that he has no troops in Ukraine but also that there will be no more fighting as soon as he has the guarantee that Ukraine will never be a member of NATO.
In the end, I still consider it possible that the West has insufficiently taken account of the extent to which Russia was down and out after the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, I do agree that any attempt at redressing Russia’s grievances a quarter of a century later is of course out of the question, because it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness in the Kremlin, with even more aggressive Russian behaviour as a result.
As for the spheres of influence, they will have to remain relegated to the past, as Roosevelt said when he came home from Yalta in 1945. But the concept will not go away as long as the expansion of NATO remains an option. SOIs will never be formally recognized, but doesn’t the perpetuation of the status quo in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia equal a de facto recognition?
With the above, I have retracted a considerable part of what I wrote in my article ‘No Cold War II’ of 16 September 2014. What is left of that article, that is: everything from the fifth paragraph (beginning with ‘Trust is not soft’) to the end, does not deal with the Ukraine crisis in 2014 but looks back on the Kosovo crisis in 1999. This section was only added to show that in the United Nations there was a constructive atmosphere of trust between Russia and the West during the wind-down of the hotly disputed NATO intervention against Serbia (the ‘Kosovo War’) in June 1999. Boris Yeltsin was then President of Russia. Vladimir Putin was elected as his successor on 26 March 2000.