By William Pfaff
President Barack Obama’s cancellation of his predecessor’s missile-defense scheme for Poland and the Czech Republic presumably brings to a close one of the least explicable and most dangerous American policy initiatives since the Cold War officially ended.
The origin of the problem is obvious. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, following the coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev and what amounted to a seizure of power by Boris Yeltsin, the latter replaced the USSR with a Commonwealth of Independent States incorporating Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia (Belarus), and all of the other newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union, except for the Baltic States and Georgia.
The American administration of George H.W. Bush observed these events with discretion and its best efforts to foster what the president called in his account “a beneficent outcome to this great drama, but the key actor in the final scenes was most certainly [Mikhail Sergeyevich] Gorbachev.”
Despite the promise George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker had given Chairman Gorbachev that NATO would not be extended “one inch” beyond its then borders, their successors in the Clinton administration incorporated into the alliance the former Warsaw Pact states that had been forced into the Soviet bloc at the war’s end, but were Western in origin and history. The Baltic States were included not only as former victims of Soviet Russia but as states that had refused to join the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The idea to advance the NATO military alliance farther eastward followed. The idea to invite Ukraine and Georgia to become members came up prior to 1996, but the actual invitation continues to be withheld because of West European as well as Russian objections, as well as the U.S. change of administrations.
Ukraine presents the most serious problem in the region to follow the Soviet collapse. It was and remains a hinterland, a divided society of transition between Russian civilization and Western civilization, the latter Roman rather than Orthodox Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Church in religion, historically attached to Poland and Lithuania (at one point in the late Middle Ages the Lithuanian Empire, including Poland and Ukraine, ran from the Baltic to the Black seas).
It is an ancient society, historically perhaps the most important in the region, from which the Russian nation itself emerged. Kiev is a holy city of Russian Orthodoxy.
For NATO’s leadership—which is to say, the U.S.—to seek Ukrainian membership in NATO represented an attempt to impose on the country a cultural and political solution to Ukraine’s natural internal division, against the opposition of a substantial minority, or even a majority, of the Ukrainian population.
This seems not to have been grasped by those in Washington mainly responsible for this effort. Then came the second step in what has appeared an American program to intimidate Russia.
In 2002, the George W. Bush administration proposed to install a missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, ostensibly to protect the United States and Western Europe from nuclear attack by Iran.
The absurdity of this technically unproven defense, against a nuclear weapon and a delivery system Iran does not, and will not for years, possess, the use of which against the United States or Western Europe (against which Iran has no grievance!) would be an act of suicidal futility and folly, was responsible for the all but unanimous reaction that this was a deliberate act of American provocation directed against Russia.
But why? What had Russia done to deserve this? One might not approve of the methods of the government of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, or the lack of respect for human rights displayed in some governing circles in Russia, but neither constitutes a plausible casus belli.
So what has this been all about, at the American taxpayer’s expense? Possibly, one day in someone’s memoirs, or a graduate student’s monograph, we will find the answer. In any case, President Obama has called off this deplorable and costly adventure.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.