David C. Speedie – The ‘Missed Opportunities’ Syndrome: US-Russia Relations from 1992 to the Present

The unseen consequences of the Ukraine war

David C. Speedie was Senior Fellow and Director of the Program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York from 2007 to 2017. He is a founding member of the Board of ACURA

Cross-posted from ACURA


“Nyet means Nyet” memo was written by current CIA Director William Burns when he was the ambassador to Russia

The tragic consequences of Russia’s February 2022 attack on Ukraine are amply documented in our mainstream media: one third of pre-war population lost, through death, displacement or flight; Ukraine’s infrastructural and environmental catastrophes; the grim echo of the trench warfare-like conditions of World War I, with incrementally small advances by either side at costs of thousands more lives.  The actual causes of the conflict are more the purview of independent media, this being an inconvenient topic for the Western narrative.  Bluntly put, the Ukraine tragedy was born of a series of missed opportunities, mostly willfully so, and mostly attributable to NATO and the West: if ever the words of Clausewitz rang true: War is politics by other means, they do so in the case of the Ukrainian tragedy.

It is clear that Western leaders went out of their way to prevent a negotiated diplomatic solution to the crisis.  As such, they share guilt in the onset of war, and also in its prolonged course, through massive arms supplies ot a Ukrainian cause that looks ever more lost.  The most immediate precipitating factor was the failure of Kyiv [at the urging of the West] to implement the Minsk agreements of 2015 and 2016 that would have removed the buildup of armed forces on both sides and kept the Donbas republics within Ukraine, with limited autonomy, and with such basic and essential rights as the use of the Russian language in official documents.  [One of the architects of Minsk, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, subsequently confessed that the Minsk process was merely a playing for time to allow Ukraine to build up its military capacity. ] Subsequent West-dictated avoidance of a diplomatic solution torpedoed the Istanbul explorations in 2022 [remember Boris Johnson’s visit to Kyiv as NATO’s messenger boy?].

One year before Minsk I there was the overthrow of Ukraine’s legally elected President, and the West’s connivance in this, at the Maidan “revolution” in 2014, in which the United States’ woman on the spot, Victoria Nuland, crudely dismissed our ambassador’s concern about the reaction of our European NATO allies to the coup.  Since one of the subplots here featured a growing NATO presence in Ukraine, the Russian reaction may only be surmised.

I would argue, however, that while these events are directly causal factors in the 2022 invasion, there is a chain of action—or inaction—that goes back more than thirty years, to the Cold War’s end and fanned the flames of Russian insecurity with regard to developments to its West.

First, beginning with Gorbachev in the last days of the Soviet Union, there were Soviet, then Russian proposals for a new European security architecture “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.  The typical Western reaction was “Interesting idea, let’s think about it”.  This having evaporated into thin air, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin all at various times broached the idea of Russia in NATO; the poor consolation prize was the NATO-Russia Council, where Russian concerns basically came to die.  Then, of course, we had NATO expansion, beginning in 1999 and finally reaching Russia’s doorstep with the accession of the Baltic states and Poland and, most recently, Finland.  Thus perished the “not one inch to the east” verbal promise of James Baker to Gorbachev, which was reinforced by a veritable Hall of Fame of Western leadership: Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterand, George H.W. Bush, NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner, even Margaret Thatcher [the Iron Lady praised Gorbachev as “a man I can do business with”].  The bottom line: this whole sorry train of events represents the missed opportunity to involve a willing Russia in a post-Cold War European security structure,

Russian exclusion from, or even serious engagement with, the West through NATO was exacerbated by U.S.-directed NATO actions that could only heighten Moscow’s angst, and justifiably so.  These are familiar: U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002; our refusal to respond to Russian concerns over the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement, resulting in Russia’s withdrawal; the bombing of Russia’s ally, Serbia, in1999; US placement of nuclear installations in Poland, Bulgaria and Germany [missile defenses, say we, but readily convertible to offensive purposes]; NATO exercises in Georgia and Ukraine [as one observer wryly noted: “Ukraine may not be in NATO, but NATO is most definitely in Ukraine”.]  In sum, the past thirty-odd year history of U.S./NATO- Russia relations is pockmarked with provocative actions by the West; Russia has been reactive, not revanchist, and the invasion of Ukraine is the apogee, a direct response to George W. Bush’s irrational proposal of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia at the 2006 Bucharest summit and the relentless increase in NATO’s presence since. Again, a bottom line: the overwhelmingly foolish missed opportunity of the post-Cold War age has been that of concluding a grand [or even good] bargain with Russia.  On the contrary, our billions of arms supplied to Ukraine. With increasing signs of approval to use them on targets within Russia, may well lead to Russia’s ultimate. apocalyptic reaction: nuclear war with NATO.

There is one final aspect of the “missed opportunities” syndrome, and one that hits home in a personal way—indeed, it may be seen rather as an elegiac reflection on “lost opportunities”.  For those of us who labored for some twenty-five years in private-sector efforts to see a positive U.S. Russia engagement take root, the loss of connections with Russian interlocutors who were engaged in a similarly constructive way is nothing short of tragic.  One thinks of scholars and experts such as Sergey Rogov of the Institute for the Study of the U.S. and Canada [now surely moribund, if not defunct]; Andrey Kortunov, Vyacheslav Nikonov and Dmitri Trenin [the first Russian director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, an indispensable port of call in a Moscow visit, and now disbanded].  One thinks of governmental officials like the late Yevgeny Primakov [who turned his Washington-bound plane  around in mid-Atlantic upon hearing of the bombing of Belgrade], and of brilliant parliamentarians such as Vladimir Lukin and Alexey Arbatov, the latter perhaps the most penetrating mind on arms control issues on either the U.S. or Russian side.  What connects these individuals, and what makes the loss of their professional expertise and comradeship all the more lamentable, is that each was absolutely dedicated to the pursuit of a positive relationship.  Toward this end, they articulated Russia’s positions and strategic interests, while understanding the view from the other side—a diplomatic art that seems to have been irrevocably been lost in Washington.

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