Since the end of the Second World War, the boom-bust nature of U.S.-Russian relations has in many respects been its defining characteristic. The current crisis has several antecedents, many of which were more dangerous than the situation we now find ourselves facing.
The most well-known Cold War confrontations between the U.S. and Russia were also the earliest: the face-off over Berlin that resulted in a successful 11 month airlift in 1948-9, and the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962. Later “close calls” would occur at roughly 10-year intervals until the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991. In response to Brezhnev’s threat to send Russian troops to Egypt during the Yom Kippur War, in October 1973 Henry Kissinger, filling in for an incapacitated Richard Nixon, brought U.S. military forces to the level of DEFCON III, which put U.S. strategic nuclear forces on high alert. In 1983 Russian intelligence wrongly mistook NATO preparations for an exercise (operation Able Archer) for the real thing, putting their nuclear weapons and air units in Poland and East Germany on alert.
The post-Cold War era has also seen its share of close calls. In 1999 Russian and NATO troops faced off at Kosovo’s Pristina International Airport. A shooting war was narrowly averted only due to the cool handing of the situation by British Gen. Mike Jackson who defied an order from then-NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark. Clark wanted to block the runways and isolate the Russian troops, yet Jackson told Clark: “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” And during the Russia-Georgia conflict of 2008, the Bush National Security Council actually considered entering the war on the side of the Georgians.
What makes today’s crisis of such moment is that it has the potential to haunt U.S.-Russian relations—and indeed the future of Europe—for decades to come. We are not close to a shooting war with the Russian Federation, yet. What Obama, in concert with Angela Merkel ought to be doing is working towards a settlement that would allow both the Putin government and the new Ukrainian regime to save face. Instead, we got a speech.
Obama’s speech at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels on Wednesday was in many respects similar to the speech Putin recently gave before an assembly of Kremlin grandees in the Hall of St. George in that it was largely a recitation of a specious national myth. Obama painted a world in which the grandson of a solider of Patton’s army (him) inherited a sacred duty to fight fascism and territorial aggrandizement on the continent. In Obama’s telling:
We Americans remember well the unimaginable sacrifices made by the Russian people in World War II, and we have honored those sacrifices. Since the end of the Cold War, we have worked with Russia under successive administrations to build ties of culture and commerce and international community, not as a favor to Russia, but because it was in our national interests.
Russians of Vladimir Putin’s generation may be forgiven if this picture of American benevolence doesn’t quite square with their actual experience of the post-Cold War world. And in response to Putin’s assertions of Western hypocrisy with regard to its actions in Kosovo and Iraq, Obama gave the appearance of taking him head on.
Regarding Kosovo, the audience was told:
NATO only intervened after the people of Kosovo were systematically brutalized and killed for years. And Kosovo only left Serbia after a referendum was organized not outside the boundaries of international law, but in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbors.
This is speechifying on the level of History for Dummies—it leaves out a couple of salient facts, not least NATO’s 78 day bombing campaign that terrorized Serbia’s civilian population. It also elides Russia’s primary complaint: that in February 2008 the U.S. decided to summarily recognize Kosovo’s independence. It also conveniently left aside the Mafioso nature of the regime that subsequently assumed power in Kosovo.
And on Iraq Mr. Obama assured the assembled:
America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory…Of course, neither the United States nor Europe are perfect in adherence to our ideals…We are human, after all, and we face difficult decisions about how to exercise our power.
In other words, to the hundreds of thousands of people who were killed or grievously wounded in the Iraq debacle: our heart was in the right place, our bad everybody.
All in all it was a speech devoid of substance, historical understanding, and humility; it was, above all, marked by a smug complacency born of a lazy acceptance of America’s messianic mission to remake the world in an image of its self which practically no other country shares.
And so the crisis over Ukraine continues.
James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.