Impeaching Trump and Demonizing Russia: Birds of a Feather
The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan liked what she saw when U.S. diplomats George Kent and William B. Taylor Jr. went before the House Intelligence Committee to give testimony as part of the ongoing impeachment drama. She saw them as “the old America reasserting itself.” They demonstrated “stature and command of their subject matter.” They evinced “capability and integrity.”
All true. Kent, with his bow tie and his family tradition of public service, appeared to be the very picture of the old-school American foreign service official. And Taylor, with his exemplary West Point career, his Vietnam heroism, and his longtime national service, seemed a throwback to the blunt-spoken American military men who gave us our World War II triumph and our rise to global dominance.
But these men embrace a geopolitical outlook that is simplistic, foolhardy, and dangerous. Perhaps no serious blame should accrue to them, since it is the same geopolitical outlook embraced and enforced by pretty much the entire foreign policy establishment, of which these men are mere loyal apparatchiks. And yet they are playing their part in pushing a foreign policy that is directing America towards a very possible disaster.
Neither man manifested even an inkling of an understanding of what kind of game the United States in playing with Ukraine. Neither gave even a nod to the long, complex relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Neither seemed to understand either the substance or the intensity of Russia’s geopolitical interests along its own borders or the likely consequences of increasing U.S. meddling in what for centuries has been part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
Both Taylor and Kent declared that America’s vital national interest is wrapped up in Ukraine, though neither sought to explain why in any substantive way. Spin out all the potential scenarios of Ukraine’s fate and then ask whether any of them would materially affect America’s vital interests. Any affirmative answer would require elaborate contortions.
It could be argued, perhaps, that an expansion of Russian influence in Ukraine could affect the vital interests of the rest of Europe, though that would hardly be inevitable. But cannot Europe handle any such threat vis-a-vis Russia, given that the EU has a population of 512 million and a GDP of $18 trillion—compared to Russia’s population of 145 million and GDP of $1.6 trillion?
The Taylor/Kent outlook stems from the widespread demonization of Russia that dominates thinking within elite circles. Taylor’s rendition of recent events in Ukraine was so one-sided and selective as to amount to a falsehood. As he had it, Ukraine’s turn to the West after 2009 (when he left the country after his first diplomatic tour there) threatened Russia’s Vladimir Putin to such an extent that he tried to “bribe” Ukraine’s president with inducements to resist Western influence, whereupon protests emerged in Kyiv that drove the Ukrainian president to flee the country in 2014. Then Putin invaded Crimea, holding a “sham referendum at the point of Russian army rifles.” Putin sent military forces into eastern Ukraine “to generate illegal armed formations and puppet governments.” And so the West extended military assistance to Ukraine.
“It is this security assistance,” he said, “that is at the heart of the [impeachment] controversy that we are discussing today.”
In contrast to this misleading rendition, here are the facts, with appropriate context.
In 1989 and 1990, the George H. W. Bush administration assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that if he accepted German unification, the West would not seek to exploit the situation through any eastward expansion—not even by “one inch,” as then-secretary of state James Baker assured Gorbachev. But Bill Clinton reneged on that commitment, moving to expand NATO on an eastward path that eventually led right up to the Russian border.
NATO, with just 16 members in 1990, now includes 29 European states, with all of the expansion countries lying east of Germany. As this was unfolding, Russian leaders issued stern warnings about the consequences if America and the West sought to include in NATO either Ukraine or Georgia. Both are considered as fundamental to Russian security.
As Nikolas K. Gvosdev of the U.S. Naval War College has written, Russia and Ukraine share a 1,500-mile border where Ukraine “nestles up against the soft underbelly of the Russian Federation.” Gvosdev elaborates: “The worst nightmare of the Russian General Staff would be NATO forces deployed all along this frontier, which would put the core of Russia’s population and industrial capacity at risk of being quickly and suddenly overrun in the event of any conflict.” Beyond that crucial strategic concern, the two countries share strong economic, trade, cultural, ethnic, and language ties going back centuries. No Russian leader of any stripe would survive as leader if he or she were to allow Ukraine to be wrested fully from Russia’s sphere of influence.
And yet America, in furtherance of the ultimate aim of pulling Ukraine away from Russia, spent some $5 billion in a campaign to gin up pro-Western sentiment there, according to former assistant secretary of state for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who spearheaded much of this effort during the Obama administration. It was clearly a blatant effort to interfere in the domestic politics of a foreign nation—and a nation residing in a delicate and easily inflamed part of the world.
But Ukraine is a tragically divided nation, with many of its people drawn to the West while others feel greater ties to Russia. The late Samuel Huntington of Harvard called Ukraine “a cleft country, with two distinct cultures.” Contrary to Taylor’s false portrayal of an aggressive Russia trampling on eastern Ukrainians by setting up puppet governments and manufacturing a bogus referendum in Crimea, the reality is that large numbers of Ukrainians there favor Russia and feel loyalty to what they consider their Russian heritage. The Crimean public is 70 percent Russian, and its Parliament in 1992 actually voted to declare independence from Ukraine for fear that the national leadership would nudge the country toward the West. (The vote was later rescinded to avoid a violent national confrontation.) In 1994, Crimea elected a president who had campaigned on a platform of “unity with Russia.”
True, many in western Ukraine have pushed for greater ties to the West and wanted their elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, to respond favorably to Western financial blandishments. But Yanukovych, tilting toward Russia, eschewed NATO membership for Ukraine, renewed a long-term lease for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, and gave official status to the Russian language. These actions eased tensions between Ukraine and Russia, but they inflamed Ukraine’s internal politics. And when Yanukovych abandoned negotiations aimed at an association and free-trade agreement with the European Union in favor of greater economic ties to Russia, pro-Western Ukrainians, including far-right provocateurs, staged street protests that ultimately brought down Yanukovych’s government. Victoria Nuland gleefully egged on the protesters. The deposed president fled to Russia.
Nuland then set about determining who would be Ukraine’s next prime minister, namely Arseniy Yatsenyuk. “Yats is our guy,” she declared to U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. When Pyatt warned that many EU countries were uncomfortable with a Ukrainian coup, she shot back, “Fuck the EU.” She then got her man Yats into the prime minister position, demonstrating the influence that enables U.S. meddling in foreign countries.
That’s when Putin rushed back to Moscow from the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi to protect the more Russian-oriented areas of Ukraine (the so-called Donbass in the country’s east and Crimea in the south) from being swallowed up in this new drama. He orchestrated a plebiscite in Crimea, which revealed strong sentiment for reunification with Russia (hardly the “sham referendum” described by Taylor) and sent significant military support to Donbass Ukrainians who didn’t want to be pulled westward.
The West and America have always been, and must remain, wary of Russia. Its position in the center of Eurasia—the global “heartland,” in the view of the famous British geographic scholar Halford Mackinder—renders it always a potential threat. Its vulnerability to invasion stirs in Russian leaders an inevitable hunger for protective lands. Its national temperament seems to include a natural tendency towards authoritarianism. Any sound American foreign policy must keep these things in mind.
But in the increasingly tense relationship between the Atlantic Alliance and Russia, the Alliance has been the more aggressive player—aggressive when it pushed for NATO’s eastward expansion despite promises to the contrary from the highest levels of the U.S. government; aggressive when it turned that policy into an even more provocative plan for the encirclement of Russia; aggressive when it dangled the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia; aggressive when it sought to lure Ukraine out of the Russian orbit with economic incentives; aggressive when it helped foster the street coup against a duly elected Ukrainian government; and aggressive in its continued refusal to appreciate or acknowledge Russia’s legitimate geopolitical interests in its own neighborhood.
George Kent and William B. Taylor Jr., in their testimony last week, personified this aggressive outlook, designed to squeeze Russia into a geopolitical corner and trample upon its regional interests in the name of Western universalism. If that outlook continues and leads to ever greater tensions with Russia, it can’t end well.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.