Is NATO reaching too far east?

Today’s question: Did the U.S. overplay its hand in Eastern Europe when Russia was weak and reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union? Previously, Moynihan and Meier discussed the extent to which Russia wants to exert control over former Soviet republics.

Don’t ignore Russian aggression
Point: Michael C. Moynihan

Well, Andrew, I sort of figured we would be asked this. Among those debating the Georgia issue in Washington, one of the most common questions I hear is the one posed to us today. Just this weekend, I heard the historian and Russia specialist Stephen Cohen on NPR informing listeners of his Rasputin-like prescience, gravely intoning that back when the Soviet Union was in its death throes, he predicted that the Kremlin would later “react to the world depending on how the world treated it when [it] was on its knees.” By “encircling Russia” -- in other words, extending moral, financial and military support to countries formerly occupied by the Soviet Union -- it was inevitable that Russia would eventually push back and occupy parts of Georgia. This war, Cohen said, was both “blowback” and “payback.”

I must admit, Andrew, that I’m finding the frequency of this argument rather alarming. It is doubtless true that the United States mishandled a few things in those heady days when history was ending -- as did Boris Yeltsin and a fair number of brave Eastern European independence leaders. But seeing as this argument frequently emanates from both the progressive left and the paleo-conservative right, I’ll use a familiar “anti-imperialist” phraseology and ask if state actors broadly allied with America ever get to claim “blowback” or “root causes” themselves.

And we should also remember that from the very beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States, then guided by the bumbling George H.W. Bush, wasn’t exactly dying to exploit the situation on Russia’s borders. Have we all forgotten the idiotic 1991 “chicken Kiev” speech, during which Bush warned Ukrainians that “freedom is not the same as independence” and cautioned against “suicidal nationalism”? Indeed, Washington had little interest in encouraging Baltic independence.

So what was the United States to do when Czech politician Vaclav Havel founded the anti-authoritarian Civic Forum in 1989; when Poland’s Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in 1981; when Lech Walesa led workers in Gdansk in open revolt against the Russian puppet regime in the early 1980s; when the brilliant Estonian prime minister, Mart Laar, charted a liberal path for his country in the early 1990s? Or how about when the Lithuanian Parliament declared independence in 1990 by a vote of 124 to 0, an event the Kremlin answered with tanks? Should these movements not have been supported for fear of ticking off future Russian leaders?

I am aware that today’s topic pertains more broadly to NATO expansion, though it is foolish to think that this is the only issue giving Soviet nostalgics a case of acid reflux. But on the issue of Georgia or Ukraine joining NATO, that, of course, is the business of the democratically elected governments of those countries. And obviously such desires are frequently affected by the actions of their former occupiers. When Poland drove a difficult bargain on the placement of defensive missiles on its territory -- and when the right-leaning government of Donald Tusk noted the unpopularity of the move -- the deal was shelved. After Russia’s disproportionate military action in Georgia, support for the missile shield skyrocketed, and the Polish government asked the United States to return to the negotiating table.

The Ukrainians, who have a very recent experience with revanchist Russia, feel much the same. President Viktor Yushchenko took to the pages of the Washington Post on Monday to agitate for admission to NATO, arguing that “this conflict has proved once again that the best means of ensuring the national security of Ukraine and other countries is to participate in the collective security system of free democratic nations, exemplified today by NATO.”

So let’s look at this from the perspective of a country such as Ukraine: After a century of occupation, genocide by forced famine and consistent meddling in internal affairs, the Ukrainians are justifiably wary of Russia’s muscle-flexing in Georgia, especially when considering that their country too contains a large ethnic Russian population and hosts Moscow’s Black Sea fleet. So why are we ignoring these “root causes” in favor of a narrative that ignores recent Russian actions? And is there anything the United States really could have done to prevent the ethnic, cultural and tribal hostilities along Russian borders?

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

Eastern Europe’s “American” leaders
Counterpoint: Andrew Meier

Wow, Michael, how often does a guy to get to discuss a trio such as Laar, the “bumbling” Bush pere and eminent Russianist Cohen in one sitting? Pure joy. Let’s begin with Laar.

How can you not admire a former prime minister who blogs? And moreover, an ex-PM of a tiny country perched on Russia’s perimeter who dared suggest in his blog last week that Estonians should rush to build a monument to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the recently departed great writer? Estonians, Michael, as I gather you know better than I, are dry-witted, dynamic and tougher to get to know than Mainers. But I suspect that Laar has in mind the Solzhenitsyn who wrote the big gulag book, not the Solzhenitsyn who wanted to annex Belarus, northern Kazakhstan and Ukraine -- or “Little Russia,” as he and his nationalist ilk liked to call it.

But the folks in your town, Washington, should stop the fulminating, take a deep breath and consider little Estonia. It may be something about the northern clime or the proximity to Nokia headquarters in Finland, but somehow the Estonians have managed to tack against the fickle winds of U.S.-Russian relations and not only survive but thrive. So here’s an idea to throw into the mix today: Maybe we shouldn’t waste time on a useless “CSI Abroad” episode and wonder where the West went wrong, but mull over where the Estonians went right.

Here’s a Dupont Circle challenge: Who in D.C. remembers old Lennart Meri? Meri, as you surely know, was a documentary filmmaker and travel writer who in the post-Soviet hangover suddenly found himself Estonia’s leading statesman. For a time, folks in Western capitals (who wined, dined and applauded him) privately feared he was “hotheaded,” too rabidly anti-Russian to last. Even worse, many in the West worried he’d only spook the Russkies and pick a needless fight over a squib of dairy farms along the Baltic Sea and bring the world the precipice of the biggest East-West confrontation since World War II.

Well, Meri turned out to be more than a kind of Baltic philosopher-king in the Havel mold. He struck what may have been the best deal of the post-Soviet era. In 1994, Meri shook hands with Boris Yeltsin and said adios to the last Russian troops on Estonian soil.

Now, when you raised Stephen Cohen and his talk of “blowback” and “payback,” I heard an echo. Again, let’s return to that fateful year of 1998, when things went desperately south for Russia and Washington sat idle. Cohen warned then that the U.S. was “in danger of losing our soul in Russia,” that if we didn’t back Russia and extend a generous economic hand in the wake of the “Black Monday” economic crash, “Russia will become the cemetery of America’s moral reputation.”

Talk about acid reflux. The phrase left me flummoxed. I confess I liked the language; so did a lot of other folks. I remember Michael McFaul -- the Stanford, Hoover, Carnegie and now Obama expert on all things Russian -- asking me what Cohen meant. Trouble was, I didn’t know; neither did McFaul. Here, however, is a bigger chunk of what Cohen said then (at least on one occasion, the ”, on Sept. 2, 1998):

“I think we have to drop this dogma about the notion that there’s only one way to reform the country. Russia’s changing course. [There] are going to be new policies. They are not going back to the Soviet system, that the state is coming back to try to save the nation. I think we ought to open our minds, our hearts, restructure their debt and help them change course. If not -- if not, Russia will become the cemetery of America’s moral reputation.”

To be honest, I still can’t decode that one, but it’s interesting. And you also dare invoke the specter of “bumbling George H.W. Bush,” his “chicken Kiev” speech and the notion that the U.S. wasn’t really rushing to exploits the Soviet loss.

Please, Michael.

Let’s try to unpack this one. You may be half right. The U.S. wanted every ex-Soviet state to be in NATO, but it was always (and remains, sadly) a question of timing; in other words, not “now.” Truth be told, no one had the guts or the money to push these fledgling countries, with their flim-flam legislatures, neo-Soviet officer corps and Leonid Brezhnev-era weapons depots, into the hallowed halls of NATO. I remember one NATO envoy in the Baltics volunteering, after we had finished the interview and I had turned off the tape recorder, that “these guys are far from ready for prime time.”

But there was at least one other good reason: After the fall of the Soviet Union, a number of Moscow’s former vassal states sprouted their own “American” leaders.

Remember that “stunning” tableau in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, on Aug. 15 when five of the leaders of states bordering the Russian bear stood together in support of Georgia? Well, the U.S. media have made much of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s U.S. ties. He studied law at Columbia University, interned at a New York firm and fell in love with a Bengali cafe on the Upper West Side.

But who in D.C. -- or dare I say, the media -- knows that three of these five Davids also have close and indelible ties to the U.S.? Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves both watched the fall of the U.S.S.R. from their homes in the West. Both were formerly U.S. citizens. And Viktor Yushchenko, the beleaguered president of Ukraine? He’s married to an American -- Kateryna Chumachenko Yushchenko, a woman who once worked in the administration of the elder Bush.

What does it all mean? Surely not -- despite the “leaked” Kremlin dossiers now flooding the Russian Web -- that they’re all sleeper American agents engaged in a CIA plot. But it does raise an inconvenient question: How can a country like Estonia, not to mention the other Baltic states, pull it off while poor Georgia has only managed to stumble up against its own ambitions?

Andrew Meier is a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and the author of the new book, “The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service.”

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