Back in the 1990s, when the Clinton Administration was pushing eastward expansion of NATO (something they had promised Mikhail Gorbachev they would not do,) a lot of people warned this was a very bad idea, and many of them were among the coldest of Cold Warriors — people like arch-conservatives Paul Nitze and Richard Pipes, hawkish so-called “moderates” like Senators Sam Nunn and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara and the designer of the policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union George Kennan. They all agreed, pushing NATO close to the borders of Russia was viewed in Moscow as a threat and a provocation.
Back in 2015, when HERE & THERE was still in its first year, the legendary former U.S. ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock said the Obama Administration was being reckless and foolish in suggesting possible NATO membership for Ukraine. This, Ambassador Matlock accurately predicted, would lose for America important Russian cooperation on issues we cared about much more than Ukraine, like Iran and China.
In explaining why Ukraine mattered so much more to President Putin than it could to any American leader, he growled — “Just look at the map.” The distance from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capitol, to Moscow is 534 miles. Washington DC, on the other hand, was 4873 miles from Kyiv.
Today, when Vladimir Putin looks at a map of Eastern Europe, at the now-independent states once part of the defunct Soviet Union, he sees 4000 U.S. or NATO “combat-ready” troops based in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, backed by tanks, air defenses and intelligence and surveillance units; and four thousand more in Romania and Bulgaria.
And that was before the U.S. announced it was sending in 3000 more soldiers and Marines to Poland and Romania.
When Putin has complained — as did his predecessors Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev — that this violates past American and NATO agreements and puts Russia back into “neo-containment,” his protests have been ignored. He just wants to crush democracy in Ukraine, and steal more of its land and sovereignty as he did in 2014 in Crimea and the two East Ukrainian provinces known as the Donbas, is the American response.
No question, both of those invasions and occupations were wrong, and in much of Donbas, bitterly resented. But there is little question, should he once again choose to use military force, Putin could overpower the Ukrainian military. But why should he? There is no cost-benefit ration that justifies another invasion and occupation. Especially, if he can get some relief from NATO’s armed encirclement of Russia’s western frontier.
Diplomacy could give him that. As Winston Churchill, a world-famous “tough guy” once said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” But will Putin, will President Joe Biden give diplomacy that chance?
Rajan Menon holds the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair in Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York and a Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He has also taught at Vanderbilt, Lehigh, and Columbia.
Fellowships: Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Fellow at the New America Foundation, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Visiting Fellow at the Harriman Institute (Columbia University), Senior Advisor and Academic Fellow at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Director of Eurasia Policy Studies at the National Bureau of Asian Research NBR). He has received fellowships and grants from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Carnegie Corporation, the National Council for Soviet and East European Research, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Council on Foreign Relations.