The East-West confrontation over Ukraine, which led to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea but long predated it, is potentially the worst international crisis in more than fifty years—and the most fateful. A negotiated resolution is possible, but time may be running out.
A new Cold War divide is already descending in Europe—not in Berlin but on Russia’s borders. Worse may follow. If NATO forces move toward Poland’s border with Ukraine, as is being called for in Washington and Europe, Moscow is likely to send its forces into eastern Ukraine. The result would be a danger of war comparable to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
Even if the outcome is the nonmilitary “isolation of Russia,” today’s Western mantra, the consequences will be dire. Moscow will not bow but will turn, politically and economically, to the East, as it has done before, above all to fuller alliance with China. The United States will risk losing an essential partner in vital areas of its own national security, from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to threats of a new arms race, nuclear proliferation and more terrorism. And—no small matter—prospects for a resumption of Russia’s democratization will be terminated for at least a generation.
Why did this happen, nearly twenty-three years after the end of Soviet Communism, when both Washington and Moscow proclaimed a new era of “friendship and strategic partnership”? The answer given by the Obama administration, and overwhelmingly by the US political-media establishment, is that President Vladimir Putin is solely to blame. The claim is that his “autocratic” rule at home and “neo-Soviet imperialist” policies abroad eviscerated the partnership established in the 1990s by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. This fundamental premise underpins the American mainstream narrative of two decades of US-Russian relations, and now the Ukrainian crisis.
But there is an alternative explanation, one more in accord with the facts. Beginning with the Clinton administration, and supported by every subsequent Republican and Democratic president and Congress, the US-led West has unrelentingly moved its military, political and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia. Spearheaded by NATO’s eastward expansion, already encamped in the former Soviet Baltic republics on Russia’s border—now augmented by missile defense installations in neighboring states—this bipartisan, winner-take-all approach has come in various forms.
They include US-funded “democracy promotion” NGOs more deeply involved in Russia’s internal politics than foreign ones are permitted to be in our country; the 1999 bombing of Moscow’s Slav ally Serbia, forcibly detaching its historic province of Kosovo; a US military outpost in former Soviet Georgia (along with Ukraine, one of Putin’s previously declared “red lines”), contributing to a brief proxy war in 2008; and, throughout, one-sided negotiations, called “selective cooperation,” which took concessions from the Kremlin without meaningful White House reciprocity and followed by broken American promises.
All of this has unfolded, sincerely for some proponents, in the name of “democracy” and “sovereign choice” for the many countries involved, but the underlying geopolitical agenda has been clear. During the first East-West conflict over Ukraine, occasioned by its 2004 “Orange Revolution,” an influential GOP columnist, Charles Krauthammer, acknowledged, “This is about Russia first, democracy only second…. The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe’s march to the east…. The great prize is Ukraine.” The late Richard Holbrooke, an aspiring Democratic secretary of state, concurred, hoping even then for Ukraine’s “final break with Moscow” and to “accelerate” Kiev’s membership in NATO.