Another long telegram
I cannot pretend to expertise comparable to Kennan's. I have made only one brief visit to Russia, 42 years ago, and I have never studied the language, although The First Circle and Dr. Zhivago are among the books I return to again and again in translation. Yet I would like to think that I learned diplomatic realism from him, among many other sources, and that I can put it to use in examining the new situation that has been created by President Putin's annexation of Ukraine. Kennan has become increasingly unfashionable in recent years, and the publication of his diaries, which are a very poor substitute for his extraordinary memoirs, isn't helping his reputation either. But never in my whole life have I felt so acutely the complete absence of anyone like him in the highest councils of our government--and thus, I am going to yield to temptation and try to suggest what a young Kennan, were he posted in Moscow today, might say.
The Chargé d’affaires to the Secretary of State
March 21, 2014
The current situation in Russia, the Ukraine, and surrounding nations inevitably calls to mind the immediate aftermath of the last great crisis in the Atlantic world in 1933-45, when the defeat of Hitler and the Japanese was immediately followed by the Soviet installation of Communist regimes in various countries of Eastern Europe. It also recalls developments in the wake of the First World War, when Russia was briefly reduced almost to its current extent within Europe, facing a newly independent Ukraine and Baltic States, while retaining control of Belarus. That previous example is, in fact, more relevant. The problem Lenin and Trotsky faced at the time of the German collapse was to recover the territory they had lost early in 1918 in the Peace of Brest Litovsk, and they successfully reincorporated Ukraine into the new Soviet Union, but failed in a war against Poland and had to tolerate the independence of the Baltic states for twenty years, until the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler. The current crisis began, of course, with the collapse of Communism in 1989-90, followed by the complete disintegration of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin did not come to power in Russia until 1999, and he has obviously moved much more slowly than Lenin in 1919 or Stalin in 1920 to begin increasing the extent of his territorial control and influence. The nature of his goals has become clearer in recent years, and his speech last Monday in Moscow, which I encourage all serious students of Russian policy to read, leaves relatively little doubt of how he sees the world and where he may be heading. Our first, and perhaps easiest, task, is to understand what he had to say.
The collapse of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union were indeed world-historical events comparable in impact to each of the two world wars. We must be extraordinarily thankful that they were accomplished with relatively little serious bloodshed, a most remarkable outcome, but no one should have expected the emergence of a new order to be a smooth process. Indeed, President Bush and Secretary of State Baker plainly had mixed feelings, to put it mildly, about the disintegration of the USSR, and the kinds of regimes that have emerged in many of the successor states have not been inspiring. In his speech, Putin regretted the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but he did not dwell upon it, much less lay the blame on foreign influences, as he so often likes to do when discussing unpleasant subjects. What he objected to was, first, the way in which the boundaries of Soviet Republics automatically became the borders of newly independent states, and, second, the ways in which, as he sees it, the western powers have taken advantage of the situation over the last 25 years or so. There is not the slightest evidence that Putin wants to embark on a worldwide crusade comparable to those of Lenin and Stalin, and it is highly doubtful, to say the least, that he has any designs even upon eastern European nations such as Poland and Rumania. But he is not willing to accept the situation within the former Soviet Union as it has evolved to date, and the events of the last month show that he has powerful cards to play.
It was to be expected that the collapse of Communist authority over Eastern Europe would lead to turmoil, and even to the redrawing of borders, as indeed it has. The process was not confined to the former USSR. Czechoslovakia immediately separated into its two component parts, ironically vindicating those who in the 1930s pronounced it an artificial creation that was not destined to survive. Yugoslavia, which Serbia had managed to create in 1919 by virtue of having played the key role in unleashing the First World War that destroyed Austria-Hungary, came apart much more bloodily, and it took the better part of a decade to establish new frontiers for Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia--the last still a very fragile construction. The first Bush Administration declined to intervene in the war among the successor states, but the Clinton Administration took a different view. It brought what seemed to be the last phase of the struggle to an end with the agreement on Bosnia in 1995. Then, in 1999, the rump state of Yugoslavia apparently embarked upon a campaign to cleanse Kosovo of ethnic Albanians, and the government of the United States, supported by NATO--but not by the UN Security Council--went to war with it to stop this process. The war, conducted entirely from the air, succeeded, and Yugoslav (really Serbian) authorities gave up Kosovo. Kosovar independence followed, and the United States and other NATO countries recognized it. In the succeeding 15 years, most of the Serb population has been driven out of Kosovo, although peaceably, not violently.
It was the Kosovo war, Putin makes very clear, that established the precedent that he is determined to fight. Confronted with a conflict generated by the collapse of Communism, NATO, as he sees it, unilaterally took responsibility for determining the proper outcome without the endorsement of the UN Security Council, where both Russia and China would have refused assent. And in so doing, NATO only extended the approach it had already taken to the aftermath of the collapse of Communism: its belief that the extension of western influence and western values must be the inevitable result.
It is at this point in the story, it seems to me, that our own government must for a moment reflect upon the wisdom of the choices made by previous administrations. There were those of us who believed that NATO, having functioned successfully for more than 40 years as a defensive alliance against Communism, had lost much of its raison d'etre when Communism collapsed, and that its role in a new world might be re-evaluated. The government of the United States, however, did not take this road. Instead, NATO became a mechanism for expanding western and American influence as far eastward as possible, and all the former Soviet satellite states of the Cold War era, as well as the former Soviet Republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, are now members. The second Bush Administration, indeed, was on the point of offering Ukraine membership in 2008, but the current Administration--wisely in my view--did not pursue this initiative.
The US government made these decisions, it seems to me, in the belief that the Russian government's views did not matter. They also made them in the belief--encouraged by our triumph over our Cold War adversary--that American institutions and American values were destined to triumph over the entire world. That view, specifically enunciated in the National Security Strategy of 2002, still seems to remain the basis of our policy. As one who has never held it--who has instead believed that democracy is the heritage of certain specific nations, who must always be vigilant to make sure that it functions well, and hesitant to assume that it will thrive elsewhere--I cannot say that I believe this to be the basis of a sound foreign policy. In the past five years, we have adopted another set of assumptions highly relevant to the current crisis.
Those assumptions, in essence, seem to hold that any uprising against an authoritarian or dictatorial government must be a good thing, and that the United States should embrace revolutionary movements as soon as they have become large enough to fill the main square of their nation's capital city with demonstrators. That is what the United States has done, Putin points out in his speech, in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria--with very mixed results. And that is also what both the United States and the EU did in Ukraine.
Ukraine has been, indeed, the test case for our assumption that democracy must follow Communism, and its recent history has not born it out. We have assumed that anti-Russian elements within Ukraine would be both more democratic and less corrupt, but that did not turn out to be the case. The Orange revolution of 2004 did not have the results we had hoped, and a pro-Russian government returned to power. The Ukrainian people, like so many others in the western world, have been hit hard by the Great Recession, and last year they turned against that government. Both the EU and the United States seized upon this as an opportunity to return a friendly regime to power. To this Putin decided he must respond.
In arranging the secession and rapid accession to Russia of Crimea, Putin, as his speech makes clear, has taken advantage both of ethnic realities and of history. Russians constitute the bulk of the Crimean population, and Khrushchev's decision to transfer it to Ukraine 60 years ago took place within a completely different context. As Putin pointed out in his speech, were a Ukrainian state that included Crimea to join NATO, as has been discussed recently, NATO forces would acquire the only major naval bases in the Black Sea. The referendum just held almost certainly reflects the wishes of the bulk of the population.
In my opinion, our government must reconsider the wisdom of the sanctions it is imposing in response to these events, since we have no means of undoing them. We do face a continuing crisis and we need strategies to face it, but we cannot make Crimea part of Ukraine again, and it will not serve the interests of the American, Russian or Ukrainian peoples to create an endless confrontation over what has taken place. Diplomacy must be based upon reality.
The serious question we now face involves the future of the government of Ukraine. Putin denies its legitimacy, and clearly threatens in his speech to make that a pretext for intervention in Ukraine proper, and perhaps for the separation of the large Russian-speaking portions of eastern Ukraine and their addition to Russia as well. Meanwhile, the new Ukrainian government--which, it must be acknowledged, did not come to power by constitutional means--is moving rapidly to strengthen its ties to the European union. It may ask for NATO membership. Putin, very simply, is determined not to allow the West to choose who shall govern Ukraine. He clearly desires to turn more of the former USSR into a Russian sphere of influence based upon his Eurasian union. He will use what cards he has to play to achieve these goals--but he will only use the military, in all probability, if there is no opposition, as there was not in Ukraine.
Elections are now scheduled in Ukraine. I would suggest that we invest our political capital in ensuring that all interested parties, including the Russian government, will respect the results of those elections. A conflict over the legitimacy of the government within the shrinking territory that divides the NATO alliance from Russia is a recipe for disaster, one that could even lead to war. Meanwhile, we need Russian cooperation to deal with both Syria and the Iranian nuclear program. We need, in short, to do the work diplomacy has always tried to do: to find a solution that we all can live with.
Here the Cold War, properly understood, provides some useful examples. We must face the fact, as we did in 1946-7, that Putin does not share our values or our vision of the future. He feels Russia to be different from the West and he wants to increase its influence. He is not, however, prepared to do so by war. The early years of the Cold War featured a number of struggles within contested nations that were decided by political, rather than military means. Hungary in 1947 and Czechoslovakia in 1948 fell to Communism because of internal political changes, not Soviet military power. Finland and Austria remained outside the Soviet orbit for parallel reasons: their anti-Communist forces proved stronger than Moscow's satellites. That also happened in the critical nations of France and Italy. It will happen now, one way or another, in the Baltic States, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Our assumption that democracy would spread, as it were, automatically, has proven false. That does not however mean that it cannot spread--only that its spread will require determination and character on the part of the nations of the former USSR, and also of the United States and the nations of the European Union. They must assess each situation wisely and do what they can. They must also realize that the Putin government remains very important to a host of broader problems in which we have an enormous interest. Let us not not once again allow dogma to trap us into an endless confrontation with a nuclear power, punctuated by crises that put the whole world at risk. Let us base our ends upon realities and trust to the long-term movement of history.
[sgd) George Kennan
(Please share this as widely as you can. Thanks.)