Documentary | How the West Missed Putin’s Most Important Signal (Partial)

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Even before the beginning of the Ukraine war, a perfect storm was brewing.

To get really tough on Russia economically, you need the Europeans on board.

But the Europeans were too reliant on Russian energy. Putin knew it and leveraged that need to get away with most of his aggression in Europe.

The fight left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced, and reasserted Russia’s military dominance in the region.

What about America? Would America be willing to reign in Russia?

Because of the rise of China is going to be the most important area of the world for the United States, the Persian Gulf because it’s inextricably linked with Asia–oil flowing to India, oil flowing to China. The Persian Gulf will be number two and Europe will be a distant three. We’re basically leaving Europe in the rearview mirror.

I think people do think it is an interest and we shouldn’t simply abandon it or give up on Ukraine, but it’s not a kind of priority interest, uh, for the United States.

The West chose to ignore Russia’s protest against NATO expansion. Then, when Russia reacted violently against the Eastern European countries seeking NATO membership, the West collectively chose not to give Russia a real lesson. Is there something wrong with this thinking?

He walked toward the small crowd at the front gate in what a witness later described as a slow and calm manner. For a while he simply stared. Then, after a brief conversation during which the protesters were surprised to hear his fluent German, he informed them that if they entered, they would be shot.

This is a description of Putin on December 5, 1989, taken from the book Not One Inch by M.E. Sarotte. At that time, Putin was a senior officer at the Soviet State Security, or the KGB, on Angelika Street in Dresden, Germany. The Berlin wall was open and the headquarters of his secret police allies, the Stasi, had just been stormed by a crowd of protesters who were now drifting over to Putin’s building. Putin had called to request Moscow’s instruction and help, but “Moscow is silent.” Putin decided to take action on his own.

After he told the protestors that they would be shot if they entered the gate, the crowd paused, murmured, and decided to go back to the Stasi headquarters. Putin returned to the house, where he and his crew “destroyed everything,” burning “papers night and day” until “the furnace burst.”
According to Putin’s own account, the phrase “Moscow is silent” haunted him for years. He felt at that moment that his country no longer existed. He believed Moscow made a big mistake by exiting from Eastern Europe in a rush. He was convinced that the Soviet Union could have defended itself and avoided the many resulting problems if their hasty exit had not happened. He considered the breakup of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. From that ideological foundation he formed a lasting conviction on the need to avoid a paralysis of power. He said this when he became president of Russia: “only one thing works in such circumstances—to go on the offensive. You must hit first, and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet.”

Putin’s comment was made in reference to the conflict with Chechnya and at a time when he was receiving death threats from the Chechens. He ordered harsh crackdowns on the Chechen rebels until they were scattered and destroyed. Putin was unapologetic about the cruelty of the Second Chechen War, a war that caused between 25,000 to 50,000 Chechen civilian casualties and 7,500- to 15,000 deaths of Russian soldiers. In fact, he has been loyal to the conviction of preemptive wars throughout his time as the top leader of Russia. In hindsight, this conviction of Putin, together with his conflicting drives that pulled him toward democracy on the one hand and authoritarian rule on the other, should have been given more attention by Western leaders and military strategists.

In a 2000 article titled “Putin Tells Why He Became a Spy,” the New York Times wrote that Putin described his separation from the KGB after the attempted coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in August 1991 as a wrenching experience. When he later stashed his Communist Party card and other documents away in a desk drawer, he said he ”made the sign of the cross over them” — as if laying that part of his life to rest.

But that past would not rest. NATO’s expansion eastward and Russia’s rejection from consideration for NATO membership, combined with Putin’s consistent efforts to suppress the media and dissidents, led to mutual distrust between Putin and the West. That distrust made Russia’s integration into the European community highly unlikely. Democracy has failed to be fully established in Russia. Where once there was hope that Putin might embrace the ideals of democracy, the world watched as Putin drifted away from Western ideals and toward his authoritarian instincts.

Putin had expressed the idea of there being a ‘Russian World.’ Experts continue to debate whether this means Putin has aspirations to revive the great Russian or Soviet empires by reclaiming lost lands. To that, Putin said “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.”

So which way is it? Perhaps to Putin this is not a black and white question. “Russian World” could mean Russian dominance and a re-gathering of their “one people,” a term he repeatedly used for Ukrainians and Russians. But he likely understands that not all the Soviet territories can be physically re-joined to the Russian Federation. Domination can take many forms. Annexation is not the only way, and marginalization may be a desirable alternative.

To marginalize a country is to make the leaders of that country completely dependent on Moscow, either by Moscow appointing Russian-friendly leaders through rigged elections or ensuring that they are tethered to Russian economic and political security networks. Russia has been doing this with increasing frequency and urgency. For example, Russia pressured Kazakhstan to reorient itself back toward Russia instead of balancing between Russia and China. And, just days before the Ukraine invasion, Azerbaijan signed a bilateral military agreement with Russia, an agreement that country had resisted for decades. Russia has also “made itself the final arbiter of the future relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan.” Belarus has also been completely subjugated by Moscow.

In many ways, this is Russia’s resistance to NATO expansion.

During the early days of this pattern, NATO and America made a critical mistake. While ignoring Russia’s repeated protests against NATO expansion, they largely left Putin’s aggression towards neighboring countries unpunished. The first significant instance of this was the Russo-Georgian War. Professor John Mearsheimer, a renowned international relations theorist at the University of Chicago, had the following to say about the cause of that war:

But then the big trouble starts, and it comes in the famous Bucharest Summit–uh, NATO’s Bucharest Summit–in April 2008 where, at the end of the summit, a declaration is issued which says, “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” So, the Soviets and the Russians made it perfectly clear this was unacceptable. Russia’s deputy foreign minister said Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which will have the most serious consequences for pan-European security. Putin himself said Georgia and Ukraine becoming part of NATO is a direct threat to Russia.

NATO’s promise to Georgia and Ukraine was never fulfilled. A war broke out between Georgia and Russia in August 2008, four months before NATO’s scheduled review of the two countries’ applications to the alliance. The war involved Georgia, including its two breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Russia.

On August 1, pro-Russian forces in South Ossetia attacked the Georgian village but were then counterattacked by Georgian government forces. Russia then hurled accusations, claiming that Georgia committed genocide against Russians in South Ossetia and using that claim as justification for launching a full-scale land, air and sea invasion of Georgia on August 8th.

The Russian army had a series of significant victories before the two countries reached a ceasefire agreement through the mediation of international parties. The war ended and, on August 26, 2008, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On that same day, Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia.

The Russo-Georgian war successfully prevented Georgia and Ukraine from becoming NATO members. Putin got his way. More importantly, he got what he wanted and paid a very small price.

During and after the Russo-Georgian War, sanctions against Russia from Europe and the United States were light and quickly lifted. According to the Atlantic Council, the truce drafted by the French president was biased towards Russia, and subsequent reports by the European Union put the responsibility for the war primarily on Georgia. Later that year, France also announced the sale of Advanced Arms, a Mistral-class helicopter carrier, to Russia.

After the Georgia Armistice was signed, then-US President George W. Bush refused to provide Georgia with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. A few months later, Obama took office and initiated the Russia reset which did not materialize.

Six years later, In Putin’s continued effort to stop NATO expansion, he seized an opportunity in Ukraine. He repeated what he did to Georgia in Ukraine, only with big escalation.

And my aim is that the main deep causes the aim of the United States and its European allies to peel Ukraine away from Russia’s orbit and incorporate it into the West. Our basic goal has been to make Ukraine a western bulwark on Russia’s border. And Russia says this ain’t happening, period. End of story. And we will do everything we can to make sure it does not happen. That’s the deep cause. Now take it a step further. There are three key elements in our strategy. The first is NATO expansion and, in many ways, the most important. And I’ll talk in some detail about that in a second. But as you all know, since the Cold War ended, starting with the Clinton administration we have been moving NATO eastward toward Russia’s border and the Russians have said this is an absolute no-no. And I’ll walk you through the story in a minute. Second, is EU expansion. EU expansion is all about integrating Ukraine economically into the West the way we are in the process of integrating Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic states into the West and, of course, we’re doing that with NATO as well. These are two sets of institutions: NATO, a military institution; the EU, an economic institution. And the idea again is to take Ukraine, peel it away from Russia, and make it part of the West. The third part of the story is fostering an Orange Revolution. This is all about promoting democracy in Ukraine and in other places. As you all know, the United States runs around the world trying to topple regimes and put in their place democratically elected regimes. And for almost all of you, me included, it’s hard to be against promoting democracy. We all love democracy. But if you’re Vladimir Putin or if you’re part of the leadership in Beijing, when the United States talks about democracy promotion that means toppling your regime. And you won’t be surprised to hear this–they don’t like that in Beijing and they don’t like that in Moscow.

In November 2013, a wave of large-scale protests erupted in response to then-Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Instead, he was interested in a Russian proposal that involved cooperation among the EU, Russia, the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, and Ukraine which he believed offered more favorable terms to Ukraine. These protests continued for months without major incident. That is, until February 2014 when clashes between the protestors and special riot police turned violent, leading to the deaths of nearly 130 people.

As you might imagine, the deaths ignited an already heated situation and led to protestors seizing control of Kyiv on February 22nd. Yanukovych fled Ukraine and the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove him from office that same day.

18 days before Yanukovych fled Ukraine, in the heat of the street protests, a recorded phone conversation was leaked between Assistant Secretary of State of the United States, Victoria Nuland, and US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. They were discussing their wishes for a Ukraine transition to an interim government and, specifically, the roles in which they hoped to see the prominent opposition leaders:

“I don’t think Klitsch (Klitschko) should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff.”
“I think Yats (Yatsenyuk) is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. I just think Klitsch going in… he’s going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it’s just not going to work.
“We want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing.”

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Nuland’s pick to lead Ukraine, did become the leader of the interim government after Yanukovych fled to Russia and later became the prime minister of Ukraine.

Is it right/in the best interest of America for America’s diplomat to get involved in other countries and domestic affairs? I mean, um, particularly referring to Under Secretary of State Victoria Newland’s leaked phone call that reveals her choice for Ukrainian leaders during the Maidan revolution?

I think it’s, I hate to say it, but kind of is almost, well, let me just put it this way: all countries meddle around in other countries’ domestic politics. They always wanna claim that only other countries do it and they don’t do it. So, Russia does it all the time. China does it all the time. The United States does it all the time. This is basically one of these sort of things we don’t like to talk about in international politics, but such meddling is common. Victoria Newland’s phone call was, as you know, it was over, uh, it was, uh, it was monitored by Russian intelligence and Russian intelligence released it to try to embarrass the United States and embarrass the newly emerging government in Ukraine. And this is sort of a part of a series of operations the Russians attempted to do to discredit that government and seek to keep Ukraine close to Russia and prevent Ukraine’s westward drip.

But the bottom line of your question really is an important one, which is, you know, should we get deeply involved in these countries’ domestic politics? I think, I think it’s pretty hard for us not to, when you see a democratic revolution or a democratic leaning occur in other countries. It’s very hard for America as a democratic country to say, “Well, that’s your business. We’re not going to do anything about it.” However, I do think we need to observe some sort of circumspection or care when this country or these countries are very close to geopolitical rivals. Um, that said it’s not as if our rivals China and Russia keep their hands out of our domestic politics or out the domestic politics of other countries. So, in some sense, this is how the game is played in international politics. And it’s kind of unrealistic to think that we’re going to stop it. It’s just, we probably want to try to be extremely careful about it and put some limits on it.

Russia’s involvement in the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine officially started after Ukrainian President Yanukovych fled to Russia on February 22. Yanukovych claimed the parliamentary vote to remove him was illegal and asked Russia for assistance. Russia deployed troops to Crimea and occupied government buildings. On March 16th, in a move deemed illegal by Ukraine and most countries around the world, Russia put forward a referendum for reunification between Crimea and Russia. Official results showed over 90% support for that reunification and, on March 18th, Russia formally incorporated Crimea into the Federation. where it remains today.

Following the annexation of Crimea, NATO initiated economic sanctions on Russia. There are three types of economic sanctions. The first restricts access to Western financial markets and services for designated Russian state-owned enterprises. The second and the third place an embargo on exports of certain goods to Russia. Meanwhile, America worked with Saudi Arabia to increase oil production which brought down the prices of oil globally.

These combined efforts caused significant downward pressure on the value of the Ruble, increased the flight of international capital out of Russia, and forced their entry into a recession.
However, the sanctions left out the most important sector: imports of Russian oil and gas. Roughly 40% of Europe’s natural gas comes from Russia. 8% of America’s imported oil also comes from Russia. Oil and gas accounted for 60% of Russia’s exports and 39% of their federal budget revenue. When Russian oil and gas are still flowing to Europe and America, the blow of other sanctions imposed on Russia is not fatal to their economy.

Why did NATO and America on the one hand ignore Russia’s protest against the NATO expansion for years but, on the other hand, wouldn’t punish Russia when Russia invaded other countries such as Georgia and Ukraine to stop such expansion?

It’s strange, you might say in hindsight, that we sort of opposed those moves but put fairly weak, I would say, sanctions and penalties on Russia. We did sanction them. Relations did get a lot worse. But these things don’t seem to be, in hindsight, uh, as damaging to Russia as would’ve been necessary to change Russia’s thinking. And I think the reason is that they were very clever strategies by Russia to try to keep the threshold of Russian action sufficiently low so that a consensus in the Western alliance could not be achieved regarding punishing Russia. To get really tough on Russia economically, you need the Europeans on board, and yet by only taking Crimea and then just this subtle–I mean not so subtle, but this kind of, sort of denied intervention in Eastern Ukraine–Russia could keep the threat level low enough that key players like Germany wouldn’t agree to tougher sanctions.

So, the sort of tragedy of, of politics is that you could only build a consensus behind a really powerful response to Russia when Russia actually took a far more damaging, threatening and dangerous action, as it did two weeks ago.

If this was indeed Putin’s calculation, he got it right. He knew too well that Europe would not stand up strongly against Russia because they were reliant on Russian energy. The dance between depending on Russian energy and guarding against Russia militarily has been going on for decades. The result is that the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 pipelines were built regardless of notable American opposition. It turned out, even the United States was not able to reign in Europe’s appetite for Russian energy.

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