Did the U.S. provoke the Russian bear?

Jack Matlock, Jr., a former ambassador to the Soviet Union and a long-time foreign service officer, blames U.S. policy for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Matlock is a bipartisan blamer. He indicts President Clinton, President (George W.) Bush, and Congress. Only President Obama is spared.

What were our sins? They fall largely into two categories. First, we took military action in Serbia and Iraq without U.N. Security Council approval. Second, we expanded NATO to include former Warsaw Pact nations and talked of including certain former Soviet Republics in that alliance. To compound the second sin, we backed the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.

One can understand why Russia would like to hold a veto, via the U.N., over America’s right to use military force. But its disappointment that Presidents Clinton and Bush declined to give Russia that veto can hardly explain Russia’s aggression against its neighbors.

The expansion of NATO and our support of “color revolutions” certainly upset Russia. But these moves were founded on the understanding, based on centuries of history, that Russia’s abstention from conquest and domination would not last long. The U.S. wisely seized on an exceptional historic moment to institutionalize, as best we could, Russia’s temporary willingness to let Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, etc. be Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, etc.

That, at least, is my interpretation. Matlock’s interpretation is that Russia felt threatened.

But what was its fear — that NATO would invade Russia? That the U.S. would colonialize Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, etc? Or did Putin fear that we were foreclosing Russia’s future ability to conquer or dominate these nations?

Matlock doesn’t say. But he gives the answer away in the opening of his article. There, he recalls that he knew the Cold War was over when the Soviet foreign minister accepted U.S. criticism of its human rights abuses and agreed to correct them because doing so was in the interest of his country. Now, however, Matlock criticizes the U.S. Congress for condemning Russian human rights abuses — action that he says infuriated Russia’s rulers.

Putin’s treatment of Russians who defy his authority is of a piece with his treatment of neighboring nations that assert their independence from his influence. The U.S. is no more responsible for Putin’s aggression towards his neighbors than for his oppression of domestic opponents.

Unless you believed that history “ended” in the late 1980s, the eventual emergence of a Putin in Russia was always likely, regardless of U.S. policy. Presidents Clinton and Bush were wise to act accordingly. President Obama was incredibly foolish to act as if a Putin would not emerge even after he clearly had.


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