NATO and Russia—a tragedy unfolding
In 1984 a group from IPPNW Sweden met with the Norwegian general Tönne Huitfeldt, at that time Chief of the Military Staff of NATO. He was a man with great confidence in himself and in the military system.
“General Huitfeldt,” we asked, “when you work with your war scenarios in the NATO Headquarters, with the destruction of the world through a nuclear war looming as a possible outcome, are you not scared?” “Oh no, never,” he responded. “The Russians are as rational as we are. They will never let it go too far. I am never scared.”
Well, we were. And are. In 1984 the general was unaware that in 1983 we had, on two occasions, come very close to a nuclear world war, first in the “Petrov incident” and second as a development of the Russian misunderstanding of NATO’s “Able Archer” exercise.
We also asked the general: What happens if peace breaks out? What would happen to NATO if the Soviet Union fell and the Warsaw pact were terminated? NATO would remain, he assured us. NATO is an organisation of great resilience and will search for and find its purpose, even if the original purpose is gone.
We did not understand. We did not believe. But here General Huitfeldt was right: NATO forever!
In 1991 the Soviet Union fell apart and the Warsaw Pact was terminated. Peace in our time!
NATO had lost its raison d’être but remained intact and, as the general had promised, kept looking for a new purpose. Already in 1997 Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were invited to join the alliance. This broke the promise given to the Russian leaders that no former Warsaw Pact states would become NATO members. But how could NATO say no, the alliance argued, to countries that had suffered so much from repression by the Soviet Union? They demanded protection and saw no alternative to NATO.
The Partnership for Peace and the OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, should have been developed into credible alliances for mutual security. That was never attempted. NATO welcomed the states in Eastern Europe and grew from 16 to 28 members.
There were those who warned of trouble. One was George Kennan, who had a deep understanding of how Russia saw itself and its relations to Europe and the USA. ”I think the NATO expansion is the beginning of a new cold war,” he said. “The Russians will gradually react quite adversely and this will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake.”
NATO has now expanded up to the borders of Russia. The West has supported “revolutions” in different colours in several of Russia’s neighbouring countries. Mr. Putin, who is afraid of these democratic movements, uses the perceived threats against Russia to strengthen his position, easily done in a Russia that is almost as humiliated and revengeful as Germany was after the Versailles accord following the First World War. President Saakashwili of Georgia was encouraged to enter into a war concerning Ossetia and Abkhazia but was quickly stopped by the now recuperating Russian forces.
Putin became worried. Then Ukraine and Georgia got preliminary invitations to join the EU and NATO. Putin saw his chance to gain support at home and took over Crimea—a move expected by many observers, but not by NATO officials—and supports a Russian separatist movement in Ukraine.
The short-term future
A cease-fire has been agreed, but seems unstable. An armistice line will probably be decided, but the conflict will simmer for years. Whenever the Russian leader needs to stoke the nationalistic fire in Russia the situation in Ukraine provides excellent fuel.
In the USA and among its allies, however, there is discontent. “Do not try to negotiate with the Russian bear, he understands only the whip!” Finland and Sweden are persuaded by US flattery and by Putin’s demagogy, to become NATO members. Ukraine and Georgia are likely to join, maybe in a moment when Russia is busy elsewhere. Tension will increase, and any opposition in an increasingly impoverished Russia may spur Mr. Putin to look for a useful international conflict. There is always Ukraine, and the Russian minorities in countries that were once members of the Soviet Union. Russia mobilizes and postures and Mr. Putin is hailed as the saviour of the Russian national pride.
A development decided by fate?
In ancient Greek tragedy, the end is often predetermined by the initial conditions. The King may have committed an unforgivable transgression and the consequences are borne by him and his House. Step follows upon step, each step decided by Fate, and the characters have little choice, given their nature and their perception of the situation. In the end Fate brings destruction upon the King and his House.
The unforgivable transgression committed by the King is often his hubris, his belief that he rules the world, regardless of the laws of men or gods. In a Greek tragedy, the King and his people will suffer the consequences of this original sin—hubris—and be destroyed.
In my opinion, based on my meetings with General Huitfeldt and with many NATO officials over the years, there was and there is a dangerous hubris in NATO. There is also the inability, or lack of will, to see the position of the other side. Because of these shortcomings, these initial and persistent conditions, the step-by-step development to our current situation may have been unavoidable, as predicted by George Kennan.
Certainly, Russian leaders have missed many chances to prevent this development. With the backdrop of Russian history, a more democratic leader, such as Gorbachev, would have had little chance to stay in power.
The rulers of today, however, have in their quivers something the Greeks could never have imagined, the weapons that can destroy the world before the gods do.
Will the hubris on both sides, this extreme pride and self-confidence, remain with the leaders to the end, and cause The End?
Sometimes the gods show clemency with the mortals. Will the gods remove the madness of our rulers? Or will the mortals bring our destruction, the Armageddon?
The nuclear weapons rest in their silos and in the depth of the oceans, waiting for the final order.