Russia and the West: The Treaty That Never Was
September 19, 2014
Mikhail Gorbachev was naive. Boris Yeltsin was obsessed by his power struggle with Gorbachev. As a result, Soviet citizens who overnight, without their consent found themselves living in foreign countries, were left without protection of vital rights and interests. As a result, the USSR and its successor state, the Russian Federation, were left without adequate security guarantees.
Gorbachev naively thought that the West would be eternally grateful to the Soviet Union for having voluntarily dismantled Communism and extending a hand of friendship. He naively thought that the West would help by launching a new Marshall Plan for the Soviet Union, financed through savings from reduced military expenditures. He naively assumed that since the USSR and the West were no longer enemies, formal guarantees were, for the most part, unnecessary.
In recent years, Gorbachev has come under fire inside Russia for not having insisted on treaties as a condition for the reunification of Germany and withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Yet, it likely never crossed Gorbachev’s mind that this might be necessary. He had excellent relations with Presidents Reagan and Bush, with Prime Minister Thatcher and Bundeskanzler Kohl, based on mutual trust, respect and understanding. In those euphoric days, it was unthinkable that Russia’s relations with the West could possibly sink to their current level.
Yeltsin’s strategy for winning the power struggle was simple—dissolve the state that Gorbachev headed. This he accomplished by conspiring with the Presidents of Ukraine and Belarus, who met secretly at Belovezhskaya Pushcha on 8 December 1991, to dissolve the Soviet Union. I will leave aside the question of whether dismantling a country that was well on the way to democratic reform, genuine federalism, and partnership with the West was a good idea. The crucial point is that the Soviet Union collapsed abruptly, without preparation, and without negotiation, giving rise to, and leaving behind many serious problems. Some solutions, adopted in haste, were careless, some outright stupid.
For example, the problems underlying the so-called "frozen conflicts" in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, are still unsolved, and there are still no easy solutions to any of them. Russia did not initiate them, and they have been a significant burden for Russia. They were all direct results of the weakening of the Soviet regime under Gorbachev and its subsequent collapse. The world has forgotten the origins of these conflicts, and many people labor under the mistaken belief that the only reason they have not been solved is because of Russia’s alleged propensity to make trouble.
Some of these unresolved, and poorly-resolved issues are at the roots of the current crisis in Ukraine. The fate of Crimea, for example, was a highly complex matter. It should have been carefully examined and negotiated, instead of being left to Yeltsin’s whim. A decision affecting the fate of 2 million people was made without even being seriously discussed. Crimea’s current status is widely termed "occupation" or "annexation." It can also be termed "re-unification or "self-determination." Yet, none of these labels adequately captures what happened in Crimea. There should have been studies, negotiations and agreements, but unfortunately there were not. Had Russia been stronger in its early years, it might have been able to draw attention to these problems. Yet, Russia was weak, and was never taken seriously.
Some say "too bad. The reality is that there is no treaty, so Russia has no choice but to accept things as they are." The fatal weakness of this kind of argument is that it completely undermines the moral basis of most current criticism of Russia. According to such a cynical view, it does not matter whether the West deceived the Soviets, and then the Russians. It does not matter that the West did not honor verbal commitments, or that it ignored vital Russian interests. It does not matter that Soviet and later Russian leaders did not adequately comprehend and defend legitimate, vital interests of their state and its former citizens. We are not going to reopen these questions. The West won, and that is all that matters.
This is a "might makes right" type of argument, which invites a like response from Russia. Ukraine has the sovereign right to annihilate "terrorists" or "self-defense fighters" (unfortunately killing and wounding many civilians in the process). Russia and its proxies have the same right, unless they can be beaten back by superior force. If our side doesn’t care enough about Ukraine to fight for it, it has to accept things the way they are. One might cite international law, but anyone who has studied international law knows that sovereign states are the final interpreters of international law as it applies to them.
In order to restore some measure of morality into the discussion, it is necessary to return to issues that should have been studied, negotiated, resolved, and anchored in treaties, but unfortunately they were not.
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