Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognise the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine and send troops into these self-declared republics which he described as “ancient Russian lands” ostensibly to keep the peace, has placed him firmly in the West-generated public discourse as the arch villain of our times.
His actions ~ routinely ascribed to his KGB background ~ including doubling down on Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’, suppressing the political Opposition, clamping down on civil society dissent, and undermining the country’s nascent democratic institutions, which were worrying the world even before the Ukraine crisis came to the boil, have been Mr Putin’s own contributions to his demonisation. But whatever the rights and wrongs of the current situation, the historical context of the unfulfilled promises made to Moscow by the West need underlining.
Not just as an illustration of the primacy accorded by Western powers to their collective self-interest but also because it may provide an insight into Mr Putin’s motivations. A report in The Times, London, brings out the fact that when, in February 1990, the then Soviet leader Mr Mikhail Gorbachev and US Secretary of State James Baker met for talks in Moscow on Germany’s future, Mr Baker promised Mr Gorbachev ~ through his interpreter Mr Pavel Palazhchenko ~ that if US troops remained in Germany after reunification, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) would not expand “an inch to the East”.
Thirty-odd years on, President Putin is using the apparent breach of this promise to repeatedly accuse the West of deception. It is undeniable that over the past 32 years, Nato has almost doubled to include 30 member states, including former Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet republics. Mr Palazhchenko’s recent clarification that Mr Baker’s comment was related exclusively to Nato expansion into the territory of then East Germany, rather than countries in Eastern Europe, is a claim almost nobody in Russia is willing to buy.
Even Mr Gorbachev, now 90 years old and a Western favourite, has been extremely critical of America for exploiting Russia’s “weakness” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The report points out that not just Mr Baker but other Western leaders too had given Russia explicit assurances regarding its security concerns but none of them were formally recorded in treaties.
In March 1991, for example, British Prime Minister John Major told Moscow that he did not foresee “circumstances now or in the future where East/Central European countries would become members of Nato”. The discourse emanating out of the Kremlin is that Russia trusted these and other verbal assurances, but Nato’s eastward expansion violated the spirit of the treaty on German reunification signed in 1990.
As Mr Palazhchenko, who helps to run the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow, is quoted to have said: “It is easy to imagine how the West would have reacted if the positions had been reversed. The Russians were entitled to take seriously the repeated high-level assurances they were given.” President Putin is playing the betrayal theme to perfection, and it has many takers in Russia.