NATO's Eastward March Remains Major Obstacle to Reaching Peaceful Settlement of Ukraine Crisis

Posted March 12, 2014

MP3 Interview with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, conducted by Scott Harris


Tensions remain high in Ukraine after the Crimean Parliament voted to approve a declaration of independence that will take effect if Crimea’s residents approve a vote to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation in a referendum scheduled for March 16. With thousands of Russian troops without insignia continuing to occupy Crimea, leaders of Ukraine's interim government have called for the formation of a new National Guard and requested military aid from the U.S and Britain under the post-Cold War Budapest Memorandum.

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych consider the interim government, installed in Kiev after the three-month protest occupation there to be illegitimate. They assert that top posts in the new government, including deputy prime minister, deputy secretary of National Security and secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, are now in the hands of far right fascist and anti-Semitic groups Svoboda and Right Sector. Putin says Russia has responded to the threat these extremist groups pose to the Russian-speaking population in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Washington and the European Union’s threat of economic sanctions against Russia, as well as NATO reconnaissance flights over Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have increased already heightened tensions over the situation in Ukraine. Between The Line’s Scott Harris spoke with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, who discusses the triggers that set off the current East-West crisis in Ukraine and options to reach a negotiated settlement.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Since the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s, the U.S.-led West has been on a steady march towards post-Soviet Russia. Beginning with what Russian scholar George Kennan called the most fateful era of the post-Cold War period – the expansion of NATO all the way to the Russian border — NATO now includes three formerly Soviet countries, eight or nine Warsaw Pact countries. This may not resonate with your listeners, but it is a touchstone in Russia for a failed post-Soviet, post-Cold War world, and also for broken promises.

Former Secretary of State James Baker in the George H. W. Bush administration promised then-Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev that when the Berlin Wall collapsed and Germany was re-unified, NATO would not expand — NATO being a Cold War alliance, a military alliance — would not extend one inch eastward.

It has expanded, and I think that has to be a backdrop, as we witness events in Ukraine. I also think we need to go back to last November, when the European Union proposed to Ukraine that it join the European Association Agreement.

First of all, it offered $160 million a year for five years and furthermore, there were security arrangements in this European Association Agreement, which the U.S.-Western media has barely reported. These agreements would have led Ukraine to move fairly quickly into NATO. But what’s more important as we sit here today, is it didn’t need to be an either-or situation. The Russian government offered a tri-partite agreement. As former German Prime Minister Gerhardt Schroeder writes today in the German media, “It did not need to be either-or. It was a failure of the EU and the West to make it such that the both - and alternative would have been more reasonable — because Ukraine needs partnership with both sides."

Ukraine is a bankrupt country. It has been looted by its oligarchs, its political elite over these years. And, let me finish here, because if the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, sits in Kiev tonight, our reporter out of Kiev says that “as details emerge about the IMF loan, there is a sequester plan by the Ukrainian Finance Ministry, which includes a variety of deep reductions in social expenditures — such as cutting pensions by 50 percent." This will be perhaps more of a trigger for conflict in the next month, if this goes through, than what is happening with Crimea.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Recognizing that Russia has legitimate security interests in the future of Ukraine, and also recognizing the fact that the United States and the European Union offered Ukraine a yes-or-no answer on whether they would be affiliated with Russia or the EU, who is responsible for this serious strategic error which brought us to the current crisis? Obviously, there could have been a compromise to have Ukraine be a part of both worlds, both the Russian and European world, economically. But that didn’t happen. Why? That’s the key question here, isn’t it?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The key question, and we sit here today, and we look back at history, 25, 30 years ago. We look back at just these recent months. This tragedy, because it is ripping Ukraine apart and it is leading perhaps to a very dangerous escalation with NATO planes in Poland and Romania, with Russian troops in Crimea, how we come down from this? Maybe one answer to your question, because the de-escalation will require security guarantees for Russia, will require in many ways maintaining the territorial integrity of Ukraine. It will need new and free elections if that’s possible, which will be inclusive, because Ukraine is so divided, that if you don’t have the inclusion of eastern and southern parts of Ukraine which are principally Russian-speaking, how will the government in Ukraine be representative?

There needs to be a pledge of security guarantee to Russia reaffirming the pledge that NATO will not extend into Ukraine, and finally, if Ukraine is going to be economically prosperous, or even economically sustainable, Ukraine needs to be part of both the EU and the Russian Customs Union. So there needs to be a dialing back if it’s at all possible, to what would have been more common sense, as I said “less bluster, more common sense is needed.” Why force Ukraine, as the EU did in November, to decide between Russia and the EU?

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, Katrina, just a final question here. There are those in Washington, and Moscow, as you mentioned earlier, who are part of the war-party, people who want to see tensions escalate. Some of these people, neo-cons like John McCain and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who seem hell-bent on reviving the Cold War, and I’m wondering from where you sit, who benefits from a revival of the Cold War, and severe strains and tensions with Russia at this moment?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, the American people certainly don’t benefit, nor does this country — which needs to rebuild itself, at home. The military-industrial complex, as you’ve probably followed, there’s been a drumbeat against the small, barely any, defense cuts that have been made due to sequestration in these last months. The oil and gas companies benefit, because there will be a march to expand the U.S.’s natural gas program, and fracking. The neo-cons and the outdated, retro, dinosaur-like think tanks will benefit as they howl at the moon to continue a Cold War that benefits no one. And the issues that should preoccupy us – extreme poverty in the world, inequality, climate change, weapons of mass destruction – none of those critical issues which we should tend to in non-military ways will benefit. So I think that we should do all that we can to ensure that this doesn’t move into a robust full-throated Cold War and find a way forward. Without it, no one will benefit.

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