Why isn’t America listening to the advice on NATO expansion of its foremost 20th century expert on Russia?

FEBRUARY 22, 2022

Robert Bridge

“Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era,” George Kennan said

Robert Bridge is an American writer and journalist. He is the author of ‘Midnight in the American Empire,’ How Corporations and Their Political Servants are Destroying the American Dream. @Robert_Bridge

The US diplomat George Kennan, an astute observer of Soviet Russia under Stalin, offered his observations later in life on the question of NATO expansion. The tragedy of our times is that those views are being ignored.

Winston Churchill once famously quipped that the “Americans will always do the right thing, but only after all other possibilities are exhausted.” That bit of dry British humor cuts to the heart of the current crisis in Ukraine, which is loaded with enough geopolitical dynamite to bring down a sizable chunk of the neighborhood. Yet, had the West taken the advice of one of its leading statesmen with regards to reckless military expansion toward Russia, the world would be a more peaceful and predictable place today.

George Kennan is perhaps best known as the US diplomat and historian who composed on February 22, 1946 the ‘Long Telegram’, a 5,400-word cable dispatched from the US embassy in Moscow to Washington that advised on the peaceful “containment” of the Soviet Union. That stroke of analytical brilliance, which Henry Kissinger hailed as “the diplomatic doctrine of his era,” provided the intellectual groundwork for grappling with the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin as ultimately enshrined in the ‘Truman Doctrine’.

Inside the fetid corridors of power, however, where the more hawkish Dean Acheson had replaced the ailing George Marshall in 1949 as secretary of state, Kennan and his more temperate views on how to deal with capitalism’s arch rival had already passed its expiration date. Such is the fickleness of fate, where the arrival of a single new actor on the global stage can alter the course of history’s river forever. Thus, having lost his influence with the Truman administration, Kennan eventually began teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he remained until his death in 2005. Just because George Kennan was no longer with the State Department, however, didn’t mean that he stopped ruffling the feathers of predators.

In 1997, with Washington elves hard at work on a NATO membership drive for Central Europe, particularly those countries that once formed the core of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact, Kennan pulled the alarm. Writing in the pages of the New York Times, he warned that ongoing NATO expansion toward Russia “would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”

Particularly perplexing to the former diplomat was that the US and its allies were expanding the military bloc at a time when Russia, then experiencing the severe birth pains of capitalism atop the smoldering ruins of communism, posed no threat to anyone aside from itself.

“It is … unfortunate that Russia should be confronted with such a challenge at a time when its executive power is in a state of high uncertainty and near-paralysis,” Kennan wrote.

He went on to express his frustration that, despite all of the “hopeful possibilities engendered by the end of the cold war,” relations between East and West are becoming predicated on the question of “who would be allied with whom” in some “improbable future military conflict.”

In other words, had Western dream weavers just let things work themselves out naturally, Russia and the West would have found the will and the way to live side-by-side in relative harmony. One example of such mutual cooperation is evident by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a bilateral project between Moscow and Berlin that hinges on trust and goodwill above all. Who needs to travel around the world for war booty when capitalism offers more than enough opportunities for elitist pillage right at home? Yet the United States, having snorted from the mirror of power for so long, will never be satisfied with the spectacle of Russians and Europeans playing nice together.

As for the Russians, Kennan continued, they would be forced to accept NATO’s program of expansionism as a “military fait accompli,” thereby finding it imperative to search elsewhere for “guarantees of a secure and hopeful future for themselves.”

Needless to say, Kennan’s warnings fell on deaf ears. On March 12, 1999, then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, an acolyte of geopolitical guru and ultimate Russophobe Zbigniew Brzezinski, formally welcomed the former Warsaw Pact countries of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the NATO fold. Since 1949, NATO has grown from its original 12 members to thirty, two of which share a border with Russia in the Baltic States of Estonian and Latvia, which has been the site of massive NATO military exercises in the past.

So while it is impossible to say how things would be different between Russia and the West had the US heeded Kennan’s sage advice, it’s a good bet the world wouldn’t be perched on the precipice of a regional war over Ukraine, which has become a center of a standoff between Moscow and NATO.

Russia certainly does not feel more secure as NATO hardware moves inexorably toward its border. Vladimir Putin let these sentiments be known 15 years ago during the Munich Security Conference when he told the assembled attendees: “I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”

Today, with Kiev actively pursuing NATO membership for Ukraine, and the West stubbornly refusing to acknowledge Moscow’s declared ‘red lines’, outlined in two draft treaties sent to Washington and NATO in December, the situation looks grim. What the West must understand, however, is that Russia is no longer the special needs country it was just 20 years ago. It has the ability – diplomatic or otherwise – to address the perceived threats on its territory. There has even been talk of Russia, taking its cue from NATO’s reckless expansion in Europe, building military alliances in South America and the Caribbean.

Last month, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reported that President Putin had spoken with the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, for the purpose of stepping up collaboration in a range of areas, including military matters.

With each passing day it is becoming more apparent that had Kennan’s more realistic vision of regional cooperation been accepted, the world would not find itself at such a dangerous crossroads today. Fortunately, there is still time to reconsider the advice of America’s brilliant diplomat if it is peace that Washington truly desires. 

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua: The US-Russia Conflict Enters a New Phase

February 7, 2022

By Ramzy Baroud

As soon as Moscow received an American response to its security demands in Ukraine, it answered indirectly by announcing greater military integration between it and three South American countries, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.

Washington’s response, on January 26, to Russia’s demands of withdrawing NATO forces from Eastern Europe and ending talks about a possible Kyiv membership in the US-led alliance, was noncommittal.

For its part, the US spoke of ‘a diplomatic path’, which will address Russian demands through ‘confidence-building measures’. For Russia, such elusive language is clearly a non-starter.

On that same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced, in front of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, that his country “has agreed with the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to develop partnerships in a range of areas, including stepping up military collaboration,” Russia Today reported.

The timing of this agreement was hardly coincidental, of course. The country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov did not hesitate to link the move to the brewing Russia- NATO conflict. Russia’s strategy in South America could potentially be “involving the Russian Navy,” if the US continues to ‘provoke’ Russia. According to Ryabkov, this is Russia’s version of the “American style (of having) several options for its foreign and military policy”.

Now that the Russians are not hiding the motives behind their military engagement in South America, going as far as considering the option of sending troops to the region, Washington is being forced to seriously consider the new variable.

Though US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan denied that Russian military presence in South America was considered in recent security talks between both countries, he described the agreement between Russia and the three South American countries as unacceptable, vowing that the US would react “decisively” to such a scenario.

The truth is, that scenario has already played out in the past. When, in January 2019, the US increased its pressure on Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro to concede power to the US-backed Juan Guaido, a coup seemed imminent. Chaos in the streets of Caracas, and other Venezuelan cities, mass electric outages, lack of basic food and supplies, all seemed part of an orchestrated attempt at subduing Venezuela, which has for years championed a political discourse that is based on independent and well-integrated South American countries.

For weeks, Washington continued to tighten the pressure valves imposing hundreds of sanction orders against Venezuelan entities, state-run companies and individuals. This led to Caracas’ decision to sever diplomatic ties with Washington. Ultimately, Moscow stepped in, sending in March 2019 two military planes full of troops and equipment to prevent any possible attempt at overthrowing Maduro. In the following months, Russian companies poured in to help Venezuela out of its devastating crisis, instigating another US-Russia conflict, where Washington resorted to its favorite weapon, sanctions, this time against Russian oil companies.

The reason that Russia is keen on maintaining a geostrategic presence in South America is due to the fact that a stronger Russian role in that region is coveted by several countries who are desperate to loosen Washington’s grip on their economies and political institutions.

Countries like Cuba, for example, have very little trust in the US. After having some of the decades-long sanctions lifted on Havana during the Obama administration in 2016, new sanctions were imposed during the Trump administration in 2021. That lack of trust in Washington’s political mood swings makes Cuba the perfect ally for Russia. The same logic applies to other South American countries.

It is still too early to speak with certainty about the future of Russia’s military presence in South America. What is clear, though, is the fact that Russia will continue to build on its geostrategic presence in South America, which is also strengthened by the greater economic integration between China and most South American countries. Thanks to the dual US political and economic war on Moscow and Beijing, both countries have fortified their alliance like never before.

What options does this new reality leave Washington with? Not many, especially as Washington has, for years, failed to defeat Maduro in Venezuela or to sway Cuba and others to join the pro-American camp.

Much of the outcome, however, is also dependent on whether Moscow sees itself as part of a protracted geostrategic game in South America. So far, there is little evidence to suggest that Moscow is using South America as a temporary card to be exchanged, when the time comes, for US and NATO concessions in Eastern Europe. Russia is clearly digging its heels, readying itself for the long haul.

For now, Moscow’s message to Washington is that Russia has plenty of options and that it is capable of responding to US pressure with equal or greater pressure. Indeed, if Ukraine is Russia’s redline, then South America – which has fallen under US influence since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 – is the US’s own hemispheric redline.

As the plot thickens in Eastern Europe, Russia’s move in South America promises to add a new component that would make a win-lose scenario in favor of the US and NATO nearly impossible. An alternative outcome is for the US-led alliance to recognize the momentous changes on the world’s geopolitical map, and to simply learn to live with it.

– Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is “Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak out”. Dr. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

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