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A Broken Promise, Part 2
Under the rubble is a war of narratives.
A major trigger for the expansion of N.A.T.O. (The North Atlantic Trade Organization) was the death of the Warsaw Pact. Another more nuanced trigger was the objective loss of Russian influence. In a dark period for the federation, former Soviet satellites scrambled for security. The glow of democracy was brightening.
In creating the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union was responding to a rapid cohesion between western states (at the behest of the United States and Great Britain). West Germany’s success reflected America’s democratic promises. The materialization of Soviet fears and envies occurred when West Germany joined the alliance. However, there are major differences between the Warsaw Pact and the N.A.T.O. alliance. One major difference not cited often is that N.A.T.O is more of a pledge than a requirement. (Obviously there are some requirements for membership.) But, individually funding the security of various nations in the alliance is not centralized or dictated by the most endowed interest (the United States).
In the Warsaw Pact, a similar arrangement was set up on the surface. The member nations pledged to safeguard each other’s security. Yet, the central control and dictations came from the Kremlin mainly compared to its N.A.T.O. counterpart.
The Secretary General and Chair of the Security Forces for N.A.T.O. are not fixed positions. The offices rotate so different members can experience leadership.
Also, there is no de facto requirement that people of said offices also must be a senior official of the United States of America.
This centralization also contributed to baked-in dysfunction.
On a lesser note, the Warsaw Pact’s one major military confrontation, the Prague Spring, ended with one member leaving afterword. However, Albania had signaled an openness to China in 1961. The nation also did not share borders with the Soviet Union or any Warsaw Pact nations. There were already enough problems for the Kremlin.
Putin's narrative points to talks between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin as evidence of a betrayal. The promises to not expand N.A.T.O. were broken allegedly. This is selective history. It overlooks the way former Warsaw Pact states joined a Partnership for Peace initiative sponsored by N.A.T.O (Russia also joined). Yes, Clinton did openly move towards expanding the alliance after this. He also tried to ease the tensions by inviting the Russians to join the Group of Seven and craft a framework to N.A.T.O.- Russian diplomacy.
Information attacks also point to the words of James Baker. As Secretary of State, he said that N.A.T.O. would not move eastward. But, many argue this is a conflation of two different discussions regarding the specificities around securing a unified Germany only and further Soviet dissolution - in a world where the Warsaw Pact was still in existence.
Also, the pact’s rapid dissolution was unforeseen by many.
False narratives work to quash dissonance about painful realities. Especially those truths that can challenge the aggressive nostalgia of Vladimir Putin.
So, most importantly, the Russia of the 1990s was a sad failure. It was also an outcome of Soviet excesses. Objectively, its dissolution would bring irrationally angry emotions to many. Putin fervently believed the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. was a great disaster. He is experiencing major cognitive dissonance as we all do at times. Unfortunately, he is able to exercise his in a brutal manner that kills so many innocent people. In a macro sense, the nation is in a new phase as an empire in decline and it is undergoing transformation.
Alexandra (Sasha) Zbrorovsky writes in The Washington Post:
Russia lost 23.8 percent of the territory it once claimed as its own and became a territorial shell of its former self. Once an empire that dominated both Europe and Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries and served as a powerful counterbalance to the United States throughout the Cold War of the 20th century, the nation no longer seemed to hold a powerful sway on the world stage.
This reality created a crisis of identity for Russians: Would their nation be special any longer?
The decade that followed offered no evidence that it would. After 1991, Russia encountered poverty and high crime as the country transitioned from a centralized command economy to a market economy — quite literally overnight in a process dubbed “shock therapy.” At the top, a new class of oligarchs emerged. These individuals quickly and savvily seized the previously state-owned resources that could no longer claim an owner. For everyday Russians, however, bread prices skyrocketed by 600 percent. The homicide rate doubled between 1994 and 1995, eventually averaging 84 murders a day.
Russia was a shell of its former glory, arguably, a failed state. In losing their inability to project power and opportunity, former parts of Russia’s sphere of influence looked to more successful systems for security and future promise.
Much of the United States’ success during the Cold War was not because of a great man or movement. Rather it is a perfect storm of historical forces. The promise of democracy and economic mobilization inspired the glow emanating from the West. It caught the attention of so many Soviet satellites.
The cracks in the Soviet system were visible for a while.
Joseph Stalin had died in 1953 and that opened up a leadership vacuum. East Germany and Poland urged for change in this confluence of events. East Germany was brutally put down after a worker's revolt involving 100,000 East Berliners. On top of 25 dead demonstrators and hundreds injured, there were approximately 25,000 arrests with martial law declared.
However, this ruined the troika of Lavrentiy Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Vyacheslav Molotov - Stalin’s successors.
So, Nikita Khrushchev succeeded him in a coup. By February 1956, Khrushchev was denouncing Stalinism to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party. The Polish Communist Party interpreted this as an opening for self-determination. They replaced pro-Stalin politician, Boreslaw Bierut with Wladyslaw Gomulka. His leadership would be a devolution from idealism to antisemitism and state-run censorship. This time, there were no Soviet tanks rolling into Poland (who threatened to respond with their own military).
The Hungarians tried to do the same. To avert crisis, the Soviets forced out Matyas Rakosi and freed Imre Nagy - presumably a people's candidate. After successful resistance campaigns, the Soviets claimed to be withdrawing troops. In the meantime, Nagy urged a multi-party system and a neutral foreign policy. To the chagrin of Nikita Khrushchev, tank convoys rolled through the streets of Budapest.
This, of course, happened under the disguise of "talks."
The military brutally put down the 1956 Revolution by killing approximately 20,000 Hungarians. Successor governments would have to subscribe to a Big Lie about the revolution: it was a “counter-revolution.”
False narratives are spreading and it is harmful.
The United States of America has done freedom’s work in many ways. There is a reason the Ukrainian people and leadership are appealing to Western media, governments, and alliances. A violent demagogue is murdering Ukrainian civilians in broad daylight.
But we all should reflect too.
The actions and attitudes of many in the West’s political classes have been irresponsible. This led to the ultimate failures of our modern governing consensus (no matter the party). But, the abuses of the Donald Trump administration (which signaled a deeper decadence that has rotted a political institution over 150 years old) also matter greatly.
The constant heartache flowing out of Ukraine is a major wake up call for us.
We must demand more of ourselves and our civic life.
A healthy democracy at home means healthy democracies abroad.
Photo courtesy of Loredana Sangiuliano
Friedman, Norman. The Cold War. London, England: Andre Deutsch, 2019.