A schoolgirl looks at Ukrainian armoured vehicles on the outskirts of Donetsk. Photo: AP
Hindsight is always 20/20 – but that’s never an excuse for a bad mistake. And a British historian says one of the worst mistakes of the late 20th century was made on a ship in the Mediterranean, 25 years ago.
In December 1989, US president George H. W. Bush met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on a cruise ship off Malta, weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The “Malta Summit” was supposed to mark the end of the Cold War and an epoch of tension and distrust. Speeches were made to that effect.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a cabinet meeting in Moscow on Wednesday, March 4. Photo: AP
But, says the University of Kent’s Professor Richard Sakwa, the path from that summit has led Europe inexorably to the brink of a new cold – or even hot – war with Russia.
And, controversially, Sakwa, an expert in Russian and European politics, puts the blame on the West. “There were all sorts of missed turns,” he says. “But at this [Malta] meeting . . . President Bush turned to his aide and said ‘look, they’ve given up, we’ve won!’
“Gorbachev was talking about establishing a common European home but [the US] were triumphalist.”
Now, despite the shocking assassination under the Kremlin walls of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, despite ever more evidence of Russia’s complicity in and support for the conflict tearing Ukraine apart, Sakwa insists the West must take a step back and reassess its language and strategy since Malta – before it’s too late.
“Ultimately Russia as a great power, a nuclear power, has to be listened to. Not to say ‘it’s right’, not to say to ‘give in’, but at least to say ‘OK, what are the issues’ instead of simply demonising them. The triumphalism has to come to an end.”
In his new book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, Sakwa sketches out his theme: that by assuming that Russia was beaten, by ignoring its needs and its nature and by pushing NATO’s borders closer and closer to Moscow, Europe and the US created the conditions for the current civil war in Ukraine.
A pro-Russian rebel adjusts a map near portraits of Vladimir Putin, Stalin, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Che Guevara at “Battalion Kalmius” headquarters in rebel-held Donetsk, Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images
They have put Europe and Russia into a destructive, escalating cycle of mistrust and aggression in which neither side is entirely to blame, yet both consider themselves blameless. “The atmosphere in Moscow, some of the hardliners, even the old liberals and academics, they’re [saying] ‘let’s just solve it and march all the way to Kiev’,” Sakwa told Fairfax Media. “They’re so angry, they feel so betrayed by the West. It’s very dangerous.
“We are doomed to . . . another 25 years of cold war, probably more dangerous than the first Cold War, which could end up in a 1914 situation because the West simply will not listen to Russia’s concerns.”
Sakwa’s book has already caught attention. Retired NATO intelligence analyst Martin Packard wrote that it was the first “realistic synopsis of the background to current events”.
“The intention in Moscow [in 1986] was to . . . achieve a progressive convergence with the EU,” he wrote. “There could have been huge benefits to Europe in such convergence, but the process was deliberately sabotaged by US intelligence agencies, working from the hypothesis that a tie-up between the EU and a democratic Russia would pose a major threat to American long-term economic interests.
“The chaos that we now have, and the distrust of America which motivates Russian policy, stems primarily from decisions taken in Washington 30 years ago.”
However most media articles and official accounts blame Russia for renewed tensions between east and West. Two weeks ago, Britain’s top general in NATO, Sir Adrian Bradshaw, called “the threat from Russia . . . an existential threat to our whole being”.
Sakwa is exasperated with the simplistic, “Putinophobic” narrative in which Ukraine is the latest target of an expansionist Kremlin. His book argues for a different point of view.
We need to understand, he writes, that Ukraine is home to a long struggle between those who see it as a single cultural and political unit, and those who (as Sakwa argues) recognise a land where different civilisations, languages and cultures have ebbed and flowed, where borders have moved back and forth for centuries.
Once we see Ukraine differently, we see Russia differently, Sakwa says. The very word Ukraine translates as “borderland”. Modern Ukraine was pulled together by the Soviet Union, including territories and people from neighbouring states. In 1991, at the breakup of the Soviet Union, 90.3 per cent of the country voted for independence. Around three-quarters were Ukrainians and 22 per cent (11.4 million) were Russians.
Ethnic Russians remain a significant part of the population – concentrated in the eastern and southern regions. In 2001 almost a third of the country said Russian was their native language – and Russian speakers are an overwhelming majority in Crimea (occupied last year by Russia), and Luhansk and Donetsk (the Donbas region, now the site of the country’s separatist uprising).
Sakwa argues that, along with their strong Russian links and heritage, the people of Ukraine’s south and east had an “identifiable sense” of belonging to the Ukrainian community – and still do. But the insistence on Ukrainian as the sole state language “provoked a constant sense of resentment”. Elsewhere there was a strong militant Ukrainian nationalism, Sakwa wrote, with a “pronounced anti-Russian ideology”.
“In this tradition Russia is viewed as inherently evil, and the fall of Communism did not make the slightest difference: Russian imperialism was considered oppressive before Communism and after.”
Fast-forward to the Maidan protests of 2014. The authoritarian, corrupt pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych had signed up for Russian gas instead of EU association, and the crowds gathered in the Maidan.
From a Western point of view, they were another admirable revolution. But the nationalistic edge to the protests alienated Ukraine’s Russophones. So after Yanukovych fled, the east rose up.
Sakwa rejects the view of the Donbas insurgency in Ukraine’s east as a Russian covert action, like the reclamation of Crimea.
“Russia is supporting the Donbas insurgency, yes no question about it,” Sakwa says. He disputes many of the reports of Russian presence in the region, but “obviously they’re sending arms, they’re sending specialist advisers, they’re sending regular troops not in uniform. I’m just saying it’s been so overhyped the level of Russian intervention. It’s largely a civil war, that’s the key point . . . 90 per cent of the fighters are local Donbas people.”
Sakwa’s denial of a heavy Russian involvement in Ukraine is contentious. A spokeswoman for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which grew out of attempts to bridge Cold War divides in the 1970s, told Fairfax it “has observed movements of unmarked military convoys [across the border] – at least once carrying Russian insignia – many of which included heavy weaponry, numerous times”.
The US Army commander in Europe, Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, estimates 12,000 Russian soldiers are supporting pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine – military advisers, weapons operators and combat troops, Another 50,000 Russian troops wait over the border in case the separatists suffer a setback, Hodges says.
Sakwa considers this beside the point. Sovereignty has never been absolute, he says.
“It’s 450 kilometres from the Ukrainian border to Moscow,” Sakwa says. “If [NATO] really do believe in sovereignty, then I shall phone Raul Castro tomorrow and say ‘all is forgiven, we made a mistake, you as a sovereign state have the right to put nuclear missiles onto Cuba’.”
Over the last decade Russia became increasingly alienated. Vladimir Putin took power as a “new realist” seeking to engage with and accommodate the West. But after 2007 he and Russia became more assertive, Sakwa writes, buoyed by the country’s economic recovery and unable to form genuine partnerships with the EU. Putin began to attack the US for trying to establish a “unipolar world . . . in which there is one master, one sovereign”, and called the enlargement of NATO “a serious provocation”.
Sakwa concedes Russia is an authoritarian regime with “huge systemic government issues” that is “reactive and defensive” when it feels threatened.
“The price to pay for the relatively peaceful and bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union was the entrenched position of the Soviet-era elites, officialdom and corporations,” he writes. “The vast security apparatus remained lodged in the post-Communist Russian body politic like a fishbone in the throat.”
But Russia simply cannot allow NATO to get a toehold in Ukraine, Sakwa says. NATO is a body “which by its very existence betrays the aspirations to have ended the Cold War with an equitable and inclusive peace”. And as Russia becomes more anti-NATO, NATO becomes more wary of Russia.
“NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence,” Sakwa argues in the book.
“We are in the logic of 1914, we are in an escalatory logic,” he told Fairfax Media. “The idea of Russian troops marching into the Baltic states until a few months ago was absolutely absurd. Today it becomes more and more likely. The more they want proof of NATO’s security, the less security they get. We’ve gone too far.”
So what to do? Talk, says Sakwa: “For 20 years we’ve been living in a fool’s paradise. After the end of the Cold War we ultimately fundamentally failed to establish an inclusive and satisfactory peace on the European continent.
“Ultimately there has to be a new Helsinki, a new Yalta, a new Malta.”
And this time we have to get it right, he says.