Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Eastern Europe in Danger?

When NATO expansion was light-heartedly (George Kennan’s expression) begun by the Clinton administration its proponents sold the idea (I well remember earnest Americans patiently explaining this when I was a diplomat in Moscow) as a means of improving European security. And, had there been any serious intention to include Russia, perhaps it would have been. But wiser people, like Jack Matlock, foresaw that the exclusion of Russia would make things rather less stable.

And so it has proved to be. Even proponents of NATO expansion can see the connection with Tbilisi’s attack on South Ossetia last August and are fond of claiming that Russia puts up gas prices in order to weaken Ukraine (ignoring the fact that Russia has put up prices for everyone – even Armenia and Belarus which have no intention of joining NATO). NATO expansion has steadily crept east, from Poland to Latvia and now to Ukraine and Georgia (although their accession looks less likely today). Now the argument seems to be little more than because Moscow does not want these countries in NATO, they must be admitted (and, above all, we must not give Moscow a “veto”). A thin reason indeed.

NATO now has members that have re-painted their history under communist rule: gone are the home-grown communists like Wladyslaw Gomulka or Martin Latsis and in their place is a picture of Russian imperialism and native resistance. These countries are a lobby pushing NATO into a reflexive anti-Russian stance. They do not need actual evidence of Russian hostility: Russian imperialism is the very foundation stone of their new historical mythology. Perhaps the most preposterous example of this reconstruction of reality was the proposal that the still-existing museum in Gori Georgia to its favourite son, Iosef Bissarion-dze Jughashvili, be re-named the museum of the Russian occupation of Georgia. Perhaps Russia should create a museum of the Georgian occupation of Russia: given the importance to Russian history of Stalin, Beria, Orjonikidze, Golglidze and Gvishiani, this would have more historical credibility. “In 1939 the whole of the USSR could be said to be controlled by Georgians and Mingrelians” says Donald Rayfield in Stalin and his Hangmen. But these people have been painted out of the portraits – de-communisation was often more airbrushing than an honest recognition of the reality of enthusiastic native participants. And now they’re selling these paintings to NATO. As Matlock saw ten years ago: “it creates greater polarization of attitudes as the line moves east”. Kennan called it “a tragic mistake”.

The actual problems of the post-communist countries are all similar: corruption, out-dated industry, bad work habits, decaying infrastructure, crashing demographics and fragile economies. Countries that had the full 70-year dose of communism are worse off than those who received the 40-year dose to be sure, but the problems are shared. NATO is not the answer to any of them.

There is no better illustration of this truth than the parlous state of Ukraine today. The post “Orange Revolution” obsession with NATO has only exacerbated the political division in the country.

And finally, why would Russia, which is surviving the financial storm better than most – if not all – of its neighbours, want to acquire these countries anyway? Much more trouble (and expense) than they’re worth. After all, there wasn’t much stopping Russia from seizing most of Georgia last August if it had wanted to.