Perhaps the single most intriguing mystery of the Ukrainian crisis has to do with how the Foreign Service officer who served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney for two years, starting on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, became the Obama administration’s point person on Russia in 2014. Victoria Nuland took office as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs a year ago this week.
It was Nuland who in February was secretly taped, probably by the Russians, saying “F--- the E.U.” for dragging its feet in supporting Ukrainian demonstrators seeking to displace its democratically elected pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, two months after he rejected a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of one with Russia. She made a well-publicized trip to pass out food in the rebels’ encampment on Kiev’s Maidan Square in the days before Yanukovych fled to Moscow.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin said the other day, “Our Western partners, with the support of fairly radically inclined and nationalist-leaning groups, carried out a coup d'état [in Ukraine]. No matter what anyone says, we all understand what happened. There are no fools among us. We all saw the symbolic pies handed out on the Maidan,” Nuland is the pie-giver he had in mind.
Before she was nominated to her current job, Nuland was State Department spokesperson under Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton during the congressional firestorm over the attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
So how did the Obama administration manage to get her confirmed – on a voice vote with no debate? The short answer is that she was stoutly defended by New York Times columnist David Brooks and warmly endorsed by two prominent Republican senators, Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and John McCain, of Arizona.
Clearly Nuland stands on one side of a major fault-line in the shifting, often-confusing tectonic plates of U.S. politics.
A good deal of light was shed on that divide by John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, in an essay earlier this month in Foreign Affairs. In “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Mearsheimer described the U.S. ambitions to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit via expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the taproot of the crisis. Only after Yanukovych fled Ukraine did Putin move to annex the Crimean peninsula, with its longstanding Russian naval base.
Putin’s actions should be easy to comprehend. A huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself, Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia. No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine. Nor would any Russian leader stand idly by while the West helped install a government there that was determined to integrate Ukraine into the West.
Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it. This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory. After all, the United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, much less on its borders. Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it. Logic aside, Russian leaders have told their Western counterparts on many occasions that they consider NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine unacceptable, along with any effort to turn those countries against Russia -- a message that the 2008 Russian-Georgian war also made crystal clear.
Why does official Washington think any different? (It’s not just the Obama administration, but much of Congress as well.) Mearsheimer delineates a “liberal” view of geopolitics that emerged at the end of the Cold War, as opposed to a more traditional “realist” stance. He writes,
As the Cold War came to a close, Soviet leaders preferred that U.S. forces remain in Europe and NATO stay intact, an arrangement they thought would keep a reunified Germany pacified. But they and their Russian successors did not want NATO to grow any larger and assumed that Western diplomats understood their concerns. The Clinton administration evidently thought otherwise, and in the mid-1990s, it began pushing for NATO to expand.
The first round of NATO expansion took place in 1999, and brought the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland into the treaty. A second round in 2004 incorporated Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. None but the tiny Baltic Republics shared a border with Russia. But in 2008, in a meeting in Bucharest, the Bush administration proposed adding Georgia and Ukraine. France and Germany demurred, but the communique in the end flatly declared, “These countries will become members of NATO.” This time Putin issued a clear rejoinder – a five-day war in 2008 which short-circuited Georgia’s application (though Georgia apparently continues to hope).
The program of enlargement originated with key members of the Clinton administration, according to Mearsheimer. He writes:
They believed that the end of the Cold War had fundamentally transformed international politics and that a new, post-national order had replaced the realist logic that used to govern Europe. The United States was not only the “indispensable nation,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it; it was also a benign hegemon and thus unlikely to be viewed as a threat in Moscow. The aim, in essence, was to make the entire continent look like Western Europe.
In contrast, the realists who opposed expansion did so in the belief that Russia had voluntarily joined the world trading system and was no longer much of a threat to European peace. A declining great power with an aging population and a one-dimensional economy did not, they felt, need to be contained.
And they feared that enlargement would only give Moscow an incentive to cause trouble in Eastern Europe. The U.S. diplomat George Kennan articulated this perspective in a 1998 interview, shortly after the U.S. Senate approved the first round of NATO expansion. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies,” he said. “I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else.”
Policies devised in one administration have a way of hardening into boilerplate when embraced by the next. So thoroughly have liberals come to dominate discourse about European security that even the short war with Georgia has done little to bring realists back into the conversation. The February ouster of Yanukovych is either cited as the will of a sovereign people yearning to be free or, more frequently, simply ignored altogether.
The liberal worldview is now accepted dogma among U.S. officials. In March, for example, President Barack Obama delivered a speech about Ukraine in which he talked repeatedly about “the ideals” that motivate Western policy and how those ideals “have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power.” Secretary of State John Kerry’s response to the Crimea crisis reflected this same perspective: “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.”
Nuland was present at the creation of the liberal view. She served for two years in the Moscow embassy, starting in 1991; by 1993 she was chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. She directed a study on NATO enlargement for the Council on Foreign Relations in 1996, and spent three more years at State as deputy director for Former Soviet Union Affairs.
After a couple of years of Nuland being on the beach at the Council on Foreign Relations, President George W. Bush named her deputy ambassador to NATO, in 2001. She returned to Brussels in the top job after her service to Cheney. When Obama was elected, she cooled her heels as special envoy to the Talks on Conventional Forces in Europe for two years until Clinton elevated her to spokesperson. Secretary of State John Kerry promoted her last year.
It seems fair to say that Putin has trumped Obama at every turn in the maneuvering over Ukraine – including last week, when the Russian president concluded a truce with the humbled Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko while leaders of the NATO nations fumed ineffectively at their biennial summit, this year in Wales. Never mind the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; China; Israel. Even in Europe, the president’s foreign policy is in tatters.
Backing away from the liberal view is clearly going to be costly for some future presidential aspirant. The alternative is to maintain the expensive fiction of a new Cold War.
David Warsh is a longtime financial journalist and economic historian. He is proprietor of economicprincipals.com.