How (and When) We Entered Cold War II

On Christmas Day, 1991, the world was delivered the most wonderful gift: the bloodless fall of the Soviet Union.  The hammer and sickle were lowered for the last time from atop of the Kremlin, to be replaced by the pre-revolutionary Russian tricolor, signaling victory of democratic capitalism over totalitarian communism.  Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union; Boris Yeltsin remained as president of the new Confederation of Independent States (CIS), and the Cold War, which had lasted over 45 years, had finally ended.  After 70 years of oppressive communism, Russians could breathe a sigh of relief and, looking Westward, wistfully say: "We're all democrats now."

Alas, while many were justifiably celebrating this epochal transition, events were already taking place months prior that were destined to gradually and totally nullify a Christmas gift of nothing less than providential proportions.  Indeed, the prospect of an age of peace and goodwill, with strong GDP growth spurred by diversion of resources to domestic capital formation and productivity gains, benefiting both East and West, proved a mere chimera.

On February 9, 1990, almost two years before the collapse of the USSR, the U.S. secretary of state, James Baker, made a verbal commitment to Mikhail Gorbachev that in exchange for Soviet cooperation in the reunification of Germany and NATO membership, the U.S. could make "ironclad guarantees" that there would not be "one inch" of eastward NATO expansion thereafter.  Based on this guarantee, never formalized in writing but backed by ample documentation from U.S. archives, Gorbachev acceded to German reunification talks, with formal reunification actually taking place on August 31, 1990.  However, irrespective of promises to Gorbachev during the previous months, the George H.W. Bush administration had been under considerable, mounting pressure to nevertheless expand NATO – while concurrently attempting to allay Russian fears of such a development. 

A brief overview of Russia's long, turbulent, and often bloody history is in order.

Russia is vast – the largest country in the world, encompassing an area about 1.8 times the size of the U.S.  It is rich in natural resources, inclusive of arable land, but with very low population density and with no defensible natural borders, the very lack of which explaining the seeming Russian paranoia concerning NATO expansion.  Russia suffered multiple invasions over the centuries by the Mongols, Tatars, Swedes, Poles, French, and Germans.  Thus, it is understandable that Russia would be concerned about NATO moving into the buffer zone provided by former satellite states.

Throughout the 1990s, Russia experienced great difficulties in transitioning to a free-market economy.  With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it is mind-boggling that America didn't have the foresight to offer the floundering former adversary a helping hand akin to the post-war Marshall Plan – so effective in rebuilding Germany and Europe.  Such an "investment" would have paid rich dividends.  Instead, pressure continued to grow to expand NATO to include East European countries, a movement primarily driven by American defense industry lobbyists.  Defense expenditures had been dropping in the early 1990s and were projected to drop precipitously in subsequent years, placing major defense contractors in severe financial jeopardy.

In 1993, deputy defense secretary William Perry cautioned defense industry leaders of additional defense budget cuts and urged mergers, downsizings, and restructurings.  The situation was so critical that the Pentagon, to ease what promised to be a difficult transition period, offered reimbursements for forthcoming industry "restructuring costs."  A number of mergers quickly came about – one creating Lockheed-Martin, the largest arms manufacturer in the world, whose CEO, Norman R. Augustine, just happened to be a member of the Defense Policy Advisory Committee on trade – advising the secretary of defense on arms export policies.

Since the expansion of NATO promised financial salvation to the defense industry in increasingly difficult financial straits, one may safely surmise that Norman R. Augustine supported expansion enthusiastically because the eastward NATO expansion would encompass former Soviet Bloc countries, which would have to modernize and convert military equipment to meet NATO standards.  The associated defense spending would be in the many tens of billions of dollars for a period of years – much of it going to the American defense contractors.  It was the prospect of lucre, not the search for additional "security," that gave the impetus to NATO expansion.

But the average Russian could understandably have asked, "Expand NATO?  Against whom?"

That was an evocative question, as evidenced by the fact that on December 20, 1991, just a few days before the dissolution of the USSR, Boris Yeltsin had written to NATO to express the desire for Russia to join in the future.  This was a breath-taking development: the leader of democratized Russia, member of the former Soviet Union, and NATO adversary – and the raison d'être for NATO's formation – expressed a desire to join that very alliance whose sole purpose had been to keep the former USSR at bay.

Yeltsin's expressed desire to join NATO was no ploy: though Boris Yeltsin had been a Communist Party member for most of his career, he eventually wholeheartedly embraced free-market reforms and democracy.  Such a head of state, leading a democratizing Russia, would have proven a godsend for a relatively frictionless NATO expansion and should thus have warranted an expedited NATO membership for Russia.  To wit, as early as 1993, to prove goodwill and gain acceptance, and perhaps in need of hard currency, Yeltsin's Russia offered the U.S. Navy its crown jewel – the supersonic anti-ship missile, the SS-N-22 Sunburn.  Incredibly, the Clinton administration turned down the offer – but China and Iran did not.  The Sunburn and its variants remain essentially unmatched and unstoppable.

Though NATO wasn't to offer Russia NATO membership, it offered something less robust – membership in the Partnership for Peace (PfP).  The PfP was a new program under NATO by which former Eastern Bloc nations could work with NATO on an individualized basis, coordinating defense related issues, civil-military exercises and cooperation, disaster response, environmental issues, etc.  But it was not a full voting NATO membership – a fact hardly missed by Russia.  Russia joined in1994, but not without expressing disappointment with the terms it would be bound by.

Concurrently, and essentially throughout the 1990s, lobbyists for the defense industry were working hard on behalf of various defense contractors, donating generously – some  $33 million – to senatorial election campaigns in the hope of favorable votes on NATO expansion.  The 1996 presidential election year politics also entered the picture, with President William Clinton, in a speech made in Detroit just weeks before the election and courting the Polish vote, indicating that NATO would admit the first of its new members, meaning Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, by 1999.  He added that Russia should not worry because this would "advance the security of everyone."  But Russia did worry, and understandably so.  Russians such as Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin objected most emphatically because this expansion clearly violated the "ironclad" guarantees given by secretary of state James Baker – but this was to no avail.

Collectively, mercenary and political efforts proved successful.  On May 1, 1998, the Senate voted overwhelmingly for NATO expansion.  The vote was 80 for, 19 against, one absentee.  George Kennan, architect of the West's successful Cold War containment policy, was appalled: "I think it is the beginning of a new cold war[.] ... I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else[.]"  Warning klaxons must have gone off throughout the Kremlin's walls at the prospect of the disappearance of the cordon sanitaire formed by the member states of the now dissolved Warsaw Pact, which had provided Russia a strategic buffer zone to its borders.

The growing Russian suspicion that the West and NATO were not to be trusted was soon vindicated.  On March 12, 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were admitted to full NATO membership.  Just twelve days later, March 24, 1999, NATO launched "Operation Allied Force," the 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia (Serbia, essentially), without approval of the U.N. Security Council, without a legitimate casus belli, and against a sovereign nation that posed no threat to members of the alliance.

Russians may well have thought, "We're next."

NATO bombings caused tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure damage to a nation recovering from decades of communism and the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians.  It forced the Serbs to give up their ancient lands to an exploding Kosovo population of Muslims – many of whom were illegal immigrants.  Though NATO would subsequently never concede that its attack was unjustified – in part, no doubt, fearing having to pay billions in reparations – investigative journalist Daniel Pearl's front-page article in the WSJ, December 31, 1999, would leave no doubt that America and NATO had been soundly duped by Muslim Kosovars and the KLA.  This was later unequivocally affirmed by the former U.N. commander in the Balkans, Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie.

In 1914, Russia rushed troops to aid fellow Slav and coreligionist Serbia when she was unjustly attacked by Austria, triggering WWI.  However, the NATO 1999 attack on Serbia found Russia prostrate, her economy and military in shambles.  A once powerful Russia had to endure the humiliation of offering little more than to vigorously protest NATO's unprovoked attack.  But the die was cast – there would be no reconciliation with NATO, which in Russian minds had turned aggressor.  Boris Yeltsin resigned at the end of 1999, months before his term was up, appointing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as president pending the 2000 elections; we've had an adversarial relation with Putin's Russia ever since.  NATO's attack on Serbia triggered Cold War II, and where that will lead, only time will tell.

Thus, the Christmas gift of 1991 that promised peace, security and economic growth for Europe, Russia, and America was totally squandered.  Western parochial interests, narrow perspectives, mercenary motives, and a political calculus aided and abetted by an indolent, woefully uncritical American press pushed Russia right back behind another iron curtain – for no justifiable reason.  And the real, lingering, underlying, and ironic tragedy is that Russia, Europe, and America could have been natural allies – culturally, economically, and strategically – against China and Iran.  Instead, truly vacuous Western geopolitics has America and Europe facing the hardening alliance among Russia, China, and Iran.  How could we have erred so badly?

Andy Logar is a retired TWA pilot residing in Santa Rosa, California.