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“The Truth is Rarely Pure and Never Simple” (Oscar Wilde). How Russia and Ukraine got to where we are today… but no one wants to talk about it.

20 december 2021

By Richard Chetwode

In January 1897, so the legend goes, William Randolph Hearst sent a cable to the artist Frederic Remington in Havana… “Please remain [in Cuba]. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war!”. Well today in almost every paper you can see the satellite pictures of tens of thousands of Russian troops sitting on the border of Ukraine; pray to God we don’t get a full-on war, though in truth, young Ukrainian soldiers have been dying daily. There is an existing narrative about Russia’s duplicity, authoritarianism, bullying and military aggression… so the blame clearly lies with Russia. But here’s an important question… what if it’s not so clear cut; what if we are fixated on only our side of the story? What if we are so convinced of our own righteous position that we refuse to acknowledge that we may also be a major part of the problem. That for a twenty-year period, through looking at the world only through our eyes, through both arrogance and complacency, the West, at almost every turn, not only completely ignored Russia’s strategic interests but has steadily pushed Russia into a corner, and without condoning or supporting Russia’s actions in any way… that is a story that needs to be told, because it’s a big reason why we are where we are today.

Thirty years ago, as the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Eastern Europe, the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and NATO made a promise… NATO will never go further East!

Step back in time thirty years, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe gaining their freedom. Great stuff! Except none of it could have happened without the acquiescence of the Soviet Union’s reforming leader Mickail Gorbachev who ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Gorbachev only asked for one thing in return; that the Soviet Union’s historical and current security concerns were respected, that NATO would never go east of Germany. US Secretary of State Jim Baker assured him, “Not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction1; words repeated by amongst others, US President George HW Bush, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, French President Francois Mitterrand, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (and her successor John Major) as well as British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and the Secretary General of NATO. That’s about as good as you get.

Ukraine hands over its nuclear weapons with a guarantee from Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom to respect its borders and sovereignty.

Meanwhile, at the end of 1991, the people of Ukraine had voted overwhelmingly for independence and seeking international recognition and economic aid (from the United States), the government initially agreed to return its nuclear arsenal to Russia2. Then they prevaricated about surrendering all of them, asking for security guarantees from the United States and Russia, compensation for the value of the enriched uranium and economic aid. Only in 1994 in talks between Ukraine and Russia, mediated by the US, did the three parties finally reach an agreement3 and at the end of that year, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum4 giving assurances against the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territory and independence and promising to respect its sovereignty and borders.

This was a good news story for the World. The Soviet Union (soon to become the Russian Federation) was no longer the enemy that NATO had faced for 40 years, and no new unstable states from the former Soviet Union had nuclear weapons. It’s fair to say that from Gorbachev’s election in 1985 through to 2007, it is almost impossible to find an action taken by the USSR/Russian Federation which could be interpreted as hostile to the West. When and how did it go wrong?

As the millennium approached, and with the active encouragement of the United States, Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary join NATO. NATO had indeed gone East.

Maybe 1992 is a good place to start; US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz5 wrote a position paper (later known as the Wolfowitz Doctrine) discussing America’s future role in the world post the collapse of the Soviet Union and victory in the 1991 Gulf War. His message: the US should never again allow any other country to compete with its position as the sole superpower “we must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role”. He also advocated a policy of unilateral action and pre-emptive strikes wherever US interests might be threatened or promoted. But for the moment, the incoming US President, Bill Clinton was more focussed on his domestic agenda… until the 1996 re-election campaign, when he was accused of being weak on foreign policy and support for NATO, and Clinton countered by calling for NATO to extend full membership to a number of former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe. Suddenly, those so important promises made to Russia, just weren’t convenient anymore. Russia certainly wasn’t consulted… anyway, it had by this time become an economic basket case… in 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO. NATO had begun to move East.

Russia looks to build a partnership with the West while the United States starts to develop a new anti-ballistic missile system and tears up the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The following year saw seismic changes in Russia… for the better. Vladimir Putin was elected President and he literally dragged the country out of an economic quagmire and turned the country around. He wanted to be closer to Europe… in his words… “Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world” and he also made it clear he was keen to join NATO, “if and when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner6… in essence, “lets fight the bad guys together as partners”. That invitation never came.

US President George Bush made a big effort to build a personal friendship with the new Russian President, but in some ways his foreign policy, which could be summarised as “punish your enemies and reward your friends”, was dangerously simplistic. To paraphrase 19th Century British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston, “a country doesn’t have friends, it only has interests7. In May 2001 President Bush announced the building of a strategic missile system in the Continental United States to defend America against a ballistic missile attack8. He personally assured President Putin this was about Iran; Russia was now America’s friend, not her enemy. Unfortunately, there was a catch; to build this the US had to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which stopped either side building a defensive system which would allow them to attack the other with impunity - for 30 years it had been the cornerstone of strategic stability. The Russian Government was deeply unhappy and warned... “…the need to maintain the ABM treaty is categorical and unchanged9", but not wanting to sour the very good relations with the US over a system Bush was so committed to, and that was still only conceptual, Putin had to accept it as a Fait Accompli10.

Russia offers unprecedented help to NATO after 9/11. President Putin is rebuffed by Europe and more former Soviet Bloc countries join NATO.

Six months later, it was Vladimir Putin who was the first international leader to call the US President offering support following the 9/11 terrorist attacks…. “Russia knows directly what terrorism means and because of this we, more than anyone, understand the feelings of the American people. In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people -- we are with you11." Days later, Putin took an unprecedented step, and offered active support for the American war against terror; shared intelligence, opened Russian airspace for humanitarian flights12, and co-ordinated with the former Soviet Central Asian republics to allow foreign (NATO) troops to use their bases to invade Afghanistan. That was historically unheard-of co-operation.

Except in November 2002, George Bush invited another seven former Soviet Bloc countries to begin talks aimed at their joining the NATO alliance. Then in March 2003, the US invaded Iraq, a long-time Russian ally, to rid the country of non-existent weapons of mass destruction and “free” its people. President Putin (along with President Chirac of France and German Chancellor Shroeder) maintained that the invasion was illegal, but it was France, not Russia, who threatened to veto any further UN Resolution authorising the war. Putin himself took no further action, but one surmises that he must have begun to doubt that Bush’s foreign policy motivation had anything to do with upholding International Law. It’s worth noting that Bush’s administration was filled with more than its fair share of Neoconservatives and Cold-war Warriors.

In mid-2004 President Putin asked Europe’s leaders to open its borders to Russians, not least because the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad’s land borders were with Poland and Lithuania, which had both just joined the European Union. Citing Russia's issues with crime and illegal immigration as its main concerns, Europe said “NON”. Europe seemed willing to integrate Russia into Europe economically and politically… but as to any chance of the benefits of membership13?… forget it! That same year Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined NATO, resulting in the further isolation of Kaliningrad. To anyone Russian this must have been more than perplexing. They had been told NATO wouldn’t go East… it did, even though the Soviet Bloc which NATO had been created to fight no longer existed. More than that; what did expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders have to do with fighting terrorism and combatting rogue nuclear states?

Pro-US revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and Russian begins to feel increasingly threatened

Then towards the end of that year, the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the subsequent “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine put pro-western governments on Russia’s very own border. In both countries, it was no secret that US-backed organisations were active in supporting the anti-Russian (and pro-democracy) side. For the US, this was about supporting democracy… to Russia this was an active US policy to encircle Russia with pro-US countries in its traditional sphere of influence.

By 2006, it must have been increasingly clear, that Bush was interested in resolving the disastrous situation in Iraq, combatting terrorism, facing down rogue nuclear states and encouraging the spread of democracy; Russia’s interests, except where they coincided with Bush’s interests, were irrelevant. So, at the G7 summit in Moscow, Putin mocked Bush “we certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq!14

President Putin warns the West about threatening Russian interests. President Bush announces the new anti-ballistic missile system will also cover Europe and ignores Russia’s concerns.

In February 2007 in Munich, Putin seemed to have had had enough. He warned of the consequences of America’s actions: “the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations… Who is happy about this? In international relations we increasingly see the desire to resolve a given question according to so-called issues of political expediency… this is extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasise this – no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them”.

 And as for the new missile system…  “The balance of powers will be absolutely destroyed and one of the parties will benefit from the feeling of complete security15. He added that Russia now had no choice but to develop new weapons system to counter it. A new arms race had begun.

The US reaction? The announcement that the new anti-missile defence would now also be deployed in Eastern Europe… to protect against an attack from Iran… of course. A furious Russia started developing new missiles to counter the new US defence system. Putin’s unhappiness was clear… "Some members of the international community are nursing a desire to dictate their will to all and everyone on any issue, without coordinating their actions with common norms of international law," but America’s view was dismissive “We want a 21st Century partnership with Russia, but at times, Russia seems to think and act in the zero-sum terms of another era," came Condoleezza Rice’s reply16.

During the G-8 summit in early June President Putin proposed establishing an alternate missile defence radar site at an existing early warning radar station in Azerbaijan rather than the Czeck Republic. But a radar site in Azerbaijan couldn’t be used to defend the United States from an attack by Russia - the offer was turned down17.

President Putin realises President Bush never wanted a partnership except on his terms.  President Bush encourages Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO… civil war breaks out on Russia’s borders, Croatia and Albania join NATO.

Maybe it was around this time that Putin realised his one-sided attempts to build a positive partnership with the West were a waste of time, and this is probably also the time when democracy in Russia began to die. Is Vladimir Putin an authoritarian? Yes. Is he a democrat? No… but that’s not the point; whatever you think of him today, remember that for the first five (if not seven) years in office when he wasn’t completely averse to democracy (he was also incredibly popular), he didn’t just save Russia economically and give its people a real future, he also extended the hand of genuine friendship to the West. That hand got badly bitten. He was told to bring in more democracy but Russia’s security needs were completely ignored, and in many ways, this very proud and still very powerful nation was treated as an irrelevant second-class citizen. Russia wanted America (predominantly) to respect Russia both as a partner and talk to Russia as an equal; America wasn’t interested. And where we are today…  began.

The following year (2008), at the NATO meeting in Bucharest18 Georgia and Ukraine were promised future membership19 (Bush "strongly supported" Ukraine joining NATO and he said that Russia would not be allowed to veto its membership bid20). Bush also made it clear he had no interest is doing a deal with Russia over the controversial missile system.

In August ongoing friction between the semi-independent territories of South Ossetia21 and Abkhazia and Georgia exploded into war - Russia was quickly drawn into the conflict. Connected events? Almost certainly, after all, this was Russia’s own back yard. In 2009 Croatia and Albania joined NATO…. in Putin’s view, NATO has become nothing more than a foreign policy arm of the US Government22.

Russia withdraws the hand of friendship and co-operation… and replaces it with a fist of steel. There is a new message coming out from Moscow; If the West doesn’t respect our interests, then the West will learn to fear us.

A new message was coming from the Kremlin; the West had ignored Russia attempts to be a friend and trodden all over what she regarded as very important, then maybe the West would have to listen if they started to fear Russia; the Russia that subsequent US Presidents have had to deal with. From this point onwards, we know the allegations (many true, but some unproven); the poisonings in Salisbury; the ongoing cyberwarfare and election interference. The so-called Revolution of Dignity in neighbouring Ukraine with the annexation of (pro-Russian) Crimea and the tearing up of Russia’s 1994 guarantee to respect the sovereignty and borders of the Ukraine, and then militarily backing the (pro-Russian) self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine. More recently the EU gas crisis and now her armies sit on the border with Ukraine and we face the very real threat of war. 

Only last month, US Congressmen Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson introduced a resolution to end recognition of President Putin “if the autocrat remains in power” after his current term ends23. Really?! Well, Steve and Joe certainly aren’t part of the solution, but they do fit Henry Kissinger’s view… “For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one24”.

The West, unable to understand that Russia had its own interests, its own needs, hope and fears, has pushed Russia into a corner… and expects Russia to choose one of two lose-lose options. Maybe a little understanding (NB; understanding, not weakness) will help avert a disaster.

You don’t have to like Vladimir Putin or his policies, but over twenty years we have backed Russia into a corner and this situation is at least partially of our own making. If we can’t find a way to mitigate his security concerns, either he pulls back i.e. we force him to back down (unlikely if you have read this article), or he invades and creates a new pro-Russian state in East Ukraine, but he will be aware of the cost of doing this; i.e. we knowingly give him a lose-lose offer.

The West has zero trust in President Putin and President Putin has zero trust in the West, so there may no longer be a peaceful solution. But if anyone out there wants to find one, it may help if you realise there are two sides to this story; and stop treating Russia as irrelevant… the consequences will just get worse. Good luck President Biden… you’ll need all your experience to resolve this…over to you.

Richard Chetwode is Chairman of Namibian Diamond Mining Company Trustco Resources, is Chairman of the Advisory Board of Australian technology company and a non-executive director of property company Roystonea Ltd, as well as consulting to several diamond (and other) businesses. All the opinions in this article are his own.


1 Declassified documents show security assurances against NATO expansion to Soviet leaders from Baker, Bush, Genscher, Kohl, Gates, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Hurd, Major and Woerner. Slavic Studies Panel addresses “Who Promised What to Whom on NATO Expansion. Published 12th December 2017; Briefing Book # 613, by Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton.
2 Under the Lisbon Protocol on May 23, 1992, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine agreed to give all their nuclear weapons to Russia and sign up to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty.
3 The Trilateral Statement on January 14, 1994.
4 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances on December 5, 1994.
5 More recently famous as one of the Neoconservatives
6 “Ex-Nato head says Putin wanted to join alliance early on in his rule” Press News Agency. 4th November 2021.
7 “Britain had no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, only interests that were eternal and perpetual”. Lord Palmerston was British Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister.
8 “Russia: U.S. President Bush Promises To Build Anti-Missile System”, by Frank Csongos. Radio Free Europe.
9 Russian strategic stability adviser Igor Sergeyev FROM “Bush upbeat on missile defence” 13TH JUNE 2001. BBC.
10 “U.S. Withdraws From ABM Treaty; Global Response Muted” by Wade Boese. Arms Control Association. July/August 2002.
11 “9/11 a 'turning point' for Putin”, CNN, 10th September 2002.
12, U.S.-Russia Relations After September 11, 2001” by Michael McFaul, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 24th October 2001.
13 “THE PRESIDENT IN EUROPE: ST. PETERSBURG; Putin Asks Europe to Open Borders to Russian Visitors”, by Michael Wines, 1st June 2003. New York Times.
14 “Special Report: How the US made its Putin problem worse”, by David Rohde and Arshad Mohammed. Reuters. 18th April 2014.
15 “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy” by Vladimir Putin. 10th February 2007.
16 “Bush Defends U.S. Missile System In Europe”, CBS News. 1st June 2007.
17 Review of the book “The Missile Defense Systems of George W. Bush: A Critical Assessment” by Richard Dean Burns in the Air Space and Power Journal.  Praeger Security International, 8th February 2012.
18 “Bucharest Summit Declaration” 3rd April 2008. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
19 No date was given as France and Germany, very aware of how upset Russia would be watered down the proposals.
20 “Bush backs Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership” by Luke Harding. The Guardian. 1st April 2008.
21 99% of people in South Ossetia voted for independence in a 2006 referendum.
22 “The Putin Interviews” Oliver Stone. Sky Television.
23 “Kremlin Slams U.S. Congress Bid to ‘Not Recognize’ Putin Presidency Past 2024”. 19th November 2021. Moscow Times.
24 “Henry Kissinger: To settle the Ukraine crisis, start at the end” by Henry Kissinger, Washington Post, 5th March 2014.