Why Wars Break Out: Bucharest Declaration Edition

 
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Claire has started two excellent discussions here and here about the causes of war. I look forward to reading her argument in subsequent posts. But I also wanted to throw out my anticipatory two cents on the subject without being constrained by commenters’ 250-word limit. In the case of The Big One – China – the causes of war, if there is to be one, will be the same structural ones identified by Thucydides 2,500 years ago. Like Athens and Sparta, this is a paradigmatic case of rising and declining powers clashing. But in the case of lesser conflicts, one can never overestimate the role of ordinary human stupidity and inability to grasp the perfectly predictable consequences of foolish actions.

Consider the current situation in Europe. In April 2008, NATO held a summit in Bucharest, Romania. At the end of this summit — as is the custom for these kinds of things — NATO issued a lengthy declaration. Paragraph 23 of this declaration states, in full (emphasis added):

NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.  Both nations have made valuable contributions to Alliance operations. We welcome the democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia and look forward to free and fair parliamentary elections in Georgia in May. MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership [MAP stands for Membership Acton Plan, a concrete roadmap for NATO membership]. Today we make clear that we support these countries’ applications for MAP.  Therefore we will now begin a period of intensive engagement with both at a high political level to address the questions still outstanding pertaining to their MAP applications. We have asked Foreign Ministers to make a first assessment of progress at their December 2008 meeting. Foreign Ministers have the authority to decide on the MAP applications of Ukraine and Georgia.

The most charitable thing that can be said about this is that NATO did not do Georgia and Ukraine any favors with this statement.

Before I am accused of being a Putinista troll, let me say that I am not a fan of the man. I hold no brief for him or for Russia’s imperial interests. Many Russians see themselves as an imperial people and feel cheated out of what they regard as their natural God-given right to lord over their lesser neighbors. I have no sympathy for this point of view. I have close relatives in eastern Ukraine, directly northwest of the war zone in the Donets/Donbass, who are strongly anti-Russian, which is typical of many (if not most) Russian-speaking Ukrainians. I may feel some connection with Russian culture, but I have zero sentimentality about the Russian state. Or the Ukrainian state, for that matter. If I am sentimental about any particular place, it’s dear old Chicago.

That said, what on earth was NATO thinking?

I have to admit that I was not aware of the Bucharest Declaration until very recently, and I feel pretty foolish for it. I knew that NATO had been playing footsie with Ukraine and Georgia for some time, but when I saw the above text in black and white I did a double take. Here is NATO in April 2008 unambiguously telling Russia that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of the alliance, full stop.

Even to an armchair strategist like me, it’s perfectly obvious that this outcome is completely unacceptable from the Russian point of view. But even if the NATO heads of state were not bright enough to figure this out on their own, the Russians warned NATO repeatedly that bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance was unacceptable. NATO ignored these warnings and went full steam ahead with their plans anyway.

Ukraine and Georgia are not some peripheral backwaters of marginal interest to Moscow. Never mind that Kiev is the cradle of Russian civilization; that Ukraine has been at the core of the Russian Empire since the mid-17th century; that Georgians and Ukrainians have played prominent roles in Russian government and military affairs since before the Napoleonic period. Forget all that sentimental stuff. Consider only the strategic importance of these countries. Ukrainian and Georgian ports dominate the Black Sea. Without them, the Black Sea, becomes a NATO lake and Russia loses its secure access to the Mediterranean. Access to warm water ports in the Black and Baltic Seas has been a central Russian strategic objective since the days of Peter and Catherine. To lose command of these commercially important bodies of water — for which Russia has fought numerous wars — would set the country back strategically by 300 years. More to the point, advancing NATO’s frontier beyond the Dnepr River, to a distance less than 350 miles from Moscow, would nullify Russia’s strategic depth, the one historic advantage it has always enjoyed against invasion.

Keep in mind also that the Bucharest Declaration was not made in response to Russian aggression. It was made before the war in the Donbass; before the annexation of Crimea; and shortly before the Russo-Georgian war, for which it served as a direct trigger.

Also let’s remember what NATO membership would have entailed in concrete terms. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty would require the United States, France, the UK, the Germans, and all the other members, to go to war with Russia – a nuclear superpower – to defend Georgia and Ukraine against Russian aggression. This commitment may have required the pre-positioning of NATO equipment and/or forces, including, conceivably, German forces, not too far from the totally undefensible Russo-Ukrainian border, in places like Dnepropetrovsk, Kerch, Sevastopol, Kharkov, Cherkassy, the Dnepr Line. These names may not mean anything to Americans, but they mean quite a lot to the Russians.

What part of this made sense to NATO leadership? Just how exactly did NATO expect Russia to react? How would the United States react in similar circumstances?

Actually, on that last question, we don’t have to guess. Does anybody remember the Monroe Doctrine? The United States does not like it when possibly hostile foreign powers muck about in its back yard. In 1962, we nearly got into a global thermonuclear war in defense of this principle. Why should we be surprised when a Russian leader – any Russian leader – feels the same way about his back yard? Does anybody remember the Zimmermann Telegram? The United States actually went to war against Imperial Germany because the latter offered the American Southwest to Mexico as a prize for joining the Central Powers in an alliance. This is not too far off from what NATO was doing out in the open with the Bucharest Declaration.

It was perfectly obvious that Putin was never going to let Ukraine and Georgia join NATO. What Putin did in response to the Bucharest Declaration was completely predictable. First he broke up Georgia by orchestrating the secession of Abkhazia, Georgia’s coastal province. Then he made sure that Ukraine had a government compliant with his wishes. When that government was tossed out in 2014 and replaced by a pro-Western one, Putin made it quite clear that he preferred to ruin Ukraine, rather than allow it to resume its pro-NATO course. Which he did.

Let me repeat what I said in another discussion. Any stable and serious security architecture in Europe must take into account two basic facts: 1) Russia has legitimate security interests along its border with the West, and most especially where its historic heartland is concerned; and 2) An insecure, angry Russia is in no one’s interest.

Unfortunately, neither the Europeans nor the United States have a foreign policy establishment that understands how great power politics works. What the NATO heads of state must have been thinking — if you want to call it that — goes something like this: “We are super-sophisticated members of a fancy, post-modern dining club called NATO. We enjoy getting together in nice hotels in elegant capitals, drinking fine wine, and talking about peace, partnership, prosperity, post-nationalism, cooperation, inclusiveness, multiculturalism, rainbows, unicorns, and other nice things, and issuing declarations about them. A general war in Europe is unthinkable. The laws of great power politics have been repealed. Those laws are 19th century thinking. This is the 21st century.” Unfortunately they forgot to CC Vladimir Putin on this memo.

And why should Putin trust that NATO’s intentions are benign? From his point of view, NATO is not particularly trustworthy. People forget that the original gentleman’s agreement struck by Bush/Baker and Gorbachev in 1990 was that NATO would absorb East Germany and the Soviets would withdraw from Eastern Europe in exchange for a promise that the borders of NATO would not advance any further east. This understanding was broken repeatedly and now NATO’s easternmost frontier lies 84 miles from St. Petersburg.

It’s frustrating that any of this should be news to conservatives. Aren’t we the ones with the tragic vision of humanity? Aren’t we supposed to be the steely-eyed realists who believe in eternal truths about the human condition? Yet the Bucharest Declaration, made on George W. Bush’s watch, is the work of postmodern utopian fantasists.

I’m not much comforted by the hope that our next president will understand any of these things any better than Bush, let alone our current president. Hillary Clinton can’t even be bothered to look up how to say “Reset Button” in Russian. As for Donald Trump, he seems set to be invading other countries until the day he is replaced by President Chelsea Clinton in 2021.

If President Trump’s Secretary of State — Kanye West? Caitlyn Jenner? That guy from The Bachelor? — were to put me in charge of his or her policy planning staff, I would advise him or her as follows: cut a deal with Putin. Make Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet states strictly neutral and strictly independent. We need the Russians for the coalition that we are about to start building to contain the Chinese. We have the same basic interests as them. Why are we alienating them? To what purpose?

But it’s probably too late for that. That deal should have been cut in 2001. Now NATO expansion is dead and we have nothing left to offer Putin for his good behavior.

There are 21 comments.

  1. Manfred Arcane Inactive

    Yep. Pretty much on the mark. We don’t do geopolitics very well in the US, do we?

    • #1
    • March 21, 2016, at 5:16 AM PDT
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  2. Vectorman Thatcher

    Like many, I thought the Crimea was always Russian, not Ukrainian.

    Sevastopol is the Black Sea port of the Russian navy. The Russian leaders had dacha’s there. Even the Charge of the Light Brigade between the British and Russian forces occurred there.

    It would be similar to southern California now declared Mexican, oh, well, never mind…

    • #2
    • March 21, 2016, at 7:02 AM PDT
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  3. American Abroad Thatcher

    Wasn’t the first expansion of NATO after the Soviet collapse which admitted Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary the original mistake?

    NATO was explicitly created as an anti-Soviet measure, so expanding it after the disintegration of the USSR seemed like rubbing it in their faces. NATO should probably have been abandoned in 1991 or at least renamed and re-purposed to allow the Ruskies to save face. It wasn’t in our interests to humiliate a possible friend and make them a worse enemy. We might quibble on the 1999 expansion, but clearly there us no excuse for the Bucharest Declaration.

    As you have stated clearly, the expansion to Georgia and Ukraine was pointless and dangerous. There is simply no way that NATO would meet its obligations to defend Georgia or Ukraine–and there is simply no way that Russia wouldn’t bully Georgia and Ukraine to expose NATO’s weakness.

    • #3
    • March 21, 2016, at 8:06 AM PDT
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  4. Vectorman Thatcher

    American Abroad

    Wasn’t the first expansion of NATO after the Soviet collapse which admitted Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary the original mistake?

    The answer to your question is – what do these countries have in common?

    All three were thorns in the side of the “Warsaw” pack. Hungary revolted in 1954 and 1988, Czech in 1968, and 1988 Solidarity in Poland being the final nail. Along with East Germany, the Soviets couldn’t afford to keep these countries in its sphere of influence. They also had much more in common with the West.

    As long as Belarus and Ukraine were buffers, the Russians couldn’t do much anyway.

    • #4
    • March 21, 2016, at 8:21 AM PDT
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  5. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Oblomov:That said, what on earth was NATO thinking?

    I’d actually be very eager to hear a better answer than the one you suggested a few paragraphs later. Unfortunately, I doubt it exists.

    • #5
    • March 22, 2016, at 5:46 AM PDT
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  6. Valiuth Member

    So we should tolerate the halt of democratic expansion simply because Russia is autocratic? NATO during and especially after the cold war had become the predominant Democratic Alliance.

    The Answer to the Russia question is this. Is Russia a liberal democracy? If not it is an enemy and a threat. It must be denied land and influence everywhere. If it becomes a Liberal Democracy it can then join NATO.

    I think the Great Power politics is exactly the problem. The goal should be to dismantle any such thinking in Europe and any cause for such dealings. Should Putin be threatened. Yes. But, Russia isn’t threatened merely its corrupt regime. Threatened with the the rule of law, human rights, and prosperity.

    • #6
    • March 22, 2016, at 7:31 AM PDT
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  7. Aaron Miller Member

    Excellent. Thanks.

    • #7
    • March 22, 2016, at 7:38 AM PDT
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  8. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov Post author

    Valiuth: So we should tolerate the halt of democratic expansion simply because Russia is autocratic?

    Austria, Switzerland and Finland were all neutral non-NATO members. They were also democratic and, I gather, pretty nice places to live. How do you explain this?

    Also, how has your advice worked out for Georgia and Ukraine so far?

    • #8
    • March 22, 2016, at 7:53 AM PDT
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  9. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov Post author

    American Abroad: Wasn’t the first expansion of NATO after the Soviet collapse which admitted Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary the original mistake?

    Some people have argued this. Personally, I’m OK with Poland, Hungary and the Czechs and Slovaks in NATO. They did important work bringing down the Soviets. But expansion should have stopped there.

    • #9
    • March 22, 2016, at 8:03 AM PDT
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  10. Instugator Thatcher

    Oblomov: Also let’s remember what NATO membership would have entailed in concrete terms. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty would require the United States, France, the UK, the Germans, and all the other members, to go to war with Russia – a nuclear superpower – to defend Georgia and Ukraine against Russian aggression.

    Of course the west (notably the US and Great Britain) guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty in the Budapest memorandum in exchange for Ukraine giving up the nuclear weapons in their possession following the breakup of the USSR.

    NATO membership is only a little further on the same path.

    • #10
    • March 22, 2016, at 8:35 AM PDT
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  11. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov Post author

    Instugator: Of course the west (notably the US and Great Britain) guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty in the Budapest memorandum in exchange for Ukraine giving up the nuclear weapons in their possession following the breakup of the USSR.

    That’s a fair point. However, two things. First, the 3 Budapest Memoranda were political commitments, which fall far short of the legal commitments entailed by accession to the North Atlantic Treaty. This is an important distinction in diplomatic terms. Second, Russia actually signed the Budapest Memoranda. They were on board with it. They are most definitely not on board with NATO expansion.

    • #11
    • March 22, 2016, at 8:51 AM PDT
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  12. I Walton Member

    Great post, the best summary of modern post cold war NATO i’ve heard, and it pertains to all international organizations as far as I can tell. …post modern dinning club.

    • #12
    • March 22, 2016, at 9:04 AM PDT
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  13. Instugator Thatcher

    Oblomov: Budapest Memoranda were political commitments, which fall far short of the legal commitments entailed by accession to the North Atlantic Treaty.

    At that level, all commitments are political, some just have greater immediate consequences.

    I would argue that, because of the Budapest memorandum and the failure to enforce it the goal on non-proliferation has been seriously weakened.

    • #13
    • March 22, 2016, at 9:16 AM PDT
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  14. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov Post author

    Instugator:

    Oblomov: Budapest Memoranda were political commitments, which fall far short of the legal commitments entailed by accession to the North Atlantic Treaty.

    At that level, all commitments are political, some just have greater immediate consequences.

    I would argue that, because of the Budapest memorandum and the failure to enforce it the goal on non-proliferation has been seriously weakened.

    The NPT has been a dead letter ever since we turned a blind eye to North Korean nukes in 1994. I don’t think Ukraine has that much to do with it.

    The distinction between a political and a legal commitment is a real one in terms of perceptions. That’s why the Russians are so upset by the expansion of the NATO treaty.

    • #14
    • March 22, 2016, at 9:34 AM PDT
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  15. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov Post author

    Instugator:At that level, all commitments are political, some just have greater immediate consequences.

    I disagree. Countries care a great deal about their reputations. This is why they take legal commitments much more seriously than lesser political commitments.

    But it’s also true that a legal commitment like a treaty has a whole cascade of other legal consequences that may be triggered in domestic law.

    • #15
    • March 22, 2016, at 9:37 AM PDT
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  16. Instugator Thatcher

    Oblomov:

    The NPT has been a dead letter ever since we turned a blind eye to North Korean nukes in 1994. I don’t think Ukraine has that much to do with it.

    Disagree.

    The NK regime withdrew from the NPT before their first test in 2006.

    • #16
    • March 22, 2016, at 9:46 AM PDT
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  17. Valiuth Member

    Oblomov:

    Valiuth: So we should tolerate the halt of democratic expansion simply because Russia is autocratic?

    Austria, Switzerland and Finland were all neutral non-NATO members. They were also democratic and, I gather, pretty nice places to live. How do you explain this?

    Also, how has your advice worked out for Georgia and Ukraine so far?

    With the Exception of Switzerland the others are EU members and integrated in to Europe. Switzerland is also fairly well integrated too. Russia though doesn’t seem to want a similar thing. They invaded Ukraine not when they threatened to join NATO but rather when they wanted closer ties to the EU. What you seem to be proposing is that there is a no Democracy and no EU zone in any nation with Russia speakers.

    People want to join NATO, nations are forced to bow before Russia. Simply put we didn’t force anyone to join us who didn’t want to. The same cannot be said of Russia. You will notice that Russia’s only friends and allies are all autocracies. There is no place in the world for us and them. Either sooner or later one side has to give. Russia and the the Democracies do not exist on some level of moral parity that would justify the spheres of influence that you describe. You are proposing the equivalent of letting criminals run the streets because they too have guns just like the cops.

    • #17
    • March 22, 2016, at 11:01 AM PDT
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  18. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov Post author

    Valiuth:With the Exception of Switzerland the others are EU members and integrated in to Europe. Switzerland is also fairly well integrated too. Russia though doesn’t seem to want a similar thing. They invaded Ukraine not when they threatened to join NATO but rather when they wanted closer ties to the EU. What you seem to be proposing is that there is a no Democracy and no EU zone in any nation with Russia speakers.

    Finland and Austria did not join the EU until 1995. This did not prevent them from being fully democratic and fully integrated into Europe in every way that mattered. Switzerland is to this day not a member of the EU. It is, as I say, a model of democracy, freedom and federalism. Much more so than the United States, in my opinion.

    There is absolutely no logical connection whatsoever between being a free and democratic country on the one hand, and being a NATO member or an EU member on the other. I can think of several EU members that want out of that institution precisely because it is anti-democratic.

    • #18
    • March 22, 2016, at 11:50 AM PDT
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  19. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov Post author

    Valiuth: You are proposing the equivalent of letting criminals run the streets because they too have guns just like the cops.

    There are no cops because there is no world government. It’s a world of self-help out there. Countries have to do the best they can under the circumstances. Often this means having to make compromises and living with them. To demand perfect justice is a dangerous fantasy.

    • #19
    • March 22, 2016, at 11:55 AM PDT
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  20. Ross C Member

    Vectorman:Like many, I thought the Crimea was always Russian, not Ukrainian.

    Sevastopol is the Black Sea port of the Russian navy. The Russian leaders had dacha’s there. Even the Charge of the Light Brigade between the British and Russian forces occurred there.

    My recollection is that Crimea was conquered by Catherine the Great. There was a Tatar Khan in Crimea who was supported by the Turks before then.

    The famous Potemkin was in charge of the Russians and Sevastapol did not exist until he created it.

    So it seems to me it is fair to call it Russian rather than Ukranian when one considers its historic arc.

    • #20
    • March 23, 2016, at 11:50 AM PDT
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  21. Vectorman Thatcher

    Ross C:

    Vectorman:Like many, I thought the Crimea was always Russian, not Ukrainian.

    Sevastopol is the Black Sea port of the Russian navy. The Russian leaders had dacha’s there. Even the Charge of the Light Brigade between the British and Russian forces occurred there.

    My recollection is that Crimea was conquered by Catherine the Great. There was a Tatar Khan in Crimea who was supported by the Turks before then.

    The famous Potemkin was in charge of the Russians and Sevastapol did not exist until he created it.

    So it seems to me it is fair to call it Russian rather than Ukranian when one considers its historic arc.

    From Wiki, it states:

    In 1783, Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Crimea became a republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in the USSR. In World War Two it was downgraded to the Crimean Oblast, and in 1954, the Crimean Oblast was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic….

    Sounds like it was more a “management” decision in 1954 than the indigenous Ukrainian population being run over by the Russians. Why it wasn’t transferred back in the late 1980’s is anyone’s guess.

    • #21
    • March 23, 2016, at 12:06 PM PDT
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