“‘George, you have to understand that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us.’ These were the ominous words of President Vladimir Putin of Russia to President George W. Bush in Bucharest, Romania, at a NATO summit in April 2008.”
These are the words found in a New York Times article by Fiona Hill, an intelligence officer and specialist on Russia and Eurasian affairs who served presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and who also served on the National Security Council under President Donald Trump. She is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Hill writes that, “Mr. Putin was furious: NATO had just announced that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join the alliance. This was a compromise formula to allay concerns of our European allies – an explicit promise to join the bloc, but no specific timeline for membership. At the time, I was the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia, part of a team briefing Mr. Bush. We warned him that Mr. Putin would view steps to bring Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO as a provocative move that would likely provoke pre-emptive Russian military action. But ultimately, our warnings weren’t heeded.”
She continued: “Within four months, in August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. Ukraine got Russia’s message loud and clear. It backpedaled on NATO membership for the next several years. But in 2014, Ukraine wanted to sign an association agreement with the European Union, thinking this might be a safer route to the West. Moscow struck again, accusing Ukraine of seeking a back door to NATO, annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and starting an ongoing proxy war in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region. The West’s muted reactions to both the 2008 and 2014 invasions emboldened Mr. Putin.”
As tragic as the above may sound, there is a worse sequel.
“This time,” Hill writes, “Mr. Putin’s aim is bigger than closing NATO’s ‘open door’ to Ukraine and taking more territory – he wants to evict the United States from Europe. As he might put it: ‘Goodbye, America. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’”
Hill added that Putin “believes that the United States is currently in the same predicament as Russia was after the Soviet collapse: grievously weakened at home and in retreat abroad.”
Her lengthy article concludes: “Forging a united front with its European allies and rallying broader support should be America’s longer game. Otherwise this saga could indeed mark the beginning of the end of America’s military presence in Europe.”
That may be too pessimistic. It is much more likely that a U.S. exit from Europe will occur – if it occurs – as a result of the ever-lurking stream of isolationism in its culture and the reluctance to meddle in the geostrategic ‘madness’ of the Old Continent.
And America is indeed internally weak, thanks to Putin’s involvement in the 2016 election and his games with Trump – whose presidency she called ‘catastrophic’.
However, it is equally likely that Putin’s provocatively contemptuous treatment of the United States and Europe will have the opposite effect from what he expects: Americans facing a danger are more likely to set aside their internal divisions and to unite and form a common front with Europe to face the threat.
Others have made similar mistakes in the past – underestimating the United States – and in the end paid dearly for them.