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A former head of the Foreign Office on what Putin wants

The Russian president is using Ukraine to re-open the post-Cold War settlement
February 25, 2022

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine takes Europe back to the darkest days of the 20th century. Putin has embarked on a course that will cause terrible suffering in Ukraine, and ought to leave Russia a pariah state, barred from international exchanges from financial markets to football. It also poses a fundamental threat to the system of international rules that has avoided wars between major powers for 75 years and allowed the world an unprecedented period of growth. In addition to responding to the immediate crisis, the US, Britain and the EU will face searching questions about their national security priorities.

Two decades ago, things were very different between Nato and Russia. In 2002 Silvio Berlusconi, the party-loving former Italian prime minister, hosted the first ever Nato-Russia summit at an air base outside Rome. A vast hangar was commandeered for the meeting, lavishly decorated with treasures from Italian museums. The mood was celebratory. The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, seemed to bask in the attention of western leaders. The discussion on European security was amicable, and Putin signed a joint declaration that spoke of “opening a new page in our relations, aimed at enhancing our ability to work together in areas of common interest and to stand together against common threats.” On the flight home, Tony Blair was confident that he could develop a constructive relationship with Putin, who was duly feted in London on a state visit the following year.

The 2002 summit marked the high point of Nato-Russia relations. Why were these hopes disappointed? The answer involves very different memories of the immediate post-Cold War years. The generation that has grown up in the west since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 takes it for granted that former member states of the Warsaw Pact are normal sovereign countries, pursuing their future embedded in Nato and the EU. Putin, however, has never really accepted the democratic transformation of eastern Europe—still less the rights of former key parts of the Soviet empire, such as Georgia and Ukraine, to choose their own future. As he has brooded on the perceived humiliations inflicted on Russia after 1989, his determination to roll back history has hardened and his paranoia about Nato has increased. His aim is nothing less than to re-open the post-Cold War settlement, with a buffer zone of client states around Russia’s western borders, a weakened Nato and real influence for Moscow over security arrangements in Europe as a whole.

It need not have come to this. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, western leaders were acutely conscious of the need to help Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin manage the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, but equally they were keen to welcome former members of the Warsaw Pact into the democratic community. Eastward expansion of Nato was always going to be a stumbling block for Moscow, and the record of what commitments were given or implied at the time is contested. Russian spokesmen often quote, as evidence of Nato’s bad faith, an undertaking given by US secretary of state James Baker to Gorbachev in early 1990 that “there would be no extension of Nato’s jurisdiction… one inch to the east.” But that was a comment made purely in the context of negotiations over the unification of Germany. Baker was referring to new Nato infrastructure in the old East Germany, and the re-unified Germany respected that commitment.

Scholars who have combed through the files are clear. There was never any Nato commitment not to expand to former member states of the Warsaw Pact, however much Russian leaders might wish it were so. Instead, Nato members made every effort to help Russia feel at home in the new Europe they were building. The vehicle for this was the 1997 Nato-Russia Founding Act, which committed both parties to “build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and co-operative security,” adding that “Nato and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries.” They agreed to base their relations on a series of principles, including “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security.” The Founding Act was signed before Putin came to power, but he endorsed it at Berlusconi’s Rome summit, which also created a Nato-Russia Council. This was a forum where the ambassadors would meet to discuss common problems and, if possible, agree joint action.

The optimism of the Rome summit soon evaporated. The way in which the US and UK steamrollered the UN Security Council over the Iraq War in 2003 soured Moscow’s view of the west. When I arrived as UK ambassador to Nato later that year, the Russians had already lost interest in the Nato-Russia Council. They wanted the prestige of being treated as equal partners, but never used it as a problem-solving forum. As the years passed, Putin shifted increasingly to seeing Nato as the adversary and turned to military force to achieve his objectives. The occupation of parts of Georgia in 2008 ruined that country’s prospects of Nato membership. The 2014 intervention in Crimea and further into Ukraine evidently did not produce a sufficiently deferential government in Kiev.

While Putin has brooded on the “humiliations” inflicted on Russia after 1989, his paranoia about Nato has increased

The current massive assault on Ukraine is final confirmation of Putin’s dark vision of a continent divided once again into two antagonistic blocs. In responding to it, Germany and France led the camp of those in favour of continuing negotiations with Putin until the last possible moment. This approach has deep historical roots in both countries. Germany, with its strong pacifist streak and heavy dependence on Russian gas, has a natural preference for resolving disagreements through dialogue. French presidents since de Gaulle have prided themselves on their own channel to the Kremlin, separate from Washington. French and German leaders invested huge time and effort in negotiating with Russia and Ukraine after 2014 to produce the Minsk agreement. Although these failed to reduce tensions, the idea of resolving differences through patient dialogue appealed strongly to Paris and Berlin, and doing so directly with Moscow and Kiev seemed to fit with their ambitions to build European strategic autonomy.

For Britain, the emphasis from the start of the crisis was very different: a close partnership with Washington in seeking to deter Putin through arms supplies to Ukraine, troop deployments to frontline Nato countries and threats of draconian sanctions. This reflected the fact that London’s relations with Moscow were much more distant than those of other European countries since the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and then of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018. While still in the EU, the UK pressed hard for sanctions on Russia after Putin’s first assault on Ukraine in 2014. Brexit has also made it politically expedient for London to favour Nato as the main forum for crisis management on Ukraine, since that is where it can exert the most influence.

It was right to try a dual-track strategy of diplomacy and deterrence. In practice, there was probably nothing the west could have done to deflect Putin from his determination to reduce Ukraine to a vassal state. But all concerned on the western side have some wider lessons to draw.

In Washington, the crisis has been a sharp reminder that the US still has security commitments in Europe, however much it would prefer to concentrate on the confrontation with China. Washington will need to sustain the priority it is now giving to Europe in terms of military reinforcements and political energy.

EU member states will have to steel themselves to living with a hostile Russia. That means increased defence spending, years of investment to reduce dependence on Russian energy and much tougher controls on Russian access to their markets and technology. For London, the need for closer co-operation with the EU is glaringly obvious. The government’s foot-dragging over publication of the parliamentary report into Russian interference in British politics in 2019, and its inertia in introducing the Economic Crime Bill to stop London being used as a safe haven for the corrupt fortunes of the Russian elite, now look very ill-judged. Action against Russian assets and influence now needs to match the rhetoric.

The essential message of the Ukraine crisis is that, for Putin, the security of Russia depends on the insecurity of its neighbours. It is now clear that he is determined to pursue this bleak doctrine to the bitter end. How extraordinary that the warped vision of one man could impose such a fate on his country—and our continent. He cannot be allowed to succeed.