Playing With Fire in Eastern Europe

In recent months, a number of former and current US officials have indicated that the United States has played a central role in raising tensions in Eastern Europe. Although many observers in the United States identify Russia as the main problem in the region, both former and current US officials acknowledge that the US government has acted in ways that have destabilized the area.

Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June 2016, two former US diplomats brought the issue to light when they assessed the effects of US policy toward Russia. As they delivered their opening statements to the committee, the two former diplomats entered into a heated debate over whether the United States bore any responsibility for Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the region.

On one side, former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tried to set the tone for the debate by refuting the notion that the United States had done anything to provoke Russia. “One popular explanation of our current confrontation in Moscow and in some circles in Europe and the United States is that the United States and our allies in Europe have been pressing on Russia too hard for too many decades and Putin just had to push back,” McFaul said. “This explanation is wrong.”

At the same time, former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock disagreed. Arguing that the US government had spent decades encircling post-Soviet Russia with NATO forces and military bases, Matlock asserted that the US government had implemented confrontational policies that the Russians found unbearable. The fact is that “politics is driven by perceptions,” Matlock said. “And their perceptions are that we have been consistently moving against their interest and trying to encircle them and even trying to interfere in their internal politics.”

More recently, additional officials have presented a similar interpretation of US actions. Although observers such as McFaul condemn those who place “blame on the United States,” some officials in the Obama administration have suggested that the Russian government has viewed many of the latest US initiatives in Eastern Europe as threats to Russian national security.

In July 2016, CIA Director John Brennan provided one example when he said that the Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened in Ukraine over his concerns about the country’s growing ties to the United States and the European Union. Putin “was very concerned that Ukraine was drifting westward, it was going to join the EU and NATO, whatever, and he was going to stop it at whatever cost,” Brennan said. With his remarks, Brennan indicated that Putin intervened in Ukraine to prevent what he perceived as a potential threat to Russia.

In fact, US officials have known for many years that the Russian government would very likely intervene in Ukraine to prevent the country from moving closer to the United States and Western Europe. Long before the Obama administration began working to install a government in Ukraine that would steer the country westward, US officials recognized that the Russian government would do everything in its power to keep the country out of the transatlantic alliance between the United States and Europe.

During the final months of the Bush administration, US diplomats in Russia issued a clear warning to their colleagues in Washington. “Ukraine remains Russia’s brightest redline,” the diplomats explained. Providing more details, the diplomats specified that Russian officials intended to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Russian officials are “positing that NATO membership and NATO bases in Ukraine means that Russia could lose a conventional war,” the diplomats reported.

After the Obama administration entered office, US diplomats in Russia issued similar warnings. In June 2009, the diplomats informed the State Department that “Russia opposes any further enlargement of NATO.” To emphasize their point, they argued that Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 demonstrated that the Russian government would take military action to prevent Georgia, Ukraine and other countries along Russian borders from joining NATO. “The August war in Georgia signaled Moscow’s readiness to expend material and men to achieve this goal, even at the cost of international opprobrium,” the diplomats reported.

In spite of their knowledge, US officials continued with their efforts to bring Ukraine into the transatlantic alliance. By working to pull Ukraine westward, the Obama administration virtually guaranteed that the Russian government would intervene in the country.

Furthermore, the Obama administration has more recently undertaken additional actions that risk further conflict with Russia. In the time since the Russian government intervened in Ukraine in 2014, the Obama administration has been raising tensions in the region by constructing a more powerful military presence throughout Eastern Europe.

For starters, the Obama administration has worked with its NATO partners to maintain an active military force throughout the area. “To counter the threat posed by Russia’s aggression and deter any military moves against NATO territory, over the past two years the United States and our NATO Allies have maintained a persistent, rotational military presence on land, sea, and air all along NATO’s eastern edge — in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the three Baltic States,” State Department official Victoria Nuland informed the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in June 2016.

In addition, the Obama administration has taken additional steps to strengthen NATO’s presence in the region. Working closely with its NATO allies, the administration has organized the deployment of new NATO battalions in the three Baltic nations and Poland. “Taken together, these US and NATO combat forces will represent the greatest gathering of Allied deterrent power in the Baltic nations and Poland since the end of the Cold War,” Defense Department official Rachel Ellehuus commented at the time NATO leaders approved the move in mid-July 2016.

In fact, administration officials are now preparing for the possibility that they might have to go to war against Russia. Although they describe their ongoing military buildup in Eastern Europe as a defensive measure, they remain ready to implement a wide array of military measures against Russia.

When Defense Department official Elissa Slotkin spoke about US policy toward Russia at the Aspen Security Forum in late July 2016, she provided a number of insights into the administration’s preparations. In the first place, Slotkin revealed that the Defense Department continually conducts war games for various scenarios involving Russia. “So we love our wargaming at the Department of Defense, rest assured you cannot imagine,” Slotkin stated. “You might even be concerned by the amount of wargaming we’ve done on these scenarios.”

In addition, Slotkin acknowledged that the Obama administration knowingly acted in ways that made war possible. Specifically, she explained that the administration applied a great deal of pressure to Russia.

Today, “the fundamental question” is “how do you get the balance right,” Slotkin said. “Are we being too charitable and giving them too many opportunities to come back to the table or are we providing such a high level of deterrence that we’re potentially provoking them, right? That’s the fundamental question right there.”

Indeed, Slotkin indicated that the Obama administration maintained a regional strategy that might cause the Russian government to opt for war. Despite that fact that many observers in the United States continue to place all of the blame for the ongoing tensions in the region on Russia, Slotkin confirmed that US policy toward Russia could be the trigger for more conflict.

“I hope that we are getting that balance right,” she added. “But that is the fundamental question.”

In short, US officials recognize that they are playing with fire in Eastern Europe. As both former and current officials have indicated, US actions in the area have raised tensions and could result in further violence.