Thirty years after the Soviet Union dissolved on December 31, 1991, events in its former space seem headed in the opposite direction. Despite initially remaining passive as the USSR split into fifteen independent states, Moscow has more recently steadily pursued a hegemonic agenda, increasingly bold and increasingly successful. It provoked hostilities (notably Ukraine) and exploited weaknesses (as in Belarus) possibly leading to outright re-annexation. Existing “frozen conflicts” (Armenia versus Azerbaijan, Moldova/Transnistria, and Georgia) remained frozen or became more severe. Less-visible Kremlin economic and political initiatives are afoot across Central Asia, and in Tajikistan, Moscow’s largest military base in the former USSR outside Russia itself, its border forces never left.
How and why the West misjudged what was brewing inside Russia following the USSR’s demise is already vigorously debated. After a widespread but sadly erroneous 1990’s optimism Russia would embrace Western institutions and values, hopes for constitutional, representative government are in retreat. Despite the collapse of Europe’s Communist regimes, communism and its ways persisted. The Cold War’s winners could not impose anything comparable to post-World War II denazification, so authoritarian memories, habits, and methods endured even without their prior ideological veneer. Outsiders collectively failed to appreciate that profoundly deep Russian sentiments of revanchism and irredentism persisted below the surface, seeking opportunities to make Russia’s “near abroad” much less “abroad.” History had not ended, notwithstanding the “peace dividend” bled from the U.S. and other NATO militaries.
We can’t say, however, we weren’t put on notice. Vladimir Putin said in 2005, “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” Just days ago, Putin called the breakup “a tragedy as for the vast majority of the country’s citizens. After all, what is the collapse of the USSR? That’s the collapse of historical Russia called the Soviet Union.”
The West made two fundamental mistakes in the years since Russia’s new flag was first raised over the Kremlin. In an understandable rush to add to NATO states escaping the defunct Warsaw Pact and resuming their rightful places in the West, America, in particular, failed to delineate where the expansion would end. One can debate where that endpoint should be, but by failing to decide the question explicitly, we created a “grey zone,” an ambiguity Russia is now exploiting. Today, we and grey-zone nations like Ukraine, are paying the price.
Moreover, too many Europeans believe the continent’s relative post-1945 peace is due to the European Union rather than NATO. “This is the hour of Europe, not the hour of the Americans,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos in 1991, as the EU presided over Yugoslavia’s catastrophic breakup and continuing Balkan instability. Intense EU navel-gazing, such as focusing on “deeper” rather than “broader” European integration, implicitly downgraded the concerns of “New European” members and aspirants. The EU’s bizarre apotheosis came in winning the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. But this is all fantasy. Europe was bound together for security purposes by NATO. Germany’s political readmission to the West came via NATO long before an EU superstate appealed to anyone but its theologians and altar boys. There was no remilitarization, as after World War I, because from 1945 forward, not a sparrow has fallen in Europe’s military-industrial complex unknown to NATO. The EU did not win the Cold War, and its disproportionate role in dealing with Russia today hinders the West’s resolve.
Unfortunately, NATO’s inadequate end-state planning and EU delusions have hindered developing a coherent strategy against a resurgent Russia. The Kremlin has suffered no such disability and now demands multiple security guarantees from NATO and the United States, embracing not just Eastern Europe, the current crisis epicenter, but also the Central Asian republics. Moscow wants an agreement that NATO to not admit Ukraine or other non-members into the alliance; not deploy “offensive weapons” in countries (NATO members or not) adjacent to Russia; and not conduct military exercises near Russia’s borders above brigade levels. China has essentially endorsed Russia’s demand.
Despite a Putin-Biden virtual summit and threats of economic sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, the Kremlin appears unimpressed. That does not mean hostilities are imminent; Putin is likely doing a continuous, real-time, cost-benefit analysis to decide what he can get away with at what cost. Today’s crisis remains volatile and unlikely to recede meaningfully in the foreseeable future. Yet again, Putin is outmaneuvering his Western counterparts.
So, as Lenin once asked, what is to be done?
Beyond doubt, NATO must finally decide which grey-zone countries it is prepared to admit, and which it isn’t. NATO should also reaffirm that all former republics, in Central Asia (since Russia has dragged them into the discussion) as well as Europe and the Caucasus, must be free to make their own decisions about their allegiances. While they decide, NATO should give Russia a general “hands-off” notice regarding them all.
The EU needs to get serious about Russia’s renewed threat which, after all, is on their border, not America’s. Nord Stream II should be canceled, with no prospect of resurrection until Russia withdraws its troops behind its borders, absent specific requests by grey-zone countries. European NATO members should meet their Cardiff commitments to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. Additional allied weapons should immediately be surged into Ukraine, and nearby NATO members as Bill Schneider has suggested. U.S. and other NATO countries should increase troop rotations into Ukraine for joint training and exercising, not to engage in combat, but so Russian generals can contemplate the karma of being ordered to invade Ukraine in close proximity to new NATO deployments. Western ministers of defense and their joint staffs’ chairmen should be converging on Kyiv, Chisinau, Tbilisi, and even Minsk for consultations.
NATO has been history’s strongest defensive alliance. Neither the USSR nor Russia has ever dared confront it directly, which means its deterrent capabilities are as tested and proven as anyone could conceive. With this record and the enormous internal weaknesses of Russia in mind, this is no time for Washington, let alone the great capitals of Europe, to fear putting NATO front and center.
Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.
December 28, 2021 at 11:46 pm
This article doesn’t feel like a John Bolton article as it doesn’t call for U.S. to bomb someone. If Russia invades Ukraine, U.S. must BOMB Russia. There you go, John Bolton.
December 29, 2021 at 2:33 am
I wonder if John Bolton is well aware of the basic fact that Russia is militarily stronger (by large) than NATO…
European armies are a joke, and anyway I bet that their leaders will not send them. The main US forces are thousands of miles away. Ukraine is far from the ocean and cannot receive fast reinforcement nor help from the navy.
To say nothing of the de facto Russia-China alliance and the BIG threat to Taiwan.
So ? What’s the plan ? Sanctions ?
December 29, 2021 at 2:51 am
That’s right, it doesn’t seem like Bolton pointed out the author of this article.
Also, if Russia gets into Ukraine, USA And friends are going to have to gather up the courage to fulfill their promises, we all already know that NATO only makes wars against weak enemies that do not have advanced anti-aircraft systems. 😉
December 29, 2021 at 5:42 am
So it basically comes down to “Increase pressure on Russia, it is weak and will not do anything.” I find this total lack of understanding of Russian mentality amusing. Although, also really sad, as the last thing i want to do is to fight in a war, but such attitude towards Russia makes the war closer and closer.
December 29, 2021 at 10:05 am
Why should NATO listen to Russia over who is allowed into their club? USSR gave up that right years ago. Russia has chosen China and Iran over the West. Containment is the only option short of war to prevent expansionist power grabs.Invest in economic incentives and ventures with the breakaway states. North America can supply energy if Biden would get out of the way.
December 29, 2021 at 10:17 am
Biden enabled this by approving the gas and oil pipeline….
there’s Putin’s leverage.
December 29, 2021 at 2:24 pm
The only way for USA to detter China is to find a modus vivendi with Russia. Otherwise the hostility with China and Russia will create a superpower for first time in human history. The ultimate nightmare of Sir Halford Mackinder
December 29, 2021 at 4:01 pm
“The EU needs to get serious about Russia’s renewed threat which, after all, is on their border, not America’s.”
Need to be at the border to destroy the US?
December 29, 2021 at 6:27 pm
I think that I have a different analysis.
NATO was formed in 1949 as a military alliance to complement the Marshall Plan and enable Europe to resist Communism. The Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1990 and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since that time NATO has continued to exapnd Eastward. This expansion replaced the Partnership for Peace. Currently NATO includes 30 member states including the United States. NATO includes the former Warsaw Pact member states and Baltic States. NATO is the largest and most capable military alliance on Earth. NATO has the capability to conduct military operations across the full spectrum of military operations from assymmetrical through conventional warfare. Three NATO member states have access to weapons of massed destruction. NATO member states are wealthy and generate $39 Trillion in annual GDP. Russia only generates $2 Trillion in GDP.
NATO is unprecedented in the history of Europe. It has unified Western Europe, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe in opposition to Moscow. NATO combat units are, theoretically, within 100 miles of St Petersburg and within 500 miles of Moscow. NATO has successfully isolated Russia (Muscovy) both militarily and economically.
NATO member states have conducted more than 20 contingency operations in Balkans, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. All of these operations took place in former Russian satellite states or Russian sphere of influence. Not one of the states that NATO engaged was a direct threat to NATO. Article 5 has only been invoked once.
The Russian government is correct to be on guard under these circustances. The Russians must defend it’s Western Frontier from the Norwegian Sea to the Black Sea. NATO air or naval assets could be in position to strike St Petersburg or Moscow. Essentially those strikes could arrive on target within minutes of launch.
The Ukrainian Army includes over 140,000 members with another 40,000 in reserve. The Russians would need between 225,000 and 300,000 Soldiers to overcome a force the size of the Ukranian Army. It is not clear that the press reports and intelligence reports of Russian intentions are accurate. There is no indication that the Russians are moving additional units to the Western Military District. The Russians would need to mobilize their reserves. There is no indication that the Russians are mobilizing their reserves.
NATO expansion Eastward expansion is very dangerous. The Russian government is isolated militarily and economically. The NATO alliance is unprecedented in that it has unified almost all of Europe in opposition to Russia. The Russian goverment is in a precarious position. Ukranian membership in NATO would bring NATO combat units to within 450 miles of Moscow. The Russians must defend themselves under these circumstances.
Realistically, the United States has no national security interests in the Ukraine or the region between the Dneiper river to the Donets River that I am aware of. None. The proof of that is the Cold War. The Baltic States, Belarus, and the Ukraine were member states of the USSR during those years. The Ukraine holds more national security interest for Russia than the United States.
Let us hope that there is a diplomatic solution that provides a compromise solution to Russia. The Russians have legitimate national security interests that must be satisfied.
December 29, 2021 at 7:21 pm
Johny you’ll be clipping that handsome mustache of yours in a bunker for decades ( deep underground). John and the neo-convicts are bluffing….they don’t wanna die where they sit. Enjoy the fake news.
December 29, 2021 at 8:11 pm
In 1 month or so, your world is going to change drastically and not in a good way. Don’t say you weren’t warned. There are 2 outcomes: awful and fatal.
In the best case scenario, the US will begin the withdrawal from Europe and consequently from elsewhere, which will result in a massive loss of the projection of power of the US, which will lead to a massive loss of influence, which in turn will massively reduce the American economy to that of a third world nation.
In the worst case scenario, Russia will carry out a disarming nuclear strike against all NATO countries as they now have such capability, as well as they now have an impenetrable air and ground defense system. This will usher-in a new world but without the West.
There will be negotiations around the 12th of January and Vladimir Putin expects nothing but the American withdrawal from Europe. He is also not willing to take more than a month for the US to make that decision. If the US will refuse, Russia will first move its attack systems to every key NATO military target so that each will be within a 2-5 minutes from a hit by hypersonic missiles as a counter measure, but then it will “cheat” and will carry out a disarming strike.
A new world is coming in 1 month or so regardless. There will not be a cold war.
December 29, 2021 at 8:54 pm
John Bolton is a complete neocon fool. He loves to advocate for war. This dolt told us the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms. They did not! This moron told the terrorist in Syria were freedom loving rebels. They were not! He’ll gladly send your relatives to die in war for Ukraine but never his!
December 30, 2021 at 6:55 am
Hello from Kazan.
There’s a saying that Russian people have, John. “Who will come to us with a sword will die by the sword”.
Did you forgot lessons of Napoleon? Or Hitler? Should there be a reminder?
Don’t try to come to Russia with ill intention. You will lie down with your bones. Your mothers, wives and children will not forgive you that.
December 30, 2021 at 9:43 am
Was time to cut ties with Nato a long time ago. Luke warm nations with no interest in defending themselves or paying their agreed upon 2%, let europe fend for themselves, us has enough issues of it’s own to be the baby sitters of the world
December 30, 2021 at 2:25 pm
Ah yes, warmonger John Bolton returns with more saber-rattling and war mongering. No thank you. We listened to Bolton’s nonsense about Iraq, and look where that got us! If Bolton feels so strongly about Ukraine, he is welcome to self-fund an army of his own immediate family to go there and fight. Leave the rest of us out of it. The U.S. has zero national security interest in Ukraine. Let Russia have it. No more deep state wars overseas. It has bankrupted our country and left tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers dead or wounded.
December 30, 2021 at 2:40 pm
Mam nadzieję że bolton niedługo sie zutylizuje
January 2, 2022 at 8:05 am
We Europeans need to remove US offensive nuclear weapons from our territories. Let Russia’s missiles look at people like Bolton, but not at us.
January 11, 2022 at 3:02 am
Expand NATO or not… NATO must determine the purpose of its existence, and then make decisions about expansion. What is the purpose of NATO? If NATO’s goal is defensive, then why does NATO accept new weak countries and increase military problems? Russia is not stupid. Russia sees that it is precisely the expansion and admission of new countries to NATO that is taking place only to infringe on Russia’s interests. NATO should honestly say what its goal is. Russia will adjust its activities, and the disputes will stop. The West can expand, but not by military means! You can create economic unions. Now we see anarchy and manipulation.
January 13, 2022 at 7:26 pm
> Russia is militarily stronger (by large) than NATO…
We’ve sure got some commenters here.
January 23, 2022 at 8:46 pm
Russia needs to understand that it is no longer the Soviet Union and that former socialist republics like Ukraine no longer want to live under Russian influence. America and Europe have a moral duty to protect Ukraine, and any other country that is under Russian duress.
February 1, 2022 at 2:56 pm
NATO countries like Germany will never challenge Russia and in fact collude with Russia to help them win against Europe. Germany sends Billions$ to Russia every year and tries to stop NATO countries from helping Ukraine.