European Insecurity:

Former UK Ambassador to Poland and Serbia, Charles Crawford CMG, discusses the intricacies of how Mutually Assured Cooperation can easily descend back into Mutually Assured Destruction

Back in February I warned DIPLOMAT readers that we might be seeing the start of World War Three:

World Wars One and Two were conflicts with global consequences arising from European power-struggles. But, it might be said, they were brought about by classic thematic and ‘organised’ rivalries that were easy to understand…
By contrast World War Three could be completely different: … a brazen 'grab what you can' international looting spree.
The Cold War ended abruptly. What if the post-Cold War settlement featuring optimistic global cooperation also ends abruptly?

Within weeks it ended. Russia launched an open military onslaught against Ukraine. Nothing like this getting-close-to-full-scale warfare has been seen in Europe since 1945. As I write this, Russian forces have taken horrible losses but are consolidating their grip on various areas in eastern Ukraine. Maybe Moscow will next try to bamboozle the world into agreeing that under international law these areas have voted to join Russia and Russia has graciously accepted them. Special military operation: mission accomplished!
If this is what Moscow vaunts as success, what counts as failure? Any purported territorial gains will have been won at staggering cost, both for Ukraine and for Russia itself. Russia’s economy took a massive hit in lost growth opportunities caused by international sanctions after its first illegal land-grab of Crimea in 2014. The added far-reaching sanctions following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine this year will damage and weaken Russia for decades to come.

How have things reached this appalling state?

Very broadly speaking, throughout the Cold War years the ‘West’ and the USSR dealt with each other within a policy framework nicknamed MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. The risk of mutual annihilation if a nuclear weapons exchange broke out was sufficiently real to make policy-makers on all sides act very warily.
But lo! The Cold War ends. MAD gives way to Big MAC: Mutually Assured Cooperation. Everyone agrees to invest in each other’s prosperity. Now there’s next to nothing to fight about!
This Big MAC policy has been a huge success, featuring major reductions by both sides in different weapons of mass destruction and all sorts of new investment/growth opportunities emerging. Trillions of Euros of new wealth have been created across Europe and in Russia itself.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has lurched us back towards MAD again. As Russia shows no willingness to withdraw its forces completely from Ukraine, international sanctions will remain in place more or less indefinitely. Even worse, Russia’s incoherent war aims and military bungling arguably have made the risk of a nuclear exchange more likely than at any time during the Cold War decades.
The diplomatic convulsions continue. Finland and Sweden not unreasonably have concluded that a rogue Moscow bent on grabbing back former Tsarist imperial lands might attack them next. So they have applied to join NATO. For decades Moscow counted on those two states standing primly apart from the NATO military structures. No longer.
This does not much help Ukraine in its wider aim not to submit to Moscow. If anything it makes an angry, weaker reckless Moscow even more determined to dominate any former Soviet republic outside the formal EU/NATO space.
Two questions present themselves. Has the West been dishonest? Has Moscow been dishonest?

Has the West been dishonest?

Moscow insists that when the Cold War ended, different Western leaders on different occasions assured the then Soviet and later Russian leaderships that there was no question of NATO expanding to ‘take advantage’ of Russia’s agreeing that Germany could be reunited. In those turbulent confused months after the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR disintegrated, different verbal assurances along these lines were given. However, as Moscow knows better than most, verbal assurances are not the same as written assurances or legally binding assurances.
Then in 1993 Russia’s President Yeltsin met Poland’s President Lech Wałesa in Warsaw during a visit to mark the final withdrawal of Russian forces from (formerly Warsaw Pact) Poland. Yeltsin was asked point-blank by Wałesa whether Poland could join NATO. He replied to the effect that as a free nation in a now undivided Europe, Poland could do what it liked. Yeltsin also issued a communique expressing ‘understanding’ for Poland’s NATO ambitions.
Years later as UK Ambassador to Warsaw I asked Lech Wałesa about this momentous meeting and Yeltsin’s apparently affable acceptance of Poland’s NATO aspirations. Had the Russian President been, perhaps, over-infused with Polish vodka? Wałesa said no: Yeltsin had genuinely not been bothered, one way or the other.
On his return to Moscow Yeltsin found himself compelled to put out another statement ‘revoking’ his apparent acceptance of Poland joining NATO. Awkward. But too late.
Meanwhile, many Western capitals were not enthused by the prospect of so many European ex-Warsaw Pact countries - and above all Ukraine - joining either NATO or the European Union. That would add multifarious costs and complications, not least in relations with Moscow. France disgraced itself for years by proclaiming that Ukraine did not even qualify as a ‘European country’, and so wasn’t eligible to apply for EU membership.
Time passed. Many former Warsaw Pact states and the three Baltic republics all applied to join both the EU and NATO, and were accepted in both in different waves of enlargement. Moscow gloomily went along with this, maintaining structured dialogue with both NATO and the EU. Yes, it was embarrassing that so many former countries under former Russian sway now wanted to join NATO and looked West rather than East for their future prosperity. But Russian leaders and experts knew perfectly well that NATO posed no military threat to Russia: its steadily diminishing forces were deployed in purely defensive postures.
It's also worth remembering why Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies wanted to join NATO. One big reason was that NATO membership came with commitments to modern Western standards of integrity and proper process in matters military. This meant that Russia’s nasty GRU military intelligence operatives and their deep networks of destabilising corruption could finally be cleaned out. How else to do it?
The other main reason? These NATO applicant states did not believe that Russia had given up its traditional violent imperial ambitions. And, as Ukraine has showed, they were right.

Has Moscow been dishonest?

Amidst all the exotic claims made by President Putin to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one piece of work stands out: his long article in mid-2021 On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.
Putin reviewed in some depth the turbulent history of Ukraine down the centuries to build his case that Ukrainians and Russians are ‘really’ one people that latterly have been divided by ‘radicals and Nazis’. He had a hard job explaining away all sorts of decisions taken during the Soviet period that recognised Ukraine as a republic and distinct people with a distinct language, separate from Russia:
It is no longer important what exactly the idea of the Bolshevik leaders who were chopping the country into pieces was … One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.
Imagine. Russia robbed by its own leaders, whose legitimacy in conniving with Hitler to start World War Two remains a key feature of the Putinist Soviet nostalgia political persona.
The existential dishonesty in Putin’s rambling analysis is that it omits one Huge Fact. Namely that in 1945 Moscow insisted that Ukraine be a founder member of the United Nations, an independent state on an equal footing with the United States, United Kingdom, Chile, China, France Iran, Egypt and the other states that first signed the United Nations Charter.
This was done by the USSR to push back against India, Canada and other then British imperial territories also joining the UN as independent states. Whatever the diplomatic machinations at that fateful San Francisco conference and in the Soviet period thereafter, under international law Ukraine has been a full UN member state longer than Russia itself. So when Putin writes that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era” as if it’s just a transient phenomenon whose status can be denied whenever Moscow says so, he’s talking specious nonsense.


I echo what I said here in February. Once the rules for Modern European borders and security get torn up, perhaps the border and security rules in other parts of the world will get torn up. Then what?