Understandably enough, commentaries on the crisis between Russia and the West tend to dwell on Ukraine. After all, more than 100,000 Russian soldiers and a fearsome array of weaponry have now been emplaced around the Ukrainian border. Still, such a narrow perspective deflects attention from an American strategic blunder that dates to the 1990s and is still reverberating.
During that decade, Russia was on its knees. Its economy had shrunk by nearly 40%, while unemployment was surging and inflation skyrocketing. (It reached a monumental 86% in 1999.) The Russian military was a mess. Instead of seizing the opportunity to create a new European order that included Russia, President Bill Clinton and his foreign-policy team squandered it by deciding to expand NATO threateningly toward that country’s borders. Such a misbegotten policy guaranteed that Europe would once again be divided, even as Washington created a new order that excluded and progressively alienated post-Soviet Russia.
The Russians were perplexed — as well they should have been.
At the time, Clinton and company were hailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin as a democrat. (Never mind that he had lobbed tank shells at his own recalcitrant parliament in 1993 and, in 1996, prevailed in a crooked election, abetted weirdly enough by Washington.) They praised him for launching a “transition” to a market economy, which, as Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich so poignantly laid out in her book Second Hand Time, would plunge millions of Russians into penury by “decontrolling” prices and slashing state-provided social services.
Why, Russians wondered, would Washington obsessively push a Cold War NATO alliance ever closer to their borders, knowing that a reeling Russia was in no position to endanger any European country?
An Alliance Saved from Oblivion
Unfortunately, those who ran or influenced American foreign policy found no time to ponder such an obvious question. After all, there was a world out there for the planet’s sole superpower to lead and, if the U.S. wasted time on introspection, “the jungle,” as the influential neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan put it, would grow back and the world would be “imperiled.” So, the Clintonites and their successors in the White House found new causes to promote using American power, a fixation that would lead to serial campaigns of intervention and social engineering.