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Donald Nuechterlein: Russia tests US, Europe once again

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Donald Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein

An uneasy balance of power in Europe between the Soviet Union and the United States existed after 1945. That balance prevailed uneasily for 45 years until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and America emerged as the world’s sole superpower. Today that balance is tested by Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000 and declared that the Soviet collapse “was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century.”

The buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border and Belarus’s use of Arab refugees to threaten Poland’s borders suggest Putin has decided this is the time to test America and Europe again. A look at post-1945 history will be useful.

Stalin’s challenge

For eight years after World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin tried unsuccessfully to push the European balance of power to his side. His armies occupied all of eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and one third of eastern Germany, including Berlin. Stalin tested the U.S. presence in Germany by launching the Berlin Blockade in 1948. He expected to force the U.S., British, and French enclaves to evacuate, leaving him in control. He didn’t succeed because of the remarkable Berlin Airlift. Stalin then encouraged North Korea’s leaders to attack South Korea in June 1950, hoping to divert U.S. attention away from Europe. But President Harry Truman’s decision to send tens of thousands of troops to Europe thwarted Stalin’s plan.

After Stalin died in 1953, his successors wanted a cooling-off period with Washington. President Dwight Eisenhower obliged them with a period called “détente.” This lasted until 1960 when a new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, rejected Eisenhower’s explanation for why Gary Powers was flying reconnaissance over Soviet territory. Détente ended when he was shot down.

Khrushchev tested the new U.S. president, John Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba in 1961 and concluded after meeting him that Kennedy was a weak leader who could be intimidated. That summer the Soviet leader erected a massive wall along the entire Soviet occupation zone of Germany designed to keep East Germans from escaping to the west.

The following year, 1962, Khrushchev sought to push his advantage by secretly installing missiles in Cuba that could hit the entire eastern U.S. This time Kennedy responded with a threat of war and made preparation to invade Cuba. After tense negotiations, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles and Kennedy removed U.S. missiles from Turkey. Khrushchev was soon ousted and new Soviet leaders were careful not to challenge the U.S., even after its disastrous Vietnam war distracted the U.S. from Europe. However, Moscow built a strong military force which its leaders intended to pressure Washington to grant it a greater power role in Europe and the Middle East.

A new American president, Ronald Reagan, decided in 1981 to confront Soviet leaders. With strong support from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan forced Soviet leaders to back down. By 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and East Germans flocked to West Berlin. A new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power in 1985, but he failed to stem the tide of freedom that erupted in eastern Europe. In 1991 a coup in Moscow led to Gorbachev’s ouster, and the Soviet Union soon fell apart.

USSR’s collapse, Putin’s response

When the USSR collapsed in December 1991, the balance of power in Europe was shattered. President George H.W. Bush now had the task of dealing with 15 new republics formerly part of the Soviet Union. Russia was the largest and militarily strongest and headed by its first president, Boris Yeltsin. Poland and other former Soviet satellites soon applied for NATO membership that was granted in 2004.

Vladimir Putin, who has run Russia since 2000, thinks now is the time to pressure Europe’s and Ukraine‘s leaders to understand that membership in NATO for Ukraine is a “red line” for Russia. Massing 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border is designed, in my view, to force negotiations, not start a war. Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, presses U.S. and European leaders for NATO membership, but Germany and France are not favorable.

The fundamental question for policymakers in Washington and other NATO capitals is this: If Ukraine is not a vital interest for the European Union, the EU and Washington should negotiate a deal with Putin that ensures Ukraine will become a non-aligned country, working with Russia and the West. Finland maintains a similar position between Russia and the West. A negotiated settlement with Putin may not be a lasting arrangement, but it’s better than a confrontation now that could mean war in eastern Europe.

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist who lives near Charlottesville. E-mail him at nuechtd@cstone.net.

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