Not long after World War II, newspaper maps began showing Eastern Europe entirely colored in red, and political cartoons showed the red spreading across western Europe. Those who remembered those days were bound to have flashbacks last week. On February 2, President Obama announced plans to add $3.4 billion to this year’s military budget request for Europe, more than quadrupling the $789 million currently budgeted for Europe. According to the New York Times, the West will eventually spend a whopping $40 billion on building up Ukraine’s defenses against possible threats from Russia.
Administration officials said the decision reflects “a new situation, where Russia has become a more difficult actor.” That situation apparently consists of Russia’s annexation of Crimea two years ago, and its support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Both regions had longstanding ties to Russia, including a common language. There is no evidence that Russia intends to invade others of its neighbors, yet the same fear mongering that once prompted warnings of the Soviet Union’s intent to take over all of Europe has returned. Ukraine is seemingly the first line of defense.
In January 2013, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown and replaced by Petro Poroshenko in a coup carried out by an unlikely combination of pro-democracy and neo-fascist factions. It was undoubtedly no coincidence that Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland had made three trips to Ukraine in the five weeks preceding the coup. Yanukovych had earlier elected to join Russia’s Common Union, and as Nuland later reported, during her visits she had urged him “to turn away from Russia and get back into Europe. He had apparently declined to cooperate.
The additional military spending by the U.S. will go toward deploying weapons, tanks, and other military equipment in Hungary, Rumania, and the Baltic states, and to adding a fully armored combat brigade to existing NATO forces in the region. Administration officials said the new deployments would not violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act under which both sides pledged not to station large numbers of troops along their borders. How the Russians will view them is another matter.
It is only too easy to imagine what the American reaction would be if a large number of Russian troops were stationed in northern Mexico or Toronto. It’s seems only logical that what one side regards as a defensive action, the other will see as preparation for an offensive move. As Evelyn N. Farkas, until recently the Pentagon’s top official on Russia, commented, “The Russians are going to have a cow.”
Meanwhile the former Soviet republic that NATO is defending from Russia shows signs of imploding, as those who hope to reform a deeply corrupt system clash with backers of a tacit agreement to cooperate with businessmen in exchange for their support against pro-Russian forces. On February 3 Ukraine’s economics minister, Aivaras Abromavicius, resigned in protest against pressure on his ministry from powerful business interests with ties to Poroshenko. The corrupt insiders whose domination of the economy inspired mass protests in Ukraine two years ago are again members of the government.
At one point the tensions between reformers and supporters of the oligarchs erupted into a water fight. At a cabinet meeting on February 3, Interior minister Arsen B. Avakov, who is also a banker and businessman, was delivering a speech about privatizing state assets when the reformist governor of the Odessa region, Mikheil Saakashvili, broke in and accused Avakov of being a thief. “Blah, blah, blah,” Avakov responded. “Blah, blah, blah,” Saakashvili replied, and repeated his charge of thievery. With that, Avakov hurled a glass of water at Saakashvili — by mistake hitting the Ukrainian foreign minister instead.
It would be difficult to defend Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose dedication to democracy and justice is highly doubtful, but as the U.S. again allies itself with questionable partners, and builds up military bases close to Russia’s borders, Putin has a legitimate reason to worry. More ominously, he has reason to undertake his own defensive action. Whatever form it takes, tensions between the two powers threaten to return us to the bad old days, when the two countries waged surrogate wars in Africa and South America and fears of a global war ran high.
Obama’s recent decision to modernize and add to America’s nuclear stockpile can only add to those fears. The decision may turn out to be either a gigantic waste of money or a forecast that the renewed Cold War will not have as peaceful an ending as the first. Putin is not the only one with reason to worry.