Not long ago Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security advisor, told me that the Ukraine “smelt more like Europe” and that the West should concentrate on bringing Ukraine into Western institutions like NATO and even the European Union.
If I had more time with Brzezinski I would have said that if it hadn’t been for Russian resolve the Mongol and Tartar hordes would have conquered Moscow and quickly afterwards the rest of Russia. They would have turned Russia into an Islamic society that would have undermined the Christian civilization of both Russia and Europe.
Likewise, the Christian-influenced West owes much of the preservation of its religious beliefs to the Constantinople-based Eastern Orthodox Church. Constantine, who converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, moved the centre of the Church to Constantinople and it became the Byzantine Empire.
When the Ottomans ravaged Constantinople in 1453 the Byzantine Empire was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. But later, driven out of Constantinople, the Eastern Orthodox Church moved to Moscow under the patronage of Grand Duke Ivan 111, ruler of Muscovy, leaving a rump Byzantine to limp along until the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Until 1917 and the red revolution the Tsars believed they were the proper heirs to Eastern Orthodoxy with its pedigree that reaches back to Emperor Constantine.
Russia is many ways, despite its tradition of continuous authoritarianism, has been an important centre of European culture, with its composers, its literature, its art, its ballet and its orchestras. We only have to think of Chekov, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rimsky Korsakov, Shostakovich, the Hermitage museum and the Bolshoi and Kirov ballet. Only Gogol came from the Ukraine. Indeed there is an argument that no other country has produced so many endeavours in so many of the arts. Ukraine “smells” more European? That’s doubtful.
In the New York Times, Nicolai Petro, an advisor under George G W Bush on policy towards the Soviet Union writes that Ukraine for 300 years was part of Russia: “Given the deep historical ties, it was probably a fool’s errand to try to set Ukraine against Russia [under President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush], especially by forcing Ukraine to chose between Russia and Europe. This is a false choice.....We can have both countries join Europe together”.....We should “replace the misguided divide and conquer policy.”
Undoubtedly Russia is more European than Ukraine but they should both approach Europe in tandem. Yet as Clinton decided with the East Europeans, waiting for the EU to absorb them was going to be a slow process so he decided to go the NATO route, which was more straightforward and relatively easy to do. Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin have all made speeches in which they have argued for Russia to be part of the “European house.” They were ignored. But now the “reset” button has been pressed it is time to reconsider how Russia could enter Europe. As Brzezinski argued in my lengthy interview with him in Prospect magazine, the UK’s most influential intellectual journal, more could have been done under Clinton and Bush to bring the Soviet Union and later Russia into the European orbit. But the same argument applies as it did for the East Europeans. Joining NATO should come first as it is an easier jump. It is in America’s interest to have Russia bound to a major Western institution rather than being tempted to do its own thing. It would also encourage democratising and pacifying elements in Russia, which President Dmitri Medvedev seems to be struggling for. The Russians are clearly reaching for something important beyond their present loose affiliation with NATO. It has proposed a European Security Treaty. Russia is not seeking a way for the fox to enter the hen house.
Russia and West already cooperate on some critical issues- the Iranian nuclear programme, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, cyber attacks and international crime and trafficking. They could cooperate more on Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and the Israel/Palestine conflict, contributing their historical experience and the wisdom that goes with it.
These links need to be tightened. NATO membership is a good way to do it. NATO chains are not that tight. Given its structure that demands unanimity before any action is taken the recent vogue is for “coalitions of the willing.” Russia can choose when it wants to be involved in military or peacekeeping action. Meanwhile, inside NATO it can make its voice heard in a way it can’t at the UN. For its part the West would be taking a major step forward in persuading the lion to lie down with the lamb.
Jonathan Power is a London-based foreign policy commentator