By Hall Gardner*
One of half-hidden stories of the Cold War is that it was an aging poet who worked behind the scenes in an effort to break the ice between the Soviet Union and United States. Admired by the Russians as a great poet who spoke for the American people, Robert Frost was sent to Moscow by President Kennedy in late August 1962. Not only did Frost act as a cultural emissary, meeting the great Soviet poets of the era, Yevtushenko and Akhmatova, for example, but he also met face to face with Nikita Khrushchev at a time when the Russians generally avoided translating the opening line of his famous poem, Mending Walls, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” After all, the opening line raised fears among Communist elites that the people living in the Soviet Union and Germany would relate those critical words to the Berlin Wall.
As it turned out, Khrushchev himself came to meet the poet in person, as Frost was ill from travel and had a 101 degree temperature, and could not make his appointment. In his hotel room, Frost and Khrushchev talked more than an hour, about Berlin, about the horrific prospects of a nuclear war, of the risks of economic competition, and about the common cultural traditions of Russia and the United States. Frost proposed that the two sides establish a mutually agreed upon set of principles of conduct that would attempt to prevent what he called the "noble” US-Soviet rivalry from degenerating into confrontation and conflict. The problem was to first create a modus vivendi where both sides could live in peaceful competition. But the relationship could become even closer, Frost assured Khrushchev: “both East and West could be united if both sides made significant concessions.”
This was just a few weeks before the Cuban Missile crisis— a crisis which would frighten the planet with the real possibility of nuclear war in mid-October 1962. It appears that Khrushchev wanted to feel out the possibilities for closer US-Soviet relations through Frost as a poetic emissary and spiritual medium before he opted to play hardball by means of deploying Soviet missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev was gambling on a knight’s forked attack: to counter US nuclear deployments in Europe and Turkey, while concurrently countering American threats to invade Castro’s Cuba.
I mention this as a behind-the-scenes footnote to history, but one which ultimately began to open the doors to a deeper understanding between the two sides, once Washington and Moscow finally began to compromise over the issues of nuclear missile deployments and Cuba after the near disastrous Cuban Missile crisis. But I also mention it because the dangerously unstable circumstances at the time when Frost met with Khrushchev appear to repeating themselves in possibly even more dangerous post-Cold War circumstances: in the aftermath of Soviet collapse, in which Moscow has been threatening to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, and engaging in fighter jet overflights into European air space. In effect, as Russian President Putin has begun to play geopolitical hardball in Georgia and Ukraine, the modus vivendi that Frost hoped could be achieved between the US and Soviet Union in 1962 is now in desperate need of revitalization some 25 years after the razing of the Berlin Wall.
President Reagan had demanded that President Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall. In addition to being pressured by millions of citizens on both sides of the German and NATO-Warsaw pact borders, Gorbachev was looking to find ways to peacefully transform the Soviet system which was not only bankrupt financially, but also politically and spiritually. His New Union Treaty had been an attempt to implement a more positive and equitable relationship between the Soviet Republics, but failed given the rise of nationalism (seen as backed by Washington) coupled with fears of continuing Russian predominance.
At the same time, the fact that practically no one still believed in the Communist system and its sterile ideology represented one of the major factors that prevented Soviet collapse from turning the Cold War into a nuclear one. And although the razing of the Berlin Wall, and the unilateral dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, had raised the real prospects for global peace, these actions did not result in the implementation of a new Euro-Atlantic system of cooperative/ collective security between the US, Europe and Russia as sought by Gorbachev despite promises by James Baker and other US officials. Such a new Euro-Atlantic system of security could have better balanced relations between the former Soviet republics, Europe, the US and the new Russia. Less than a decade after Soviet disaggregation, new walls would be erected and extended deep into Eastern Europe.
The efforts of Gorbachev and then President Yeltsin to establish a common European home and new Euro-Atlantic security architecture from Vancouver to Vladivostok were not fully backed by Washington once the Clinton administration came to power. Many proposals that were intended to build upon the successful Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative in the formation of a new “Euro-Atlantic command” structure were given short shrift once Washington began to focus its primary attention on NATO enlargement as the sole panacea for European security. At that time, Henry Kissinger, among others, called the PfP, the “Partnership for Postponement” (of NATO enlargement). In the midst of the Bosnian war, Senator Lugar proclaimed, “NATO had to go out of area or out of business.”
As early as June 1995, at the end of the Bosnian war and prior to the unilateral NATO war “over” Kosovo in 1999 that helped spark the Putin-led Russian backlash, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Jack Galvin, stated in Berlin his opposition to the voices howling for NATO enlargement: “We won the Cold War, but we’re losing the peace after the Cold War. There is no doubt in my mind about it. We do not think about the Russians enough, about who they are and what they’re doing. We don’t think much about the way they think of us… We should consider folding NATO into a bigger organization, without losing what has made NATO effective—sustained political control over a collective military for decades. [We need] a whole new organization that bring the Russians on board. 
Yet instead of re-thinking European security in light of Soviet collapse, and in coordination with the Russian Federation, Washington opted to extend the political-military structures of containment, thus expanding NATO deep into central and eastern Europe, while keeping the option of membership open for Ukraine and the Caucasus states—despite opposition to NATO expansion by the two founders of the doctrine of containment, George Kennan and Paul Nitze. Moscow under President Putin now sees itself confronted with a largely uncoordinated “Triple Enlargement” of NATO, the EU plus US military power— in addition to a fourth “enlargement” of Arab Gulf states that back a number of differing pan-Sunni Islamist movements in the northern Caucasus, central Asia and against Russian allies, including Syria.
From this perspective, Russia’s annexation of Crimea did not come out of the blue. NATO’s April 2008 Bucharest summit had proclaimed that Ukraine and Georgia will eventually become members of the Atlantic Alliance even if they were not given a membership action plan (MAP) at that time. The separate EU 2008 Eastern Partnership initiative was concurrently seen as a means to draw Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan away from Russian political-economic influence—in that Russia was not considered for membership.
In response to the future prospects of NATO and EU enlargement to Georgia, the August 2008 Georgia-Russia war led Russia to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, so as to weaken Georgia’s chances of membership in NATO and engage in closer political economic accords with the EU. Likewise, the Russian annexation of Crimea was intended to preclude “NATO sailors” from occupying Sevastopol, site of the Russian Black Sea fleet. But Moscow’s preclusive actions also represented an effort to check a Ukrainian partnership with the EU that Moscow believed could exclude Russian economic interests from the eastern regions of the country—instead of seeking to implement a deal that could bring the EU, Ukraine and the Eurasian Union into closer political economic cooperation. The irony raised here is that Ukrainian financial crisis and bankruptcy cannot be resolved with European, US or even Russia assistance alone—Ukraine needs the assistance of all three.
Robert Frost had stated to Khrushchev that “both East and West could be united,” but only “if both sides made significant concessions” (emphasis mine). Yet the Ukrainian crisis appears to be building even wider walls between the two sides. In response to the Russian annexation of Crimea, plus the ongoing conflict between Kiev and “separatist” factions in eastern Ukraine seen as backed by Moscow, Kiev has taken steps to build a new wall along the Ukrainian and Russian border—while concurrently pressing for NATO membership. As Frost’s final line of his poem Mending Wall ironically reads, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Yet much as the Berlin Wall divided the German people, the prospects for potential NATO membership for Ukraine will not make for good neighbors. Instead it will divide the Ukrainian people into pro-US/ pro-European and pro-Russian factions—thus dividing regions, communities and families. Moreover, as there are no clear border lines between these conflicting factions, and given Russian opposition to the further expansion of NATO military capabilities into its self-declared “near abroad,” this means perpetuating domestic Ukrainian socio-political tensions, as well as tensions between Brussels, Washington and Moscow.
In effect, Ukrainian membership in NATO would require that NATO be drawn step-by-step into the dangerous, if not impossible, task of defending Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. For this perspective, as long as NATO enlargement is still on the agenda and as long as NATO does not begin to take into account legitimate Russian security interests, NATO-Russian-European tensions will continue to escalate. This is true even if a complex political settlement can ultimately be found that resolves the disputes between the centralizing demands of Kiev versus the demands of the “federalist” and “separatist” movements in eastern Ukraine and the Donbas.
What is needed in order to thoroughly transform this deeper structural crisis between NATO, the European Union and Russia in a more positive direction is a new Euro-Atlantic compromise that draws a halt to NATO enlargement in exchange for the development of a new system of cooperative-collective security for the entire Black Sea and Caucasus region. Such a new system of cooperative-collective security would be backed by the overlapping security guarantees of NATO members, the EU and Russia. Instead of dividing the Black Sea and Caucasus into separate pro-Russia and pro-NATO/ pro-EU groupings, the three sides would work to foster a new regional peace and development community. This would involve joint development projects and joint protection of trade, shipping and energy transport. In effect, the Crimea would remain under Russian sovereignty, but would be opened up to international investment. The US and European Union would engage in cooperative security in working with Russia and all the states in the region, including Ukraine.
Such a project will not prove easy to implement, and will confront considerable opposition from eastern European states which appear to stand against any effort to work with Russia—not to overlook doubts and skepticism inside Moscow itself, which will make its counter-proposals. Such a project must also lead to a US and European willingness to work together with Moscow with respect to policies toward the so-called “Islamic State,” as well as toward Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea, among other issues of contention.
The obstacles to a far-reaching US, European and Russian rapprochement along the lines of a security treaty proposed by Dmitri Medvedev before the 2008 Georgia-Russia war are not entirely insurmountable, but a long-term and stable peace will only be achieved if confidence and trust can be fully established. Given the fact that American and European policy appears to be moving toward the re-activation of geostrategic and political-economic “containment”, a new approach will require a complete re-thinking of American and European global strategy toward Russia—coupled with concrete steps toward a sincere rapprochement. The time is now to consider making significant mutual concessions before the crisis degenerates into a much deeper and intractable one—much as did happen a few weeks after the poet Robert Frost met with Nikita Khrushchev.
*Hall Gardner is Professor and Chair, Department of International and Comparative Politics at the American University of Paris. His books on NATO-Russian relations and global politics, as well as his first book of poetry, The Wake UP Blast can be found here. His next book, 'The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon', will be published by Ashgate in the Spring 2015.
This article was written for Mikhail Gorbachev’s New Policy Forum- Cinema for Peace Foundation, International Symposium “25 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall” (May 8-9 2014).
(1) Hall Gardner, Dangerous Crossroads (Praeger 1997)
(2) Hall Gardner, NATO Expansion and US Strategy on Asia (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003)