Monday, 28 March, 2022 –
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
Is the West partially responsible for what Ukraine is enduring right now? Have the successive leaders after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union failed in leading? Have they harshly or dismissively dealt with the wounds of the Soviet Union’s “orphans”? Are they treating Russia, which rests under the snow with massive wealth and a turbulent history, like an orphan, while ignoring that it is Russia?
Has the victor ignored that when reaching a critical juncture of this kind, he must tend to the loser so that he doesn’t leave him with the only choice of plotting revenge? Has the collapse of the Soviet Union, without a shot fired, lulled the successive American administrations? Barak Obama even once claimed that “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.”
Why didn’t Washington heed France and Germany’s advice and proceed wisely in expanding NATO? Why did it ignore Kissinger and Brzezinski’s warnings against turning weapons towards Russia?
The idea of the “orphans” of the Soviet Union came to me in wake of the collapse of the Union. I discussed this idea with several Arab Communists, two of whom I will feature below.
In Khartoum’s Kobar Prison, inmates sat around the television to tune in to exciting news. The Soviet Union had collapsed. One man couldn’t conceal his gloating. Dr. Hassan al-Turabi frankly rejoiced at the collapse of the “Great Satan” and wasn’t subtle in saying that the time of the Islamists had dawned. I heard the same story from Al-Tijani al-Tayeb Babiker, one of the founders of the Sudanese Communist Party, who confessed that news of the Soviet Union’s collapse was “very hard” to take.
I asked the same question to George Hawi, one of the most renowned general secretaries of the Lebanese Communist Party. I asked him if he hated Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. He replied: “I don’t hate him, I despise him.” Hawi warned of the massive problems that would be caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the international imbalances. He noted that the Soviet Union provided science to the masses, took part in invading space and boasts a huge nuclear arsenal. He called for closely assessing Russia’s position and capabilities, warning of the danger of marginalizing or humiliating it.
The common element in the response of the Arab “orphans” was that the collapse of the Soviet Union was too great a defeat for Russia to accept and digest. It was too great a victory for the “arrogant” American policy to manage with reason.
If the collapse of the Soviet Union had caused a deep wound in the psyche of Arab Communists, then what of the KGB colonel Vladimir Putin, who was living close to the Berlin Wall the day it fell. He would soon after return to the Soviet Union that wouldn’t take long in collapsing.
The West rejoiced at the resounding victory their example had claimed. The Third World War was decided by the attractiveness of this example, without a shot fired. The West never imagined that the shots would eventually be fired – no matter how late – in Ukraine, which Putin had always said was an invention with no roots outside the Russian cradle and which he dismissed as an error committed by his predecessors centuries ago.
Diplomatic advisor to late French President Jacques Chirac, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne had also warned of the West’s failure to the recognize the dangers from Russia. He recalled how he once visited Moscow in 2006 and how Ukraine was among the main topics of his talks with his Russian counterpart. He said he proposed the idea of providing joint NATO-Russian guarantees over Ukraine’s borders in return for it adopting a policy of neutrality. He revealed that his proposal was met with interest by the Russians, but then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had said France didn’t have the right to impede Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO. He revealed that NATO had agreed during a 2008 summit in Bucharest to postpone Ukraine and Georgia’s joining of the alliance at France and Germany’s insistence, but it did not abandon their right to eventually join it.
Putin had on more than one occasion expressed his country’s concern over Ukraine joining NATO and the possibility of the alliance’s rockets being deployed close to Russian borders. His demands did not lead to a confrontation with the West or a severing of relations. Back then, the Russian president needed more time to rebuild the army, which had been hit hard by the Soviet collapse, and revamp the economy after years of corruption and chaos during the term of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
In all likelihood, the victorious West refused to pause at the deep Russian wounds. The wounds of a country that had throughout history paid dearly for the price of invasions against it that had mainly come from Europe, either in the shape of Napoleonic dreams or Hitlerian delusions. History pushed Russia into developing a siege complex and it believed it was the target of any power that emerges in the West. It felt as if the western victor wanted to treat it like a second-rate country.
That is why Putin rebuilt the spirit of the army and its arsenal. When he became confident of its abilities, he reclaimed Crimea and intervened militarily in Syria. He didn’t stop there. Moscow became engaged in the game of “small armies” and dispatched the Wagner Group to a number of African countries.
The fates of countries that jumped off the Soviet train have differed. Some “orphans” threw themselves in the European and NATO laps. Other opted to bide their time within their borders as they fortified them.
All of this is now a thing of the past. The Russian “orphan” rebelled against his fate and went on the offensive. The world is now in the clutches of an unprecedented crisis. Successive summits and reminders of nuclear buttons ensued. Putin cannot lose. Biden appears on the Ukrainian stage from Poland and calls the master of the Kremlin a “butcher.” He appears from Warsaw, which had previously leant its name to an alliance tasked with protecting the Soviet Empire.
All this had rubbed more salt in the Russian wounds. The crisis is terrifying. Ukraine is being crushed between two armies and the alarmed world is looking after its own security, economy, energy prices and grains. Is it too late to come up with a proposal similar to the one dreamed of by Chirac’s envoy? Is it true that Putin no longer has anything to lose after the sanctions poured in against his country? Has the world again fallen in the trap of redrawing maps in blood? Only the “Chinese key” appears capable of saving the West, the Soviet “orphans” and the world. But the West has a price to pay before the key can be turned.