‘The Most Dangerous Possibility’: A Glimpse Into U.S. Fears Of A Russia-Ukraine War, 30 Years Ago

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On January 5, 1993, just days before Bill Clinton was inaugurated as U.S. president, the outgoing secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger, finished a 23-page memo to his successor, who would be taking over in a few weeks.

Two days earlier, Eagleburger’s boss, President George Bush, had traveled to Moscow to sign a major new arms-control treaty, START II, with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, a last-minute diplomatic victory at the end of Bush’s term that cemented the end of the Cold War nuclear tensions and signaled what many thought was a new beginning for the relationship between Moscow and Washington.

The memo to Warren Christopher was a rundown of global hot spots and places plagued by festering tensions — “as many troubles…as opportunities” — not the least of which was remnants of the Soviet Union, which had ceased to exist 13 months earlier.

The list included the danger of war in the former Yugoslavia and “a breakdown of reform in Russia and a reversion to some form of authoritarian rule.” He also warned of the danger of armed conflict between “Russia and any of a number of states on its periphery.”

“Ukraine not the most likely but certainly the most dangerous possibility,” he wrote.

Thirty years later, and almost one year into Russia’s full-scale invasion, Russia and Ukraine are now fighting the largest land war in Europe since World War II.

The memo is one of several newly declassified documents released this week by the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental organization housed at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The organization has successfully pushed to declassify other materials from the Clinton presidency, particularly regarding U.S. relations with Moscow under Yeltsin.

For U.S. policy in the initial years after the Soviet collapse, “the focus was clearly on Russia, despite Eagleburger’s note about Ukraine,” said Thomas Graham, who served in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during the Soviet Union and was Russia director on the White House National Security Council in the mid-2000s.

“It took a while to afford Ukraine anything close to the attention being paid to Russia,” he said.

‘Russia’s Democratic Reforms’

In one of the new documents, dated just three days after Clinton was sworn into office, Clinton has a phone call with Yeltsin in which they discuss the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, where fighting had raged in Bosnia for more than a year. They discuss Iraq, where U.S. forces were enforcing a no-fly zone more than a year after the end of the first Gulf War.

And they discuss Russia’s move away from the Soviet era.

“We are determined to do whatever we can to help Russia’s democratic reforms to succeed,” Clinton told Yeltsin, according to the memo, known as a “telcon” — a rough, not-verbatim transcript.

Another document is the memo to Christopher from Eagleburger, whose short tenure as secretary of state was eclipsed by that of Bush’s longer-serving top diplomat, James Baker.

Baker was a key interlocutor not just with Yeltsin but earlier with Gorbachev, as the Soviet Union began to implode in the late 1980s. Baker met many times with Gorbachev and other European leaders as Germany moved to reunite and U.S. and NATO officials tried to sort out whether to allow troops to be based in what had been East Germany.

In his memo to Christopher, Eagleburger discusses broader global issues: environmental degradation, the spread of diseases like AIDS, and he talks about “building new partnerships” with Japan and with Europe, and China, North Korea, and Vietnam.

He also details a litany of potential problems in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, warning that economic problems in Ukraine that followed from the Soviet collapse “could easily aggravate frictions with Russia over security issues.”

That included the basing of the two countries’ shares of the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet, which had been split between Kyiv and Moscow.

It also included the fate of Soviet nuclear weapons which remained on Ukrainian territory and which some U.S. officials worried might be lost or stolen and sold onto the black market. There were similar concerns about Russia’s nuclear weapons.

“We can help temper Ukrainian behavior by working now to treat Ukraine as an important player in its own right — not an adjunct to our central relationship with Russia,” Eagleburger wrote.

“At the same time, the Ukrainians have to understand that possession of nuclear weapons is a liability, not an asset, in their quest to be taken seriously,” he wrote.

Concerns About Conflict

In 1994, Ukraine signed onto an agreement called the Budapest Memorandum, a series of guarantees made to Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to persuade those countries to relinquish their remaining nuclear stockpiles and ship them to Russia. The agreement, overseen by the United States, Russia, and Britain, included guarantees of the inviolability of the three countries’ borders.

Some Ukrainian officials, and some Western observers, have argued that it was a mistake for Kyiv to give up its weapons, saying they might have served to deter Russia in its current, ongoing invasion.

“When the Soviet Union broke up, the U.S. was concerned about conflict breaking out across the former Soviet Union,” Graham said. “The Bush administration was worried about Yugoslavia scenarios in the former Soviet Union,” he said. “The most catastrophic one would have been between Russia and Ukraine, we monitored that situation very closely.”

“That is far from saying it was going to happen. It was something to think about, but no one could have foreseen it,” he told RFE/RL. “Tensions between Russia and Ukraine, we were aware of them, we did what we could to manage them, to keep them from spilling over,” he said.

Boris And Bill

Clinton’s famously chummy relationship with Yeltsin has been highlighted in other declassified materials over the years.

In 2018, Clinton’s official presidential library released 1,000 pages of documents from his presidency, including a transcript of a phone call in which Yeltsin endorsed Vladimir Putin as his successor, calling him a “solid man.”

In the “telcon” of the January 23, 1993, conversation, both Clinton and Yeltsin appear to go out of their way to express warmth to one another, as they also discuss trying to arrange a bilateral meeting.

“I am anxious to meet with you and to get to know you as ‘Bill,'” Yeltsin was quoted as telling Clinton.

“I had good relations with Bush. Now I need to develop relations with President Clinton,” he said. “Everyone in the world wants this…. I am confident our relations will improve in the future.”

Source : Radio Free Europe