Russian Hostility 'Partly Caused By West', Claims Former US Defence Head

The current level of hostility in US-Russian relations was caused in part by Washington’s contemptuous treatment of Moscow’s security concerns in the aftermath of the cold war, a former US defence secretary has said.

William Perry, who was defence secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration from 1994 to 1997, emphasised that in the past five years it has been Vladimir Putin’s military interventions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere that have driven the downward spiral in east-west relations.

But Perry added that during his term in office, cooperation between the two countries’ militaries had improved rapidly just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union and that these gains were initially squandered more as a result of US than Russian actions.

“In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame,” Perry said, speaking at a Guardian Live event in London.

“Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when Nato started to expand, bringing in eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia. At that time we were working closely with Russia and they were beginning to get used to the idea that Nato could be a friend rather than an enemy ... but they were very uncomfortable about having Nato right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.”

In his memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, Perry writes that he argued for a slower expansion of Nato so as not to alienate Russia during the initial period of post-Soviet courtship and cooperation. Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat, led the opposing argument at the time, and was ultimately supported by the vice-president, Al Gore, who argued “we could manage the problems this would create with Russia”.

Perry said the decision reflected a contemptuous attitude among US officials towards the troubled former superpower.

“It wasn’t that we listened to their argument and said he don’t agree with that argument,” he said. “Basically the people I was arguing with when I tried to put the Russian point ... the response that I got was really: ‘Who cares what they think? They’re a third-rate power.’ And of course that point of view got across to the Russians as well. That was when we started sliding down that path.”

Perry considered resigning over the issue “but I concluded that my resignation would be misinterpreted as opposition to Nato membership that I greatly favoured – just not right away”.

He sees the second major misstep by Washington DC as the Bush administration’s decision to deploy a ballistic missile defence system in eastern Europe in the face of determined opposition from Moscow. Perry said: “We rationalised [the system] as being to defend against an Iranian nuclear missile – they don’t have any but that’s another issue. But the Russians said ‘Wait a bit, this weakens our deterrence.’ The issue again wasn’t discussed on the basis of its merits – it was just ‘who cares about what Russia thinks.’ We dismissed it again.”

The Obama administration has since modified the missile defence system in eastern Europe, replacing long-range with medium-range interceptor missiles but that has not mollified Russian objections.

Perry said he was opposed to such systems on technical grounds. “I think they’re a waste of money. I don’t think they work,” he said. “In fact, when I talked to the Russians I tried to convince them not to worry, they don’t work anyway but they didn’t buy that.”

The third factor that Perry pointed to in the poisoning of US-Russian relations was Washington DC’s support for pro-democracy demonstrators in the “colour revolutions” in former Soviet republics including Georgia and Ukraine. Perry agreed with the ethical reasons for backing such revolutions but noted their severely damaging effect on east-west ties.

“After he came to office, Putin came to believe that the United States had an active and robust programme to overthrow his regime,” the former defence secretary said.

“And from that point on a switch went on in Putin’s mind that said: I’m no longer going to work with the west ... I don’t know the facts behind Putin’s belief that we actually had a programme to foment revolution in Russia but what counts is he believed it.”

Perry described the current tensions between Russia and Nato as having “the potential of becoming very dangerous,” and argued for a radical reduction in nuclear arsenals and in particular the removal of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Over 1,000 ICBMs in the US and Russia remain on hair-trigger alert, on a policy of “launch-on-warning”, meaning US and Russian presidents would have less than half an hour to decide whether to fire them in the event of radar and satellite data showing an incoming missile attack from the other side.

Source: The Guardian