“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner’s well- remembered adage (from Requiem for a Nun) was underscored last week when John Ellis, a vigorous second-presidential-generation member of the Bush clan, published a special edition of his six-days-a-week newsletter describing an “invisible primary” that has begun unfolding among the Democrats.
Whatever may be in the offing among the Republicans for 2024, Ellis said, Hillary Clinton is preparing a possible run for the Democratic presidential nomination then. Biden will be too old to run again, he averred; the Democrats’ Plan B has become a “jump ball.” Hence the shadow-boxing that Clinton has begun, most recently in the form of a subscription “Masterclass” in which she performed the speech she planned to deliver in 2020 had she won. “She can win the nomination [in 2024],” Ellis wrote. “She might not. But don’t for a minute think she can’t.”
It is against this background that the current Ukraine “crisis” should be understood – those 100,000 Russian troops practicing war games nears the Ukrainian border. In keeping with Putin’s long-standing habit of setting out policies in a series of documents and speeches, Russia last week set forth an elaborate series of proposals for a post-Cold War national security agreement between Russian, the US, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Putin first called for a “a new Yalta” after annexing Crimea in 2014, The old Yalta Conference (code-named Argonaut!) took place on the Crimean peninsula in the waning days of World War II. It was there that Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and their deputies carved the world into spheres of influence along lines ratified a few months later in Potsdam.
What to make of all this? When Biden came into office, imagine Putin’s surprise to find Victoria Nuland newly installed as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. Nuland, you may remember, is the former Hillary Clinton press secretary who, as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in the Obama administration, was taped by Russian security agents instructing the US ambassador to Ukraine to “fuck the EU” during Ukraine’s 2014 “Snow Revolution.” Earlier, she and former GOP presidential candidate John McCain had passed out cookies to demonstrators in Kyiv’s Maiden Square. Last week Nuland was threatening to throw Russia out of the international payments system known as SWIFT its army invaded Ukraine, while Biden weighed proposals to send left-over helicopters intended for Afghanistan to Ukraine.
Why did Biden nominate Nuland? That’s for The Washington Post to find out and explain. But from Putin’s point of view, the American president’s overreach on foreign policy must have seemed as striking as did Biden’s domestic policy plans to Congressional Republics and moderate Democrats in the Senate.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that Russia was a nation in economic decline. Putin clearly thinks the US is declining itself, lacking cohesion. Presumably, the Russian leader is posturing, waiting for the results of the next US presidential election to emerge. He may want a “new Yalta agreement,” but until a few years ago, a slow-motion, wide-ranging face-saving maneuver seemed more likely on the part of the West with respect to NATO expansion. Something analogous the little-noticed concessions President Kennedy gave Russia in exchange for its high-profile retreat from the Cuban missile crisis might have served. Today it seems likely that Putin may be able to extract more than that with his bullying threats.
It all depends on the next presidential election. A re-run of the 2016 contest woul clearly be a disaster. The past may always be with us, but the future is unclear because it hasn’t happened yet.