The Darkest Hour Before Detente?

“War is not the only thing that, to occur, must be waged.”
—Judith Lipton and David Barash, Strength Through Peace


It now seems like a bygone age, but it was only on December 15 last year that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented a draft Treaty on ‘Security Guarantees’ between the US and Russia, supplemented by a draft agreement to ‘Ensure the Security’ of Russia and NATO. Both texts were, the ministry claimed, offered not as a fait accompli but a “starting point” for “serious negotiations.” As Russia (not unreasonably) regards NATO as essentially an American-led alliance, the draft treaty was perhaps the more basic document, stating in Article 1 that the two sides shall “cooperate on the basis of principles of indivisible, equal and undiminished security,” not allowing any “military alliance or coalition” to “undermine the core security interests of the other Party.” What that means in political and military practice is of course a matter for those ‘serious negotiations.’ Or could have been.

US President Bill Clinton playing saxophone at dinner hosted by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, 1994.

US President Bill Clinton playing saxophone at dinner hosted by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, 1994. (Series: Photographs Relating to the Clinton Administration, 1/20/1993 – 1/20/2001Collection: Photographs of the White House Photograph Office (Clinton Administration), 1/20/1993 – 1/20/2001, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As I detailed in February, the texts contained sensible proposals for long-overdue confidence-building and transparency measures. In the bilateral treaty, for example, neither side would “conduct exercises or training for general-purpose forces, that include scenarios involving the use of nuclear weapons,” which would have spared us the annual obscenities of NATO’s ‘Steadfast Noon’ and Russia’s ‘Grom’ (Thunder) overlapping Doomsday drills. But Moscow wanted more, hundreds of miles more, than that, specifying that Washington should “prevent further eastward expansion” of NATO, and NATO agree to withdraw “military forces and weaponry” from the territory of states that became members after 27 May 1997, the date the ‘Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation’ was signed in Paris.

The Founding Act glowingly envisaged “a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area,” based “on the principles of democracy and cooperative security” and the realization that NATO and Russia, sharing “the goal of overcoming the vestiges of earlier confrontation and competition,” “do not consider each other as adversaries.” The uneasy subtext was Russian alarm, across the political spectrum, at NATO’s seemingly looming expansion as a disastrous domestic decade—featuring Western-engineered ‘casino capitalism’ and the rise of the Oligarchs—drew to a close.

In the years preceding the Founding Act, Moscow invested energy, faith, and resources in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, involving Russian and Central and Eastern European forces in joint peace-building and other cooperative, confidence-building activities. In 2018, the National Security Archive research center in Washington obtained the release of a tranche of documents showing that “US officials led Russian President Boris Yeltsin to believe in 1993 that the Partnership for Peace was the alternative to NATO expansion, rather than a precursor to it, while simultaneously planning for expansion after Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996.” For example:

…one key conversation on October 22, 1993, shows Secretary of State Warren Christopher assuring Yeltsin in Moscow that the Partnership for Peace was about including Russia together with all European countries, not creating a new membership list of just some European countries for NATO; and Yeltsin responding, ‘this is genius!’ Christopher later claimed in his memoir that Yeltsin misunderstood—perhaps from being drunk—the real message that the Partnership for Peace would in fact ‘lead to gradual expansion of NATO’; but the actual American-written cable reporting the conversation supports subsequent Russian complaints about being misled.

From Moscow’s vantage, the diplomatic gambit of the Founding Act—the Kremlin’s sincere (I believe) final push for a genuine peace partnership—spectacularly failed. NATO mushroomed from 16 states when the Berlin Wall came down, to 19 in 1999 (Czechia, Hungary, Poland), 26 in 2004 (Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three former Soviet Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), to 28 in 2009 (Albania and Croatia), and 30 by 2020 (Montenegro and Macedonia), with two more former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine, unequivocally promised in 2008 that they too would be welcomed aboard.


During this same, 20-year period, the gap between NATO and Russian defense spending also expanded dramatically , and two major Cold War nuclear arms control treaties collapsed: in 2002, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, capping missile defenses to prevent a missiles arms race; in 2019, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, eliminating an entire category of potentially war-starting Euro-based weapons.

The US Administration of George W. Bush was solely to blame for the demise of the ABM Treaty, an act Senator Joe Biden prophesied (the day before 9/11) would “raise the trigger on a new arms race,” one “sure to make my children and grandchildren feel less secure than we feel today.” In conjunction with NATO expansion, it certainly confirmed the increasingly authoritarian Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, in his utter mistrust of American motives and designs, suspicion spurring the deployment of new nuclear missiles in Europe – and providing the Trump Administration with the perfect excuse to abandon the INF Treaty.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Geneva, June 2021. (

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Geneva, June 2021. (Photo: TASS)

This heartbreaking post-Cold War history forms the fundamental background to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s December initiative. For sure, Washington and NATO’s dismissal of the drafts as a Kremlin ploy—a fig-leaf to cover Putin’s naked designs on Ukraine—was seemingly validated by the February 24 invasion. My view, before that ‘day of infamy,’ was that a time-limited, high-level discussion of all issues raised in the texts was warranted, not least to potentially spare the Ukrainian (and Russian) people a terrible agony. Today, I still think that slamming the door on diplomacy helped throw wide the gates of hell.

More decisive, I admit, was the epic failure to implement the ‘Minsk-II’ accords, signed by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in 2015 and envisaging a Ukrainian federation of autonomous provinces, a prospect taken seriously by incoming ‘peace President’ Volodomyr Zelensky in 2019, and described by French President Emmanuel Macron on 9 February 2022, as “the only path on which peace can be built.”

But we also need to strive for comprehensive peace in the ‘Euro-Atlantic’ area, encompassing the 57 states—‘from Vancouver to Vladivostok’— in the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), successor to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that generated two masterpieces of détente: the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. The former recognized “the indivisibility of security in Europe,” laying the conceptual groundwork for the end (so we thought) of the Cold War. The latter declared boldly that the continent was “liberating itself from the legacy of the past,” inaugurating a “new era of democracy, peace and unity” in which all states must resolve always and only to “settle disputes by peaceful means”.

In the ominous months before Russia’s invasion, calls were growing for a ‘Helsinki 2.0’ initiative, with the aim of adopting—half a century after the ‘Final’ Act—a renewed Charter for a New Europe in the Finnish capital in 2025. In early February, for example, John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), opened his pitch for ‘Helsinki 2.0’ by countering the complacent Western assumption that because “NATO is alive and well,” the European security order is basically “in fine shape, and it’s only Vladimir Putin who’s the problem.” In truth, Feffer insisted, that order “has broken down,” Europe is “in a fundamental state of insecurity,” and the potential for a “Ukraine conflict is a symptom” of a “much deeper problem”: the post-Cold War resurgence of a self-destabilizing militarized status quo.

But what is the point, post-February 24, of pursuing a ‘Helsinki 2.0’ agenda? Given the rush of Finland, along with Sweden, into NATO, even the name rings hollow. Helsinki, as the capital of an independent state benefiting hugely from its long-standing neutral status, may have been the perfect setting for another culminating summit; but where, as idea and symbol, is ‘Helsinki’ now? I will close by proposing an alternative venue. But before we reach a new summit, we have a mountain to climb.


Why bother trying? If we don’t attempt a détente-based cure for Europe’s ills, the ailing patient may well sicken further—and quite possibly die a nuclear death , sealing the fate of the Earth. And ‘Helsinki 1.0’ did not bloom from a healthy soil of trust and cooperation, but rather the diplomatic desert initially created by a Kremlin-ordered ‘special military operation’: the crushing of the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968.

By mid-summer 1968, that ‘Spring’—the bold attempt by reformist leader Alexander Dubĉek to provide “socialism with a human face”—was bearing impressive fruit, and many, in and far beyond Czechoslovakia, believed that the gamble had paid off. One of them was future Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a close friend of leading Czech reformer Zdenĕk Mlynář. As Gorbachev’s biographer, William Taubman, recounts, “many in Moscow, both within and outside the party apparatus, welcomed the Prague reforms as the sort of change they hoped would eventually come in the USSR”: as indeed they did, tragically too late, when Gorbachev took the helm in 1985. Taubman quotes Nikolai Shmelyov, subsequently an advisor to Gorbachev, remembering that in the summer of 1968:

…never before had I seen in the highest places such an outburst of liberalism. One could walk along the corridor inside the party Central Committee and shout at the top of one’s lungs, ‘We must not send tanks into Czechoslovakia!’ Yet, in the same corridor, someone approaching from the other direction would shout back, ‘It is time to send tanks into Czechoslovakia and finish off this whorehouse!’

On August 21, the tanks rolled in. As many hearts—and bodies—were broken, East-West tensions spiked. The title of the Guardian’s August 22 editorial was stark—‘Jackboots again over Eastern Europe’—as was its “lesson for NATO”: “The Russians may be preoccupied with the strains within their own world, but they have lamentably proved their readiness to use force when it suits them.” If NATO does not increase its “rearmament” to prove its “readiness,” the left-leaning paper concluded, the crushing of the Prague Spring may prove “the genesis of another war.” And UK Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, predicted the “naked aggression” would “set the clock back twelve years” to the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Scene from the Prague Spring, 1968, Czech protestors near Soviet tank in flames (The Central Intelligence Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet while the two invasions were equally egregious, their nuclear contexts were not. For six years after the invasion of Hungary, tensions between the Superpowers built to the breaking point of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, an intolerably close call concentrating diplomatic minds wonderfully and producing two important steps back from the brink: the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), ending over 15 years of routinely massive atmospheric test explosions by the USSR, USA and UK; and the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a supposedly ‘grand bargain’ inextricably linking non-proliferation and disarmament.

With the Missile Crisis still fresh in both elite and collective memory, not only was the Czechoslovakian tragedy not allowed to reverse these gains—it acted, if anything, to spur what became the Helsinki process, combining a basic acceptance that Europe must never again descend into general war with a new insistence that ‘common security’ must come to mean more than ‘national security.’ Specifically, standards of civilized state behavior were defined in the Final Act as including “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief,” and respect for the “equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.

The Final Act was a deeply flawed diamond, scarred by ambiguity, opposing interpretations, profound contradictions, reluctant compromises, and hypocritical posturing. Nor did it prevent the slide toward a major nuclear war scare in Europe in the early 1980s, arrested only by Gorbachev’s paradigm-smashing commitment to demilitarization and democratization. But it was not a soulless, Faustian bargain, and it did provide, when the Cold War ended, a foundation to build what the vast majority of Europeans desired: a ‘common European home’ in which Russia was valued and welcomed.


What trajectory shall we choose now, the post-1956 decline to the edge of oblivion, or the post-1968 ascent to safer ground in Helsinki? If we have the wisdom to take the latter route, I suggest it should lead Euro-Atlantic leaders in 2025 (or 2030) to San José, the capital of Costa Rica, a state which abolished its armed forces three quarters of a century ago.

Cover of book "Strength Through Peace"Of course, a small number of still-neutral European capitals would serve well: Vienna, for example, with its intimate connection to the UN system, or Dublin, where on November 18 representatives from 82 states (including Canada) met to sign a landmark ‘Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas,’ aiming to stem the hideous flow of civilian blood in 21st-century warfare. Tellingly, both Austria and Ireland are in the vanguard of the international humanitarian disarmament movement, and among only four European states (along with the Holy See and San Marino) to have signed and ratified the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

So why do I suggest a non-European capital? In part because San José is no ordinary capital, and the Costa Rican achievement no small or local matter. As peace researchers Judith Lipton and David Barash stress in their 2019 book Strength Through Peace—marvellously subtitled “How Demilitarization Led to Peace and Happiness in Costa Rica, and What the Rest of the World Can Learn from a Tiny, Tropical Nation”—Costa Rica is a real place, “not a picture postcard or a travel brochure,” with real problems including gang violence, sex trafficking and an over-dependence on tourism which gravely exacerbated the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, even though the nation’s superbly integrated health system handled the disease better than many ‘richer,’ heavily militarized states. (As of November 21, the virus had claimed the lives of 327 of every 100,000 Americans, 294 per 100,000 Britons, 266 per 100,000 Russians, and 179 per 100,000 Costa Ricans.) And without undertaking its disarming experiment, Costa Rica would surely today be a far more violent and unequal, far less free and healthy place: a far cry from, as Lipton and Barash not only claim but illustrate, “a remarkably benevolent society” (and remarkably green and pleasant land) “that functions well for the great majority of its citizens.”

But the main reason San José deserves to be the ‘new Helsinki’ is because radical détente and deep disarmament in Europe is crucial not just to continental but world peace: is, I believe, one of the most important contributions Euro-Atlantic powers can make to bridging the morally monstrous, politically dangerous, and fast-growing global North-South divide.

I know it seems improbable, even impossible. But the case of Costa Rica proves the power of the pacifist dictum, the saying that must come true in Europe, too: there is no way to peace, peace is the Way.

Featured images: (left) Helsinki, Finland (right) San José, Costa Rica.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.