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By Senator Joseph I. Lieberman
Delivered at a conference sponsored by the Aspen Institute
Prague, Czech Republic
June 10, 2014
I’m delighted to join you here in Prague to celebrate the 25
the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of hundreds of millions of people
from Communist repression.
There are only a handful of years in modern history with a claim to as much
significance as 1989.
But they were years of terrible bloodshed. 1989 stands alone as the year in
which peaceful, principled uprisings achieved political transformation that can
only be described as miraculous.
The greatest credit for this triumph belongs to the people of Central and
Eastern Europe who suffered for so long and arose so courageously. But, I hope
you also know how much the people of America and successive generations of our
national leadership identified with your cause and rejoiced in freedom’s triumph in
As I look back on my twenty-four years in the U.S. Senate, there is nothing
that gives me more satisfaction than the work I was privileged to do to extend
economic assistance to the newly independent nations of the former Soviet Union
and to work for the admission of each of your countries to NATO as quickly as
But, as we often say in America and as recent events in Ukraine make clear,
freedom is not free.
If this conference had occurred on the first day of 2014, it would have been a
purely joyous occasion. We would not have asked, with any justification, whether
the miraculous achievements of 1989 were permanent. Yet the unforeseeable has
happened again. The peace of Europe is threatened. The fight that so many of you
fought and won in 1989 is not yet finished.
It was conventional wisdom just a few years ago that Europe had arrived at
‘the end of history,” that Europeans had moved beyond geopolitics, and that, after
being ground zero of the great and grisly strategic contests of the 20th century, the
continent was pretty much "fixed." The greatest danger for Europe, in this view,
was its own growing irrelevance to the "real" strategic center of gravity for the 21st
century -- presumed to lie somewhere off in the Middle East and Asia. Hence the
calls for NATO to go "out of area or out of business," because the continent was on
the cusp of perpetual peace, other than a few loose ends in the Balkans and Eastern
Europe -- which presumably would go away as the magnetic balm of European
integration eventually cured them. And this in turn also meant that Americans were
free to stop thinking strategically about Europe.
This view was and is dangerously wrong. In fact, the relative peace,
prosperity, tolerance, and security achieved from Lisbon to Tallinn is by any
historical measure not the natural state of the European continent. On the contrary,
this has been a part of the world that has proven unusually prone to conflict --
which is perhaps not surprising, given how diverse its people are and how
fragmented political power historically has been. To the extent that Europe has
moved in the direction of being whole, free, and at peace, it is not the preordained
result of some dialectic of history or irreversible evolution of Europeans towards a
higher plane of geopolitical existence, but because of a remarkable combination of
events, heroic and idealistic leaders like Havel, Walesa, and Gorbachev, popular
support for change, and moral and tangible backing from the United States and
other Western nations.
That is exactly what the people of Ukraine need now.
Today the bell tolls for Ukraine but it also tolls for the rest of Europe and the
United States. The political order we have built over the last 70 years--first by
defeating fascism in World War II and then by collapsing Communism in the Cold
War--is under genuine threat.
The values of liberty and law are at the heart of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance
but values alone are not self protecting or self-perpetuating Political will and
military strength are as necessary in Europe as anywhere else. There is no
European exception to this truth that history teaches.
The threats we confront today in Europe have their origins in Vladimir
Putin’s belief that 1989 should never have happened, that it was an annus
horribilis, not an annus mirabilis. But Mr. Putin’s campaign of intimidation
cannot succeed unless it is facilitated by the complacency of the nations that once
stood together to resist Soviet expansion.
A dictator – an aggressor – is never satisfied with what he has. The timidity
and complacency I see on both sides of the Atlantic will only encourage him to
And so, while we celebrate the events of 1989 here this week we also need
to confront the new Russian threat and revive the understanding we had about how
to defend peace and freedom from a dictatorship that respects neither.
The problem we face today is not a Cold War mindset in the West, but the
persistence of the Cold War in the mind of the Russian president. It is still possible
to avoid a protracted conflict with Russia that seems like another regional Cold
War if we act together with strength, clarity, and fearlessness.
To overcome today’s Russian challenge, I believe we must take at least three
steps: eliminate the current, local advantage of the Russian armed forces, follow
through on the threats to quarantine the Russian economy in case of further
Russian recalcitrance or aggressions, and remain publically committed to our best
political values and ideals, the foremost of which is freedom.
To accomplish the first, Europe must reverse the decline of its military
capabilities. I know that is a familiar plea from America,, one that has long been
ignored. I make it again because the Russian seizure of Crimea confronts us all
with a new strategic reality. Every member of NATO must take immediate steps
to meet the alliance-wide commitment to invest 2% of GDP in their armed forces
with an emphasis on mobile deployable forces that can rapidly respond to a
Russian buildup or campaign of subversion.
The United States must also do more and that will require reversing the
ongoing cuts in our military for budget that would make it easier for America to do
what we should do--return at least two combat brigade teams to Europe and
forward deploy them with other NATO troops to NATO’s eastern borders.
This will require Presidential and Congressional leadership in an America
that is today not eager for more international involvement, it can and must be done.
Together, we in NATO must be ready to meet all reasonable requests from
Kiev for economic assistance and for support to defend themselves, and that means
more than ready to eat meals and night vision goggles.
I would go one step further, applying the lessons of the years after 1989. If
the people of Ukraine decide that they want to join NATO, we should begin the
process of accepting them.
The third necessary response to Putin’s threat to the peace of Europe must be
ideological and moral. Throughout the Cold War, you and we were driven by the
ideal of freedom. That was what the triumph of 1989 was all about and it is what
we must make clear is at risk again now. The Ukrainian people’s courageous
decision to choose European democracy over Soviet repression and state sponsored
corruption is what started this crisis.
Not only the Ukrainian people, but the Russian people must know that what
motivates us most is our values.
With his seizure of Crimea, Putin has fanned and exploited nationalist
emotions in Russia that have made him more popular there than he had been. For
now this has made him more popular at home, but let’s remember that Russians led
by people like Navalny were filling the streets of Moscow just a few months ago in
protest of the corruption and thuggishness of the Kremlin under Putin. I am
confident that before long they will return to the streets to secure their freedom and
their future. As we did during the Cold War, we should face Putin with confidence
and not in fear and support his opponents in every way we can as we supported the
opponents of the Soviet Union. The Russian people recognize the moral and
material bankruptcy of the regime that is ruling them. That’s why Putin is turning
to nationalism. He has so little else to offer his people. And that indeed is
probably why Ukraine is so threatening to Putin, and why it is so important for him
that Ukraine’s move to democracy is derailed and discredited. Putin fears that a
successful democratic revolution in Kiev will inspire the same in Russia. I believe,
hope, and pray he is right.
There is a well-known story from American history about Benjamin
Franklin emerging from the Constitutional Convention in Independence Hall in
Philadelphia in 1787, to be greeted by a crowd that had been waiting anxiously
outside to find out what had been decided in the secret meetings inside:
A woman in the crowd shouted:
“Mr. Franklin, what have we got--a Republic or a Monarchy?”
Without hesitation, Franklin responded: “A Republic if you can keep it.”
And so it is with Europe today. Europe will be whole, free and at peace if
you and we can make and keep it that way.
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