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Trump Has Squandered the Legacy of the Berlin Wall

Trump's belief that Ukraine is not a "real" country threatens to unwind three decades of post-Cold War gains.

Gerard Malie/AFP/ Getty

Thirty years ago this weekend, a dour and rumpled East German apparatchik named Günter Schabowski faced a smattering of reporters and cameras for a press conference in East Berlin. Rifling confusedly through a sheaf of papers, Schabowski mumbled details about new travel stipulations for East Germans, hundreds of thousands of whom had recently been protesting the ongoing brutalities and restrictions of the East German government. Schabowski, according to later recollections, hadn’t actually bothered to pore through the details of the new travel regulations—nor, it appeared, had many of the East German officials who could sense their regime teetering toward collapse. Shortly before the close of the press conference, Schabowski revealed almost offhandedly that East Germans could now pass through all border crossings, including those directly into West Berlin. When asked when the new allowances would kick in, Schabowski glanced through the memo in front of him: “Effective immediately, without delay.”

The Schabowski presser—which left the East German spokesman rattled, clearly unprepared for the revolution his words had just unleashed—immediately rippled both east and west. East Berliners, smothered for decades by Soviet forces and their proxies in the East German government, clambered toward, and then onto, the Berlin Wall. East German forces held their fire. Some turned to firehoses; Western cameras caught the hilarious way these efforts were easily repulsed by those wielding umbrellas. Others, frustrated by the imbecility of their superiors, threw up their hands and opened the border gates. Just like that, nearly three decades after Nikita Khrushchev had tossed up a wall that symbolized all of the hatreds threading the Cold War, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

In another world, in another timeline, the upcoming anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall would be cause for trans-Atlantic celebration. There would be feasts and fêtes, parties and pronouncements of the success of liberal democratic reforms, and the ultimate impotence of tyrannical governments who once oversaw those in Bishkek and Budapest and Belgrade. There would be, in Moscow, introspection, and pledges of reform. There would be, in Washington, resolve, and resounding support for strengthening the bonds built on the backs of that night, some thirty years ago, in Berlin.

Instead, this weekend will be cause for something else: consternation, and concern, and questions about whether the fruits of that victory have already been exhausted. There will be theories about where everything went wrong, and how everything turned upside down. In Moscow, there will be puffed chests and renewed calls for empire. In Washington, there will be further revelations of the lengths to which the American president went to pressure foreign governments—those firmly in the U.S.’s camp, no less—to investigate a political rival. And in Ukraine, and all those post-Soviet states that are now on the frontline between liberal democracies and the types of modern authoritarianism propped by the Kremlin, there will be new worries about whether the U.S. will still support their long, laborious push to join the West. And there will be cause to wonder whether Donald Trump, the man now in the White House, even believes that all those post-communist nations the U.S. helped wrest from the USSR’s embrace are, as Trump said, “real countries,” anyway.

It’s not hard to see why those countries once under the Soviet yoke would feel this way. Just last week, amid the snowballing insanity of a president siccing his personal lawyer on a prone government in Ukraine—and threatening to withhold vital American military aid in the process, all just to smear a political rival—we learned that, in his first year in the White House, Trump wasn’t even sure Ukraine was a real country. In late 2017, Trump prepped for a meeting with Petro Poroshenko, then serving as Ukraine’s president. Kurt Volker, the man who’d volunteered as special envoy to Ukraine, ran through a quick refresher on the country for Trump. Trump, though, wouldn’t have it: The president, per the Washington Post, “peppered Volker with his negative views of Ukraine, suggesting that it wasn’t a ‘real country’”—and that, for good measure, Ukraine “had always been a part of Russia.”

We don’t know Volker’s reaction, but it’s not difficult to imagine the color draining from his face. The revelation from Trump was as ghastly as it is galling. Here was a sitting president not simply reimagining Ukrainian history, pretending that Ukraine had always been some appendage of Russia, rather than its own independent polity, but insisting that the country the U.S. has done as much as any to prop up and support was not, in fact, real.

Russian propaganda, of course, has levied questions of Ukraine’s right to nationhood ad nauseam over the past few years. Trump’s comments were almost a verbatim echo of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country,” Putin told President George W. Bush in 2008. “Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us.” Putin reiterated this line in 2014, after he’d launched the first forced annexation in Europe since the Second World War. “After the revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons—may God judge them—added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine.”  

This line, that Ukraine hasn’t earned and doesn’t deserve nationhood, plays directly into larger grievances still swamping post-Soviet Russia, and propelling the Kremlin’s irredentism. They fit firmly within a perceived Russian Monroe Doctrine that has existed since the earliest moments of the Soviet Union’s crumble; as one adviser to the Russian Duma’s Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs said only a few months after the Soviet Union’s flag was finally lowered, “Russia should declare the entire geopolitical space of the former USSR a sphere of its vital interests (like the U.S.’s Monroe Doctrine).”

This chauvinistic, neo-imperialistic strain of thought has already led directly to some of the greatest geopolitical disasters of the past dozen years. Russia unleashed that line of thinking against Georgia in 2008, sending troops pouring in to prop up a pair of separatist enclaves in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, bucking Georgia’s turn toward NATO in the process. In Moldova, Russian officials have continued to help slow-walk reconciliation between Chisinau and separatists in Transnistria, a land still covered with statues of Lenin. (Will Trump tweet out recognition of these statelets sometime in the future? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.)

Even in countries that aren’t yet carved up by Russia, the rhetorical ground is already laid. In Kazakhstan, everyone from Russian fascists to luminaries like Alexander Solzhenitsyn have claimed that a northern chunk of the country rightfully belongs to Russia. Just a few years ago, an ethnic Russian living in the region told me Kazakhstan was little more than a “virtual” country, a post-Soviet “Bantustan.” Little surprise that, in 2014, Putin claimed ethnic Kazakhs had never known statehood before the Soviet Union’s collapse.

But it’s in Ukraine that Moscow has wrought the most destruction, where it’s attempted to fracture a country that’s undergone not one but two successful pro-democratic, pro-transparency, pro-dignity revolutions over the past two decades, ousting kleptocratic crooks in the process both times. The Kremlin grabbed Crimea outright—and suffocated any human rights local Crimeans, especially the indigenous Crimean Tatar population, could have hoped for—while supplying the weaponry that separatists used to obliterate a Malaysian airliner. Thanks to Moscow’s desires to strangle Ukrainians’ push for full nationhood, 13,000 people have died, with another 30,000 wounded. All of this before Trump decided to echo the Russian line, and question Ukraine’s nationhood outright.

“What did they die for? They died because they believed in the ideals of democracy and rule of law, and they want a future with dignity—that’s why [the 2014 Ukrainian revolution] is called the Revolution of Dignity,” Nina Jankowicz, a fellow with the Wilson Center and expert on U.S.-Ukrainian relations, told The New Republic. “And those are ideals that have guided U.S. foreign policy at least since the Cold War, and certainly before that too, I would argue…When we’re putting [support for Ukraine] up for grabs as part of a partisan political battle, it undermines our moral calling card—not only in Europe, but around the world.”

Trump evinces nary a whit of care for America’s post-Cold War legacy, or for America’s post-Cold War gains. His actions suggest that he would happily toss that all away, just for the opportunity at a second term in office. He would sacrifice the unmitigated gains, the unprecedented stability and prosperity, and the explosion of opportunities in the name of American interests and liberal democracy, all for another four years—and a chance to avoid the indictments that are almost certainly waiting for him the moment he leaves the White House.

In so doing, Trump would be tossing out the underpinnings of a post-Cold War order that, for nearly three decades, has kept Europe far more secure than it’s ever been. Nationhood within the post-communist space is a tenuous thing, even without the American president throwing borders into question. And the threats to security don’t just emanate just from Moscow. In Serbia and Bosnia, neo-imperialists have picked up the torch wielded in the 1990s by genocidal nationalists, making noise that they’d prefer to redraw regional borders—by force, if necessary. These actors have already begun cozying up to the Trump administration, and whispering sweet nothings of historical wrongs in his ear. They won’t stop anytime soon.

There’s still time to halt a disaster barreling toward Europe’s eastern reaches. There’s still a chance that, in a decade’s time, we’ll be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall with the festivities the occasion deserves. But it may be the case that those best days are behind us.

There was nothing inevitable about the Berlin Wall’s collapse: As Egon Krenz, the East German strongman in power when the Wall collapsed, later said, “We were closer to a civil-war-like situation than many people want to believe today.” In the end, it was a series of little moments—memos unread; policy papers that no one paid much mind to, until it was too late—upon which post-Berlin Wall history spun. History could easily turn again on an offhand comment from President Trump that threatens to unwind an entire nation—and which could lead to America pulling up its stakes, undoing its victories, and abandoning all of the gains it’s seen since that chilly, momentous November evening 30 years ago.