Across the entire political spectrum, America and the West generally have swallowed the “Putin is Hitler” bait even more completely than the covid bait. Western governments, politicians, and grossly ignorant celebrities are now deliberately engendering and inflaming intense hatred of anything and anyone Russian.
This attitude toward a nuclear-armed nation, whose political and military leaders, within the memory of living man, experienced Nazi Germany’s war of annihilation against them, is foolhardy in the extreme. It is not only productive of immense danger to the entire planet, it is unjustified when the unfolding Ukraine tragedy is viewed in light of pertinent recent history.
Without a doubt, Putin is a ruthless dictator whose invasion of Ukraine is to be condemned. The destruction and carnage of World War II should have settled once and for all that the horror of modern weaponry has rendered war obsolete as an arbiter of either national interest or national borders.
That said, what world leaders should be striving for now is a prompt end to the Ukraine war, the most perilous for humanity since World War II. World War I, in effect the prelude to World War II, arose out of events that at the time, and still in retrospect, seem far less momentous and threatening than those now unfolding in Ukraine today.
The real danger is that Russia, highly aggrieved by the conduct of the West since the Soviet Union’s demise (whether its aggrievement is justified or not), and increasingly isolated, may be tempted to resort to weapons far more destructive than any yet employed in the unfolding war; or that the West’s military leaders believing that it might do so, might urge preemptive action.
The danger of the present circumstances can’t be emphasized too strongly. One rogue colonel, one mistakenly targeted missile, a single false flag Chinese Communist operation, or simple Russian fatigue at casualties caused by Western weapons – any of these events, and two generations of history-ignorant Western adults could quickly learn how easily wars can enlarge and spin out of control.
But instead of working to promptly end the conflict, Western, especially American, leaders are demonizing Putin and Russia — as if the Russian attack were an utterly unforeseen and inexplicable act of wanton thuggery. Though utterly to be condemned, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was in fact motivated by an accumulating sense of grievance and threat, all caused by the West’s persistent refusal to acknowledge Russia’s security concerns, born of both its historic and more recent bitter experiences.
The Russian attack was entirely foreseeable, and the events that produced it are known to every Western diplomat with an IQ that exceeds double digits; justifiably or not, Putin and Russia have felt misled and lied to, and that Russia’s legitimate security interests have been ignored by a pattern of Western behavior going back to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
An end to the Ukraine conflict, and the avoidance of something much worse, is possible only by honestly recognizing how we got to this point.
And that recognition starts with acknowledging that since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the West, led by the United States, has rubbed the loser’s nose in its defeat, and has consistently ignored the psychology of a country that eighty years ago was the object of a massive aggressive war of conquest and annihilation initiated by a western nation.
Instead of respecting Russia’s historically driven fears, and doing all we could to bring this immense, slightly paranoid, and heavily armed country, with an exclusively authoritarian past, into the community of nations, significant Western interests — the Pentagon, Western arms producers, and intelligence communities — have pursued their own goals of maintaining Russia as an enemy. They have tormented the bear for at least 15 years and the Ukraine war is the result.
Consider the history:
The Eastward Expansion of NATO
Consider the 1990 talks leading up to the Soviet Union’s acceptance of German reunification and ultimately to the 1991 collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union’s eastern European empire and of the Soviet Union itself, talks led by Secretary of State James Baker for the first President Bush. Soviet leaders claim they were given to understand that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO, an alliance formed explicitly to counter the perceived Soviet threat, hence, an alliance perceived by newly shrunken Russia as at least potentially hostile.
There is debate whether these assurances were formal, or were given at all. But that debate is beside the point: Any western diplomat would have known that in 1991, and for the then near future, any eastward expansion of NATO would be somewhere between highly unwelcome and overtly threatening to Russia. Given Russia’s history, this psychology was and remains understandable.
In view of this reality, in the decades after 1991, if the West had been genuinely desirous of peacefully integrating Russia into Europe, it would have avoided expanding the NATO alliance toward Russia’s borders. A period of undisputable independence for the former eastern European satellites and westernmost ex-Soviet republics, accompanied by their balanced relations with east and west, would have been the prudent course for all concerned.
The opposite occurred. In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were all admitted to NATO. Russia grumbled but did nothing. In March of 2004, still worse from Russia’s standpoint, seven more European nations were folded into NATO: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Russia objected more vigorously (its parliament condemned the action), but still simmered without action. A month after the second NATO accession, April of 2004, western-supplied F-16s were patrolling the skies over the Baltics from bases that had been Soviet a few short years earlier. This is rubbing a former enemy’s nose in its defeat.
Then, in April of 2008 NATO met in Romania and, further affronting Russia, gave assurance to both Georgia and Ukraine of eventual membership. “Eventual membership” was a compromise with then-US President George W. Bush’s urging that the two countries be fast-tracked into NATO. European leaders resisted the United States’ more aggressive position explicitly to avoid excessively antagonizing Russia. Revealing that the assurance of eventual NATO membership for Ukraine was not only resented by Russia but controversial in Ukraine itself, there were demonstrations in several Ukrainian cities against NATO membership.
Shortly after NATO’s provocative 2008 promise of membership to Georgia and Ukraine, war broke out between Georgian pro-Russian separatists and Georgia. The offer of NATO membership to Georgia almost certainly played a role in August of 2008, when Russia intervened on behalf of the Georgian separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, resulting in a humiliating defeat for the leader of Georgia.
From then on, August of 2008 at the latest, no one at Foggy Bottom could credibly claim not to know of Russia’s resentment and hypersensitivity to the previous, and threatened further, eastward expansion of NATO. From then on, to non-brain dead diplomats it should have been clear that Russia simply would not tolerate NATO membership for either Georgia or Ukraine — both former Soviet Republics, both directly bordering Russia, and, in the case of Ukraine, a nation bound up historically with Russia’s sense of its own founding — in the 9th through 12th centuries Kievan Rus was the cradle of Russian Christianity and civilization — until the catastrophic arrival of the Mongols destroyed everything, and Russia, now farther to the east and north, had to begin all over again.
The 2010 Election and The Maidan
But the two eastward expansions of NATO, in 1999 and 2004, followed by the offer of “eventual” membership to Georgia and Ukraine were not to be the West’s last affront to Russia. Roughly six years later came a momentous development that, in retrospect, probably sealed Russia’s absolute unwillingness to countenance further (i.e., Georgian or Ukrainian) expansion of NATO.
In 2010, in an election generally acknowledged as fair, Ukraine elected a moderately pro-Russian President by a clear margin. Victor Yanukovych received just about 49% of the vote, to 45.5% for pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko. Unsurprisingly, Yanukovych received strong support in the eastern and southern parts of largely Russian-speaking Ukraine, while Tymoshenko’s support becomes ever more overwhelming as one moves west on the Ukraine map. The blue-red 2010 Ukraine electoral map is reminiscent of the 2016 and 2020 US presidential election maps of, say, Illinois, all blue in the northeast around Chicago, all red elsewhere. In sharp political and cultural divisions, Ukraine makes a pair with America.
In the late fall of 2013, Yanukovych’s wariness of the west and pro-Russian sympathies became more apparent, as he refused to sign a trade accord with the EU and seemed headed for an agreement with Russia. It was at this point that the “Maidan” broke out, a series of ever more violent demonstrations, in Kyiv and elsewhere, with violence on both sides and no indisputably clear villain (except to partisans). There was a real atrocity in Odessa, a largely pro-Russian city, when over 40 pro-Yanukovych demonstrators were trapped in a large public building and died, either from the fire that was started by someone or in trying to jump from the flames to safety. Russia was further enraged.
What is clear in the 2013/14 Maidan is that the US, both elected and bureaucratic officials, as well as shadowy US organizations and personalities, sympathized with and encouraged the anti-Yanukovych demonstrators. John McCain, ever an enthusiastic supporter of US power projection and well-known detractor of Putin, gave an inflammatory speech in Kyiv supporting the anti-Yanukovych forces in which he said, “We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently.” McCain neglected to mention that Ukraine, without his help, had already voted to “determine its own destiny” by electing Yanukovych in the 2010 election, a “free and independent” decision that McCain was helping to overturn. And US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland worked largely behind the scenes for the same, anti-Yanukovych side.
The upshot was that Yanukovych, democratically elected in 2010, was driven from office and fled to Russia.
Russia itself has always claimed to believe, with more than slight justification, that the US and its allies sponsored and assisted the movement that drove Yanukovych from office. There is absolutely no doubt that Yanukovych was unpopular in western Ukraine and popular in eastern and southern Russian-speaking Ukraine. There is equally no doubt that the US, at minimum in the persons of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Senator John McCain, but also probably with assistance from other individuals and organizations, mixed into this ugly and violent conflict on behalf of those seeking to oust the elected president.
Russia watched all this interference by the West on its doorstep and seethed.
This event unquestionably made a deep impression on Putin, and shortly after these events, fearful of losing the long-standing Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea to the newly installed pro-Western government, Russia marched into Crimea. Shortly thereafter Crimea voted overwhelmingly to become part of Russia (which, prior to Nikita Khrushchev’s quixotic 1954 gifting of Crimea to Ukraine, Crimea always had been). That plebiscite has been overwhelmingly seen as accurately reflecting the will of those living in Crimea.
Also, shortly after the Maidan events, the easternmost provinces of Ukraine, Luhansk, and Donetsk, where Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians overwhelmingly predominate and had overwhelmingly supported Yanukovych, sought more independence from Kyiv. Kyiv’s response was to send the Ukrainian army into those regions, leading to a civil war that has never really stopped. That war has been costly in physical destruction and lost lives. At various times Russia has provided military and humanitarian aid to the separatist regions and has sent military “volunteers” to aid the populations of both provinces.
Just prior to invading Ukraine, Russia recognized the independence from Ukraine of both Luhansk and Donetsk, both of which the day before had declared their independence.
What can be made of all this history? How does it relate to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and to the tragedy that is now enveloping that country? And to the risks to civilizational survival inherent in this war?
Let me suggest a few conclusions:
First, nothing in the foregoing historical narrative justifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an invasion that is rightly receiving worldwide condemnation, and that inevitably will make acknowledgment of Russia’s security concerns — if any such acknowledgment is appropriate or possible — more difficult because such acknowledgment would now be denounced as rewarding aggression.
Second, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not the willful, mad, brutish act of a Hitlerite thug bent on conquest. It was the act of a national leader who — rightly or wrongly — actually perceived a threat to his own nation from a series of acts by the West that placed a government, troops, and weapons systems on his nation’s border that he perceived hostile to his nation.
Third, the West for thirty years has understood, but been indifferent to, the understandable psychological makeup of a nation with Russia’s recent history and, as a result, has acted in a way guaranteed to bring about Russian perceptions of encirclement and threat that led to the ongoing invasion.
Fourth, the danger to the security of the world inherent in what is occurring now in Ukraine cannot be overestimated – the near-universal, over-the-top Western condemnatory rhetoric directed at all things Russian, combined with the unprecedented coordinated isolating measures, is likely to heighten Russia’s sense of injustice and threat and to magnify the risk of a general, catastrophic war.
Fifth, ending the fighting quickly, and getting the parties to the negotiating table, are the urgent needs of the moment; this goal cannot be achieved in an environment of total denunciation of Russia and absolute refusal to recognize the legitimacy of any of its concerns.
Sixth, I have no idea what the terms of a comprehensive resolution of Ukrainian and Russian concerns would be, but I’m convinced Vladimir Putin will not allow his country to be defeated on the battlefield; and that the longer the conflict goes on the greater the risk of a general war through desperation or accident. To say that this is in no one’s interest is to state the obvious.
Western diplomats should be burning the midnight oil now, searching for ways to bring this conflict to a speedy halt and to fashion a final agreement acceptable, if not pleasing, to the parties. They should be restraining, not encouraging, the uninformed and overheated rhetoric that impedes any opportunity for negotiation. In July and August of 1914, their great-great-grandfathers had a chance to avert a general war that no Western leader wanted. They failed, and World War I (and World War II) resulted. The descendants of those failed diplomats have a chance today to redeem their offices if not their ancestors.
The alternative looks increasingly grim.