There is a way out of the Ukraine mess, but it involves (another) mea culpa
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Readers may be familiar with this quote from Sun Tzu’s classic, The Art of War, yet I’m repeatedly dismayed that our leaders act in apparent ignorance of its timeless wisdom. As we contemplate the current situation in Ukraine, a partial review of history seems in order.
Ukraine and Russia have been inextricably linked for the whole of their histories, the former being a part of the latter longer than they’ve been separate. Looking only to the 20th Century, it should be remembered that when the Bolsheviks pulled Russia out of the alliance with Britain and France in WWI they renewed control over the Ukraine. The Allied Powers’ response to the Bolsheviks’ withdrawal of support for their war with the Central Powers was to invade Russia, contributing troops to the civil war on the side attempting to topple the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks won the civil war, but were left with justifiable fears of further invasion from the European west (and from Japan in the east, having lost a war to Japan under the Tsar in 1905). Stalin’s attempt to institute collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s led to millions of Ukrainian deaths. What benefit there was went to the Soviet Union’s goal of industrialization. It was thus understandable that Ukrainians would join the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union a few years later— an invasion which cost the some 27 million Soviet lives.
While under Nazi occupation many more Ukrainian lives were ended, notably ethnic Poles, Jews, Russians and Belarusians. The majority of the millions of deaths in WW II occurred on Polish and Ukrainian soil.
Contrast the above figure of 26.6 million, which amounted to 15% of their population at the time, with the most lives lost in the worst war the United States ever experienced, eighty years earlier on its own soil: 620,000, killed on both sides in the Civil War, amounting to 2% of the population of the U.S. at the time. The Russians, not the Americans and British, broke the back of Hitler’s army. While the US and its allies confronted 13 German divisions, the Soviets defeated 42 German divisions, on their own territory.
We’re constantly reminded that war in the Ukraine could come at any moment, because Russia might invade “further.”
Fast forward to 1957 when Khrushchev returned Ukrainians more autonomy as an independent polity, I doubt if anyone in the USSR envisioned a time when Ukraine would be outside Moscow’s sphere of influence, or he would never have taken such a step. It was small recompense for the excesses they suffered under Stalin whose inability to acknowledge his mistake caused him to inflict policies on the Ukraine that resulted in millions of unnecessary deaths by famine, in addition to the destruction wrought during WWII few years later. The USSR retained its major naval base in Crimean Ukraine that provided access to the Black Sea, and control of its southern border.
When the Soviet Union dissolved from 1989-91, Clinton promised Gorbachev that NATO would not take advantage of the situation by expanding eastward. Russia, still an empire spanning eight time zones, seemed destined to join the grouping of liberal European democracies.
But such was not to be. The kind of economic expansion the West exported to Russia initiated more than a decade of plunder and crony capitalism that saw Russian life expectancy plunge 6% in the years from 1988 to 2003, from just under 70 years to under 65 years. This only reversed when Putin abandoned rapprochement with the West, and the pursuit of democracy. Since 2003 Russian life expectancy has risen to near 73 years. In the U.S. it stands at 79.
How is it we squandered such an opportunity? One might cynically conclude those with the power to influence events were more interested in short term profit than long term global stability, deciding there was more money to be made by plundering Russia and preventing them from joining the collective of European nations, thereby maintaining long term the adversarial stance that justifies the “military-industrial-congressional-complex” enormous profits. (Thus it was termed in the first draft of President Eisenhower’s farewell address, and he should know. During his presidency he’d allowed U.S. participation in the overthrow of at least three democracies: Iran, Guatemala and the Republic of Congo).
If this was the reasoning, then the expansion of NATO into the Baltic states of the former Soviet Union makes perfect sense. This came despite the warning of senior statesman George F. Kennan, architect of Cold War containment policy, who stated the following on the subject:
“Why, with all the hopeful possibilities engendered by the end of the Cold War, should East-West relations become centered on the question of who would be allied with whom and, by implication, against whom in some fanciful, totally unforeseeable and most improbable future military conflict?”
“[B]luntly stated…expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking … ” — Excerpt from George F. Kennan, “A Fateful Error,” New York Times, 05 Feb 1997
Nevertheless, such was the policy pursued under Clinton and George H.W. Bush after him. Bush put forward a plan to position nuclear ‘deterrent’ missiles in the new NATO allies bordering Russia. Putin sagely pointed out these were not necessarily defensive missiles, as they were capable of bringing down ICBMs in the launch phase thus negating MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction— the policy that had kept the peace during the Cold War, because a launch by either side would be met by a response that could not be diminished to any sufficient degree. From the Russian perspective, these missiles likely serve as part of a first strike strategy. George W. Bush responded to his objections by trying to maintain these were defensive weapons aimed against Iranian missiles (who had no nuclear weapons at the time nor do they still); to which Putin might well have responded, “Can I get a bridge with that, too, George?”
Those who regarded Bush’s plan as irresponsible breathed a sigh of relief when Obama was elected and he immediately cancelled the proposed Lockheed Martin program. However, shortly thereafter he approved a similar ship-based program to be built by General Dynamics, and shared with our new Baltic allies. Turns out the Crown family of Chicago are major shareholders in General Dynamics, as well as major contributors to Obama’s 2008 campaign.
I confess not to have kept close track since to NATO deployments into Eastern Europe since, as there is little need. Such weapons make the policy on the US & NATO side abundantly clear.
Of course this was/is couched in terms of responding to threatening Russian posturing in the Baltic. (What are enemies for, after all?) The fact that the ‘threatening Russian posturing’ in the Ukraine and elsewhere is something is taking place within the borders of their own country as a predictable response to what’s taking place just beyond their border, is consistently left out of news media discussions of our policy, and the current crisis.
Which brings us to the present moment, when we’re constantly reminded that war in the Ukraine could come at any moment, because Russia might invade “further.” “Further,” I suppose, refers to the invasion seven years ago and the conflict in the southeastern separatist regions, when Putin decided he’d had enough of NATO’s encroachment and had sham elections in Crimea so he could take back his naval base. This dot is rarely connected, reinforcing the impression in low information viewers that in the current situation a troop build-up within his own territory means Putin has already invaded, is an aggressor worthy of sanctions or worse).
Granted, Putin is a lying obfuscator who will create any kind of excuse to justify a land grab motivated as much by providing a necessary distraction from domestic political pressure as geopolitical concerns. He’s poisoned and imprisoned journalists, along with his political opposition.
We don’t do that— well, we do the prison part (or attempt to) when the publisher is Julian Assange, or the reporter is James Risen, or if it’s an intelligence whistleblower like John Kiriakou, Ed Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner, Thomas Drake, William Binney, Daniel Hale, or Daniel Ellsberg.
While I’m glad I don’t live in Putin’s Russia, I’m very much looking forward to the imprisonment of our former president. I believe the maintenance of our republic requires it, even though he likely would never have gotten us into this mess with Russia over the Ukraine. What he would do, given another term, would be worse for the soul of our nation and the world (if such is conceivable with Biden and Putin waving their dicks at each other like there’s no WWIII in the offing).
Having lost millions of people not once but twice already (early ‘30’s and WWII), the Ukrainians are much less keen on this whole “war is imminent” and “invasion is inevitable” scenario. Although they’re the one’s with the most skin in the game, nobody in the Kremlin, Brussels or the White House seems to able to hear them admonishing both sides to back. If Biden cleaves to the customary Exceptionalism playbook (Nixon not wanting to seem like a quitter comes to mind) and we “destroy the village in order to save it,” the village will be a nation of 41 million people in the middle of Eastern Europe, and the capital, Kiev, a city of three million people. The political instability this will create will spread far beyond its borders.
The problem, as I see it, is not Putin, since what he’s demanding is not all that unreasonable, but ceding to any of his demands runs smack into a major conflict with our national ego (not the same as our national interest). We can’t imagine ourselves without the chip on our shoulder termed American Exceptionalism, to justify the expansion of the “free market,” regardless the cost to those who bear it. History has long since proven this chestnut less than useful for including the needs of a complicated world. Our national inability to admit mistakes feeds our propensity to double down on them (in Vietnam, El Salvador, Honduras, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan…).
Our leaders seem stuck in an endless cycle of making then drinking their own Kool-Aid. Meanwhile, our over-propagandized population, infantalized on Exceptionalist mythology, suffers from loss of imagination; their expectations so unrealistic on the one hand and lowered on the other they can no longer conceive what having a government under their control would look like unless it’s been taken over by a dictator. Good luck with that fantasy.
Putin keeps delivering the same message about Russia’s very valid security concerns, which our government refuses to acknowledge as though by ignoring it they can make it go away, and we drag NATO and Europe reluctantly along. Despite Biden‘s campaign appeals to the working class with stories about his roots, he has by this time spent nearly a lifetime inside the Washington bubble, and participated in many of those “make the world safe for democracy” decisions that have left country after country a shambles. Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and others suffered under the Soviets so it’s understandable that given the opportunity to escape they’d want to make good on the fact by joining NATO, but that doesn’t mean they want a replay of the insanity of WWII, during which they suffered far greater than did the U.S.
I suppose from inside the bubble it’s hard to stay in touch with what it’s really like in the rest of the country let alone see the world from the perspective of another nation’s history. The fig leaf of liberal democracy hiding the voracious inequality of neo-liberal capitalism is a fiction fewer and fewer believe in the longer we continue to abuse it. Certainly Putin doesn’t, and expecting him to ‘come around’ is the definition of insanity. Our commitment to liberal democracy must amount to more than the blinders we wear to obscure from ourselves the actual results of our actions.
So what is the game they are playing at? Regime change in Russia, so they think.
Ukraine should be like Finland: neutral, non-aligned. Putin’s demand that they never join NATO should be part of a mutual hands off internal politics of the nation agreement between the U.S., NATO, Russia and the Ukraine. The Minsk Agreement for partial autonomy for Russian majority separatist districts should be negotiated. A pullback of the “defensive” missile posture in the states bordering Russia should be on the table. There’s precedent for this, when Kennedy pulled missiles out of Turkey to gain Khrushchev’s acceptance on removing missiles from Cuba, to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps an agreement on mutual assistance to stem international economic corruption, addressing cyber-security.
Complicating matters is the fact that fossil fuel is Russia’s major source of export revenue. A mutual development pact to wean all nations off it simultaneously should also be part of the discussion. If the natural gas supply from Russia to Europe is interrupted by this crisis (as both Biden and Putin have threatened at various times), who benefits? U.S. and northern European producers are poised to swoop in to make up the difference.
Hmm… do I hear, “Sanctions! Sanctions! There will be Sanctions!”
Continuation of all this sabre rattling is very good for the usual suspects, the arms industry and the fossil fuel industry, but potentially very bad for: servicemen and women sent in basically as hostages (facing a much larger ground army) to justify more hardware expense; millions of Ukrainians; and the temperature of the planet.
By the way of thinking of various governmental and corporate elites, a case could be made for the continued slow economic strangulation of Russia, to bring them into the global market as another wounded vassal. Such thinking has proven short-sighted and been disastrous everywhere else in the world it has been applied. There is no room in such a calculation for improvement on the existential threat of climate change. Rather the opposite— keep making money as the world burns, and if it leads to war make more.
Reflecting on Sun Tzu, Biden’s unyielding stance displays a lack of understanding of the country of his enemy as well as his own. Putin’s Russia may have an economy the size of Italy, but there is in the Russian identity something unmatched in U.S. history even going back to the inception of our republic: a depth of nationalistic unity amidst suffering. It would be unwise to underestimate this, and overestimate the strength of Putin’s opposition.
We should have learned by now that democracy cannot be instituted at the point of a sword, even if that sword is held by an alliance of thirty nations whose combined diverse populations is significantly less than that of China.
Continued attempts at forcing regime change in Russia will merely drive Russia and China together, hardening their antagonism towards the U.S. at a time when our economy is much weaker than in the past, and our populace more divided than at any time since our Civil War.
The U.S. must develop a plan B, one that includes the needs of the rest of the planet.
President Biden, you want to support the troops? Back off.