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Vladimir Putin, Enrico LettaConsider an analogy to get a sense of how Russia might perceive America’s Ukraine policy. It is imperfect of course, because unlike Russia, America has no history of being invaded, unless you count the War of 1812. But a comparison might be instructive nonetheless:

By 2034, China’s power position has risen relative to America’s. America has evacuated its East Asian bases, under peaceful but pressured circumstances. The governments of Korea and Japan and eventually the Philippines had, by 2026, concluded it was better off with a “less provocative” more neutral arrangement. The huge naval base at Subic Bay became home to a multilateral UN contingent. China’s economy had been larger than America’s for a while, though American per capita income is still somewhat higher. American technological innovation edge has largely disappeared, America still has a lot of soft power—people over the world prefer Hollywood movies to Chinese and America’s nuclear arsenal exceeds the Chinese. But the countries are far more equal than today, and throughout much of the world it is assumed that China will be tomorrow’s dominant “hyperpower.”

A political crisis erupts in Mexico. Mexico has a freely elected but typically corrupt government, whose leading figures are linked to Wall Street and Miami Beach by ties of marriage and money. But many in Mexico—where anti-gringo nationalism remains a potent force,–want to become the first “North American partner” in the China led Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Young Mexicans proclaim defiantly they are “people of color” and laud the fact non-white China is rising while America, country of aging white people, is in decline. Their sentiments, materialistic and infused with personal ambitions are so permeated with anti-American, anti-imperialist “third worldist” rhetoric that it is difficult for outsiders to sort out the true motivations. When the Mexican government, under American pressure, rejects a Chinese invitation for candidate membership in China’s East Asian Co Prosperity Sphere, long prepared protests erupt in Mexico City.

The core group of protest leaders and organizers have been on the Chinese payroll for some time, as the heads of various civic action and popular democracy initiatives, many with an obvious anti-gringo flavor. Soon Chinese politicians and movie stars begin flocking to Mexico City to be photographed with the protesters. Thus encouraged, protester demands escalate, including not only the resignation of the government, Mexico’s adhesion to the Chinese economic bloc, but a military alliance with China. The NSA captures a cell phone conversation of the Chinese ambassador discussing who will hold what posts in the next Mexican cabinet. Three days later, sniper fire of undetermined origin riddles the protestors and police, and any semblance of order breaks down. Mexico’s president flees to Miami.

The above scenario parallels pretty directly the run-up to the Ukraine crisis, before Russia began to respond forcefully. One can of course see the ambiguities of right and wrong. Why should America have anything to say about whether Mexico has a revolution and joins an anti-American military alliance, some would ask. Mexico is sovereign, and should be able to join any international grouping it wants.

What is most striking about the Ukraine crisis is how much the Washington debate lacks any sense of how the issue might look to other interested parties, particularly Russia. Putin is analysed of course—is he, as Hillary Clinton suggested, following Hitler’s playbook? Or is he merely an aggressive autocrat? Or perhaps he is “in his own world” and not quite sane? But in open Washington conversation at least, and perhaps even at the more reflective levels of government, all talk begins with the premise that Russia’s leader is somewhere on the continuum between aggressive and the irrational. That he might be acting reactively and defensively, as any leader of a large power would be in response to threatening events on its doorstep, is not even part of the American conversation. Thus in the waning days of American unipolarism America diplomacy sinks into a mode of semi-autism, able to perceive and express its own interests, perceptions, and desires, while oblivious to the concerns of others.

A rare and welcome exception to blindness was the publication in Foreign Affairs of John Mearsheimer’s cogent essay on the Ukraine crisis, which with characteristic directness argues that Western efforts to move Ukraine in the Nato/EE orbit were the “taproot” of the present crisis. Prior to Mearsheimer, one could find analyses tracing how various neoliberal and neoconservative foundations had, with their spending and sponsorship of various “pro-Western” groups, fomented a revolution in Ukraine, but they were generally sequestered in left-liberal venues habitually critical of American and Western policies. In the Beltway power loop, such voices were never heard. The policy of pushing NATO eastward, first incorporating Poland and Bulgaria and then going right up to Russia’s borders moved forward as if on mysterious autopilot. That such a policy was wise and necessary was considered a given when it was discussed at all, which was seldom. Was Obama even aware that a leading neoconservative, a figure from Dick Cheney’s staff, was in charge formulating American policy towards Ukraine—with designs on igniting revolutionary regional transformation? One has to assume not; confrontation with Russia had not been part of Obama’s presidential campaign or style, and since the crisis began his comments have always been more measured than the actions of the government he purportedly leads.

As Mearsheimer points out, there remains still a fairly obvious and quite attractive off-ramp: a negotiation with Russia which settles formally Ukraine’s non-aligned status. There are useful precedents for this: Eisenhower’s negotiation with Krushchev that brought about the withdrawal of foreign troops from Austria in 1955 is one, and so of course is Finland. No one who contemplates where the Ukraine crisis might lead otherwise—with a war that devastates the country or perhaps brings in outside powers to devastate all of Europe, or even explodes the entire northern hemisphere—could sanely consider Austria or Finland—prosperous and free countries—to be bad outcomes. Nevertheless the entire conversation in Washington revolves around measures to make Putin back down, and accept the integration of Ukraine into the EU and eventually NATO. People act baffled that he won’t.

There is a mystery to the way Washington works—how an entire political class came to see as American policy that that Russia be humiliated at its own doorstep as logical, without ever reflecting upon whether this was a good idea in the larger scheme of global politics nor whether the West had the means and will to see it through. Because to see it through likely means war with Russia over Ukraine. (The West-leaning Ukrainians of course, be they democratic or fascist, want nothing more than to have American troops fighting beside them as they become NATO partners, a tail wagging the dog). America’s policy makes sense only if it is taken for granted that Russia is an eternal enemy, an evil power which must be surrounded weakened and ultimately brought down. But very few in Washington believe that either, and virtually no one in the American corporate establishment does. So it’s a mystery—a seemingly iron-clad Washington consensus formed behind a policy, the integration of Ukraine in the West, to whose implications no one seems to have given any serious thought.

Russia’s leaders and diplomats have been telling America to butt out of Ukraine in unambiguous terms for a decade or more. Did American diplomats and CIA agents push for an anti-Russian coup d’etat in Kiev knowing that and pursue it anyway? The sheer recklessness of such an action would border on criminal—but oddly enough, no one who truly counts in Washington, Republican or Democrat, seems even to consider it even slightly misguided.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of The American Conservative.

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14 replies to this post
  1. most accounts indicate that most, certainly not all, Ukranians desire a Western orientation (yes I realize this is an internal contraction with the verb orior). Why allow a foreign nation to impede this ??

    if it cost the ceding of an eastern sliver to Russia, so be it

    jack

    • You mean Western orientation of the self-designed Nazi leaders of the so-called Maidan revolution, backed by the US?

      Or perhaps the non-Western orientation of the ousted Yanukovich who sought, over the decade he was elected to office, a balance between the EU and Russia as well as NATO?

      This supposedly Russian puppet who had on his payroll John McCain’s own foreign policy advisor?

  2. I find it incredible that a purportedly conservative site would be part of the blame-America-first-crowd. You people here are complete anomalies when it comes to this international situation. So you excuse the invasion of Ukraine. So what about the take over of Crimea? What about taking over one third of Georgia? You want to claim that Washington is baffled, and I agree Obama is an imbecile, but what about the rest of Europe. They have the same take on Putin and Russian expansionism. All this historical handwringing is nonsense. No nation should take over others in the 21st century, especially on the Hitlerian excuse of cultural identity. (And don’t give me this Iraq excuse. We didn’t take it over to keep it, and there was a history of Saddam Husein violating his treaties.)

    Putin only understands power and the fact that NATO has abdicated power. NATO needs to put back the armies across central Europe, not the 600,000 that were there during the cold war, but a good 200,000, and you need to push them up to the new NATO Baltic countries. Putin is not to be trusted and Europe needs to deter further Russian expansion. Unfortunately Europe doesn’t have the will.

    As to the person that kept asking me why NATO expanded after the cold war, it did so because (1) to further interknit Europe into a cohesive alliance ( a good thing given Europe’s history of conflicts) and (2) because the eastern European countries feared Russia. They didn’t trust Russia and have all pressed to join. I can’t think of a single one that was coerced by the west. And their fear turned out to be credible. The fear has been actualized.

    And being isolated on this issue at this website, I’m not going to respond to a slew of rejoinders. If you convince me otherwise of some point or other, I’ll acknowledge it. Otherwise my silence means I stand by my position.

    • What makes you assume the masses in this part of the world are allied to th United States (ie. Wall Street, City of London and Israel)?

    • It is not so naive as “blame America first” as you state it. The US has been front and center of this Ukraine conflict from the get-go…..

    • We did not invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein “violated treaties”, and this you know.

      And if violating “treaties” (you mean UN Security Council Resolutions) were the basis of our invasions, it would be Israel we’d be bombing and occupying–the world’s record holder of such

  3. Mr. Manmy,

    While you may remain unconvinced and silent (as is your right – and who knows, maybe you are right in general too), I think it is important for those who are willing to hear the other side to keep listening and make up their own mind:

    a) In general, Eastern European nations joined NATO and the EU because they thought these organizations would guarantee peace in Europe, not fomment war and revolution, which they have in Ukraine. The specific history is more complex.

    b) Hungary, Slovakia and the Chech Republic do not support the present NATO and EU policy against Russia – so this simple minded assumption that “Eastern Europe” fears Russia is wrong.

    Please note also that the Prime Minister of Poland, supposedly a nation under threat of Russian invasion has – midterm – quit his job because he was offered 50 times more money than he makes as Prime Minister of Poland to sit around Brussels learning how to speak english. Are we SERIOUSLY to believe that a statesman and patriot who believed his country in grave peril would do such a thing? Or could it be that this is just what someone in the pay of foreign interests does once his mission has been accomplished and he wishes to collect his final payment?

    Compare that to Syrian President Assad – who is man enough to stay in his country.

    c) Hungarian troops are massed on Ukraine’s western border and during the fighting, Hungarian special forces entered Ukraine when Hungarian interests were imperiled. Think about the implications.

    d) Has anyone noticed that yesterday a cease fire agreement was signed in Minsk between the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Luhansk People’s Republic, Ukraine and Russia and the OSCE? Has anyone noticed that NO WHERE in the agreement is there anything about “withdrawing Russian troops from Ukraine” – because there never were any there? You do all realize President Poroshenko signed this agreement thereby admiting that “Russian invasion” was a political ruse?

    e) Please familiarize yourselves with Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s recent speech regarding why the West is a failure and Hungary is no longer going to pursue liberal democracy, because Mr. Orban’s thinking represents the potential future for Eastern European thinking.

    f) As a historical matter, it took 10 years of peaceful and rigorous work, (militarily, legislatively, diplomatic), to get the Eastern European countries into NATO and 14 years to get them into the EU. EU and NATO enterence is a multiyear process that does not happen over night, nor just because some country “wants” to join. Given that Ukraine is a bankrupt, backwards, corrupt cauldron of failure and war – it is a security threat to NATO and the EU just as much as it is to Russia. Ukraine would have to radically change and demonstrate sustained change to maybe have some chance of entering NATO in 20 years given the mess it is.

    If Ukraine, despite being a bankrupt failure and warzone is admited into NATO now, it will only prove one thing: there are no rules and this is merely a move by the West to steal resources.

    g) Has anyone considered that the army Ukraine has sent to pummel Donetsk this summer might be sent to pummel Poland next summer? After all, there are political forces in Ukraine calling for “taking back” certain regions from Poland.

    h) Speaking of taking things back, why – despite Ukraine fighting for Hitler and Poland fighting for freedom, is Lvov in Ukraine? Why do Bandera’s SS followers merit support rather than Polish interests and the justice of restoring Lvov to Poland?

    Why does Anne Applebaum write a silly collumn stating that Vladimir Zhirinovsky threatned Poland with nuclear war (he did no such thing, he said that IF a wider war was started, Poland would be atomized in this war – a statement of fact, not a threat), but fails to mention that Zhrinovsky suggested, after the Maidan and before the war, that Poland should get Lvov back and wrote a letter to the Polish foreign ministry proposing talks about restoring the historic borders? Since Lvov is by right a Polish city – not a “Ukranian” city, why did the Polish government not pursue the historic opportunity to reclaim it? Shades of “Teshin” or shades of Danzig? Why does Applebaum not tell the story of Lvov?

    Could it be that the Polish government is bought and does not care for Polish interests and thus never brings this up and flat out refused the Russian attempts to bring the subject up?Or maybe Promethianism made the Poles too proud to dream of Polish Lvov, since it was possible to dream of the Russian Black Sea in NATO?

    i) Anyone who really wants to build unity in Europe would begin the Eastern policy from building unity with Moscow, not Minsk or Kiev. Without unity with Moscow – you cannot have unity in Eastern Europe. This unity would require patient statesmanship, sustained economic ties and a strategy that is multi-generational. The expansion cannot happen by force, nor should it. It also will not happen in one or two terms, so politicians must accept incrementalism, but their egos do not let them..

    j) Freedom means the right to say no. The democratically ellected President of Ukraine said no to the EU. In response, NATO and the EU staged a coup d’etat. This makes NATO and the EU the aggressor.

    k) Unless anyone has failed to notice, the EU and USA are bankrupt and in deep crisis. Yet these bankrupt institutions of liberal democracy, which Hungarian Prime Minister Orban has rightly called the centers of “sex, corruption and violence” – dare to dictate to the people of Ukraine that they should sell their country out?

    l) Enjoy transfering US tax money to Ukraine this winter so Ukraine can transfer it to Gazprom to pay heating bills. That’ll really “show Putin”.

    One could go on and on.

    In any event: Congratulations President Obama on bringing President Poroshenko, Putin and Lukashenko together in Minsk. Congratulations for making Belorus the center of peace and diplomacy. Congratulations for giving President Lukashenko the chance to proclaim “The West wants our people in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to kill one another – we cannot give Uncle Sam the satisfaction.”

    But then again what could we expect from someone who got through university only because of Affirmative Action?

  4. Ha! Now across the news wires:

    “Fears are growing in Kazakhstan over Moscow’s rhetoric towards the country following Russia President Vladimir Putin’s claim that “Kazakhstan never had any statehood”, it was “created”.

    The Russian leader told a pro-Kremlin youth camp at Lake Seliger near Moscow that Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev had “created a state on a territory that never had a state.”

    “Kazakhs never had any statehood, he has created it,” he said.”

    https://uk.news.yahoo.com/vladimir-putin-continues-soviet-rhetoric-questioning-kazakhstans-created-123439511.html?.tsrc=samsungwn#11WS3QX

  5. Mr. Manny:

    Do you consider the Alash Autonomy to have been a Kazahi state, because legally speaking – no one else in the whole world did.

    And even if you do make the argument that the Alash Autonomy was a Kazahi state – then this does not really hold water, because it was a White Russian state resisting Red Russian communists – it was White Russia’s prefered solution to total communist take over. Tsar Nicholas II did the same for Poland – or at least tried to, as did the Kaiser. It is called Great Power politics – when your throne is in trouble, you tell your subjects they are free and independent – so long as they happen to fight against your enemies. That was the genesis of the Alash Autonomy, which I do not think can be called a Kazahi state proper – unlike Kazahstan today, which is a legal, fully recognized nation-state.

    But what can we say about it?

    The President of Kazahstan has been the President of Kazahstan since Kazahstan was created in 1991.

    So…what does that tell us?

    The guy has been President of Kazahstan since 1991?

    23 years – the same President!? Not even Vladimir Putin has managed to do that.

    Now, I have nothing against the idea that people in Kazahstan awaken to national consciousness and create their own state.

    But think: If the West claims Mr. Putin is some uber-tyrant because he is President of Russia for a third term (although after a break) – then what does it say about Kazahstan that the person who founded their nation state is STILL – 23 years later – President of Kazahstan??

    If you are suggesting that Kazahi “democracy” is now “threatened” by Moscow – you are wrong. Unless your definition of pluralistic democracy is one President reigning for 23 years?

    In any event – Kazahstan is not in NATO, not in the EU. It borders China for goodness sake. Russian-Kazahi relations are Russian-Kazahi relations. Or do you envision that the European Union should extend to the borders of China?

    By the way – how many Kazahs live in Kazahstan?

    63% of the country is made up of Kazahs.

    We can have a conversation about Kazahstan – it will be interesting, but it will not prove anything about Western policy in Ukraine being right.

  6. Here’s a bit of news about Kazahstan also, Mr. Manny, consider this – courtesy google:

    “Elections to the Majilis in September 2004 yielded a lower house dominated by the pro-government Otan Party headed by President Nazarbayev. Two other parties, the agrarian-industrial bloc AIST and the Asar Party, founded by President Nazarbayev’s daughter, won most of the remaining seats. Opposition parties, which were officially registered and competed in the elections, won a single seat.”

    There’s your democracy in Kazahstan:

    Vote for the 23 year reigning President
    or
    Vote for the President’s Daughter

    Let’s call in the Marines to defend this stellar beacon of Democracy! Let’s tax the American worker even more on behalf of Kazahstan.

    I am not advocating anything here with regard to the destiny of Kazahstan – but simply pointing out sir, that if people in the West are now trying to propagate yet another crusade against Russia by claiming that “democracy” in Kazahstan is in danger…well then…

    It seems that President Obama and the entire Western Press are like those dancers who take Borat very seriously when he talks about the “Tuliev massacre”

    I just hope Americans won’t be crying when Borat says “it not sad…we do the killing!”

  7. Mr. Reith, I never claimed Kazakhstan was a democracy, either a good one or a bad one. What deos anything you say have to do with Russia advancing and seizing all or parts of Kazakhstan? A country does not have to be a democracy in order for it to be unjustly invaded. Russia agreed to the borders established at the break up of the Soviet Union. For over a decade they have not contested those borders. Now that Putin is in charge, they (or is it just Putin?) decide they are not happy with the arrangement. It’s too late. The borders have been established and these countries have been institutionalized two decades. At this point Russia is not only an aggressor, not only violating agreements (Ukraine specifically gave up nuclear weapons per their agreement – what a bad decision that was), but unjust and acting in bad faith.

  8. Mr. Manny,

    Russia is not going to “sieze” Kazahstan. Russia will worry about security in Kazahstan after the current President is gone.

    As for borders in general – what do you mean “it’s too late?” Sir, of course borders can be contested. So long as it is peaceful and through popular soveriegnty – why not? The borders of a state ought to correspond to the factual borders of a nation as best as possible, as well as respect historical considerations. Who says there’s something wrong with contesting borders?

    As for your statement that Ukraine should not have given up its’ nuclear weapons, I will ignore geopolitics for a moment and ask out of curiosity:

    Am I to understand that in return for murdering 200,000 Poles, taking Lvov and the surrounding cities and enthusiastically supporting Hitler well past Hitler’s death in 1945 (because UPA was fighting until ’47), Ukraine should not only have the right to Polish land, but also nuclear weapons?

    Are you suggesting it is too bad that Hitler’s principle Eastern ally didn’t get nuclear weapons?

    • What I’m suggesting has nothing to do with 1947. I don’t see how that is meaningful to today’s Russia invading Ukraine. What I’m saying is that Ukraine gave up its only capability of deterring Russia.

  9. Mr. Manny,

    While you are considering what 1947 has to do with anything, please consider also:

    1) What does 1954 have to do with the Vietnam war?
    2) What does 1918 have to do with World War II?
    3) What does 1820 have to do with the Civil war?

    As to nuclear arms, were you opposed to all former Soviet republics giving up their nuclear weapons, or only Ukraine? If so – why?

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