Has anybody else noticed that now that the pandemic is winding down, suddenly there is a new crisis — a bloody war in the Ukraine — that is meant to create panic?
Perpetual presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had an unintentionally hilarious piece in the Atlantic this morning claiming that the Ukraine conflict is caused by Republicans who hate democracy just like Vladimar Putin hates democracy. Meanwhile, the same people who just a month ago were telling you to “mask up” and “get triple vaxxed” are now calling anybody not banging the war drum a traitor. More claims of treason here.
Former Democratic presidential candidate and military veteran Tulsi Gabbard called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis and was met with hundreds of Twitter followers who said things like this:
Meanwhile, those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear should understand that the constant emotional manipulation is part of a pattern. The forces of evil in this world want us to hate each other and to see the world in simple, jingoistic terms. If you are against U.S. military involvement in Ukraine, you must love Putin. If you pray for Putin, you are a traitor. If you promote peace, you must be destroyed.
In this Manichean worldview, you must see Putin as Evil and Ukraine as Good. But as followers of the Prince of Peace, we must avoid being emotionally manipulated on this and every other issue. The truth is that there are many people and forces to blame for the current war in Ukraine, and the history of this conflict is much more complex than the corporate media would have us believe.
The Ukraine, which borders Russia, has been linked to the larger country for more than 10 centuries. The two countries have similar Orthodox religions and similar languages. Nearly half of the people in Ukraine are pro-Russian and see the country’s future as linked to Russia’s future.
So, if you have this image of Ukraine as one people heroically opposed to Russia, you would be wrong. In fact, Ukraine is at least two kinds of people, and many of them want to be part of Russia.
My first point would be: avoid simplistic depictions of Ukraine as good guys united in fighting the Russian bullies.
Is Ukraine a democracy? Well, partly, but the claims that Ukraine is a people’s republic fighting the dictatorship in Russia are also wrong. Yes, there are elections in Ukraine, but there are also elections in Venezuela, and nobody claims those elections are free. In fact, Ukraine’s elections are fraught with problems, and the Economist Intelligence Unit decided in 2021 that Ukraine was only partially a democracy. Ukraine ranks 86th in the world in terms of democratic norms, not far ahead of Russia. Meanwhile Ukraine is considered one of the least free countries in Europe, with about the same level of freedom as Russia.
I find it difficult to defend the proposition that defending Ukraine is somehow defending democracy.
So, who is to blame for the current crisis in Ukraine? Well, obviously Russia is the primary aggressor today, and that cannot be excused. I believe in peaceful resolution of problems, and Russia is not acting peacefully. So please do not misunderstand the point of this post: I am not excusing the Russian invasion.
But it is important to understand the history. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and its independence was not accepted by all Ukrainians, as I have already shown. There are Soviet nuclear weapons sites in Ukraine, and when Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union in the 1990s it included the primary Russian naval ports in the Crimea. The Russians agreed to limited Ukrainian political independence, but they never agreed to military independence. And in fact one Russian leader after another since the 1990s has stipulated that Ukraine would never be allowed to be a military force aligned against Russia.
If we are honest, we must say that the current war is linked to the push to make Ukraine part of NATO. NATO’s charter is that an attack on Ukraine would be an attack on all NATO countries, which means that the United States and Europe would be aligned with Ukraine deliberately against Russia.
If we are to be true Christians, we must have empathy for all people, including our enemies. How could we possibly expect the Russians to sit by and allow their neighbor to become aligned against Russia without acting? How would Americans react to Canada and/or Mexico becoming aligned with military enemies? Well, we know exactly how we would act, because the U.S. involvement in World War 1 was directly linked to a leaked German campaign to turn Mexico against the U.S. It is understandable that the United States, for security reasons, could not allow Mexico to join a military alliance against the United States. How is it not understandable that the Russians would not allow Ukraine to join a military alliance against Russia?
None other than George Kennan, the primary architect of U.S. cold war strategy, warned in the 1990s that the push to have Eastern European countries join NATO would end in tragedy.
In 1998 Kennan, who was one of the primary founders of NATO said the following:
“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. ”I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”
“What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was,” added Mr. Kennan, who was present at the creation of NATO and whose anonymous 1947 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, signed ”X,” defined America’s cold-war containment policy for 40 years. ”I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.
“And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia,” said Mr. Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in 1952. “It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.”
So, to reiterate, the current war can be blamed, at least in part, on bad diplomatic decisions from 25 years ago. We can imagine an alternate time line in which we had followed Kennan’s advice in the 1990s and embraced Russia as an ally rather than an adversary. In such a scenario, the Ukrainian war would have been avoided.
(To be clear, counter-factuals are always problematic. I am not saying Russia definitely would have embraced the West in return. I am saying that there might have been another way. The key word here is “might.”)
My last point is that the wise course of action is to see the world through the eyes of Realpolitik. Embracing reality means understanding that all countries will pursue their national interests, and it actually increases the chances for peace to recognize this. Ukraine will always be in the Russian sphere of influence, just like Canada and Mexico will always be in the U.S. sphere of influence. Any meddling in Ukraine will provoke Russia, just as any meddling in our neighbors will provoke a U.S. response.
There are no realistic long-term U.S. interests in Ukraine, beyond the normal humanitarian concerns for all of God’s children. The war should not involve the U.S., except of course as a neutral promoter of peace and good will.
And in fact, there is actually a quick solution that would end the war. The United States could recognize the obvious fact that Ukraine is not a candidate for NATO, and the Russian invasion would stop. The United States could recognize Russian claims to the Crimea in exchange for Ukrainian political independence. Here is how one writer put it:
At multiple points leading up to the current crisis, there were ways for the United States and Europe to create off-ramps for both Moscow and Kyiv, to shepherd a negotiated settlement so that both sides got a minimum of what they needed, and some of what they wanted.
What might that have looked like? For Moscow, a recognition of its strategic claim on Crimea and the port of Sevastopol as the home of its Black Sea Fleet. For Kyiv, the promise of political independence and greater integration with Europe in exchange for territorial concessions.
The West should have also considered the folly and recklessness of floating the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine, something no serious person ever thought Russia would accept without going to war to prevent it. And yet as far back as 2008, the United States openly discussed the possibility of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, even as Kyiv still claimed sovereignty over Russia’s most important naval base in Sevastopol. Under these conditions, the idea of Ukraine joining NATO was preposterous.
Instead, for years now the West has encouraged Ukraine to take a hard line on Russia, with false promises that the U.S. and NATO would stand up to Moscow and defend Ukraine when it came down to it, or that Ukraine would become a NATO member and thus secure its untenable borders.
There is a way for this war to end. Part of it depends on people in the United States avoiding being emotionally manipulated by the constant claims of “good guy Ukrainians” vs “bad guy Russians.” Can we move out of this latest phase of our new reality of constant crisis? I hope so.