Professor Stephen F. Cohen -
The Ukrainian civil war, precipitated by the unlawful change of government in Kyiv in February, is already growing into a proxy US–Russian war. The seemingly unthinkable is becoming imaginable: an actual war between NATO, led by the United States, and post-Soviet Russia.
Certainly, we are already in a new cold war, which escalating sanctions will only deepen and institutionalize, one potentially more dangerous than its US–Soviet predecessor the world barely survived. This is so for several reasons:
• The epicenter of the new cold war is not in Berlin but on Russia’s borders, in Ukraine, a region absolutely essential in Moscow’s view to its national security and even to its civilization. This means that the kinds of miscalculations, mishaps, and provocations the world witnessed decades ago will be even more fraught with danger. (The mysterious shoot down of a Malaysian jetliner over eastern Ukraine in July was an ominous example.)
• An even graver risk is that the new cold war may tempt the use of nuclear weapons in a way the US–Soviet one did not. I have in mind the argument made by some Moscow military strategists that if directly threatened by NATO’s superior conventional forces, Russia may resort to its much larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. (The ongoing US–NATO encirclement of Russia with bases, as well as land and sea-based missile defense, only increases this possibility.)
• Yet another risk factor is that the new cold war lacks the mutually restraining rules that developed during the 40-year cold war, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, highly charged suspicions, resentments, misconceptions, and misinformation both in Washington and Moscow may make such mutual restraints even more difficult. The same is true of the surreal demonization of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin—a kind of personal vilification without any real precedent in the past, at least after Stalin’s death. (Henry Kissinger has pointed out that the “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” I think it is worse: an abdication of real analysis and rational policy-making.)
• Finally, the new cold war may be more perilous because, also unlike during its 40-year predecessor, there is no effective American opposition—not in the administration, Congress, establishment media, universities, think tanks, or in society.
In this regard, we need to understand our plight. We—opponents of the US policies that have contributed so woefully to the current crisis—are few in number, without influential supporters, and unorganized. I am old enough to know our position was very different in the 1970s and 1980s, when we struggled for what was then called détente. We were a minority, but a substantial minority with allies in high places, even in Congress and in the State Department. Our views were solicited by mainstream newspapers, television, and radio. In addition to grass roots support, we even had our own lobby organization in Washington, the American Committee on East–West Accord, whose board included corporate CEOs, political figures, prominent academics, and statesmen of the stature of George Kennan.
We have none of that today. We have no access to the Obama administration, virtually none to Congress, which is a bipartisan bastion of cold war politics, very little to the mainstream media. (Since the Ukrainian crisis deepened, does anyone recall reading our views on the editorial or op-ed pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal—or seeing them presented on MSNBC or Fox Cable News, which differ little in their unbalanced broadcasts?) We do have access to important alternative media, but they are not considered authoritative, or even essential, inside the Beltway. In my long lifetime, I do not recall such a failure of American democratic discourse in such a time of crisis. (Gilbert Doctorow, an American specialist on Russia and experienced multi-national corporate executive living in Belgium, is trying to create a US–European version of the Committee on East–West Accord.)
Opinions vs facts
I turn now, in my capacity as a historian, to that orthodoxy. The later Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” The new cold war orthodoxy rests almost entirely on fallacious opinions. Five of those fallacies are particularly important today:
—Fallacy No. 1: Ever since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington has treated post-Communist Russia generously as a desired friend and partner, making every effort to help it become a democratic, prosperous member of the Western system of international security. Unwilling or unable, Russia rejected this American altruism, emphatically under Putin.
Fact: Beginning in the 1990s, again with the Clinton administration, every American president and congress has treated post–Soviet Russia as a defeated nation with inferior legitimate rights at home and abroad. This triumphalist, winner-take-all approach has been spearheaded by the expansion of NATO—accompanied by non-reciprocal negotiations and now missile defense—into Russia’s traditional zones of national security, while in reality excluding it from Europe’s security system. Early on, Ukraine, and to a lesser extent Georgia, were the ultimate goals. As an influential Washington Post columnist explained in 2004, “The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe’s march to the east . . . . The great prize is Ukraine."
—Fallacy No. 2: There exists a nation called “Ukraine” and a “Ukrainian people” who yearn to escape centuries of Russian influence and to join the West.
Fact: As every informed person knows, Ukraine is a country long divided by ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, economic, and political differences—particularly its western and eastern regions, but not only. When the current crisis began in 2013, Ukraine had one state, but it was not a single people or a united nation. Some of these divisions were made worse after 1991 by corrupt elite, but most of them had developed over centuries.
—Fallacy No. 3: In November 2013, the European Union, backed by Washington, offered Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych a benign association with European democracy prosperity. Yanukovych was prepared to sign the agreement, but Putin bullied and bribed him into rejecting it. Thus began Kyiv’s Maidan protests and all that has since followed.
Fact: The EU proposal was a reckless provocation compelling the democratically elected president of a deeply divided country to choose between Russia and the West. So too was the EU’s rejection of Putin’s counter-proposal of a Russian–European–American plan to save Ukraine from financial collapse. On its own, the EU proposal was not economically feasible. Offering little financial assistance, it required the Ukrainian government to enact harsh austerity measures and to sharply curtail longstanding economic relations with Russia. Nor was the EU proposal entirely benign. It included protocols requiring Ukraine to adhere to Europe’s “military and security” policies, which meant in effect, without mentioning the alliance, NATO. In short, it was not Putin’s alleged “aggression” that initiated today’s crisis but instead a kind of velvet aggression by Brussels and Washington to bring all of Ukraine into the West, including (in the fine print) into NATO.
—Fallacy No. 4: Today’s unfolding civil war in Ukraine was caused by Putin’s aggressive response to Maidan’s peaceful protests against Yanukovych’s decision.
Fact: In February 2014, radicalized Maidan protests, strongly influenced by extreme nationalist and even semi-fascist street forces, turned violent. Hoping for a peaceful resolution, European foreign ministers brokered a compromise between Maidan’s parliamentary representatives and Yanukovych. It would have left him as president of a coalition, reconciliation government until new elections in December 2014. Within hours, violent street fighters aborted the agreement. Europe and Washington did not defend their own diplomatic accord. Yanukovych fled to Russia. Minority parliamentary parties representing Maidan and predominantly western Ukraine, among them Svoboda, an ultra-nationalist movement previously anathematized by the European Parliament as incompatible with European values, formed a new government. They also nullified the existing constitution. Washington and Brussels endorsed the coup, and have supported the outcome ever since. Everything that followed, from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the spread of rebellion in southeastern Ukraine to the civil war and Kyiv’s “anti-terrorist operation,” was triggered by the February coup. Putin’s actions have been mostly reactive.
—Fallacy No. 5: The only way out of the crisis is for Putin to end his “aggression” and call off his agents in southeastern Ukraine.
Fact: The underlying causes of the crisis are Ukraine’s own internal divisions, not primarily Putin’s actions. The primary factor escalating the crisis since May has been Kyiv’s “anti-terrorist” military campaign against its own citizens, now mainly in the Donbass cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. Putin influences and no doubt aids the Donbass “self-defenders.” Considering the pressure on him in Moscow, he is likely to continue to do so, perhaps even more, but he does not control them. If Kyiv’s assault ends, Putin probably can compel the rebels to negotiate. But only the Obama administration can compel Kyiv to stop, and it has not done so.
In short, twenty years of US policy have led to this fateful American–Russian confrontation. Putin may have contributed to it along the way, but his role during his fourteen years in power has been almost entirely reactive—indeed, a complaint frequently lodged against him by hawks in Moscow.
In politics as in history, there are always alternatives. At least three outcomes of the Ukrainian crisis are conceivable:
—The civil war escalates and widens, drawing in Russian and possibly NATO military forces. This would be the worst outcome: a kind of latter-day Cuban Missile Crisis.
—Today’s de facto partitioning of Ukraine becomes institutionalized in the form of two Ukrainian states—one allied with the West, the other with Russia—co-existing between cold war and cold peace. This would not be the best outcome, but nor would it be the worst.
—The best outcome would be the preservation of a united Ukraine with one state. This will require good-faith negotiations between representatives of all of Ukraine’s regions, including leaders of the rebellious southeast, probably under the auspices of Washington, Moscow, and the European Union, as Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrow, have proposed for months.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s human tragedy continues to grow. Already (by August) thousands of innocent people have been killed or wounded, according to a UN representative, and nearly am others turned into fleeing refugees. It is a needless tragedy because rational people on all sides know the general terms of peace negotiations:
—Ukraine must become a federal or sufficiently decentralized state in order to permit its diverse regions to elect their own officials, live in accord with their local cultures, and have a say in taxation and budgetary issues, as is the case in many federal states from Canada to Germany. Such constitutional provisions will need to be ratified by a referendum or a constitutional assembly, accompanied or followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. (The rushed presidential election in May was a mistake, effectively depriving nearly a quarter of the country of its own candidates and thus a real vote.)
—Ukraine must not be aligned with any military alliance, including NATO. (Nor must any of the other former Soviet republics now being courted by NATO.)
—Ukraine must be governed in ways that enable it to maintain or develop economic relations both with Russia and the West. Otherwise, it will never be politically independent or economically prosperous.
—If these principles are adopted, they should be guaranteed, along with Ukraine’s present territorial integrity, by Russia and the West, perhaps in a UN Security Council resolution.
But such negotiations cannot even begin until Kyiv’s military assault on eastern Ukraine ends. Russia, Germany, and France have repeatedly called for a ceasefire, but the “anti-terrorist operation” can end only where it began—in Kyiv and Washington.
Alas, there is no such leadership here in Washington. President Obama has vanished as a statesman in the Ukrainian crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks publicly more like a secretary of war than as our top diplomat. The Senate is preparing even more warfare legislation. The establishment media relies uncritically on Kyiv’s propaganda and cheerleads for its policies. Unlike the devastation wrought in Gaza, American television rarely, if ever, shows Kyiv’s destruction of Luhansk, Donetsk or other Ukrainian cities, thereby arousing no public qualms or questions.
And so, we patriotic heretics remain mostly alone and often defamed. The most optimistic perspective I can offer is to recall that positive change in history frequently began as heresy. And to quote the personal testimony of Mikhail Gorbachev, who once said of his struggle for change inside the even more rigidly orthodox Soviet nomenklatura: “Everything new in philosophy begins as heresy and in politics as the opinion of a minority."
Stephen F. Cohen is Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at New York University and Princeton University.
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