Photograph Source: Chatham House – CC BY 2.0
Interfering in another state is tricky business
Interfering in another state is tricky business – so says the gutsy University of Chicago international relations scholar John Mearsheimer (The great delusion: liberal dreams and international realities . It is tricky – and dangerous – and the exceptional nation, the US, may think pushing NATO (with its missile sites and troop placement) to Russia’s borders is benign. But another state – Russia – thinks it is threatening. Mearsheimer admits that great powers may follow “balance of power” logic, but they can also embrace “liberal hegemony.” When they do, “they may cause a lot of trouble for themselves and other states. The ongoing crisis over Ukraine is a case in point” (p. 171).
It sure is—and very few citizens in Canada and the US have a clue about what this crisis is about: they just assume, saturated in decades of various forms of anti-Russian propaganda, that the military operation launched by Russia on February 24th was, pure and simple, the logical extension of an evil leader, Vladimer Putin. In other words, Ukraine is mere “worthy victim” – and the propaganda machine in the West don’t miss a chance to display images (often false) of the destruction of buildings and people by evil Putin and his military. Evidence is not necessary to substantiate any claims fed to us by the mass media. Images will do because they arouse emotions. Putin is to blame; Zelensky is the noble defender of Ukrainian nationality.
Mearsheimer informs us that: “According to the prevailing wisdom in the West, this problem [i.e. the crisis] is largely the result of Russian aggression. President Vladimer Putin, the argument goes, is bent on creating a greater Russia akin to the former Soviet Union, which means controlling the governments in its ‘near abroad’—its neighbouring states—including Ukraine, the Baltic states, and possibly other Eastern European countries. The coup against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych on February 22, 2014, provided Putin with a pretext for annexing Crimea and starting a war in eastern Ukraine” (ibid.). Putin as instigator. Blame him, and him alone!
Flatly, Mearsheimer states: “This account is false. The United States and its European allies are mainly responsible for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO expansion, the central element in a larger strategy to move all of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West” (p. 172). Mearsheimer claims that the West’s strategy was based on liberal principles – the “aim was to integrate Ukraine into the ‘security community’ that had developed in western Europe during the Cold War and had been moving eastward since its conclusion. But the Russians were using a realist playbook. The major crisis that resulted left many Western leaders feeling blindsided” (ibid.). One wonders – really, could they have been that clueless or deluded?
The US and allies strategy for making Ukraine part of the West
Mearsheimer provides us with a helpful framework to see how the US and allies could rip Ukraine out of the Russian orbit: “NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and the Orange Revolution, which aimed at fostering democracy and Western values in Ukraine and thus presumably produce pro-Western leaders in Kiev” (p. 172). But Moscow was “deeply opposed to NATO enlargement.” In fact, Russian leaders believed that, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, NATO would not move an inch toward Russia’s borders. They believed that “no enlargement” had been promised, but were deceived by the Clinton administration.
Ordinary citizens probably have no understanding that, in eminent Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen’s analysis (in War with Russia: from Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate , since the “end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington had treated post-Communist Russia as a defeated nation with inferior legitimate rights at home and abroad. The triumphalist, winner-take-all approach has been spearheaded by the expansion of NATO—accompanied by non-reciprocal zones of national security while excluding Moscow from Europe’s security systems. Early on, Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Georgia were Washington’s ‘great prize’” (p. 16).
With the Russian bear in miserable condition (it lost its cubs) through the 1990s—Solzhenitsyn thought his country at this time was living “literally amid ruins”–NATO expansion, in 1999, brought Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the alliance. The second component of the expansion occurred in 2004, which included Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the three Baltic countries. “Russian leaders complained bitterly from the start.” The inept Boris Yeltsin saw fire on the horizon when NATO bombed Serbia in 1995. “When NATO comes right up to the Russian Federation’s borders … The flame of war could burst out across the whole of Europe” (p. 172) Too weak to derail these developments, Russia could take small comfort that only the tiny Baltic countries shared their border.
But all hell broke loose at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, when Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership came up for discussion. Both Germany and France had qualms, but the Bush administration wanted these countries inside their security zone. The final announcement proclaimed that Geogia and Ukraine were welcomed for membership. Putin, Mearsheimer maintained, “that admitting those two countries would represent a ‘direct threat’ to Russia. If anybody had any doubts about Russia’s seriousness regarding accepting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 should have dispelled those deluded thoughts.
Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, who was deeply committed to drawing his own country into the NATO circle, had first to resolve the disputes with two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin prevented this from occurring – and invaded Georgia, gaining control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saakashvili was left in the lurch by the West. “Russia had made its point,” Mearsheimer observes, “yet NATO refused to give up on bringing Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance” (p. 173). We need to be reminded that the Georgian war was “financed, trained and minded by American funds and personnel” (Cohen, 2022, p. 187).
The EU expanded eastward. “Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995, and eight Central and Eastern European countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) joined in May 2004 along with Cyprus and Malta. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007” (p. 174). These developments were a stick poke to the Russian bear’s eyes. This Eastern Partnership was perceived as hostile to their country’s interests. “Sergei Lavrov, complained bitterly that the EU was trying to create a “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe and hinted that it was engaging in ‘blackmail’” (ibid.). Who can deny that Moscow correctly sees EU membership as a “stalking horse for NATO enlargement” (ibid.)?
The final, and third, tool for “peeling Ukraine away from Russia was the effort to promote the Orange Revolution” (ibid.). The US and European allies endeavoured to foster social and political change in countries formerly under Soviet control. Essentially, the aim was to spread Western “values” and promote “liberal democracy” – efforts funded by NGOs and official governments. That sounds innocent enough: but it isn’t. The underlying geopolitical agenda was clear: to foment hostility to Russia and to execute the “final break with Moscow” and to “accelerate” Kiev’s membership in NATO (Cohen, 2022, p. 24).
The crisis of the Ukrainian coup
Now we enter the great quagmire of conflicting interpretations of the events of 2014. The fateful crisis began in late November 2013, when President Yanukovych “rejected a major economic deal he had been negotiating with the EU and decided instead to accept a Russian counteroffer” (p. 174). Over the next three months there were protests against the government, and on January 22, 2014, two protestors were killed. By mid-February one hundred more died. Hurriedly flown in, Western emissaries tried to resolve the crisis, so claims Mearsheimer, by striking a deal on February 21 that permitted Yanukovych to “stay in power until new elections were held sometime before year’s end” (p. 175).
But protesters didn’t permit him to stay in office—on February 22 Yanukovych fled to Russia. The new government in Kiev “was thoroughly pro-Western and anti-Russian. Moreover, the US government backed the coup, although the full extent of its involvement is unknown” (ibid.). Perhaps – but we do know that the Maidan protests were “strong influenced by extreme nationalist and even semi-fascist street forces, turned violent” (Cohen , p. 17). Snipers killed scores of protestors and policeman on Maidan Square in February 2014. The neo-fascist organization Right Sector (and its co-conspirators) played a key role in bringing to power a virulent anti-Russian, pro-American regime.
Cohen counters the prevalent narrative that Putin bribed and bullied Yanukovych to reject the “reckless provocation” of the EU proposal – forcing a “deeply divided country to choose between Russia and the West” (p. 17). Further, Cohen argues that the EU proposal would have imposed harsh measures on Ukraine and, significantly, “curtail longstanding and essential economic relations with Russia” (ibid.). There was nothing approaching benign in the EU’s proposal. Mearsheimer states that the US backed the coup , and the egregious “Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), for example, participated in anti-government demonstrations, while the US ambassador in Kiev proclaimed after the coup that it was a ’day for the history books’” (p, 175). A day of infamy for lovers of a peaceable world order. Don’t ask me to “please, have a cookie or two.”
“A leaked transcript of phone conversation,” Mearsheimer tells us, “revealed that Nuland advocated regime change and wanted Arseniy (“Yats”) Yatsenyuk, who was pro-Western, to become prime minister in the new government, which he did. It is hardly surprising that Russians of all persuasions think Western provocateurs, especially the CIA, helped overthrow Yanukovych” (ibid.). “Fuck the EU”—Nuland’s vulgar rallying cry stills rings in our ears to this day. Cohen comments: “Europe’s leaders 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 ultranationalist movement previously anathematized by the European Parliament as incompatible with European rulers—formed a new government” (p. 17). Ominously, 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 Kiev’s ‘anti-terrorist operation,’ was triggered by the February coup” (p. 18).
What ordinary citizens do not understand, to say the least, is that the coup was cultivated by the US and allies, thus triggering Russian responses. And they do not understand that, from February 2014 until the present military conflict in Ukraine in 2022, that the West (including the Russophobic Canadian Liberal Party) have been training military in Ukraine and turning a knowing blind-eye to the neo-Nazi militia, who have played a key role in attacking Russians and everything “Russian” in the country: The “anti-terrorist” military campaign against its own citizens in Luhansk and Donetsk is the “essential factor escalating the crisis” (p. 18). Well-over 10,000 citizens have died; and millions of refugees created. The crisis cannot be laid at Putin’s feet.
The western press has blanked out accounts of events such as the “pogrom-like burning to death of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Odessa shortly later in 2014.” This action “reawakened memories of Nazi extermination squads in Ukraine during World War II.” The Azov Battalion of 3,000 soldiers—a neo-fascist militia (as evidence by regalia, slogans, and programmatic statements)—has played a “major combat role in the Ukrainian civil war.” Most Canadian citizens would be astonished to hear this – that must be propaganda from the evil tyrant Putin. Sorry: it isn’t. Nor are the “storm troop-like assaults on gays, Roma, women feminists, elderly ethnic Russians, and other ‘impure’ citizens are wide-spread throughout Kiev-ruled Ukraine.”
The neo-fascist militia have also desecrated a sacred Holocaust gravesite in Ukraine – with legal authorities doing nothing in response. Most disturbingly, Kiev has systematically begun “rehabilitating and even memorializing leading Ukrainian collaborators with Nazi German extermination pogroms during World War II” (p. 180).
Putin’s response to the coup
Mearsheimer presents the basic outline of Putin’s response to the coup. If Ukraine joined NATO, the Crimean port of Sevastopol would serve beautifully as a US/NATO military launching pad. The act of incorporating Crimea into Russia was “not difficult given that Russia already had thousands of troops at its naval base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Those forces were augmented by additional troops from Russia, many of them not in uniform. Crimea was an easy target because roughly 60 percent of the people living there were ethnic Russians, and most preferred to become part of Russia” (p. 175).
Putin, Mearsheimer informs us, “also put massive pressure on the Kiev government to discourage it from siding with the West against Moscow. He made it clear that he would wreck Ukraine as a functioning society before allowing a Western stronghold to exist on Russia’s doorstep. Toward that end, he has supported the Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons and covert troops, helping to push the country into civil war. He also maintained substantial ground forces on Russia’s border with Ukraine and threatened to invade if Kiev cracks down on the rebels. Finally, he has raised the price of gas Russia sells to Ukraine, demanded immediate remittance of overdue payments, and at one point even cut off the supply of gas to Ukraine …. Putin is playing hardball with Ukraine … “ (p. 176).
The realist Mearsheimer chides the US (and, indirectly its allies) that if they had a “rudimentary understanding of geopolitics should have been seen this coming” (ibid.). “The West was moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests. A huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany have all crossed to strike at Russia itself, Ukraine serves as an enormously important strategic buffer to Russia itself. No Russian leader would tolerate a former enemy’s military alliance moving into Ukraine. Nor would any Russian leader stand idly by while the West helped install a government in Kiev that was determined to join that alliance” (ibid).
Why does the US and its obedient allies imagine that they can get away with these war-mongering actions? Reminding us of his own country’s Monroe Doctrine, Mearsheimer argues forcefully that the US does not tolerate for two minutes “distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western Hemisphere … “ (ibid.). Many critics have turned the tables on the US – inviting them to consider their reaction if China built an alliance and tried to install governments in Mexico and Canada. What say thee, Anthony Blinken? What say thee, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland?
Russia has told the US and its allies time after time that they will not “tolerate NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia (the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and present conflict in Ukraine should make this clear). Let me finish with two brief conclusions from Mearsheimer. First, Western elites have a “flawed understanding of international politics” (p. 177). The US believes that “it is a benign hegemon that does not threaten Russia or any other country” (ibid.). One gags upon reading this nonsense. Second, the “grand scheme to turn Europe into a giant security community went awry over Ukraine, but the seeds of this disaster were sown in the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration began pushing for NATO expansion” (ibid.).
At this historical moment Putin and Russia are being fiercely and relentlessly demonized because this “grand scheme” has been resolutely rejected and the West is heaping vitriol on Russian actions and its people for rejecting their exceptional gifts. Stephen Cohen, who died on September 18, 2020, looks down from the sky above and says, “I warned you about this coming war between the US and Russia.”
Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.
Counterpunch, May 5, 2022, https://www.counterpunch.org/