Focus on Putin masks roots of Ukraine conflict

“Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win; they lose.”

 Ronald Reagan


As the 20th century drew to a close there was hope that the tension of the cold war was well and truly over, with both the USA and Russia ready to stand together as self-styled leaders in the international community. NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 may have put a strain on the new relationship but with the election of George W. Bush the following year it seemed that the new personal relationship between Presidents could cement ties. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the first call of solidarity to President Bush came from Vladimir Putin. The two superpowers looked ready to fight the war on terror together.

But public vows of friendship merely masked underlying tensions which had been building since the mid-90’s. As the Cold War drew to a close, the first President Bush had made a deal with Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastwards into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. In return Gorbachev agreed to withdraw Soviet troops from the occupied eastern European states, beginning a de-escalation of the military aspects of the conflict. But by the Madrid NATO summit of 1994 it became clear that the rules of the game had changed, and that that new members would be welcomed into the NATO alliance. The Bush-Gorbachev agreement was finally wiped off the diplomatic map in 2008 when Georgia and Ukraine were lined up to join NATO.

As NATO grew ever more ambitious in its expansion into former Soviet states, the USA began to roll back on core arms treaties. No sooner had Putin called Bush post 9/11 than the US withdrew from a major arms treaty for the first time in its history. Although the breakdown of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty was dressed as an essential policy to defend the US from nuclear blackmail by a rogue state, it was clearly linked to a more expansionary foreign policy. The Russians, in particular, feared the construction of a nuclear defence system which would drastically change the game theory calculations of the Cold War era and usher in a new era of undisputed US dominance on the world stage.

As the US and its allies expanded their influence and exported their ideologies, perhaps it was only a matter of time until Russia pushed back. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 now of course looks like a dress rehearsal for the wider conflict in the Ukraine. Provoked by NATO’s encroachment on its borders, Putin engineered a pretence to invade Georgia and test western resolve to defend its ally. The lack of firm response was damaging for the credibility of the commitment of the West to uphold its values in the face of military aggression. The brief Georgia war was a precise and calculated political move carried out to near perfection. Russia would henceforth feel free to pursue military solutions to solve what it perceived as security risks on its borders.

It would be a grave mistake to assume that Russia’s involvement in the Crimea is merely an opportunistic grab for power. It is of course, a dangerous and aggressive move and it is scarcely believable to think that such a conflict is unfolding at the edge of 21st century Europe. But this is just the latest step in a political game begun and escalated by the US and NATO.

US Foreign Policy has always been based around a myriad of interests, and although the popular narrative likes to have the Americans upholding freedom, in reality this is just another way of promoting free market fanaticism and hyperglobalisation. History has not been kind to many of the USA’s interventions on foreign soil, and from Guatemala to Iraq there is no denying that corporate interests have played a significant part in influencing foreign policy. The strategy has always been that America must promote private enterprise and national strategic concerns abroad and ensure that markets are open and ready to do business. The US does not thrive on imperialistic gunboat diplomacy but instead has relied on trumpeting the benefits of capitalism and consumption as being essential to human happiness and well-being. But this approach does not leave room for dissent, and the WTO, like its predecessor the GATT, has been a useful tool in opening borders and eliminating barriers to globalisation, often at the expense of diversified economies in the developing world. With the expansion of the globalised neoliberal agenda, national interests, cultures and societies have been forced to become subservient to free trade ideals and practice.

However, while some societies may be ready to welcome the US-led version of modern capitalism with open arms, others are not. The Russian and Slavic cultural identity is markedly different to that of the European and American, and to assume otherwise, and to disregard how this affects political structures, is to invite trouble. In many ways, it is this lack of regard for national identity in the drive to create a hyper globalised, mercantile world that has laid the groundwork for the crisis in the Ukraine. Expansion of Western ideological and military tools up to the Russian border is perceived as a significant security threat in Moscow.

But a cursory glance at US media coverage of the crisis reveals how little interest there is in understanding Russia’s cultural and political motivations. Instead, the popular narrative focuses on Putin the despot rather than Russia the country:

“The toxic brew of negative perceptions of Western/liberal military capability and political will is rapidly undermining the post-1945 order around the world. Reduced military budgets, global perceptions of American and European weakness, the outright dismissal of presidential redlines, and memories of total inaction like during the 2008 Georgian invasion or Syrian civil war have set the stage for future opportunism. More than one commentator has noted the similarities between Hitler in 1938 and Putin in 2014. Like Hitler did, Putin is playing a weak hand, though it is relatively stronger than the object of his aggression, and even token opposition by the West could cause him to fold. We now know that Hitler would have pulled his troops out of the Sudetenland in the face of any British or French opposition. Thus, what may matter most to global stability is the reaction of the West, and in the case of inaction, it abets opportunistic aggression.” (1)

In this version of events it is too little action by the West rather than too much that has brought us to this point.

With calls for the US to send arms to Kiev, this situation is in danger of escalating out of control. Russian aggression can of course not be condoned and it is absolutely not my intention to claim that there is any serious justification for what has transpired in the Crimea. But if the West wants to check Russian regional aggression then it must begin by confronting its own role in escalating international tensions. If it wants to promote peaceful international relations, which would of course be beneficial to global markets, then a solution must be found that incorporates Russia, rather than excludes it.  Earlier this week, veteran US diplomat, John Matlock, raised a critical underlying point by reminding senior Washington officials that, for Russia, “Ukraine is of existential importance.”

So to analyse this crisis without consideration for its historical and political context is a serious error. And to consider, as many in Washington do, that Russia is merely a regional power which should be combated by arming its opponents, is foolish in the extreme. As Matlock has said, “No one with ICBM’s is a regional power, not by any means.” But sadly, the current rhetoric emerging from the US has echoes of the simplistic bombast of the Reagan years: we must win and they must lose. It is time to consider the possibility that if things escalate much further then we all might lose.


(1) Taken from a Forbes article by Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.



One thought on “Focus on Putin masks roots of Ukraine conflict

  1. Road to Servitude June 12, 2015 / 11:09 am

    Reblogged this on wallacerunnymede and commented:
    “But sadly, the current rhetoric emerging from the US has echoes of the simplistic bombast of the Reagan years: we must win and they must lose.” The Reagan quotation at the top of the article is also telling (paraphrased in what I have just quoted). Could it be that the “real” meaning of this phrase is: “Win by any means necessary?” And is it not self-evident that when politicians say “by any means necessary,” they actually ARE in earnest? (Which is a rare enough phenomenon, God knows)…


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