Politics contaminates anything it touches, and it gropes the truth unashamedly. Truth is always the first casualty of war, and it may be too late for an objective view on this war in Ukraine. For several weeks we’ve been saturated by the usual. War is evil. Look at the carnage. Hate the enemy. Here’s the official version of the history of this conflict. Disregard any part we played in causing this catastrophe – we only have your best interests at heart.
War is the realm of politicians, presidents and premiers. It begins in the boardrooms of those captains of industry, the empire builders and world-improvers who tell politicians what to do. Again and again, we rally to the flags and the causes, believe what we’re told and defend the honor of people we have never met, as if they were personal friends or family members. When our passions are stirred, we stop just short of worshiping these very human characters and caricatures, though they are possessed of the very same faults and weaknesses that we also endure.
In war, it is unwise not to seek to understand the national interests of an opponent, and Putin’s Russia is undoubtedly an opponent in the long grinding “great power” struggle which continues to crush ordinary lives under its weight. War is a complex issue involving economics and emotions: fear and survival, patriotism, greed, and the lust for power. Unless we accept that the human motivations which move our opponents are identical to those which move us, we are already disadvantaged in any conflict.
Understanding the war in Ukraine requires a review of events which occurred only a short time ago relative to world history, but which have escaped the brief attention span of Americans today. In fact, some of the actors on the stage during the breakup of the Soviet Union are still at work today, on both sides of the Atlantic.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, the Soviets agreed to a unified Germany in exchange for a guarantee that there would be no further eastward expansion of NATO. They felt bullied into this agreement, but the Soviet military, aside from its massive stockpile of nuclear weapons, was weak, and the Soviet economy was in shambles. Nevertheless, since 1991, 14 former Soviet republics have been enticed into NATO, with a threat of more to follow. It was not the first time western promises to Russia were broken
In the mind of many Russians, and most certainly in Putin’s view, the loss of the Soviet republics was a temporary setback to the ultimate destiny of a greater Russian empire. Before we shake our heads in disapproval and pass judgment on a mindset which accepts the loss of blood and treasure in Ukraine as collateral damage, let’s reflect on a little slogan we learned in grade school: “Manifest destiny, not to boast, means we’d expand from coast to coast.”
It was the widespread belief of many Americans in the 19th century that the expansion of the United States from Atlantic to Pacific, by any and all means, was our national destiny. From the perspective of human nature, we are uniquely qualified to understand how a nation and/or its leaders can compartmentalize wholesale slaughter, theft and genocide as collateral damage in the struggle for the greater “good.” But again, we have short memories, and we have also forgotten the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties during our “nation-building” wars on terror, which has resulted in not a single democratic nation or ally.
To further understand our opponent, we also have to realize that no matter how educated or sophisticated we become, as adult humans we are never far away from the basic struggles we experienced on the playground as children. For example, I was a peaceful child in grade school and sought to avoid conflict whenever possible. As is often the case with such children, I was occasionally the target of bullies. I was willing to endure their abuse up to a point. The bullying stopped when it was discovered that making me cry was a dangerous thing to do. When that happened, I did not experience fear or feel pain, much to the dismay of several bigger and stronger opponents.
Many a battle has been lost when a stronger force pushes a weaker opponent to a point of desperation. Surrounding a desperate opponent is a classic battlefield blunder. If desperation does not win the day, a bitter enemy with a long memory and a desire for “justice” and revenge can be created.
After three decades of bullying, the United States and its allies finally made Russia cry. Humiliated by defeat in the Cold War, frightened by the capabilities of the American military as demonstrated in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, and enraged by the willingness of the US government to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors, Russia was pushed to that point of desperation during the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine.
In 2014. The Obama Administration, through the office of Vice President, Joe Biden and Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, interfered directly in the internal politics of Ukraine and orchestrated a revolution which replaced a government friendly to Russia with one which considered it an adversary. If you can imagine our reaction should Russian operatives conspire with Texas separatists to successfully leave the United States and then petition to join the Russian Federation as an ally, you might come close to understanding Putin’s view on events in Ukraine. In desperation and in anger, Russia annexed Crimea and began to pursue objectives in the Eastern Donbas to further protect its flank from NATO.
Behind the pomp and circumstance, flag waving and noble-speak, nations on both sides of the Atlantic have long been cursed by leadership top heavy with playground bullies who throw rocks at hornets’ nests and then run screaming home pursued by stinging bees. Then from a safe distance, adopting the somber mantle of leadership wrapped in patriotism, they send someone else to dispatch the hornets, by setting the woods on fire. The world burns, and they never even feel the heat.
Thus, we have a brief history of the war in Ukraine, which doesn’t begin to touch on the national and cultural issues involved. Crimea should have been a warning, but that lesson was ignored by the Biden Administration and its NATO allies, and now we have a different bully on the playground.