Ukraine, U.S., and big bad Putin: Who’s the bully?

If the world breathed a sigh of relief when the Cold War wound down in the late 1980s, it started trembling as U.S.-Russia relations took a dangerous turn over Ukraine and Crimea. This is a very troubling development. If it continues in the present direction, the result will be damaging on a range of issues – nuclear weapons proliferation and elimination, Iran, Syria, terrorism, climate change, and domestic politics in the two countries, to mention a few.

If you listen only to the mainstream media and both Republican and Democratic politicians you get the impression that the perpetrator of this sharply negative turn is the power-hungry Putin, and that the trigger was Russia’s heavy hand in the Crimea.

For example, New York Times columnist Peter Baker wrote, “The decision by President Vladimir V. Putin to snatch Crimea away from the Ukraine … threatens to usher in a new, more dangerous era.”

The Times editorial board, not to be outdone, opined, “But Mr. Putin should be made to understand that his authoritarian rule and imperial illusions are the problem, and not some perceived slights (my italics) from the West.”

Similar or more strident interpretations have echoed from newsrooms around the country. Contrary or at least more sober opinions were nearly absent in the corporate-controlled media and the corridors of political power.

But are they right? I don’t think so and here’s why.

First let’s be clear that Putin is no angel. He employed strong-arm tactics in the dispute over Crimea. And under his leadership Russia is plagued by the worst of “free-market” capitalism, corrupt oligarchies, election manipulation, and appeals to reactionary nationalism.

But as far back as elementary school I learned that a bully doesn’t always throw the first punch. Just as likely those who are bullied will strike the first blow in response to reoccurring violation of their dignity and threats to their physical well-being.

In the recent events in the Ukraine, Putin, notwithstanding his authoritarian disposition and stained political record, was the bullied party. His actions were a response to a provocative policy hatched and executed in Washington.

The West’s broken promise

When President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev agreed to lower the curtain on the Cold War in 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland, they committed their countries to a new era of peace, disarmament, and cooperation. Around the world, most people expected or at least hoped these two most powerful and heavily armed states would wind down the arms race, end brinkmanship, and ease tensions globally.

When Germany was re-unified in 1990, Gorbachev, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and other leaders agreed that the formerly socialist Eastern European countries would not become part of NATO – the Cold War military alliance of the U.S. and Western Europe.

This understanding, however, was soon set aside in Washington, even though successive presidents from Clinton to Bush II to Obama repeated the mantra of a new era of strategic partnership with Russia. The U.S., with the complicity of Western European leaders, began to systematically absorb every Eastern European country into NATO.

Significantly, this was accomplished at a much faster pace than these countries and client governments were welcomed into the European Union. Filling a military vacuum was clearly of greater geostrategic consequence and far less burdensome to the U.S. and Western Europe than integrating these countries on an economic level. Neither Brussels, Bonn or London were eager to absorb the burdens and costs of states that were less developed and switching at breakneck speed to what eventually proved to be disastrous deregulated capitalism.

The U.S.-led “humanitarian intervention” in Yugoslavia

The only outlier was Yugoslavia. Its government wasn’t socialist, but it was less compliant to western interests and it retained ties to Russia. But the leaders of Yugoslavia soon found out that such “independence” wasn’t permissible in the new, post-Soviet world order. Instead they were demonized by the U.S. and the other western powers. Nationalist secessionist movements in the federated Yugoslav state – often including fascist elements – were encouraged, financed, and armed by the West, and as a coup de grace a fierce U.S.-led bombing campaign under NATO auspices turned a multi-ethnic, multi-national state into a historical bygone. All this was legitimized in the language of humanitarian invention and the right to self-determination.

NATO looks further east

Once NATO brought “freedom and self-determination” to the peoples of the former Yugoslavia and finished the integration of the older Eastern European states into its military orbit, it looked further east – to the new states that emerged out of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

First on deck were the former Baltic Soviet republics Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, who became NATO members in 2005. Other new states on Russia’s border were courted too.

Of course none of this went unnoticed in Moscow. Even Boris Yeltsin, whose obsequiousness to the Bush I and Clinton administrations knew few limits, expressed some displeasure. His successor Putin frequently objected, sometimes in strong language, and dispatched Russian troops to Georgia, a new former Soviet state on its borders, when it appeared that western maneuvering might threaten Russia’s security and the well being of Russian nationals living in Georgia.

That sent an unambiguous message to NATO and U.S. strategists that Russia had some red lines, which if crossed, would result in Russian countermoves.

But that message was either ignored or, more likely, considered a risk that strategic policy planners were willing to take. How else can we explain the brazen actions of the Obama administration and State Department, which actively encouraged, funded, backed, and to a degree choreographed the anti-democratic, illegitimate takeover of the Ukraine by an unelected government that is hostile to Russia and includes far-rightists and fascists in important positions, sitting on a long stretch of Russia’s southern border?

They had to know that the Russian government wouldn’t sit on its hands and do nothing in the face of this. Why? Because its national security interests were threatened, its history trivialized, its intimate centuries-old ties to Ukraine ignored, and its national feelings humiliated (once again).

And who could blame Putin if he thought that the turbulence in Kiev today could well move on to turbulence in Moscow tomorrow and that instead of the duly elected president of the Ukraine running for his life, it could be him?

U.S. policy makers roll the dice

In any case, somewhere at the top of the U.S. decision-making chain it was decided to throw the dice.

What followed was predictable: the Russian government, with broad popular support and a growing nationalist movement insisting on action, threw a punch.

I don’t defend it, but it must be understood as a reactive and defensive punch – a counterpunch – to the real bullies in this crisis, namely, successive U.S. administrations – Bush the elder, then Clinton, then Bush the younger, and now Obama – all of whom have, with some small differences, pursued an aggressive, reckless, expansionist policy in Eastern Europe that Russia can only find threatening.

Thus, the Ukraine crisis is not the first provocation of Russia by U.S. and Western powers, but only the latest in a series of provocations that go back to U.S. and Western European leaders breaking their promise not to expand NATO beyond German borders.

And there is little reason to think that the U.S. has learned a lesson and will turn the off switch on this aggressive strategy. After all, this latest provocation, risky as it was, achieved its objective. For U.S. policy makers, despite their pious declarations, the loss of Crimea was a small price to pay for a foothold in Ukraine.

A larger imperial project

On the other side of the Eurasian land mass, the encirclement of Russia has its counterpart in the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. Its purpose is much the same, that is, to geopolitically surround China and cut down its role regionally and globally.

Moreover, these policies are at the core of a larger aggressive imperial project of encircling, isolating, cutting down the sphere of influence, and changing the behavior of regimes that challenge even in muted form the dominance of the U.S. at the global (China potentially) or regional level (China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, etc.).

Where necessary (and possible), such regimes are overthrown.

This policy is complemented by U.S. efforts to form a network of client states as well as proxy armies and military alliances and bases in every region of the world that will do its bidding. Despite Washington’s almost rotelike invocation of democracy promotion, the actual degree of democracy in these client states is secondary to their willingness to accept a subordinate status and uphold U.S. interests, (including, in most instances, U.S. military presence on their soil) in the new global order.

In the 20th century, the Soviet Union constituted a formidable competitor to U.S. imperialism at the global level. Other states were competitors regionally. But with the Soviet Union’s collapse and the ebbing of the movements against colonial and neo-colonial rule, the institutionalization of a U.S.-dominated unipolar world with no global (and regional) competitors for the full length of the 21st century became the operative goal of the makers of U.S. foreign policy and the White House, no matter who the occupant.

Not everyone agreed with those plans. Other voices around the globe and a small minority here said that the world must increasingly turn on a multi-polar axis as humankind moved deeper into this century. Not surprisingly, elite circles in the U.S. were quick to dismiss this vision, which included a redistribution of power and assets to rising states, regions and peoples.

Obama and America’s role in the world

In the elite view, a multi-polar world is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and not a safe bet for promoting U.S. capitalism and a supposedly “liberal democratic” global order.

Only the U.S., they argue, can act as the guarantor of stability, secure global markets and, let’s not forget, democracy and freedom, and, in particular, defeat both states and non-state actors that challenge the U.S.-led capitalist world order on a global and regional scale. This role is, so say the designers and organizers of our global grand strategy, a uniquely American role.

President Obama and his advisers have some important differences with the neoconservative wing of the foreign policy establishment and right-wing militarists like John McCain – on hard power vs. soft power, unilateralism vs. multilateralism, diplomacy versus military engagement.

Nevertheless, Obama and his advisers clearly share the elite worldview.

Obama, like his predecessors, wraps this policy in the rhetoric of national security, democracy, freedom and human rights. I don’t think this is a cynical sleight of hand on his part. It’s quite likely that he, and even previous presidents and many other Americans, really believes in the freedom, democracy and peace mission of Pax Americana – deriving inspiration, as he notes in some of his speeches, from our nation’s “unique” founding and traditions, “civilizing” impulses, and divine anointment to do “God’s work” in this troubled world.

The underbelly of U.S. foreign policy

But this rationale conceals – whether deliberately or naively – the coercive, exploitative, racist, exclusionist, violent, and undemocratic underbelly of so much of U.S. foreign policy. It hides the reality that for the most part this policy has two essential functions:

One: as the dominant or hegemonic power, the U.S. has to secure the world of capital for its subordinate partners as well as itself (and it is truly a world system for the first time in history) from any systemic challenges from socialist-oriented countries, as well as from security threats, destabilizing economic trends, and new challenges.

Two: the policy seeks to project the specific interests of U.S. (big) capitalism and its state in a world of deepening economic contradictions and other competing capitalisms and states (such as Germany, and, yes, Russia) and socialist-directed systems and states like China.

Obviously, changing U.S. foreign policy is a tall order. It will only happen in the course of building a transformative movement that has the ideological and practical capacity to mobilize and unite millions in suburbs and rural communities as well as cities, in red as well as blue states. Only a rainbow movement of the immense majority – including big sections of white people as well as people of color – acting in the interests of the 99 percent and in close alliance with peoples and states worldwide will turn swords into ploughshares.

What to do about Ukraine?

Right now, it is imperative that peace- and justice-minded people tell the Obama administration to turn away from its confrontation with Russia – stop the punishing and isolating moves as well as rein in an even more bellicose Senate and House. Instead, here are the paths the U.S. needs to pursue:

  • Just as the U.S. and other governments claim security interests in other countries, the U.S. and its western allies must recognize the legitimate security interests of Russia in Crimea and its near neighbors.
  • A diplomatic path must be found for Crimea to live side by side with Ukraine. The rights of Tatars and other minorities must be protected.
  • A process of understanding and reconciliation between Ukraine’s east and west must be promoted, perhaps by means of a federal or co-federal status.
  • The coming Ukraine elections must be free and fair, without foreign intervention (take note, U.S. State Department) and with outside observers.
  • A joint U.S., European and Russian aid package should be constructed to help Ukraine climb out of its deepening economic morass.
  • Ukraine should be politically nonaligned, with relations with Russia as well as the West, including a guarantee that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO.
  • NATO military operations in the Black Sea and elsewhere should be permanently suspended. Construction of nuclear missile “shields” in Eastern Europe should be canceled.
  • NATO’s expansion to the east should be rewound to its old borders. Soon thereafter NATO itself should be abolished – it serves no constructive purpose.

I urge readers to press for these positive, constructive actions.

Photo: In a less confrontational mode, President Obama meets with Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s prime minister, at Putin’s dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza




Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.