I am becoming increasingly concerned with the rhetoric in the mainstream media about the need to confront Russia. Just this past Sunday, in the Washington Post, columnist Anne Applebaum wrote a piece suggesting that Europe is in a 1939 moment and that Ukraine and Eastern Europe need to prepare for “total war” with Russia. President Obama reassures the Baltic nations that NATO will stand with them against any Russian aggression.
I have to ask, has everyone forgotten that Russia is a nuclear power? We’ll get back to this question in a second.
What is largely missing from the mainstream discourse on Russia and Ukraine is the simple fact that NATO was not supposed to be expanding closer to Russia’s borders. This is what former Soviet leader Gorbachev and former President George H. W. Bush agreed. Gorbachev and the then Soviet leadership were particularly concerned with the possibility of a 1939 scenario, but not the one that Anne Applebaum was referencing. They were concerned that the borders of the Soviet Union (and later Russia) would be with nation-states hostile to the USSR/Russia. Gorbachev did not ask for the dismantling of NATO but that it stay clear of the Russian borders. Though Bush agreed, NATO expanded and, like a cancer, it has continued to do so.
Russian President Putin is not a paragon of virtue, needless to say. Riding the horse of Russian nationalism in the aftermath of Russia’s humiliation under Boris Yeltsin, Putin has been taping into the resentment within the Russian population that the end of the USSR and the end of the Cold War has not brought about better results for Russia. Additionally, for many Russians, Russia has dropped a notch in terms of its power and influence.
As with many other capitalist countries, there has been an authoritarian trend moving within Russia for some time. Putin is not a bystander in this. Rather, he is an architect of this growing authoritarianism. The restrictions on freedoms have been increasing and one way to stifle criticism of any government is to play the nationalist card. This has happened in Russia’s brutal war with Chechnya, as well as later conflicts with Georgia and now Ukraine. Ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist forces have been given wide latitude in Russia leading many to wonder whether there is a revanchist movement afoot, i.e., a movement for revenge against those who allegedly weakened Russia and caused the dismantling of the USSR.
In the current situation with Ukraine, Ukrainian right-wingers, including but not limited to neo-fascists, advanced chauvinist policies that created great fear within the Russian speaking Ukrainian population and played into the hands of those in the Putin clique who wanted to ensure that Ukraine remained within the Russian Federation’s sphere of influence. The fact that the European Union was clearly dangling opportunities for Ukraine created a sense of greater insecurity for Putin that yet another country on Russia’s borders would be seduced into the NATO orbit.
Little of this is being discussed within the mainstream US media. Putin is demonized, of course, but there is barely, if ever, an exchange on the political character of the Ukrainian leadership. It is in this context that the drums of war have been heard.
It is very difficult to predict what either Russia or NATO will do. Russia and Ukraine have announced peace talks and there may be a non-military resolution of the current conflict. Russia is very much tied into global capitalism and has little interest in breaking such links, though it does have an interest in changing some of the terms of its participation. NATO seems interested in neutering Russia’ capability to act as an independent agent, while at the same time increasing its integration into global capitalism.
Yet there are forces that could throw this entire situation into chaos. Anne Applebaum made reference to statements by two Russian leaders suggesting the idea of Russia nuking one or two East European capitals in order to make it clear that Russia is serious. Anne Applebaum’s outrage was disingenuous, apparently forgetting that such references were quite common in the 1950s-early 1970s here in the USA, e.g., General Curtis LeMay and other militarists suggesting nuclear war with Russia, or the late Senator Barry Goldwalter proposing the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Vietnamese. That said, that anyone could play with the idea of utilizing nuclear weapons at this stage in history is beyond belief.
Which takes us back to the question of “total war.” To borrow from Malcolm X, i believe that some people are using this word “war” and the term “total war” a bit too loosely. A NATO war with Russia is not a war with Afghanistan or Libya. It is not about air strikes and varying levels of troops on the ground. This is war with a power that has the ability to annihilate the Earth. While it may be true that there are those around Putin who are channeling Richard Nixon who, in his time, suggested that it was good for the Chinese and the Soviets to believe that Nixon was a little crazy, the reality is that a military confrontation with Russia by nuclear-armed forces has every possibility to go…BOOM.
In the USA, the mainstream discourages a real use and understanding of history. We, on the Left side of the aisle need to insist upon it. In the current moment we need to insist that the USA break with the ridiculous myth-making about the situation in the Russian/Ukrainian conflict and step away from provocative measures that do nothing to bring about a just settlement between the parties. I wish that we could count on the USA to be an honest broker in that conflict but that is unlikely. Perhaps the best that we can hope for and, in fact, demand, is that the USA stay out of the way and stop throwing lighter-fluid around the barbecue pit.