Why I Can't Wave a Ukrainian Flag – A Dissenting Teach-In on Russia's InvasionNews Abroad
tags: foreign policy, NATO, Russia, Dissent, Ukraine, diplomacy, militarism
Daniel Herman is Professor of American History at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. He is the author of three monographs including Hell on the Range: A Story of Honor, Conscience, and the American West (2010) and the novel The Feudist (2020).
US Senator John McCain speaks to a pro-EU crowd in Kyiv, December 2013.
This past March, three colleagues at Central Washington University convened a teach-in to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine (they convened another one in April, which I didn’t attend and so won’t talk about). The presenters—all experts in the fields of Russian history and culture—gave bravura expositions exploring Russian nationalism, empire building, war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. To my mind, however, something was missing: dissent.
Though effective in its aims—to teach history and generate support (including money) for Ukraine—this particular teach-in differed profoundly from civil disobedience campaigns of the Vietnam era. Those who participated in the original anti-war teach-ins of the 1960s stood the risk of being ridiculed, bombed, spied on by FBI agents, and excoriated by community authorities and administrators. The CWU presenters, by contrast, buttressed rather than challenged a dominant narrative, given that 70% of Americans already view Russia as a threat. If the presenters are critical of hawkish U.S. foreign policy and the decades-long expansion of the military-industrial complex, not to mention the role of the U.S. in heightening tensions in Ukraine, they didn’t say so.
I find this particularly troubling at a time when 45% of Americans—and 81% of Republicans—view President Biden’s actions viz. Ukraine as too cautious; 46% support a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone even when told it would risk nuclear war; and Congressional Democrats (Democrats!) seek to add billions more to the already record military budget that the administration requests.
I’m no expert on the history of Russia or Ukraine, but I am an avid consumer of news and I know quite a bit about U.S. history, including the history of U.S. wars and public opinion. In the spirit of scholarly debate—and with respect and admiration for the presenters—I take it upon myself to offer a dissenting view.
Had I been among the presenters, I would have asserted that the overwhelming American support for Ukrainians in their fight against Russia—though not without justice—resembles earlier moments of American solidarity with European nations fighting authoritarianism, particularly 1917, when the U.S., reacting to German attacks and atrocities (but ignorant of British atrocities) joined the Entente Powers in what President Wilson called “a war for democracy.” Though the U.S. helped defeat autocratic Germany, the war spawned persecutions, authoritarianism, and jingoism at home (not least among Democrats, particularly intellectuals) and—due to the terms of the Versailles Treaty—fueled the rise of Adolf Hitler.
In that 1917 moment, like this one, a bellicose press—with assistance from a bellicose government—shut down dissent and marginalized dissenters. Randolph Bourne’s justly famous essay condemning war fever seems every bit as apropos as it was in 1917.
I do not doubt that Putin (rather like Germany’s Kaiser) is a would-be imperialist who holds nostalgia for the Soviet Union and/or “Greater Russia,” and would like to recreate one or both, albeit without communism. The probability of that happening, however, seems exceedingly low. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin had said that those who wish to recreate the Soviet Union “have no brain” and that his conventional military can in no way match that of NATO. More to the point, recreating the Soviet Union or Greater Russia would be enormously expensive and almost certainly impossible, no matter the outcome in Ukraine (part of why the Soviet Union dissolved was because the empire was more encumbrance than asset).
My own take is that the Western media’s anti-Putin, pro-Ukraine, pro-NATO barrage has blinded both Americans and Europeans (especially the British, those hoary players of the “Great Game”) to the fact that Putin, though capable of great brutality, is a rational actor. He is as likely to consolidate power due to the West’s fervent response as to lose it. By making a diplomatic solution almost impossible (politicians need public support for any offer to lift sanctions as part of a peace package), the West’s fervency might well protract the killing for years and destabilize Eastern Europe.
Let me start my more detailed discussion by talking about NATO expansion. One of the teach-in presenters acknowledged that the U.S. and its European allies may have made a mistake by expanding NATO into nations that comprised the old Soviet Union but added that “woulda/couldas” of past policymaking are beside the point. I disagree passionately. Revisiting “woulda/couldas” is probably the only thing that can bring peace, at least any time in the near future.
I have no particular expertise in foreign policy, but I defer to those who do (or did before their decease): George Kennan, the doyen of American Cold War policy; Paul Nitze, Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan; Paul Warnke, director of the Arms Control Association and SALT II negotiator; Richard Pipes, noted historian of the Soviet Union; Gary Hart, former Colorado Senator and co‑chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century; Jack Matlock, President Reagan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union; Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon; William Perry, Secretary of Defense to Bill Clinton; and Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under George Bush and Barack Obama. All of them—and many others—feared that NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union would lead to a renewed Cold War, if not a hot one.
Kennan’s words are particularly apropos. The NATO expanders, he argued, had “little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are.” He went on to say, “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war … I think it is a tragic mistake.”
In their zeal to punch Vladimir Putin, modern Democrats and their preferred media voices are quick to dismiss or diminish the assertion that the U.S. played a significant role in provoking the war (this isn’t the Democratic Party of the 1970s or even the early 2000s; it’s a party dedicated, or at least inured, to regime change policies, not just for Russia, but also Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, and others to be announced). But yes, alas, the U.S. and NATO did much to provoke the war, and not just by expanding NATO. The U.S. also provoked the war with its own election meddling in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine, a meddling that was magnitudes—light years—greater than whatever Russia did or did not do in our 2016 election.
Something I have not seen reported in any mainstream venue is that as late as 2008, fully 50% of Ukrainians opposed NATO membership versus 24.3% who supported it. Another 2008 poll showed even greater opposition (56% against joining NATO versus 15% for). In a 2010 Gallup poll, 40% of Ukrainians viewed NATO as more threat than protector (just 17% said the opposite). What those poll numbers suggest is that the current situation resulted not from timeless Ukrainian fears of Russian aggression, but from blundering, arrogant neo-conservative Western foreign policy, along with equally blundering and over-aggressive Russian and Ukrainian policies since 2008.
Policy blunders, to be sure, weren’t the only mover of opinion. Both the U.S. and EU offered powerful economic incentives. Quite simply, the EU and US are vastly wealthier than Russia and can offer enormous loans, bailouts, and investment capital. The fact that Russia has been Ukraine’s main export partner, however, equalizes the equation to a degree.
If free market economics alone are driving Ukraine’s movement toward the West, Russia should stand out of the way. The West, however, has not let the invisible hand do all the work. It also deploys another, more visible—more problematic—hand: the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an agency created under President Reagan to perform tasks once under the purview of the CIA, including “fostering … political parties, trade unions, free markets and business organizations.” As idealistic and non-controversial as those goals sound, NED has a long history of promoting regime change; one observer calls it the National Endowment (for Meddling) in Democracy. In Ukraine, NED has poured tens of millions of dollars into building a pro-Western constituency. NED’s European cousin, the European Endowment for the Democracy, has done the same on a smaller scale. They are assisted by the West’s lavishly funded NGO complex, which (like NED) extended its reach across Eastern Europe. Total U.S. investment in Ukrainian “good governance” and “other goals,” averred former Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (now Undersecretary of State), amounted to $5 billion between 1991 and 2013.
Let’s step back a moment and imagine that Russia was an economic juggernaut able to spend $5 billion to turn Mexico into a close ally and modernize its army. Imagine, moreover, that Russia proposed to station troops—along with anti-ballistic missiles—in Mexico after bringing it into a defensive alliance (which is what NATO has done in nations formerly allied with Russia). Imagine, moreover, that Mexico was receptive to Russia’s money—and welcomed its meddling—because it was poor and because some of its citizens, but not a majority, had lingering fears of U.S. hostility. Keep in mind that the U.S. has invaded Mexico twice, though not recently. That is precisely what the United States and its NATO allies have done in Ukraine.
One can certainly reply that Western meddling is necessary to counter Russian meddling. Russia clearly supports Ukrainian parties and leaders that favor its interests. No doubt it has brought tremendous pressure to bear on Ukrainian governments. I reiterate, however, that, as late as 2010, Ukrainians didn’t want to join NATO. It was the West that had to lobby Ukrainians to gain support.
The NED/NGO complex is obviously not the only reason that Ukrainians have increasingly favored entering NATO and the EU. There is also the matter of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for the breakaway states in the Donbas (including sending a small number of troops), which occurred in reaction to Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014. The effect of Russia’s decision was to strengthen Ukrainian nationalism and support for NATO, partly due to Russia’s straightforward aggression, and partly because the withdrawal of Crimea and the Donbas greatly diminished Ukraine’s pro-Russian electorate.
Given that Russia’s actions in Crimea and Donbas created a predictable Ukrainian backlash, why did Russia take them? What we mostly hear from the cable press—whether Fox, MSNBC, or CNN—is that Putin’s Russia is an imperialist, hateful, lying nation guided by the idea that might makes right. The Maidan revolution and its aftermath, however, is complex and ambiguous.
To understand that revolution—or coup, by some accounts—we have to go back to 2008, when George W. Bush, along with NATO, declared that Ukraine and Georgia would both become NATO members. Russia—which had been warning against NATO expansion even before the first wave in 1999—threatened war if that happened. From the Russian point of view, NATO wasn’t an innocent, defensive alliance, but an aggressive, pro-Western alliance seeking to encircle them, isolate them economically, and, ultimately, strangle them militarily. In his speech justifying the Ukraine invasion, Putin discussed the threat of NATO encirclement in his first substantive paragraph and mentioned NATO nine more times. It is certainly possible that Putin invoked the NATO threat in an effort to disguise ulterior motives (e.g., recreating the Soviet Union), but to make that assumption is to overlook longstanding Russian fears.
The fact that NATO placed a “defensive” shield of anti-ballistic missiles in former Warsaw Pact nations—ostensibly to shoot down nuclear weapons launched by Iran—was particularly anathema to Russia. From the Russian point of view, the West sought to give itself impunity to launch a nuclear attack without Russia being able to retaliate (since its missiles would be shot down). This would give the West so-called “first-strike capability.” The fact that the U.S. proceeded to withdraw from one arms-control treaty after another—ABM, the INF, the Open Skies Treaty—only intensified Russian fears (to be fair, the U.S. and NATO have accused Russians of any number of treaty violations; this is not simply a “West is malicious” scenario, nor is it simply a “Russia is malicious” scenario).
The latter two treaty withdrawals, incidentally, were decisions by Putin’s ostensible best friend, Donald Trump, who was also the first president to send “lethal aid” (mostly meaning Javelin anti-tank missiles) to Ukraine, thus overturning Obama’s decision not to do so for fear of worsening tensions and arming neo-Nazi “thugs.” Trump, too—contrary to popular perceptions—ramped up economic sanctions beyond Congressional mandates, causing Putin to believe that the West was waging economic war. Whether those sanctions were justified is a question I’ll put aside for now; what is likely, however, is that they did more harm than good.
We can argue about whether Russian leaders are/were irrational to think that the West is out to get them, but it’s unquestionably true that’s what many of them thought and continue to think. Those fears led Russia to develop hypersonic nuclear-tipped missiles that the West thus far cannot defend against. They also led Russia to attack Georgia in 2008 in a five-day war initiated by Georgia’s illegal attempt to reclaim a breakaway region called South Ossetia. This is a war that Russia’s detractors cite as evidence that Putin is ruthless and seeks to recreate the Soviet Union. The actuality was a great deal more complex, and did not end with Russia annexing Georgia (though it continues to pose a military threat to Georgia).
Nor will Russia annex Ukraine, despite what we hear in the media. Its troops aren’t positioned to capture the whole of Ukraine, much less occupy it. The objective seems to be to destroy Ukraine’s military capabilities and to carve off a part of eastern Ukraine in order to attach Crimea to Russia by land and to better defend the Donbas. One would never know this from watching CNN, but, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials, Russian forces—despite inflicting enormous carnage—have been deliberately restrained in order to give room for diplomacy. The other objective seems to be precisely what Putin has stated: to ensure that Ukraine does not become a member of NATO. Nor am I willing to entirely discredit Putin’s statement that he seeks to “de-Nazify” Ukraine (more on that later), given the Azov Battalion’s role in attacks on the Donbas.
Still, as my colleagues insist, this is Putin’s war. He made an illegal decision to invade a sovereign nation. He and his supporters deserve whatever they get. Yes, but no, that’s not the whole story.
Even in the early 2000s, the NED/NGO complex had gone to work to turn Ukraine into a pro-Western nation. After NATO’s decision in 2008 to encourage Ukraine’s admission (I say “encourage admission” because, to reiterate, Ukrainians themselves opposed it), the fight for Ukrainian hearts and minds became more fraught, with pro-Western forces competing against Russophones to elect a favorable government. This was an inherently destabilizing situation.
A turning point came in 2010, when Ukraine elected Viktor Yanukovych as president. Though considered pro-Russian, he strongly favored integrating Ukraine’s economy with the European Union, partly by negotiating an EU economic bailout package. In 2013, however, he turned down the EU’s offer because it required austerity measures that would shred Ukraine’s social safety net and, arguably, because it contained strict anti-corruption requirements (Ukraine is awash in corruption). When Russia offered its own bailout deal sans austerity and anti-corruption measures and with guaranteed access to cheap natural gas, Yanukovych accepted, triggering his right-wing opponents to accuse him of making secret concessions (presumably involving control of Ukraine’s gas pipelines).
What often got lost in coverage of the ensuing protests was that Yanukovych’s Russia deal protected industrial jobs in Ukraine’s eastern “Rust Belt” that might well disappear under the EU package. Nor did Western coverage give much attention to Russia’s fears that cheap EU imports would undermine its fragile economy. Not surprisingly, the strongly pro-free enterprise NED/NGO complex went to work to undermine Yanukovych by working closely with the leaders of the Maidan revolution.
The U.S. and its NED/NGO apparatus did not create the Maidan phenomenon, to be sure, but did steer it to their own ends. Multiple U.S. officials—including Democratic Senator Chris Murphy and Republican John McCain—met with members of the far-right Svoboda party to affirm their support for Maidan. The equivalent would be Russian leaders meeting directly with, say, January 6 insurrectionaries. The staunchly neoconservative Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, moreover, called Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine to instruct him about which Ukrainians the U.S. wanted in President Yanukovych’s ministry and which ones the U.S. wanted excluded. Nuland in particular recommended Arseniy Yatsenyuk (“Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience,” she says in the leaked audio of the call). After Maidan forces forced Yanukovych to flee the country (even after he had called new elections), Yatsenyuk became president. In a space of five months, Yatsenyuk nixed the Russia bailout deal, resuscitated the EU package (including austerity), and resigned.
Did Maidan amount to a U.S.-endorsed coup? Was Nuland promoting Yatsenyuk for the role of president? We’re told that the idea that the U.S. supported a coup in Ukraine is Russian disinformation, but are we sure? What precisely did Geoffrey Pyatt mean by “[we need] somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing.” Did Pyatt require a high-profile Western leader to visit Ukraine merely to endorse a ministerial shuffle? Or was the U.S. playing a bigger game? At the very least, the U.S. was meddling in Ukraine’s politics to impose its will.
In supporting the Maidan project, the U.S. found a ready ally not just in the professorial accountant, Yatsenyuk, but also in Ukraine’s energetic far-right, which provided shock troops—militants—in the protests in Kyiv and elsewhere. After those protests succeeded, the new government repealed a law allowing Russian as an official language in Eastern Ukraine, outlawed left-wing political parties (due to their sympathy with Russia) and outright banned and/or greatly curtailed books imported from Russia. Right-wing thugs meanwhile attacked left-wing political gatherings and drove them underground while the Ukrainian government looked the other way. NED’s president, Carl Gershwin (protégé to neo-con Jeanne Kirkpatrick of the Reagan administration) openly boasted that Maidan was a first step toward ousting Putin. This sort of statement fell short of optimal diplomacy, but was, and is, ubiquitous among Washington’s foreign policy establishment (aka, “the Blob”).
Shortly after Maidan—and the violence and repression that followed—the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Eastern Ukraine passed referendums demanding (depending on how one translates) either to be fully independent or at least autonomous (the latter would be akin to creating Ukrainian federalism akin to that of the United States). There is little question that the referendums were replete with irregularities and coercion and lacked legitimacy under Ukrainian law. It’s equally clear that much of the Donbas population—with equal justification—believed the Maidan government to be illegal (Yanukovych, after all, had prevailed in a fair election) and were infuriated by the Maidan government’s attacks on separatists.
The U.S., meanwhile, poured $2.5 billion into Ukraine’s military seeking to modernize it, partly so it could recapture the breakaway states. The CIA began training Ukrainians to fight in the Donbas in 2015. Though it performed poorly in the early days, the Ukrainian army, along with right-wing paramilitary forces (there were 102,000 of them as of 2020), soon began inflicting agonies. In the war that followed, some 14,000 died between 2014 and 2022. According to the U.N., 81% of civilian casualties were in rebel-held areas between 2018 and 2021, a time when cease-fire agreements supposedly existed in accordance with Minsk protocols. To be sure, civilian casualties had diminished steeply from 2014-15, but cease-fire violations were numerous, and it was Ukrainian attackers who were mostly in violation.
An aside here on Ukrainian neo-Nazis who played roles in both the Maidan revolution and the fighting in the Donbas: There’s a concerted effort afoot to paint them as selfless patriots who either never were genuine Nazis, or who have given up their ideology, or who represent but a tiny sliver of Ukraine’s population. Examine reporting on those same right-wing zealots from before the Russian invasion and you’ll find a different picture.
In 2020, Tim Lister of the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center had this to say: “In recent years, some Americans and Europeans drawn to various brands of far-right nationalism have looked to Ukraine as their field of dreams: a country with a well-established, trained, and equipped far-right militia—the Azov Regiment—that has been actively engaged in the conflict against Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. Most of these ‘foreign fighters’ appear to travel as individuals and at their own expense, according to the author’s review of many cases, but there is a broader relationship between the Ukrainian far-right, and especially its political flagship the National Corps, and a variety of far-right groups and individuals in the United States and Europe.”
Though the U.S. theoretically bars arms shipments to Ukraine’s right-wing militias, there is no way to know precisely where the massive influx of arms will go (just as there was no way to stop U.S. arms shipments from flowing to Al Nusra in Syria or Al Qaeda in Afghanistan). You can find more now passé and impolitic warnings about Ukraine’s Nazis here, here, here, here, and here. Also, here, here, here, and here. And here, too. And here, here, here, and here. And here and here and here. The U.S. policy of flooding Ukraine with arms, in short, might well strengthen (and embolden) far-right constituencies throughout Eastern Europe, and possibly Western Europe.
To end the fighting, Ukraine, Russia, the Donbas states, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) hammered out the Minsk I and Minsk II accords in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Both created a path for the breakaway regions to gain autonomous status. The Ukrainian right, however—which continued to pour fighters into the Donbas—refused to honor the terms and the Ukrainian government did little to restrain them. Though President Zelensky demanded that right-wing militias leave the Donbas as a preliminary to making peace with Russia, he was met with adamant refusal as well as threats on his life. Since then, he has decided to work with the far-right. Ethnic Russians in the Donbas also violated the accords. Both sides, according to the U.N., abducted and tortured opponents, though the most gratuitous crime was committed by pro-Maidan forces that in 2014 set fire to a trade union building in Odessa, killing over 40 anti-Maidan protestors.
So, why did Putin and Russia wait to attack Ukraine until 2022, fully eight years after Russia annexed Crimea and the Donbas declared independence? Putin claims—not without evidence—that Ukraine was planning an offensive to reclaim Crimea and the Donbas. How did he know? Partly because President Zelensky had announced his intention to do so in 2021. Then—in summer 2022, presumably—Ukraine would join NATO as a full member. Zelensky announced that, too, in a tweet he later deleted (Zelensky, incidentally, asked the U.S. to say once and for all whether Ukraine would be allowed into NATO. He was told that no, probably not, but for appearances sake the answer was yes. Some observers suggest that the U.S., by leaving the door open, was deliberately luring Putin into war.) Once Ukraine joined NATO, Russia would have faced an Article 5 war against NATO to defend either the Donbas or its annexed territory in Crimea. Article 5 is the article in NATO’s charter stipulating that a war against one member is a war against all, and that all will defend the one. Russia had zero prospect of winning such a war short of using nuclear weapons.
That alone, however, did not precipitate immediate attack. Putin massed forces on Ukraine’s border in the hope of forcing Ukraine and the West to agree to Ukraine’s neutrality (that is, a guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO). He was also reacting to Ukraine’s violation of the Minsk accords, including an increase in shelling and the use of weaponized drones. President Zelensky’s stated willingness to pursue nuclear weapons undoubtedly figured in Putin’s thinking, too.
According to CIA sources, Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine was made at the last minute, after his diplomatic overtures (which included direct talks with European leaders) failed. In other words, contrary to endless assertions in our media, the attack on Ukraine was not a long-planned decision meant to recreate the Soviet Union.
If Putin was correct—if Ukraine intended to recapture Crimea and the Donbas, then promptly sign on with NATO—his decision to invade was a preemptive strategy. That is not to say he lacked peaceful options. He could have recognized the Donbas states and stationed troops in them without embarking on a wholesale invasion. Alternately, he could have continued to seek support for the Minsk protocols, especially given that the Donbas holds limited economic and strategic importance to Russia and is an enormous drain on the Russian treasury. It is harder, however, to imagine Putin surrendering Russia’s strategically important Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol (Crimea), which Ukraine would hand over to NATO. An apt analogy would be Cuba handing over the American base at Guantanamo to Russia. The U.S. would never allow it.
Whatever his options, he declared a war. No doubt you have noticed, given that the U.S. media spent more time covering the Ukraine war in the last month than it spent in any previous month on any war in the past 31 years, including Iraq. Either a certain news-obsessed demographic of Americans is utterly fixated on the war, or the media really really wants Americans to care about it. Or both.
That observation becomes more interesting when one considers that, according to a Rasmussen poll, support for direct U.S. involvement correlates with income. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to support U.S. involvement (at least in the hypothetical situation that the war escalates beyond Ukraine). Wealth tracks with whiteness and educational attainment, which, in turn, tracks with the mainstream media’s main clientele: prosperous white Americans who grew up during the Cold War. Mind you, the mainstream media’s coverage isn’t falsified; it’s simply credulous. It routinely reports faulty and/or speculative intelligence that the U.S. puts out for PR and strategic purposes, not to mention self-serving Ukrainian assertions that lack independent verification. That’s not to say that mainstream coverage is always wrong; it’s mostly just frenetic and fulsome. But don’t even think about calling it propaganda.
I find the situation frightening and deplorable. Frightening because any direct involvement by U.S. forces could escalate into nuclear war, starting with Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons (which it has in abundance) to stop troop flows and arms shipments. Deplorable because the U.S. (and British) media have stoked an inferno of self-righteous rage, all in support of a country that has little strategic significance to the United States (or Britain).
Yes, I pity Ukrainians, who are being slaughtered by Russia’s war machine. I hope the Ukrainians win without a prolonged bloodbath. But no, I do not believe that Ukraine’s defeat would lead Russia to attack NATO or recreate the Soviet Union. As the scholar John Mearsheimer has noted, those are fables that Western policy elites tell themselves to deny their own culpability. Nor do I think that guaranteeing that Ukraine will remain neutral, rather than join NATO, will encourage China to think “aha, we can attack Taiwan and the U.S. will stay out of it!” Such stories—that diplomacy will make the U.S. “look weak”—are endlessly recycled in every single conflict we enter, which is partly why we stayed in Vietnam and Afghanistan long after any conceivable progress was achievable.
And if we’re going to care about Ukraine, maybe we should also start caring about Yemen, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have died miserable deaths due to Saudi Arabia’s attack on a sovereign nation, or about Syria, where our own occupying forces and proxies have displaced 7.1 million people and perpetuated a war that has cost more than 600,000 lives and untold misery (not least due to crippling Western sanctions that starve and impoverish millions), or about our own war crimes in Iraq, where our invasion led directly to the violent deaths of between 184,382 and 207,168 civilians (and hundreds of thousands more indirectly), or Libya, where NATO’s regime change operation turned the most prosperous country in Africa into a fratricidal warlord state with open slave markets.
Our press gives us wall-to-wall images of suffering in Ukraine, including images of bombed-out buildings and murdered civilians that attest to “genocide.” If one wants to see equally convincing attestations to genocide, take a look at images of Fallujah, Iraq, where the U.S. and allied forces used white phosphorous and cluster bombs (and buried corpses, including some tied and shot, in mass graves) and destroyed 36,000 homes, 60 schools, and 65 mosques. Or, look at Mosul, Iraq, after the U.S. leveled it, with a nary a mention of civilian corpses. Or, Raqqa, Syria.
Russia isn’t the only nation that commits wartime atrocities.
Which brings us to the question: why does the West hate Putin so much? I have zero doubt that Putin is an autocrat who can be ruthless (as witnessed by the 1999 bombing of Grozny, which the West ambivalently condemned). Nor do I doubt that Russia, like the U.S., but on a smaller scale, meddles in other countries’ elections for strategic purposes (though what Russia did in our 2016 election has been grossly overstated and misrepresented). I am inclined to think, too, though evidence isn’t iron-clad, Putin has approved the assassinations of turncoat spies and journalists. All that is likely true. And yet the U.S. supports ally nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that are far more authoritarian than Putin’s Russia. Nor is Ukraine itself innocent of human rights abuses, including torture, murder, and political repression. What, then, makes us hate Putin so much?
The answer is threefold. First, Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria on behalf of its longtime ally, Bashir Assad, ramped up tensions to new heights. The U.S.—which was spending a billion dollars a year to arm supposedly “moderate rebels” rightly condemned Assad and Russia for war crimes but had little or no interest in atrocities by their own proxies. Because the press focused on Syrian/Russian atrocities, moreover, the American public gained little understanding of Russian motives (namely, to protect their longtime military base in Syria and to prevent a Daesh-type government from replacing Assad).
Then—on the heels of Russian entry into the Syrian conflict—came the Russiagate furor, which was repeatedly distorted and exaggerated by venues like MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, for whom Russiagate was a financial windfall. Amid the blizzard of hyperbolic punditry, 67% of Democrats came to believe that Russia had actually changed vote totals in the 2016 presidential election. The impeachment sagas of 2018 and 2020 more firmly linked Russiagate to the cause of Ukrainians whom Trump stood accused of endangering. The U.S. must arm Ukrainians in their fight against Russia, intoned impeachment lawyer Pamela Karlin, so that “we don't have to fight them here” (even as the Minsk Accords, in theory, remained in effect). Any number of Congressional Democrats joined her chorus of Red Dawn-style hyperbole.
Republicans, meanwhile—despite their anger over the false Russiagate charges—never really abandoned their Cold War mentality. After Russia invaded Ukraine, they were more than happy to resurrect Mitt Romney’s 2012 contention that Russia remained our country’s greatest nemesis. It wasn’t, but the ubiquity of Russophobia among foreign policy elites made his statement self-fulfilling. Lindsay Graham and John McCain—long the GOP’s and most eager and strident hawks—personally advanced Romney’s Cold War narrative by visiting Ukraine in 2017, where they promised to help Ukrainian troops prosecute their war against separatists. When Russia launched its invasion, the GOP finally had its 1980s foreign policy back.
What all this leads up to is simply this: if Americans who fly Ukrainian flags actually want to help Ukrainians, they would be well advised to support diplomatic negotiations rather than limitless flows of weaponry. It is highly unlikely that Putin will withdraw without a negotiated settlement that would include a promise that Ukraine will not join NATO, as well as some guarantee that the Ukraine will recognize Crimea as part of Russia and grant autonomy to the Donbas. What Russia might provide, in return, would be war reparations (couched as “economic aid”) and recognition of Kosovo. Using Ukrainian proxies to fight for regime change in Russia may seem emotionally satisfying but doesn’t offer a path to peace.
 My three esteemed colleagues who gave the teach-ins note that Russia has pursued a policy of settler colonialism in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine more broadly since the 1700s. This is, of course, true, and deeply unjust (particularly but not solely to Tatars, who were essentially indigenous to the region, and who were persecuted by the Soviet Union). That said, would it be just—as Ukrainian rightists suggest—to kick out Russians who have made homes in Ukraine or Crimea because they came at the behest of the state? Would it be right to kick out white Americans from North America—and the countless immigrants who continue to pour into the U.S.—given that they are settler colonials?
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