I am old enough to recall the time when Europe was divided into two hostile military alliances, with the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Balts on the Russian side. Now they are all in NATO. The Swedes and the Finns have applied to join, and the Ukrainians are clamoring for guns to shoot at Russians. From the viewpoint of 40 or 50 years ago, this is a time of wonder — but it doesn’t feel that way.
The West has come a long way. Hurrah, and all that. But we are in Russia’s backyard, and we have the bear’s back against the wall.
My sympathies are with the Ukrainians. They are a freer country than Russia, and their political dreams are increasingly Western.
Much of the American right has taken Russia’s side. In “Why Die for Ukraine?” posted on January 29, 2022, Lew Rockwell wrote of the onrush to war, “The neocons who control American foreign policy are the real aggressors.” The cities being blasted to rubble are Ukrainian, not Russian. But it is true that the US government has been meddling in Ukraine over the past decade, and that its actions give reason for Russian leaders to feel threatened.
It wasn’t the West’s military that “turned” Ukraine. It was our ideas, our political culture.
Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago laid out the case on February 15, on the eve of the war. Speaking at King’s Politics Society, Cambridge, he outlined how the West has been trying to recruit Ukraine as an ally — by the prospect of joining the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and by encouraging the “orange revolution” of a few years ago. The key events, said Mearsheimer, were the NATO summit of 2008, which opened the door for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, and the Ukrainian coup of 2014, in which a pro-U.S. leader deposed a pro-Russian one. “The United States was involved in that coup,” Mearsheimer said.
The Russian government responded to the 2014 coup by invading and annexing the Crimea, which includes the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. Crimea is Russian-speaking. Until it was given to the Ukrainian S.S.R. in 1954, it was part of Russia. Since 2014 Russia has it back. “Crimea is gone,” Mearsheimer said. “It is never going back to Ukraine.”
Ukraine did not, in fact, join NATO (or the EU, either), but NATO has been acting as if it were next on the list. And Russia, said Mearsheimer, will not accept that: “Russians have a very powerful sense that NATO is running right up against the Russian border.”
The ordinary American believes that his country is the good guy. “So what?” he’ll say. “NATO isn’t going to attack Russia. The United States is half a world away from Russia. The rest of NATO is a bunch of small-to-medium-sized democracies, most of whom are in NATO so they can shrink their militaries and spend more money on social welfare.”
Let NATO become ETO — the European Treaty Organization. Europe is big enough and rich enough to defend itself.
The Russians do not see it that way. To them, the eastward march of NATO is a threat — and they are right, too, though mostly not in the military sense. It wasn’t the West’s military that “turned” Ukraine. It was our ideas, our political culture. The pull of those ideas is felt in Russia — and if little brother, the former Ukrainian S.S.R., joins NATO and the EU, authoritarian rule in Russia may not last. That is why, from Putin’s point of view, the West has crossed the line by trying to recruit Ukraine.
As an American, I think it’s fine if our ideas worry Vladimir Putin. I hold no brief for Putin. But now he has started a war. Innocents are being killed, their homes destroyed, their towns burned — and by a power with a stockpile of nuclear weapons. As Henry Kissinger said in an interview on May 11, “We have not thought through globally” about how to respond to the possible use of nuclear weapons. Not to respond at all, he said, would set a terrible precedent.
American foreign policy needs to be centered on our own interests. Here our primary interest is in preventing a nuclear war. The war in Ukraine is not that, but war is inherently unpredictable. The Russians have hugely miscalculated, and have bogged down. The original thought was that Ukraine had little chance without Western aid, which has been supplied; now the thought rises that the West should take the opportunity to up its game and go for victory. This is a dangerous moment. The wiser option is to take this opportunity to press for a settlement. Probably the deal the Russians would take the leaders of Ukraine wouldn’t like, and one that I wouldn’t like, if I were Ukrainian. Then again, I’m American.
As for the Swedes and the Finns, they have done without NATO membership for two-thirds of a century. Ultimately, they probably should be in — and ultimately, the United States should be out. Let NATO become ETO — the European Treaty Organization. Europe is big enough and rich enough to defend itself. How long it will take to reach such a conclusion I don’t know, but it’s time that someone suggested it.