The US-Russia standoff over Ukraine has sparked bellicose threats and fears of Europe’s biggest ground war in decades. There are ample reasons to question the prospects of a Russian invasion, and US allies including France, Germany's now-ousted navy chief, and even Kiev itself appear to share the skepticism.
Another potential scenario is that Russia draws on the Cuban Missile Crisis and positions offensive weapons within the borders of Latin American allies. Whatever the outcome, the crisis has underscored the perils of a second Cold War between the world's top nuclear powers.
If the path forward is unpredictable, what got us here is easy to trace. The row over Ukraine is the outgrowth of an aggressive US posture toward Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago, driven by hegemonic policymakers and war profiteers in Washington. Understanding that background is key to resolving the current impasse, if the Biden administration can bring itself to alter a dangerous course.
American principles vs. power constraints
Russia's central demands — binding guarantees to halt the eastward expansion of NATO, particularly in Ukraine, and to prevent offensive weapons from being stationed near its borders — have been publicly dismissed by the US government as non-starters.
In rejecting Russian concerns, the Biden administration claims that it is upholding governing principles of international peace and security. These principles, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says,
"reject the right of one country to change the borders of another by force; to dictate to another the policies it pursues or the choices it makes, including with whom to associate; or to exert a sphere of influence that would subjugate sovereign neighbours to its will."
The US government's real-world commitment to these principles is non-existent. For decades, the US has provided critical diplomatic and military cover for Israel's de-facto annexations, which have expanded its borders to three different strips of occupied territory (the West Bank, Gaza, and Syria's Golan Heights). The US is by far the world leader in dictating policies to other countries, be it who their leaders should be; how little to pay minimum-wage workers; or how to share energy supplies.
The Biden administration continues to subjugate sovereign countries to its will, whether it’s neighbours like blockade-targeted Cuba; coup-targeted Venezuela; sanctions-targeted Nicaragua; or far-away countries like US military-occupied and sanctions-targeted Syria. Biden just recently embraced the longstanding Monroe Doctrine of a US sphere of influence by declaring Latin America to be the United States' front yard.
When not making sanctimonious public pronouncements, US officials are quietly able to acknowledge the real principles that guide their actions. According to the Washington Post, one US official specialising in Russia believes the Russians are still interested in a real dialogue. Russia’s real aim, this official says, is to see whether Washington is willing to discuss any sort of commitment that constrains US power. If their public statements and actions are any guide, the Biden administration is so far opting for the latter.
Rather than focus on diplomacy, the United States' reliable British client has been trotted out, Iraq WMD dossier-style (or Steele dossier-style, or Syria dirty war-style), to lodge the explosive allegation that Russia is plotting to install a new leader in Ukraine via a coup. While declaring that the obedient Brits were Muscular for shouldering the war-mongering allegation, the New York Times quietly acknowledged that they also provided no evidence to back up their claims.
After warning of a false flag operation by Russia in Ukraine, the US pulled off a stunt of its own by recalling its embassy personnel out of stated concern for their safety. Unlike the dutiful British, other US allies failed to get the memo, including the EU, which declined to follow suit and even took a pointed swipe at attempts to dramatise the situation.
NATO expansion, from the Cold War to a coup in Ukraine
If the Biden administration is now willing to accept real dialogue over an outcome that constrains US power on the Ukraine-Russia border, it will have to eschew guiding US principles since the end of the Cold War.
When he agreed to the reunification of Germany, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was "assured in 1990 that the [NATO] alliance would not expand," Jack Matlock, Reagan and Bush I's ambassador to the Soviet Union, recently noted. But upon entering office, Bill Clinton broke that pledge and began an expansion spree that has pushed NATO to Russia's borders. In 2008 – against the reported advice of advisers including Fiona Hill – President George W. Bush backed a NATO declaration calling for Ukraine and Georgia's eventual ascension.
The constant expansion of NATO has led to what the scholar Richard Sakwa calls a fateful geographical paradox: NATO, Sakwa says, now exists to manage the risks created by its existence. Sakwa’s maxim undoubtedly applies to Ukraine, where the threat of Russia's neighbour joining a hostile military alliance sparked a war in 2014 that continues today.
A major tipping point in the conflict came two weeks later, on February 20th, when nearly 50 Maidan protesters were massacred by snipers. The Ukrainian opposition immediately accused government forces, sparking a series of events that led to Yanukovych's flight from the country two days later. Exhaustive research by the University of Ottawa's Ivan Katchanovski argues that the massacre was in fact perpetrated principally by members of the Maidan opposition, specifically its far-right elements.
Faced with the possibility of losing Russia's most important naval base at Sevastopol to a US-backed coup regime, Putin responded by seizing the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Russia also provided military support to Ukrainians in the country's Donbas region hostile to the new coup government, sparking an ongoing war between the opposing sides.
In Washington, the annexation of Crimea is widely seen as an expansionist act of aggression; even, according to Hillary Clinton, akin to what Hitler did back in the 30s. In Crimea, Russia had the support of the majority of the population, if polls are to be believed. The same for the Russian population, across the political spectrum. For [Russian] politicians, not vocally supporting, let alone questioning, the annexation of Crimea is practically akin to political suicide — even for liberals, a European Union think tank observed in 2014. Even Anti-Putin nationalists […] are enthusiastic backers of Putin’s territorial grab. For over 200 years Crimea had been a territory of Russia, until Nikita Khrushchev assigned it to Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union.
War in Ukraine = Profit in Washington
As a result of the US drive for yet another NATO-aligned military outpost on Russia's borders, Ukraine has been decimated. The war in the Donbas has left nearly 14,000 dead. Ukraine's conflict with Russia, Denys Kiryukhin of the Wilson Center observes, is one of the major factors that accounts for the mass outmigration of Ukrainians since 2014. The Donbas war has encouraged a rise in far-right militancy inside Ukraine, including the notorious neo-nazi Azov Battalion, which has directly cooperated with the US military.
The United States' European allies are also feeling the impact of Washington's entanglement with Russia over Ukraine. The current standoff is threatening Russia's energy exports, which account for about one-third of the European Union's gas and crude oil use. It's going to be an incredibly hard sell in any European country, to say that you have a 10 times higher energy bill and we feel as though our supply is not plentiful enough, because of Ukraine, Kristine Berzina of the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy, a US and NATO-funded think tank, told Axios.
The picture is much rosier for those living through the war from Washington. You’ve got a lot of people who see profit in this conflict […] and that’s the arms industry, retired Army colonel Douglas Macgregor, a senior Pentagon advisor under Trump, told me in a recent interview. And the defence industrial complex sees this as an opportunity to spend a great deal of money on a whole range of armaments that they otherwise might not be able to sell. The arms industry has made no secret of its enthusiasm for the opportunities of NATO expansionism and the post-Maidan Ukraine market.
US arms manufacturers
Reporting in July 2017 that military stocks had reached all-time highs, CNBC noted that NATO concerns about Russia are seen as a positive for the defence industry. So is the ongoing war in Ukraine, where the US has shipped $2.7 billion in weapons since 2014, along with 200,000 pounds of fresh lethal aid in recent weeks and more promised via new spending bills.
Putting aside the guiding imperial and profit-driven motives, the main impact of pouring US military hardware into the Donbas conflict is to prolong it. Writing in Foreign Policy, two analysts with the Pentagon-tied think tank Rand Corporation, Samuel Charap and Scott Boston, argue that: The NATO’s weapons won’t make any difference to Ukraine: The military balance between Russia and Ukraine is so lopsided in Moscow’s favour, they write, that more new weapons from Washington would be largely irrelevant in determining the outcome of a conflict.
Another US-sponsored crisis
Aaron Maté — January 26, 2022
A first-hand look at the ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s Donetsk.