By Alan Brody
Few Americans would welcome going to war with Russia over Ukraine. Similarly, a century ago, few Europeans expected to be in a world war within three months, and certainly not over an event as random as the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
World War I went against everyone’s national best interests. Divergent perspectives on events, complexities of domestic politics and histories of grievance set the stage for hotheads to react to perceived insults to their national pride. Spiraling miscommunication generated threats, ultimatums, mobilizations of troops, and finally acts of war that, once unleashed, proved impossible to reverse.
Could recent events in Kiev and Sevastopol similarly spark a senseless and destructive war? Demonstrators in the streets of Kiev overthrew Ukraine’s Russian-leaning president. And Russia, sensing encircling forces as a potential threat to access to its warm-water naval base in Sevastopol, sent troops in to secure the Crimea. What now?
America’s neoconservatives have come out of the doghouse they’ve been in since their Iraq adventure, baying for action against Russia. They want to shadow box in the face of a nuclear-armed nation ranked as the world’s second-most powerful militarily, and they want to do this right in Russia’s own backyard.
The roots of the present conflict began last November. Promising $15 billion in aid, Russian President Vladimir Putin enticed Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich to cancel plans for closer integration with the European Union (which was promising less than a billion with many strings attached). Demonstrations against Yanukovich’s decision began that same week in Independence Square in Kiev.
The Russians charge the Ukrainian demonstrations were not entirely spontaneous, and that the subsequent overthrow of Yanukovich was an illegitimate coup involving European and American support.
Are these Russian views mere delusional paranoia, or was that really American diplomat Victoria Nuland out in Kiev’s Independence Square last December, handing out snacks to the demonstrators?
Nuland is America’s Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, the same woman who was taped in a late January conversation with her ambassador suggesting who America should support as Ukraine’s next leader, and criticizing Europeans for taking too soft a line.
Putin believes that post-Cold War America wishes ill for him personally and for Russia. ... His project is to rebuild Russians’ pride and power, and restore their centuries-long status as a force to be reckoned with in the affairs of Europe and Asia. Most Russians appear to support that.
The Sochi Olympics represented a “soft power” approach to this project. American media, seemingly offended, assiduously promoted a Sochi counter-story of corruption, homophobia and terrorism.
Watching the broadcast of China’s leader Xi Jinping sitting with Putin at the Sochi Opening Ceremonies, I wondered, “Where is Obama?” Going to the Olympics would have been a zero-cost way for President Barack Obama to make Putin (and the Russian people) feel good, strengthening trust and personal ties. Perhaps the leaders of the world’s three most powerful militaries could have taken steps toward resolving a few thorny conflicts, and even built a little mutual confidence for a peaceful way forward in Kiev.
For scenarios like that to happen, Americans first would have to accept that we are not the only country with national interests and pride, and learn to pursue our foreign policy accordingly.
Today in Ukraine we are faced with a very complicated situation with a threat of sliding into war if we don’t get our diplomacy just right. It won’t be easy for Obama and European diplomatic partners to face down an angry and aggressive Russian bear. As they try to do so, none of us will be well served by noisy politicians who engage along the sidelines in the kind of jingoistic baiting that took Europe into a tragic war a century ago.Alan Brody worked overseas for more than 30 years with the Peace Corps and UNICEF. He lives and writes in Iowa City. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org