Putin Is Responding to the West's Pressure as We Would Respond

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tags: Russia, Putin, Ukraine, Crimea



William R. Polk was a professor of history at the University of Chicago. During the Kennedy and part of the Johnson administrations, he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. 

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Ray McGovern is one of the most experienced men to come out of the American intelligence Establishment.  His special field was Russia.  

This recent essay by him is crucial to an understanding of the dilemma we now face in the Ukraine and the growing danger of a return to the dangerous and wasteful years we lived through in the Cold War.  

The media (and government)  hype for confrontation with Russia over the Crimea is detrimental to our national interests (both American and European) and to world peace:  this is a crisis largely manufactured by us.  

True,  the Russians, and particularly Vladimir Putin, have been heavy handed, but that was to be expected.  Great Powers are seldom gentle as we see in more than one of our own actions in recent years.  

What our own selfish interests require is for us  to lower tensions, to pay attention to geostrategic reality and  to move toward a livable and mutually beneficial accommodation. 

Is that possible?  From having negotiated one major ceasefire (between Israel and Egypt) and having helped bring the long-lasting, bitter Algerian war to an acceptable conclusion,  I think I can say that solving this problem would be relatively simple.  Indeed, there is one practical solution already on the table:  agree that NATO will not adopt Ukraine but that Ukraine can adhere to the European Union.  

What we need to avoid is to engage in further "dirty tricks," propaganda and economic policies that egg the Ukrainians onward, frighten the Russians and increase the possibility for really serious conflict.  

Trying to subvert the Russian economy, as we are trying to do,  will hurt the average Russian citizen but will not break him.  If we should have learned one thing from Russian history it is that the Russians have a great capacity to endure suffering.  Our current policy will only infuriate them and make them more determined to support Putin (as recent public opinion polls conclusively show). As a means to guide the Russian government, it also leads us nowhere. The Russian government, like any sensible government, is more likely to be directed by its perception of  its national interests than by our statements or actions.   

My rather intense experience in government policy planning has led me to several insights.  One is pertinent here:  it is always useful to put oneself in the place of the "other fellow" to  see what "I"  would do there. If we did that,  I think we would find that Russia (under whatever imaginable government) would no more give up the Crimea to what would certainly be a hostile Ukrainian regime than we would give up the Panamanian Canal to a hostile Latin American regime and for similar reasons --  both (foreign policy) geographical/strategic and (domestic) psychological/political reasons.  I doubt that Putin really has the latitude, no matter what the degree of pressure is that we apply,  to give up the Crimea or perhaps even to allow the Ukraine to slip into NATO.  In his shoes, I would not take the chance, nor, in his shoes, would I think it would be to either my personal or Russia's national interests.  In short, objectively rather than emotionally, i would act as he has done.  That is his safest course and one in which I think any Russian leader would also believe to be "right."

If my interpretation of his position is even probable, is his position significant worth trying to overcome?

Does it mean so much to us to try to push Putin into violating what I think he would see as his personal and Russian national interests?

The fact is, as the saying goes, we don't even have a dog in this fight. No threat to our security is involved; no increment to the hardihood of NATO will come from the adherence of the weak, corrupt and unattractive Ukrainian government.    (These thoughts were given a grotesque turn in the recent discovery that much of the Ukrainian Central Bank's presumably carefully locked away gold reserve was found to have  been replaced by gold-colored lead ingots!  One wonders what would happen to stocks of military supplies or other negotiable goods stored there by NATO! )  Moreover, Ukrainian society is deeply divided and a significant segment of it is certainly not the sort that we should wish to have as NATO's bedfellows.   And neither the Crimea nor the whole Black Sea is vital to our wellbeing.  Most of us don't even know where they are.

In short, except for the deep fears, legitimate fears, Russians have of invasion, and invasion that often came through the Ukraine, a hard-headed Russian could argue that the "loss" of the Ukraine would not be such a bad thing. But, I am pretty sure that, no more than an American, will be accept   being pushed around or humiliated.

Our interests are best served by the establishment and continuation of  healthy, independent and progressive nation states -- both Russia and Ukraine; not two states at daggers drawn and particularly not by a fearful,  sullen and impoverished Russia that will be driven into a junior partnership with China. That alliance is something we used to fear for far less reason than now.   Nor, even if the old bugbear of the Sino-Soviet bloc is avoided, should we welcome an expensive, pointless retrograde slide into a new Cold War.

We all have a stake in getting our policy right.  I hope you will agree and make yourselves heard.  you might start by circulating McGovern's important essay.

Let's  make it a truly happy, safe and healthy new year. 



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