Is Ukraine Worth A War?

News Abroad
tags: Russia, Ukraine

Murray Polner reviews books for HNN. He and Thomas Woods Jr. wrote "We Who Dared Say No To War" (Basic Books).

 “It’s the worst mess since the 1930s” William Pfaff, one of our shrewdest commentators about world affairs who writes for the Times’ International Herald Tribune. “No one wants war,” wrote Pfaff, but “there are people in Moscow just like the people in Washington who say, “if we don’t follow through—if we don’t stand our ground—we’ll lose our ‘credibility’” the pet word of our many bellicose senators, neocons and think tank chicken hawks and their Moscow counterparts. If Kiev’s interim government should collapse we will hear our latter-day McCarthyites screaming “Who Lost Ukraine?” as if, like China in 1949, it was ever ours to lose.

As a book review editor I receive lots of books. In the past few months several have dealt with the one hundredth anniversary of World War I. If the books have a common denominator it is that war, which cost some 40 million lives and broke the back of Europe, was entirely unnecessary and could have been avoided if one or more leaders and countries had any sense of the calamity awaiting them and their people. Geoffrey Wawro’s appropriately named A Mad Catastrophe is a perfect fit for what has recently been happening in the Ukraine. And Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War excuses no nation, no leader, no special interest for the war, the same judgment historians will probably reach if we are mad enough to go to war over an ugly dispute colored over with rumors, lies and large areas of gray.

Be careful, Important People in Moscow and Washington: You’re being egged on to join in a “game of chicken on the edge of the nuclear cliff,” warned Arno Mayer, the emeritus Princeton historian.

The issue has been successfully framed by most newspapers, radio and TV talk show hosts and pundits in very simple black and white terms: Russians bad, Ukrainian rebels and U.S. good. The same sort of distortion is undoubtedly so in Russia, where personal freedom is shrinking fast. But here in the Land of the Free, you have to search out alternative media, such as Consortiumnews, National Interest, and some bloggers for skeptical interpretations. The unexamined consensus in our mass media is that it’s all Vladimir Putin’s fault. His indefensible annexation of Crimea and increasingly authoritarian Russia seem like a continuation of classic Tsarist history. Still, the Russian who sympathized with Bush II’s search for the 9ll terrorists and later saved Obama from a revolt in the ranks when he and Kerry planned to bomb Syria, now bears all the blame.

The Times has done reasonably well in covering fast-moving, confusing events inside Ukraine yet also runs slanted, tendentious headlines: “Mr. Putin’s Power Play;” “Russia is Quick to Bend the Truth in Describing the Situation in Ukraine;” and “Ukraine Sends Force to Stem Pro-Russian Militants in the Nation’s East.” It also failed to explain how and why. without a shred of evidence, the predisposed Obama administration swallowed unconfirmed reports of Donetsk Jews being required to register as Jews. The newspaper also had to retract a bogus, inflammatory photograph, which falsely depicted Russian military forces inside eastern Ukraine—the freelance photographer said it had actually been taken in Russia.

Still, the Times editorial writers forged ahead, urging the U.S. and its “trans-Atlantic partners”-- really, only American muscle counts in that mix—to be “prepared to be tough with Russia.” In another editorial, “A Familiar Script in Ukraine” it called on the U.S. and Europe to get ready “for a “stern and painful response” should Putin move into eastern Ukraine. What that means was left undefined. Andrew Kramer, one of the paper’s better reporters, has been covering the Ukrainian brouhaha from the start. In a dispatch he put to rest the phony party line that Russians are unwanted intruders in eastern Ukraine, writing what has been well-known for decades, namely that “some of the political and business elites of the Donets Basin, an industrial and coal-producing region” had backed the ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych and “felt they had much to lose after he was deposed.” Moreover, public opinion in eastern Ukraine is very much pro-Russian.

Alongside a Times piece “In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Favoring Containment Writes Off Putin” Thomas Friedman’s April 9 column recounted his 1998 interview with George Kennan reacting with anger and dismay at the Senate’s mindless ratification of NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders. Said Kennan: “I think it is a tragic mistake….This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed on to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”

Meanwhile, two weeks later, since Ukraine is now on every pundit’s “must” agenda, Friedman dashed off to Kiev, spent a few days interviewing some locals and then, apparently setting aside his interview with Kennan, the leading light of the paper’s Op Ed page changed gears. “We have to make sure Putin doesn’t kill [a supposedly incipient democratic Ukraine] in its crib.” How, exactly, to accomplish that is not explained. Shall we send in the Marines? Begin a bombing campaign?

Nicholas Kristof, another Op Ed star, made an emotional return to his father’s Ukrainian village and declared “We should do more to back them up.” In a subsequent column about “Moldova, the Next Ukraine,” Europe’s’ “poorest country,” he says its “love for the West is unrequited.” Obama, he suggests, should visit Moldova so that he and other “wobbly”—his word-- politicians from Europe and America can learn how to stand up to Russia. Neither of these prominent opinion-makers offer even a hint that the Russians, as Paul Pillar, who spent 28 years working for the CIA put it in the National Interest, have their interests too: “Whether we like to think this way or not, Russia has substantially greater strategic interest in the distribution of power in an around Ukraine that the United States does” --interests threatened by shipping missiles and other weapons to the borders Russia shares with the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine.

We desperately need Russian cooperation in many vital areas. American troops and war materials still move through Russia to and from Afghanistan. Astronauts of both countries are now in orbit at the International Space Station. The agreement to decommission aged Russian weapon systems is ongoing. Russian cooperation in engaging Syria and Iran is absolutely crucial.

Does anyone know what the U.S. wants in eastern Europe, asked Pfaff in the IHT “beyond the unacceptable ambition it has displayed since Communism’s collapse—and which now has exploded in its face—of shoving NATO membership” on Russia’s borders? “This can only be understood in Moscow as a hostile act.”

So who’s running the show in Washington about Ukraine? Does the ship of state have any direction? Off on his quixotic Asian tour, Obama has never explained why Ukraine has suddenly become a vital American interest. Does Victoria Nuland, ostensibly Kerry’s subordinate in the State Department, speak for Obama? Did the taciturn John Brennan, the CIA’s director, visit Kiev on his own initiative? What, if anything, did he promise? Joe Biden also flew off to Kiev, pledging to add millions to the $5 billion already sent to Ukraine and possibly much more to come— this a gift from a nation with a declining middle class and with 45 million Americans now living under the poverty line.

In the meantime, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer has been sent into the Black Sea and 150 paratroopers shipped to Poland with more to scheduled to follow. What if Putin retaliated and sent a Russian warship into the Caribbean? Do we really need another Gulf of Tonkin lie to satisfy the madness of Washington’s hawks? Perhaps our paper of record can send out its talented Washington staff to find some answers so that Americans can at least know what is being planned for them and their children? In Germany, a public debate has been underway and several ex-Chancellors have blamed the European Union for trying to lure Ukraine into its sphere and thus instigating the current crisis. We could use a series of genuine public debates.

So I ask: What is Obama’s end game in eastern Europe? Is Kievan Ukraine, old and new, insolvent and crooked, and now engaged in its historic rivalry with Russia, worth a good old-fashioned nuclear war? And here’s my fundamental question: what if the unthinkable happens and Russian forces cross into eastern Ukraine and absorb it as they did Crimea? What will the U.S. do?

The only sensible answer lies in patient diplomacy. It’s settling a dispute before it gets too vicious to control. Any agreement should include humanitarian aid for Ukraine east and west. But no solution is possible without Moscow and Washington agreeing to transform Ukraine into a neutral state, untethered to either side. If this miracle should ever come to pass, it will not be “Munich” but a life-saving middle ground, a compromise, a fact of life Moscow and Washington and their hawks will have to accept if a calamitous war between two nuclear powers is to be avoided.

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