Story by Will Chappell
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week, the American public and media whipped themselves into a collective furor over the unabashed gall and infamy of President Vladimir Putin.
Suddenly, Putin is a land-hungry European autocrat for our times. Finland and Sweden quickly looked to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to protect themselves from the dastardly Russian. Our other NATO allies in Europe are looking for increased troop deployments. And President Joe Biden is rattling the saber of American imperialism and talking tough to the nemesis of the free world.
The complete lack of nuance or critical examination of the conflict and its causes by the media and the administration’s apparent bull-headed insistence on Cold War-style posturing frightens me. I graduated in the fall with a minor in Russian studies and speak the language passably. I have a handful of Russian friends and have followed Putin’s career from afar for well over a decade. I would not call myself an expert on the subject, but certainly well-informed and concerned.
I believe it is imperative that we stop showing a total lack of respect for Putin and his concerns or we risk seriously exacerbating the current situation in Ukraine.
First, I would like to highlight America’s own foreign policy in our own hemisphere. For almost two centuries, the United States has strictly adhered to the Monroe Doctrine, unequivocally warning foreign powers from interfering in matters in the western hemisphere. Over the course of the twentieth century, this took the form of the United States covertly or overtly overthrowing Latin American governments repeatedly. Even today we are supporting a government-in-exile for Argentina hoping that someday strongman President Nicolas Maduro will fall. We also renewed the North American Free Trade Act just two years ago. We have taken these actions because having strong economic and diplomatic relations—or control in many cases—is critical to our national security.
Yet, in the past thirty years, we have done everything in our power to deprive Russia of the same privileges we so jealously guard. After NATO accomplished its primary objective of defeating the USSR, we set to the work of completely humiliating the new Russian Federation left as its successor. We encouraged fourteen republics to carve themselves off to become independent nations. We then took about expanding NATO progressively eastward towards Russia’s borders, placing more troops into Eastern Europe and “democratizing” the region. It is little wonder that Putin regards the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) century.”
Which brings us to Ukraine.
After pushing NATO to Russia’s borders by the turn of the millennium, President George W. Bush promised in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia could join the alliance. In 2014, the pro-Russian backed President, Viktor Yanukovich, was overthrown following peaceful protests and replaced with a pro-Western candidate in elections. For Putin, who saw western intrigue in the overthrow, this was the final straw. He quickly reclaimed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and funneled support to pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, sparking a Civil War that formed the pretext for this year’s invasion.
When looking at Putin’s tenure in office, the 2014 Crimean annexation and this invasion fit into a clear program that Putin has pursued over 20 years to reassert Russian control and influence in its sphere. It started with the Second Chechen War, initiated under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, but completed by Putin that confirmed Moscow’s control within its borders. Then, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War allowed Putin to show his willingness to militarily intervene in countries that got too close to the west. Throughout the 2010s, Putin helped Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad with troops and equipment in the country’s ongoing civil war. And for the past five years, he has focused on refreshing and updating the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
The invasion of Ukraine is not the unhinged action of a reckless man; it is the response to thirty years of expanding American military influence impinging uncomfortably close to a superpower. While many now want to call on America to stand and act as the “leader of the free world,” I think these calls are myopic at best, disingenuous and self-destructive at worst. Instead of mounting our collective soapboxes to extoll democracy and human rights, blaspheme Putin for his transgressions and call for further military buildup and NATO expansion in the region, we should suspend our outrage and try to deal with the situation in a way that will bring peace to Ukraine, even though it will not be on our terms.
It is time to set aside the outdated Cold War rhetoric that is being employed against Russia and stop wasting our time and money antagonizing them.
We are perfectly willing to accept undemocratic, human-rights-neglecting governments as allies elsewhere in the world, so we should at least be willing to accept détente with Russia in this situation. We should acknowledge our role in pushing Putin to this war with thirty years of aggressive, expansionist foreign policy that we would never accept in kind. Barring aggressive actions against other nations, we should set out to reach an understanding with Russia that grants them a buffer from our interference and allows us to focus our attention elsewhere, though it will come at the expense of neoliberal democracy in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Lastly, I would caution any American who is pro-intervention to pause and examine our track record this millennium of spreading democracy and freedom and democracy. After trillions of dollars spent and more than 200,000 dead, Afghanistan is now controlled by the Taliban we invaded to unseat in 2001. Iraq saw a similar number die and the rise of the Islamic State caliphate before becoming a close ally of another of our sworn nemeses, Iran. More than a decade after the American-backed Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East, it is difficult to classify them as anything other than a categorical failure. After a short flirtation with Islamism, Egypt has returned to the status quo ante with a military regime jailing people up for TikTok videos. Syria is still controlled by Assad after more than ten years of civil war, the brutal rise of ISIS and at least 350,000 dead. And Libya has become an anarchistic power vacuum and a hub of the 21st-century slave trade.
This unconscionable track record of suffering and death is something of which I fear most Americans are largely ignorant or with which they are unconcerned. It seems that the jingoistic masses will uncritically accept any amount of suffering of people in faraway lands, so long as it can ostensibly be touted as in the service of spreading democracy and freedom. Even this week, the American media has been drooling over Zelensky who seems on a mission to martyr himself and as many of his countrymen as possible fighting off an attack that even America has predicted will not be repelled.
As macho as made for Hollywood as lines like, “I need ammunition, not a ride” are, is that really a laudable sentiment? I fail to see the glory in facing an unwinnable fight and choosing death for you and thousands of your countrymen. But it seems the narrative has been written: Zelensky is a hero and a Ukrainian George Washington.
Taking everything into consideration, it seems inescapable that America’s foreign policy set us on the course towards this war and now American media, politicians and the public seem gleeful at the prospect of returning to a comfortable, cliched narrative of Russia as the implacable enemy to America. This response disappoints me. Our hubris, lack of honest self-reflection and facile understanding of the world have wrought enormous damage over the last century, yet we obstinately refuse to learn any lessons or take any responsibility for our failings. Instead, we create a hagiography that chooses to obstinately portray America as the hero, savior and protector of the world.
I wish that I could say I have any optimism about the future of this situation, but it seems that at best we are headed for a new Cold War and potentially something far worse.