Imperial Gamble: The Completely Avoidable Catastrophe in Ukraine
After 8 years of undeclared warfare in Ukraine between the government and Russian-speaking separatists in the eastern Donbas region, the world was nevertheless shocked by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to officially intervene in the conflict and invade his country’s western neighbor this past February. Calling it a “special military operation” (an admittedly less laughable euphemism than some used by our own leaders), the former KGB colonel announced the invasion over television as Russian infantry marched into Ukraine and planes and missiles struck targets across the nation. The result has been the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, with over a million Ukrainian citizens leaving their homes and fleeing the violence, as well as a major strategic blunder for the Russians, with their army getting bogged down in urban combat and their casualties already in the tens of thousands after only a month of fighting. It has also ratcheted tensions between the US and Russia up to their highest point since the Cold War, as America and its European allies step up military and economic support for Ukraine and pressure other countries to isolate Moscow. Many reading this are probably too young to even remember the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we now find ourselves in an unwelcome throwback to a time where the slightest misunderstanding or miscalculation could explode into a planet-wide cataclysm
But while many were caught off-guard by the invasion, a veritable who’s who of prominent Russia-watchers spent the past 30 years warning that such a conflagration was the inevitable outcome of reckless post-Cold War policy that put the US on a collision course with its old enemy. Respected scholars like John Mearsheimer and the late Stephen Cohen sounded the alarm over American meddling in Ukraine, with Mearsheimer outright stating “the West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked” in 2015. Speaking out even earlier, however, was none other than George F. Kennan, the one-time Cold Warrior and architect of containment who, as the Clinton administration weighed admitting Poland and other ex-Iron Curtain states to NATO, cautioned that “expanding Nato would be the most fateful error in American policy in the entire post-cold war era” as “it would inflame nationalistic, anti-western and militarist tendencies in Russian opinion”. This all said, mind you, when Putin was a lowly staffer for the pro-Western liberal (in drink and sartorial sense as much as politics) Boris Yeltsin, making it an eerily prescient indictment of the unipolar policies of NATO expansion and encirclement that led to today’s conflict.
If the words of academics and diplomats who spent much of their lives carefully observing the biggest nuclear power in the world and its behavior carry no weight with you, then consider what a surprisingly diverse selection of our elected officials have had to say about the risks of Washington stretching NATO’s borders across the old Eastern Bloc and right up to Moscow's front door. When the Bush White House made known its intention to eventually admit Ukraine and its fellow former-Soviet republic Georgia into the alliance in 2008, another Republican from Texas, Ron Paul, voted against a resolution supporting said admission, arguing that such a move would put America at risk of getting dragged into any potential conflict in the region. With sitting congressmen like Adam Kinzinger calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine and the president himself frankly acknowledging the possibility of World War III, one is hard pressed to challenge Paul’s more recent claim that “There was no advantage to the United States to expand and threaten to expand NATO to Russia’s doorstep. There is no way to argue that we are any safer for it.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders recently echoed Kennan’s concern that NATO enlargement would provoke Russia into lashing out. Despite denouncing Putin as a “corrupt, authoritarian leader” and citing sanctions against him and his inner circle as an appropriate course of action, the senator from Vermont contends that “Russia, like the United States, would still have an interest in the security policies of its neighbors” even if Putin were replaced by a democrat like Yeltsin (indeed, Yeltsin - Westerners nostalgic for his usually pro-American and parliament-shelling ways seem to forget - frequently butted heads with Slick Willie over this exact subject). If Bernie is too much of a leftist pinko for you, then perhaps you’ll heed the words of one Joseph Biden Jr, a traditionally centrist Democrat who likes to brag that he once told Putin he had “no soul”. No sane person’s idea of a gremlin from the Kremlin, this makes it all the more incredible that Biden once advised, back in his Senate days, that NATO admission of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia would trigger a “vigorous and hostile reaction” from Russia. All three Baltic nations eventually joined the alliance in 2004, but it apparently took another two decades and the prospect of NATO membership for Russia’s next door neighbor to incite an even more “vigorous and hostile” response than what then-Senator Biden anticipated.
Much has been made of Russian support for the separatists in Donbas, but few see anything wrong with the CIA publicly admitting that it spent the past 8 years training Ukrainians for a “potential” insurgency against a “possible” Russian invasion. This program sounds remarkably similar to Operation Cyclone, the agency’s covert operation to arm and fund the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against that country’s Marxist government in the last decade of the Cold War (Remember Charlie Wilson’s War? Rambo III? That one James Bond movie where he helps some terror- ahem, some freedom fighters blow up a bridge as Russian troops cross?) The similarities go even deeper when you consider that American support for the Islamist rebels - several of whom went on to form the core leadership of the Taliban - actually preceded Russian military intervention: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor and one of the chief engineers of this policy, frankly predicted that “this aid was going to induce a Soviet intervention" before happily declaring “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war” once his prediction came to pass and Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan on behalf of the socialist regime. How serendipitous that Brzezinski would go on, 35 years later and just months after the start of the crisis in Ukraine, to propose a new plan to once again ensnare Russia in a “prolonged and costly” war that it’s “not yet ready to undertake” by providing yet another group of plucky freedom fighters with American weapons.
Just like the war-ravaged Afghanistan became a nexus for jihadist terror, there is a very real threat that a similarly-destabilized Ukraine may become a rallying point for white supremacist extremism. Establishment media likes to pooh-pooh Putin’s claims that he’s “denazifying” his neighbor, often smugly pointing to the fact that president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish as proof of how outrageous such a claim is. That may very well be true and Putin’s claims that Kyiv is controlled by fascists may be self-serving hyperbole but, as The New York Times (that most establishment of establishment media outlets) reports, that hasn’t deterred far-right European militants from flocking east to fight the invading Russian forces (Russians - we Americans with our black/white understanding of race often forget - were regarded by the original Nazis as “sub-human” and marked for extermination alongside Jews and other "undesirables").
Unsurprisingly, many of these white nationalists appear to be inspired by and attracted to the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian militia identified as a neo-Nazi group by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and whose members freely express anti-Semitic beliefs, wear swastikas and SS regalia, and filmed themselves dipping bullets intended for Muslim Chechen soldiers fighting for Russia in pig lard. Disturbingly, this last item occurred after the unit was incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard, with the organization proudly sharing the video on its official Twitter account to the shock of Ukraine supporters in the West. Is it any wonder that counterterrorism experts at the Soufan Center said - in 2019, three whole years before Putin’s invasion - that Ukraine could become “a hub in the broader network of transnational white supremacy”: in other words, the Afghanistan of white far-right terrorism?
Is Putin responsible for the destruction and death currently unfolding in Ukraine? Of course. Was Osama bin Laden (who, incidentally, was one of the “Afghan Arabs” who helped the mujahideen in their holy war against the Soviets) responsible for the tragedy and loss of life on 9/11? Absolutely. These are morally sound, unquestionably true statements, but if your history starts on February 24th or September 11th, if your analysis begins and ends with “We were peacefully minding our own business when Russia/Al Qaeda/the Fire Nation attacked,” then it doesn’t matter how good or true your starting premises are: you’ll still be unable to address the past three decades of American political and military hegemony that provoked these tragedies, much less prevent similar ones from occurring. You’ll have to ignore the chorus of voices who spent years warning that the pursuit of a Pax Americana would lead directly to perilous moments like this. And, more importantly, you’ll have to ignore the chaos, the anguish, the terror wrought in Iraq, Libya, Yugoslavia, and wherever else this treacherous path saw fit to snake through. It is this treachery and bloodshed that fuels the rage and paranoia of the Putins and bin Ladens of the world and so long as it continues, we are liable to see more of their ilk long after the former joins the latter in the great beyond.
Make no mistake, Ukrainians have the right to defend themselves and we should allow refugees seeking shelter into our country (though one wishes this courtesy was also extended to others fleeing comparable violence in the Middle East or just south of our border). Russia may have escalated the conflict in Ukraine to an intolerably dangerous level, but the answer isn’t for the US to add more fuel to the fire by waging another Afghanistan-style proxy war and engaging in irresponsible brinksmanship. The answer is to not only support peace talks between the two countries, but for ours to learn from its past sins and renounce - once and for all - the old delusions of invincibility and imperialism that have now landed our species on the eve of destruction.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the Libertarian Party of Orange County.
Reggie Peralta is a native of Santa Ana and UCLA graduate with a BA in Political Science. In addition to helping out as Blog Editor for the Libertarian Party of Orange County, he has volunteered and written content for local arts and cultural organizations like The Frida Cinema, Makara Center for the Arts, and LibroMobile.