Have NATO leaders created a crisis to justify NATO’s continuation after its original purpose expired?
Former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul says: “Without U.S.-sponsored ‘regime change,’ it is unlikely that … the Malaysian Airlines crash would have happened.” Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, wonders why Washington is risking war with Russia. John Mearsheimer argues the Ukraine crisis Is the West’s fault.
William Pfaff, writing in these pages, agrees: the United States started the Ukraine crisis, which “may end in a war.”
Jan Oberg of Sweden’s Transnational Foundation holds NATO “at least 80%” responsible. Seumas Milne of The Guardian concurs: The EU “sparked this crisis” and NATO, far from “keeping the peace … has been the cause of escalating tension and war.”
An alliance forged against the existential Soviet threat successfully deterred the enemy without firing a shot. But then it waged war on Serbia which had not attacked any member state, contemptuous of a defeated, diminished and impotent Russia.
Kosovo’s forcible detachment from Serbia in 1999 was the prelude to taking on a more diffuse peace-maintenance role that saw NATO’s geographical reach expand to Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Libya. If now it is taking on decidedly imperialist hues, are all members happy to endorse the transmutation?
One does not know whether to admire the chutzpah or weep at the strategic stupidity, including reversing the Nixon-Kissinger brilliance of detaching China from Russia, of today’s Western leaders. The facts are easily ascertainable from public sources, the double standards obvious, the hypocrisy brazen, and the Russian response was entirely predictable.
If, despite this, the Western publics back their governments in the continued slide into confrontation with Russia, or the governments stay on that path against domestic opposition as in the 2003 Iraq war, we may rush headlong into a catastrophic war with the risk, as reminded recently by President Vladimir Putin, of nuclear escalation.
If this sounds over the top, consider that Russia can provide principled, strategic and relative justifications for its actions vis-a-vis Ukraine.
On chutzpah, the countries that attacked geographically distant Iraq in 2003 with no national security justification have the effrontery to exclaim that attacking another country without pretext is just not done in the 21st century. Leaders and countries yet to be held to domestic or international criminal account for that insist that Russia and Putin must be punished. The West may bankroll and support destabilization of an elected pro-Russian government in Kiev, but Russia must not destabilize a pro-West government installed by coup on its doorstep.
Circumstantial evidence points strongly but not conclusively to MH17 being shot down mistakenly by pro-Russian fighters, but not Russia directly, with a Russian-origin missile.
In 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by the Vincennes — not a client but a U.S. ship — killing 290 people. The ship’s captain was neither rebuked nor punished but awarded a medal, yet the West demands consequences for Russia for the MH17 accident.
In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia into submission on Kosovo’s secession. Today NATO demands Crimea be handed back to Ukraine. Part of Russia since the 18th century, Crimea was “gifted” to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 without consulting its people. The Russians annexed it this year after a referendum of dubious legality and accuracy.
I could support calls for a genuinely democratic referendum to determine and respect people’s choice. But those who used military force to dismember Serbia have no moral authority to insist Crimea must be returned to Ukraine regardless of its people’s wishes.
The divine right of Europe’s kings to rule has not morphed into the divine right of Westerners to determine the world’s territorial borders.
In 1962, Cuba was a sovereign state that entered into an agreement with the then Soviet Union for stationing missiles on its territory. This was interpreted, correctly, as a hostile act directed at the U.S. mainland. The resulting crisis, which risked a nuclear war, was resolved with the withdrawal of Soviet missiles. But the Eastern European countries as sovereign states must be conceded the right to enter into a defense alliance with the U.S. and to station NATO troops and missiles on their territory.
On strategic idiocy: the distance from Kiev to Moscow at around 750 km is the same as from Ottawa to Washington. Imagine a pro-U.S. government is in power in Ottawa sometime in the future despite a massive vote against it in Quebec. China’s by then considerable economic and strategic interests in Canada are under threat, so Chinese money funds a Quebec-based opposition campaign on the streets of Montreal and Ottawa, joined by Chinese officials in highly publicized acts of solidarity.
The Canadian prime minister flees to safety in Washington, a pro-China government is installed in Ottawa and immediately enacts measures to take away core civic rights of non-Quebeckers. No U.S. government would accept the outcome or be wrong to try to reverse it using any means necessary. This is what has happened in Ukraine with Russia.
NATO includes France and Germany. Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine, has been the geographical gateway for some horrific invasions of Russia in European history, including by Napoleon and Hitler. NATO has crept steadily closer to Russia’s borders in violation of the understandings on which post-Soviet Russia had agreed to the peaceful reunification of Germany and to united Germany’s membership of NATO.
Undertaken in a fit of absent-mindedness without strategic hindsight or foresight, NATO’s numerical, territorial and mission creep progressively alienated Russia, encouraged recklessness by some East European states and put NATO credibility on the line — without making it stronger. Sevastopol in Crimea is the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, whose loss would cut off naval access to the Mediterranean and squeeze Russia out of the Caucasus.
It is better for Russia to fight NATO before further impoverishment with Ukraine cut off economically and the military balance worsened. Even if Russia is defeated, the costs of victory for the West will be substantially higher.
For Ukraine, for reasons of geography, history, language, economics and ethnicity, a choice between Russia and Europe is painfully impossible.
That’s why realists like Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt for months have recommended a solution that acknowledges and respects Russia’s core strategic interests with a united but neutral Ukraine as a buffer, a federal system with regional autonomy and guaranteed rights for all groups.
Last November, Putin was willing to accept Ukraine having formal economic association with both Russia and the EU, but the latter insisted that Kiev choose one or the other. President Viktor Yanukovych chose Russia, and the rest is history. Unfortunately the price of the ongoing rise in global tensions and any resulting war will be paid not just by the West but the rest of the world as well.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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