It’s Time for US and European Allies to Step Back From Ukrainian Conflict

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It’s Time for US and European Allies to Step Back From Ukrainian Conflict

(Photo: Alexander Ishchenko /

On a weekend when the United States augmented its program of financial aid to beleaguered Ukraine, President Barack Obama himself conceded to the American TV audience (those not watching Super Bowl preparations) that the official U.S. narrative concerning the war in Ukraine is not true.

Secretary of State John Kerry has since arrived in Kiev, bearing with him presidential authorization of another billion dollars in American loan guarantees to Ukraine and congressional support for this augmented aid to Kiev. Many in Congress would like the sum to be bigger yet. As it is, the U.S., the International Monetary Fund and the European Union have thus far committed a total of $27 billion assistance to Ukraine to get it to and through the “emergency” presidential election in the country scheduled for May.

NATO wants increased military assistance to the Ukrainian army of 6,000, which thus far has not proven a very effective opponent for the Russophone East Ukrainian secessionist rebel forces and the trans-frontier Russian “volunteers” bolstering them.

Since the conflict broke out a year ago, the official American story (reinforced by its European Union allies, although not always with enthusiasm) has been that it was instigated by Russian President Vladimir Putin to block Ukraine from creating a democratic government, whose existence and example on the border of Russia might inspire the Russian people to themselves reject authoritarian government and overthrow Putin’s “kleptocracy”—to quote New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman, who describes Putin as "the Thug."

The Russian president, according to Hillary Clinton a year ago, is emulating Hitler by invading and seizing lands with ethnic Russian populations to provide additional “living space” (in Germany’s case) for the homeland (an expression Bush-II America picked up from prewar Germany). But even Friedman found Clinton’s comparison overdone at the time, although he now finds merit in it.

Obama does not. Interviewed by Fareed Zakaria last weekend on CNN, Obama said that “Mr. Putin made this decision around Crimea and Maidan not because of some grand strategy, but essentially because he was caught off-balance by the protest in the Maidan (in February 2014) and (Ukraine’s then-president Viktor) Yanukovych fleeing after we (the U.S. and the European Union) had made a deal to broker power in Ukraine.”

Those who’ve followed this affair will remember that President Yanukovych was being pressed by Russia to join a new central Asian trade and political bloc envisaged by Putin, while the EU and U.S. wanted Ukraine to join the EU (and NATO).

Believing that the Maidan demonstrations last February had been secretly contrived by the West (easy for Putin to suspect because of the presence of EU representatives, as well as an American Assistant Secretary of State and a visit to Kiev by CIA officials), Putin retaliated by adroitly seizing Crimea, for many years a Russian territory, but Ukrainian only since 1954.

He sent special troops to reinforce the uprising by many insurgents among the 20 percent Russian-speaking population in the eastern frontier territories of Ukraine, already restless under the rule of the Ukrainian-speaking majority, and seeking autonomy.

So the war goes on, both sides heavily dependent upon heavy artillery destruction of civilian areas held by the enemy. Ceasefires have been negotiated but have collapsed for unclear reasons. The Ukrainian government insists that it’s determined to retake its lost territories.

President Obama is being very cautious, so far refraining from supplying the Ukrainians with offensive weapons (despite insistent demands in Congress and among Washington right-wing commentators).

The Russians seem to have no such scruples. They seem to feel themselves under assault by the West, and indeed there are many in Washington who want to see Putin and his government overthrown, convinced that Americanizing the world is the next step in the nation’s destiny.

Nuclear war is considered a possibility by both sides, for the first time since 1990. But why? The U.S. and its European allies have been the aggressors in this whole unnecessary confrontation. They are the ones who can call it off. There is zero gain in it.

Certainly, the Germans and other Europeans are aware of this. As in the old days of the Cold War, the calculations of deterrence and first-strike advantage are relevant. The U.S. seems motivated by the determination to stay Top Dog. The Russians may be motivated by fear.

William Pfaff

William Pfaff is a globally respected political commentator and author on international relations, contemporary history and U.S. policy. He is the author of eight books, most recently Fear, Anger and Failure: A Chronicle of the Bush Administration's War Against Terror from the Attacks of September 11, 2001 to Defeat in Baghdad. Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

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