US, Ukraine and Russia: What Went Wrong?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) smiles with Ukraine's President Petro Poreshenko (L) during a bilateral meeting in Kiev February 5, 2015. Kerry arrived in snowbound Kiev on Thursday amid calls for Washington to begin arming Ukraine to battle Russian-backed separatists advancing in the east. (Photo: Reuters/im Watson/Pool)

US, Ukraine and Russia: What Went Wrong?

Reagarding a talk given by John Mearsheimer and Rick Rozoff in Evanston, Illinois on January 10, 2015

Two widely recognized authorities on big power politics and NATO recently gave a public talk on the current situation in the Ukraine at the Evanston (Illinois) Public Library. Organized by the Evanston Neighbors for Peace, John J. Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and Rick Rozoff, a long-time activist who maintains the "Stop NATO--Opposition to Global Militarism" web site , spent three hours recently trying to cut through the lies and obfuscation that the US public has been fed around the current developments in Ukraine.

Mearsheimer began the session, and was followed by Rozoff. Afterwards, they responded to each other's presentation and then took questions and statements from the public, making this a very lively and informative session. This reporter was present throughout and took notes from the presentations; this reporter inserted sub-headings within to help readability.

Perspective of John Mearsheimer

Mearsheimer started off, noting the "significant deterioration in US-Russian foreign relations." He argued this situation is "fundamentally wrong."

He gave background to what's going on. Basically, US-Russian relations were ok until February 22, 2014. Since then, things have gone "down the toilet bowl." (On February 22, 2014, there was a coup in Kiev, Ukraine, where protestors--which the support of the US Government--overthrew the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych.)

Before February 22, there was no evidence of American or European policy makers being concerned with Ukraine. US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, stated there was "no reason to contain Russia," and said that the US did not see [Russian President Vladimir] Putin as an "aggressor." There was no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Since the coup, Russia has encouraged the citizens of Crimea--a Russian speaking area that had been given to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954--to reunite with Russia, which they did via a local referendum in March 2014. At the same time, there's been a war "by virtually all accounts" in the Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian government on one side, and Russia-supporting rebels on the other.

The US blames Putin for all of the turmoil. According to Mearsheimer, the US is acting "like kids who never understand what they've done wrong." Some commentators have called Putin "a new Hitler," which Mearsheimer says such arguments are "ludicrous in the extreme": nothing that Putin has done has ever put him in the category of Hitler.

Mearsheimer says, "The Russians have made clear that Ukraine is a core strategic area." In other words, they will defend it at all costs: their response to crisis in Ukraine is similar to what the US would do if a nuclear-armed "opponent" were to try to take over Canada or Mexico.

Mearsheimer said there were three things going on in Ukraine: NATO was trying to expand, the EU (European Union) was trying to expand, and that the US was trying to "promote democracy" in Ukraine and Georgia: basically, the idea was to put the Western powers directly on the borders of Russia. And they were trying to do this by incorporating Ukraine (as well as Georgia) into NATO and the EU.

Some Relevant Historical Background

When the Soviet Union allowed its Empire in Eastern Europe to collapse in 1989 without sending in tanks, US President George Herbert Walker Bush (the old man) told Mikhail Gorbachev that the US would not take advantage of the situation and would not expand NATO eastward. [Apparently, Gorbachev accepted Bush at his word, and this was never written down--KS.] NATO did not expand eastward until 1999, when it expanded under Bill Clinton. In 2004, under George W. Bush, it expanded to include the Baltic States. In April 2008, at a NATO Summit in Bucharest, Romania, NATO offered membership to the former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia. In August 2008, there was the war between Russia and Georgia, where the Russians said unequivocally, NO WAY.

At the same time, the EU was expanding eastward, trying to incorporate as many countries in Eastern Europe into its monetary and trading zone. They were steadily trying to incorporate Ukraine as well.

At the same time, the West was also trying to "promote democracy," and getting pro-Western leaders into positions of political leadership in these countries, including Ukraine. The so-called "Orange Revolution" in 2004 was intended to do this. The Russians were spooked by these three strategies, especially when combined, like they were.

Where things hit the crisis level was the result of Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovych's flirting with accepting a EU economic package for this country during the Fall of 2013. Ultimately, Yanukovych decided to "deep six" the deal, and decided to accept an economic package from Russia. This lead to massive protests inside Ukraine--particularly in the European-leaning western part of the country--and these protests led to the February 22 coup, which forced Yanukovych out of office and out of the country.

Russia's Response to the Coup

Mearsheimer labeled Russia's response "highly understandable." Russia made clear this situation was "categorically unacceptable." He said that if we wanted a good analogy, we should look at the US response to the Soviet Union's placement of missiles in Cuba in 1962 or even the Monroe Doctrine itself, which he described as telling other world powers to stay out of "our neighborhood," the entire Western Hemisphere.

As Mearsheimer summed it up, "Great Powers are very sensitive to disruptions on their borders and in their neighborhoods."

He stressed it again: Russia's response is "completely understandable." Putin and the Russians are not going to allow Ukraine to join NATO: they see this as an "existential threat."

Accordingly, they "took Crimea," although they had 25,000 troops stationed there under a long-term lease that allowed the Russian Black Sea Fleet to harbor at Sevastopol; obviously, they didn't want to risk that lease being terminated, causing them to loose that naval base.

The Russians have also helped facilitate troubles in eastern Ukraine. According to Mearsheimer, however, they will not invade. He notes that Russia is in both serious economic and political trouble--the West's sanctions have hurt Russia, but probably the bigger, immediate problem is the collapse of global oil prices--but he argues that the conventional forces of Russian cannot swallow Ukraine; they have limited military capabilities. He says an invasion by Russia is "not in the cards: there's no evidence that they want to do it and they aren't capable," either.

What the Russians can do, however, is wreck the country as a functioning society.

In response, the West keeps telling the government in Ukraine to keep playing hardball with the Russians. Mearsheimer thinks this is misleading Ukraine. He said it's stupid to tell Ukrainians to keep screwing themselves by poking the Russians. "Putin is certain to make sure Ukraine will not be part of the West."

From Here?

Mearsheimer thinks there is a simple solution to the crisis: take NATO and EU expansion off the table. His idea is to make Ukraine a neutral border state.

He argues that Putin hasn't wanted to pick a fight, and the evidence shows that there really wasn't a problem in Ukraine until the Fall of 2013, after Yanukovych decided to take a Russian deal instead of one with the EU. He states simply, "Putin did not create the crisis."

Mearsheimer thinks that the US is being "foolish in the extreme" to keep supporting the Ukrainians' conflict with Russia. He argues this makes the chance of a war more dangerous.

Perspective of Rick Rozoff

Rozoff started off by thanking Mearsheimer for speaking truth to power in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, "Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault" (September-October 2014). He then pointed out this was Day 270 of the "anti-terrorist operation" by Ukraine, and the "Fifth Act" of NATO's expansion.

Most Americans never even consider NATO, especially after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe, which was touted as "the end of the Cold War." Rozoff pointed out that despite the supposed end, NATO has been very aggressively expanding eastward toward Russia, which was the heartland of the Soviet Union.

  • This began in 1990, when East Germany was absorbed into Germany. (GHW Bush Administration);
  • In 1999, at the 50th anniversary of the founding of NATO, in a NATO Summit in Washington, DC, NATO engaged in its first post-Cold War expansion, inviting Poland, Hungary and Poland to join it. (Clinton Administration).
  • In 2004, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the "Baltic States") joined, along with Slovenia and Slovakia (parts of former Yugoslavia), Bulgaria and Romania (GWB Administration).
  • In 2009, Croatia (part of former Yugoslavia) and Albania joined, although they had been invited in 2008, under the GW Bush Administration. By 2009, NATO had increased its membership by 75%, now having 28 full members and 49 "partner" countries, for a total of 77 country members. Over 70% of the total world spending on military weaponry is done by these nations.
  • In 2008, both Georgia and Ukraine were told they could eventually become members.

Rozoff pointed out that not only had NATO been expanding aggressively, it has now fought in a number of wars, most far away from Europe. It forces fought in the 1994-95 war in Yugoslavia, and then again in 1999, when it carried out a 78 day bombing campaign in support of Kosovo's succession. After that, it sent forces to Afghanistan beginning in 2001, forces "for training" in Iraq in 2004, ships for anti-piracy duty in the Gulf of Aden (off of Somalia), and then in 2011, it led the war on Libya.

But NATO engages in war-like activities (called "exercises") designed to enhance its war-fighting capabilities. For example, Rozoff talked about a March 2014 NATO exercise above the Artic Circle. This "exercise" involved 16,000 troops from 16 nations and took place approximately 200 miles from Russia.

Rozoff pointed out that this aggressive behavior towards Russia, up to and including developments in Ukraine--and he said it could only be seen that way by the Russians, despite whatever rationales were mouthed by NATO--was very dangerous. He mentioned that Mikhail Gorbachev had even suggested recently that things in Ukraine could easily get out of hand, and that ultimately could lead to nuclear war.

Rozoff ended his talk with arguing the need to disband NATO, which he called "the biggest threat to world peace."

Further Discussion

Mearsheimer states that the ruling elite of Ukraine wants to be part of the West, not Russia. However, he argues, "they do not have a right to do whatever they want." He says their problem is what he called "bad geography." The Russians consider Ukraine to be a core strategic region. He says that the West is leading Ukraine "down a primrose path" that can only end up hurting Ukraine.

An audience member asked about US activities in Ukraine being connected to economic interests?

Mearsheimer stated that the there's no doubt that the US is economically interested in Ukraine, but he argues there is no need to try to pull Ukraine away from Russia. The sanctions that the Obama Administration and the EU have imposed on Russia have "severely damaged" Russia, but it's leading to blowback (i.e., unintended consequences) on Western Europe. He believes that some of the current EU economic problems are being caused by the Ukraine crisis. He says German business elites clearly are opposed to economic sanctions against Russia.

Someone else asked if Russia could withstand economic sanctions along with the collapse of oil prices?

Mearsheimer says this is a great crisis for Russia, but he does not think Russia will collapse--and that they will not give up, as Ukraine is a core strategic area for them. He says that Russia has two things going for it: "they have arms, including nuclear weapons, and hydrocarbon." He pointed out that the EU is the second largest consumer of hydrocarbon in the world.

Someone else asked what was the US role in the 2013 protests/2014 coup in Ukraine? Mearsheimer said he didn't know. He said it was hard to get details.

This reporter--a scholar who has done research on the US "democracy promotion' activities--then made a contribution to the discussion. He said that Americans were working closely with the protestors who came to power in the coup. He pointed out that Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and US Senator John McCain--the Chairman of the International Republican Institute, which is a core institute of the US government's so-called National Endowment for Democracy--participated in protests in Kiev. However, he said he doesn't know if the US had facilitated the coup, but that there has been a lot of "democracy promotion" money sent to Ukraine to develop political parties, and this went to opposition politicians who opposed the democratically elected government.

Another audience member pointed out that he understood there had been considerable monies sent to the Ukraine opposition by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (a right-wing foundation) of Germany, as well as USAID (US Agency for International Development). He also stated he had been in Ukraine recently, and specifically noted that there were people from fascist organizations involved in the opposition, and they now held important positions in the post-coup government.

With that last interaction, the session was closed. Thus ended a very informative program that helped clear up a lot of misinformation about currents in eastern Europe and specifically Ukraine. It's importance became even more clear as President Obama, in his January 20th State of the Union speech, claimed that it was Putin who was the aggressor in Ukraine--more disinformation by the Commander in Chief.

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