As the United States and its NATO allies persist in their belligerence towards Russia over the Ukraine, the journey to a major armed conflict with global ramifications could have begun one step at a time
By Clovis Atatah
Even without being a foreign policy expert, it is difficult not to be alarmed by the developments in Ukraine since about a year now, the role of the United States and its NATO allies in both provoking and perpetuating the conflict, and the probable motivations that drive Western and NATO policy in this part of the world.
If one’s sole source of information on the Ukrainian problem were mainstream media in the West, one would come to the conclusion that the conflict is a direct result of a flagrant and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, akin to the German aggression that led to World War II. Indeed, several Western politicians have drawn parallels between Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom they blame for the Ukrainian crisis. At the same time, mainstream Western media and politicians dubiously present President Putin as synonymous with Russia, in a bid to deny the agency of Russian institutions and people while at the same time reducing a complicated situation to the misguided actions of a supposed megalomaniac. However, from publicly available evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that if there have been any persons spoiling for a fight, it has not been the Russians, or Putin for that matter, but elite of NATO member states as well as their Ukrainian vassals who provoked the crisis in the first place, and then continued to stoke the smouldering charcoals of war.
Many trace the current Ukrainian crisis to the protests that erupted in the Ukrainian capital Kiev following a decision by then democratically-elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to suspend the signing of a cooperation agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. It is not in dispute that many Ukrainians were unhappy with that decision. But it is also a fact that many were happy with it, reason why there were counter protests. Whatever the case, U.S. officials took sides during the so-called Euro-Maidan protests, openly marching alongside not-always peaceful anti-Yanukovych protesters, addressing crowds and distributing food to the demonstrators. A U.S. official equally confirmed that they had offered financial aid amounting to billions of dollars. In the face of protests, Yanukovych agreed to a deal with the opposition, brokered by the West and Russia, not to take part in elections and appoint an opposition prime minister in the few months he would stay on as a figurehead or lame duck president before the polls. But before the ink on the agreement was dry, the opposition mounted a coup and deposed the democratically-elected president. The West immediately lauded this as a triumph of democracy. If Yanukovych had been pro-Western, the story would have been different.
One of the first actions of the new authorities was to vote for a ban on the use of the Russian language, the native language of a huge segment of the population, especially in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine as well as in the autonomous Crimea region. At the same time, the new authorities engaged in a savage witch-hunt of supposed Yanukovych supporters. In one incident, the head of Ukrainian state TV was filmed being beaten by politicians of the nouveau regime and then forced to write and sign his resignation as the cameras rolled. During the same period, a Ukrainian opposition politician, one of the favourites of the West, was caught on tape calling for the mass extermination of Russians. These did not attract any condemnations from the West. Instead, Western leaders tried to outdo each other in extolling the democratic credentials of the new regime. Eventually, amidst Western applause, the authorities would pass the Law of Lustration, that bars officials associated with the government of Yanukovych from holding public office in the country, and hence shedding any pretence of a politics of inclusion. To understand the significance of this move, imagine what the reaction of the West would have been had the ANC barred all former officials of the Apartheid regime from holding public office in the new, democratic South Africa after the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994.
Crimea secession and Donbass rebellion
In the atmosphere of vengeance by the perceived victors of the Ukrainian political struggle, the democratically elected assembly of the mainly Russian-speaking autonomous Crimea region decided to hold a referendum on secession. The vote held amidst the presence of Russian troops, who were drawn from their Black Sea base in the Crimean peninsula. Voters overwhelmingly decided to secede from Ukraine. Western countries accused Russia of invading Crimea as well as condemned the vote, denied its legitimacy and subsequently decided on collective punishment of the people of Crimea through sanctions intended to strangle its economy.
As Crimea acceded to the Russian Federation, people of the largely Russian-speaking Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine took up arms, calling for greater autonomy. The new Ukrainian authorities responded by drafting the army and a newly formed “revolutionary” National Guard, comprised mainly of the right-wing militia that went out of control during the pro-E.U. protests, to crush the rebels. Months of shelling from the air and the land, as well as fighting between government forces and the rebels, has left thousands dead, many of them civilians. When the authorities of the Donbass organized elections to vote for independence, it was condemned by the West. Similar condemnations followed elections of local authorities, even though turnout appeared to have been impressive.
Over several months of fighting, Ukrainian authorities refused to talk with the rebels, and insisted on a military solution to the conflict. Even when Ukrainian troops appeared to have committed war crimes, the West refused to condemn any of their actions and blamed everything on the rebels and Putin. While Russia appeared to be trying to seek a negotiated settlement, the U.S. and its NATO allies in the European Union piled sanction upon sanction on Russia to devastate its economy and bring the country to its knees, as they simultaneously pledged support to Ukrainian authorities, including lethal military aid. In his State of the Union address on January 20, President Barack Obama proudly proclaimed the Russian “economy in tatters” because of the sanctions.
As NATO and the E.U. continued to nudge Ukrainian government forces, and as Russia continued to hesitate to decisively support the rebels, probably because of the biting sanctions, the rebels suffered heavy losses. At one point, the government forces appeared to be at the cusp of victory, and Ukrainian authorities became even more belligerent, as their excited jaw muscles became hyperactive in anticipation of triumph. Then tables turned. Rebels started repelling attacks, and even gaining new territory, as the Ukrainian government and the West accused Russia of aiding the rebels. Ukrainian authorities and their backers decided to talk. Last September, the latest in two agreements was signed by the warring parties in Minsk to give peace a chance. But Western rhetoric against Russia continued unabated, even though there were fewer threats of more sanctions. For a time, fighting largely halted in east Ukraine.
Taking advantage of Russia’s suffering economy
Russia’s economy is to a significant extent dependent on oil exports. When the price of oil nosedived some weeks back, and continued to plunge, coupled with biting Western sanctions, mainstream media in the West declared the collapse of the Russian economy, and Obama confirmed this view in his state of the union address. With Russia perceived as weaker than ever before, Ukrainian authorities and their Western backers probably felt the time was right for a decisive push to crush the rebellion in Donbass. On January 19 Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, after a war-mongering rally with supporters, ordered what he described as a massive assault against rebels. The heavy fighting that has since ensued has not been the decisive victory that the Ukrainians envisaged. Instead, government forces have since suffered significant set-backs.
In response to purported shelling by rebels that reportedly killed 30 people in the city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. and its NATO allies in the E.U. have threatened Russia with more sanctions. Rebels denied shelling the city, counter-accusing government forces instead. Speaking while on a visit to India on Sunday, President Obama said the U.S. was considering all options to punish Russia, short of all-out war. The E.U. is also talking of slapping tougher sanctions. At the same time, the U.S. has pledged to train Ukrainian National Guard members, who include right wing militia, in addition to providing them with military aid. Such training and aid may not be decisive in the outcome of the Ukrainian conflict, as recent events in Iraq would suggest. When ISIS fighters stormed northern Iraq some months back, U.S.-trained and armed Iraqi soldiers were the first to flee, leaving their weapons and the civilian population at the mercy of the extremists. But the symbolism of these aggressive moves by the U.S. would have far-reaching consequences on Russia’s calculus, which is likely not going to be in the direction of going on its knees in supplication, but rather, to prepare for war. A recent declaration by President Putin that the Ukrainian army is a NATO legion aimed at keeping Russia in check is ominous.
Distortions of history and hypocrisy
Apart from blaming Russia for every problem in the Ukraine, Western officials have also been trying to distort history, in a bid to paint a dark shadow over its role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the consequent liberation of Europe during the Second World War. Two recent comments speak for themselves. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk while on a visit to Germany earlier this month stated on the country’s national television that Russia had invaded Ukraine and Germany during the Second World War. It was such a blatant falsification of history that had the U.S. and its major allies not decided that the Ukrainian leadership could do no wrong, it would have been a scandal of gargantuan proportions, akin to the flat denial of the holocaust by the leader of a European country. But in this case, there was not a pip. Then came a comment by Polish foreign minister Grzegorz Schetyna ahead of commemorations marking the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp by the army of the Soviet Union, otherwise known as the Red Army. Millions of Jews were reportedly killed there by the Nazis during World War II. To deny any credit to the Russians, millions of who lost their lives fighting Nazi aggression, the foreign minister of a NATO member-state claimed it was Ukrainians who liberated the camp. Such comments are surely meant to provoke Russia.
At the same time, the U.S. and its European allies have insisted that their stance against Russia is informed by principle. President Obama has repeatedly articulated this position. In his January 20 State of the Union address, he stated, in relation to his country’s aggressive posture towards Russia: “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.” Last Sunday, he echoed the same argument in India: “We have a profound interest, as I believe every country does, in promoting a core principle, which is, large countries don’t bully smaller countries. They don’t encroach on their territorial integrity. They don’t encroach on their sovereignty. And that’s what’s at stake in Ukraine.”
If the U.S. so strongly believes in these principles, it begs the question why the U.S. has been bullying smaller nations for decades, waging illegal wars, invading countries, pursuing a policy of “regime change” in countries where the leaders oppose U.S. hegemony, carrying out bombing campaigns in countries where the governments have not given their approval. The list may go on. In the Ukraine, the U.S. bullied the country, violated its sovereignty, helped topple a democratically-elected leader and imposed new leaders. In the Ukraine, the U.S. is not hiding the fact that it intends to train and arm militias. Right now in Syria, the U.S. is carrying out bombing campaigns in violation of the territorial integrity of the country, and is training and financing rebels to fight the elected government of the country. Only recently, the U.S. government re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, a country it has bullied for decades, violated its territorial integrity, violated its sovereignty and tried to ruin economically. It is difficult to understand how President Obama could make such statements with a straight face.
Although many people attribute the origin of the Ukrainian crisis to former President Yanukovych’s decision to forego the partnership agreement with the EU, it lies elsewhere. The Ukrainian crisis is only the outcome of a cold war that the U.S. and its allies have been waging against Russia since the 1990s. It has been the U.S. policy to gain strategic advantage over Russia through NATO expansion, even though there was a purported agreement that NATO will not expand eastwards. The Ukraine is apparently just another front in the attempt by the U.S. to dominate Russia. Installing a friendly regime in the Ukraine seemed quite simple and brilliant on paper, but the realities on the field have turned out to be more complicated.
Steps towards war
Ukrainian politicians, or rather, the new Ukrainian authorities, are not interested in peace with either the rebels or with Russia. The country’s economy is in “tatters”, to use President Obama’s words, not only because of the current crisis, but also because of decades of corruption and cronyism. Before the current crisis, the Ukrainians largely lived on Russian handouts. Now they have basically switched masters, and believe that the West would be much better paying masters than the Russians. But without a conflict, there would be no justification for huge Western funds to flow into the Ukrainian, with many of the NATO member-states facing their own economic problems. It is therefore not surprising that the Ukrainians have been doing everything to provoke Russia to take military action against them. The Ukrainian hunger for an armed conflict with Russsia is so obvious, that Western governments cannot possibly say they are not aware of it. So the decision by the West to offer unflinching support to the Ukrainian authorities is a sign that the decision has already been taken that war with Russia is the ultimate goal.
The U.S. government and its NATO allies in the E.U. have insisted that they don’t want a war with Russia. But the mounting rhetoric against Russia is similar to the rhetoric (and belligerence) that has preceded other wars waged by the U.S. and its allies. Even the sequence of the actions that have been taken against Russia are eerily similar to those that preceded previous Western aggression. First, politicians and mainstream media in the U.S. and its allies stop referring to the country, rather presenting its purported “strongman” as synonymous with the country: Saddam Hussein in place of Iraq, Slobodan Milosevic instead of Yugoslavia, Muammar Kaddafi instead of Libya, Putin in place of Russia, etc. At the same time, this “strongman” is presented as evil incarnate. Then, they impose economic sanctions to weaken their self-declared foe (remember the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003– even though NATO as a group did not participate in this one, the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, the war against Libya in 2011, amongst others). Finally, they go to war. In all of these cases, the victim country neither attacked the U.S. or any NATO member-state, nor did it pose a direct threat to any of them.
It is likely that the U.S. and its NATO allies are hesitant to go to war with Russia at the moment. The Russian military is definitely not a walkover and the huge country is a nuclear-armed power. But their calculus is also in all probability similar to those that guided their other adventures of aggression: Demonize Putin, weaken Russia, and then attack. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has been flexing its muscles, attempting to bring any country that stands in the way of its aim of hegemony and complete domination of the world. NATO has been a convenient and pliant tool in this adventure, with an exception being the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The temptation to subdue Russia may be too strong or Western propaganda against the country could become so effective amongst elite and populations in the West that the war movement assumes a life of its own. However, a word of caution: while the U.S. and its NATO allies may believe in their ultimate triumph against Russia in the event of a war, it could be a Pyrrhic victory. The U.S. and its Western allies, as well as Russia, will likely emerge from that confrontation a shadow of themselves, giving the opportunity for a new, non-Western power or Russia to rise from the ashes of mutually assured destruction.