Similarly, if the current conflict with Russia over
Ukraine and Crimea is to end peacefully, both sides must diligently strive
to understand the minds and motivations of their opponents.
And yet, as I read and listen to the commentary in the
American media regarding this conflict, I find little evidence or interest
in seriously inquiring what it is like to think like a Russian. Robert Parry
and Stephen Cohen are noteworthy exceptions. One need not agree with, still
more justify, the Russian point of view. But at the very least, one must
So why should the Russians feel compelled to interfere
with the internal politics of Ukraine? Why should they respond so militantly
to the ouster of a pro-Russian (and legally elected) Ukrainian president by
To understand this, we must, of course, look back at
Twice in the past century, German troops rolled across
the plains of Poland and Ukraine to attack Russia. In the previous century,
Napoleon’s army did the same. In the latest of these invasions, as many as
twenty-five million Soviet citizens perished, including about ninety percent
of the male cohort born from 1920 to 1923. So Russians have good reason for
concern about the security of their western border and are eager to
establish and support non-threatening regimes along that border, which is
precisely what they did by establishing the Warsaw Pact in 1955 to counter
This is an attitude that citizens of the United States –
bordered on the north and south by friendly and unthreatening countries, and
on the east and west by vast oceans – are not inclined to appreciate. Less
so, when we consider that not a single Nazi bomb fell on American soil, and
that for every American life lost in that war, more than fifty Soviet
citizens were killed.
Conventional American opinion asserts that the “captive
satellite countries” of eastern Europe were part of a grand Soviet scheme to
spread communism throughout all of Europe. Surely that thought crossed the
minds of Stalin and his Politburo, unquestionably among the most brutal
tyrants in human history. But might not the Soviets have been even more
motivated to secure political control of the land traversed by Hitler’s
The right-wing version of history tells us that an ailing
FDR “gave up” eastern Europe to the Soviets at the Yalta conference. They
fail to note that all that territory was, at the time of the conference,
occupied by the Red Army, having been won at horrendous cost. What was
FDR’s, and Churchill’s, alternative? Retake the territory with the American
and British armies? Get real!
From this Russian perspective on recent history, a
Ukrainian “turn to the West” can not be regarded as a trivial matter.
More history: As we all know, in response to post-war
Soviet expansion, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949.
When the Soviet Union broke up, the first President Bush reportedly told
Soviet President Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze that, in
exchange for a unified Germany and the political independence of the Warsaw
Pact nations, NATO would not expand to the Russian border. And yet NATO did
just that. Through there was no formal agreement, many Russians believe that
they were betrayed by NATO and the western powers. And so today, NATO member
countries are now at the entire western border of the former Soviet Union,
from the Baltic to the Black Seas, and include former Soviet republics of
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
“Spheres of Influence” is a long-standing, though usually
informal, understanding in international diplomacy, whereby one nation’s
incursion into another’s “sphere” is regarded as a provocation which, in
extreme cases, can lead to war.
For example, imagine a military alliance between Mexico
and Russia, complete with Russian troops and missiles stationed in Mexico.
How would the United States react? How should it?
Or imagine such an alliance with Cuba. No
wait, this isn’t simply hypothetical! It actually happened in the
sixties and very nearly led to a thermonuclear war. And how was it resolved?
By a mutual agreement between Moscow and Washington that both sides would
withdraw nuclear weapons from each others’ “sphere of influence,” first in
Cuba and later in Turkey. (For more about “sphere’s of influence,” see Bernard
Weiner’s 2008 essay on the topic).
So when NATO decided to expand to the borders of the
former Soviet Union, the Western leaders seemed to believe that this was no
big deal. The temptation flaunt their “victory” in the cold war proved to be
irresistible. The Russians, on the other hand, who history tells us do not
respond kindly to humiliation, were not impressed. It is astonishing what
little notice our politicians and media have taken of the Russian attitude
regarding this NATO provocation.
So today, when there is talk in Ukraine, well inside of
Russia’s “sphere of influence, of joining NATO, should the Russians be
alarmed? When the NATO countries tell the Russians that they have no
intention of recruiting Ukraine, should the Russians be reassured?
Perhaps they should. But recall, I am not asking what the
Russians should think, but what they probably do think, in the light of
recent US and NATO behavior. That is the state of the Russian mind that
Western diplomats must understand and deal with.
Concerning Crimea: Russian officials will tell us that
the Crimea is traditionally Russian territory, and that the majority of
Crimeans are ethnic Russians who desire union with the Russian Federation..
The attachment of the Crimea to Ukraine was due to an anomalous decision by
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. It was regarded as trivial at the
time, since in either case the Crimea would be inside the Soviet Union. The
very idea that the Soviet Union would disintegrate was, at that time,
And yet it happened: the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
And so now the Crimean government has proposed to settle the issue in a
referendum later this month
In response, the Ukrainians insist that the referendum is
illegal, and they present a compelling case. But again, what we are seeking
here is an understanding of the Russian mind, right or wrong. In any case,
the Crimean issue may be moot: if Putin and the Russians want it, they can
take it and the Ukrainians can do nothing about it. Such is the opinion,
remarkably, of Khrushchev’s granddaughter, Nina Khrushcheva, now a professor
of international politics at New York’s New School University.
Press reports tells us that the Russian public is solidly
behind Putin in this dispute over Ukraine and Crimea. But, of course, the
Russian public is reading and listening to the predominantly
government-controlled media. On the other hand, the American public is
overwhelmingly supportive of the new Ukrainian government. But that public
is “informed” by the corporate media, which means primarily the five
corporations that own 80% of the American media – the same media which, at
one time, convinced most Americans that Saddam Hussein was threatening all
of us with weapons of mass destruction and had a part in the 9/11 attacks.
There is much to blame on both sides of the Ukrainian
Neither Yanukovych’s Ukrainian government nor its successor give us much to
celebrate. What media sources, if any, are giving us an accurate account of
just what is going on in Ukraine and Crimea? We just don’t know. Which
means, of course, that we are ill-prepared to make an informed and rational
assessment. Such is the sorry state of our media.
As for Vladimir Putin, I am simply don't know what to
make of the man. Desperate to find some accurate information, I
completely distrust the US corporate media's demonization of Putin, and yet
find a wide range of Russian assessments of their President -- from "a thug"
at one extreme, to "a good Tsar" on the other. Opinion polls indicate
that Putin has the solid support of the Russian population. At least
this much is apparent: Putin is shrewd and intelligent, and is an
uncompromising Russian nationalist. And he has said, quite clearly,
that while Russia is willing to be a "partner" with the US and the west, it
will not allow itself to be a "vassal."
Let us hope that our diplomats, and theirs, strive
diligently to understand the perspective of their opponents. The Russians
have concerns, some legitimate and some not. But both sides share an
overarching interest that the conflict not escalate, and that we avoid a
reinstatement of the cold war. It is time, in short, for cooler heads to
Meanwhile, on our side, the neo-con warriors – McCain,
Palin, Graham, Bolton, FOX News, etc. – rant on, eagerly supported by the
military-industrial complex. Some are even talking of “military assistance”
to Ukraine. If this includes “boots on the ground,” that would inevitably
lead to a confrontation of US and NATO troops with the Russian military.
The very thought of which conjures in my mind a single