Chris Rock once did a stand-up routine where he talked about the OJ Simpson case, and his theme was, “I’m not saying it’s right-but I understand.” This is kind of how I feel about Ukraine: I’m not defending Putin, and I’m not saying taking the Crimea in violation of treaty was right-but I DO understand. Here’s why:
I had forgotten about Zbigniew Brzezsinski’s famous quote: “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” This kind of fanatical bipolar myopia isn’t really funny anymore, given that the Cold War ended a generation ago, but it seems to be the core of much US thinking toward the current crisis in Ukraine, much to the detriment of our understanding why Russia is doing what it is doing. With communism defeated, there was little ideological reason to continue fighting, beyond the entrenched corporate interests of surviving Cold War -era institutions and the knee-jerk opposition of the Grand Chessboard-type thinking that thought it was a good idea to, say, march NATO up to Russia’s border. The idea that Russia, and any Russian leader, has a legitimate interest in Ukraine complicates this simplistic Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative, so attempts to undermine Russian influence in Ukraine are left out of the mainstream conversation, as are the activities of Western intelligence agencies in fanning the unrest, and the uncomfortable presence of a significant fraction of neo-Nazis in Ukrainian resistance.
This reactionary impulse may have something to do with US motivation in aiding the anti-Russian Ukrainians, and maybe some of the Ukrainians are simply US aid sponges, but there is a long history of antipathy between Ukraine and Russia, even before Stalin starved somewhere around 3.5 million Ukrainians to death in the Thirties. This was repaid, of course, by many Ukrainians welcoming the Nazi invaders of 1941. After the war, a Ukrainian independence movement largely controlled by unreconstructed fascists fought on, until finally crushed by the Soviets.
Fast forward. When the USSR collapses, Ukraine has the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal on its territory. In return for giving them up, Russia signs a treaty guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity; this is the one broken-maybe-by Russia’s incursion into the Crimea. We’ll return to that momentarily. Also, US Secretary of State James Baker promises Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO will refrain from moving East if the USSR stands down. After the USSR dissolves, NATO, of course, immediately adds most the old Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe to NATO, which is why it so infuriated the Russians when Ukrainian President Yushchenko started talking about Ukraine, on Russia’s border, joining NATO, and expelling the Black Sea fleet from Crimea.
So, when Putin outbid the EU for favorable trade terms with Ukraine, he was operating within the accepted rules of the game. Meanwhile, the US is funding the Ukrainian resistance, and is wiretapped, among other things, picking the next leader of the resistance. Then, after Yanukovich’s “turn” toward Russia backfired, and the demonstrations got out of hand-the Russians brokered a deal to end the protests, and Yanukovich agreed to step down and transfer power to the Parliament.
That should have been the end of it; instead, the Ukrainian resistance reneges on the deal, essentially staging a coup d’tat even though they had already won. Furthermore, to complete the circle, there is a significant, visible presence of Ukrainian neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian nationalist movement.
And that’s why Putin is pissed. In his mind, he was playing a clean game, while Russia was being undercut by a covert op; he brokered a deal in good faith, only to see the Ukrainians immediately renege; and finally, the symbols of the hated fascists who killed at least 30 million Russians in the defining event of Soviet history are being prominently displayed, on Russia’s border.
There is simply no way in hell that any Russian leader is going to allow a hostile government with operational ties to Western intelligence to thrive in Ukraine-period. Especially one that reneges on its agreements, and is working hand in glove with both the US and NATO, who have lied to Russia at every step. Especially one that insists on rubbing its identification with the Nazis in Russia’s face. And, since temporal distance seems to have fogged people’s memories, Russia is a major strategic nuclear power and need have no fear of a conventional military threat, since attacking Russia is a prescription for national suicide.
Also, Russia is allowed to keep 25,000 troops in Crimea, although they are supposed to stay in their restricted area. That’s the treaty violation. There are no dragnets, roundups, or mass executions underway. Putin is walking a fine line here, asserting Russian hegemony in Ukraine without taking the irrevocable plunge of massive bloodletting. So far, he can still back out, and there are some signals that he may be looking for a way out. If he is, we should let him, since the alternative is for Russia to go all the way forward, and just take Ukraine, install the government it wants, and then withdraw to avoid a bloody counterinsurgency campaign. The closest analog in recent US history is probably the invasion of Panama in 1988.
So, I’m not saying it’s right, or saying I approve-but I understand.