I’m Not Saying I Agree…But I Understand

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. During de-Stalinization, Crimea is transferred to Ukraine from Russia, though the Russian Black Sea Fleet is headquartered there.

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 wiretappedamong 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.

Winning the Cold War

      One of the fun things about reading archival materials and analysis papers from intelligence agencies and military think tanks is coming across things like this report from the Navy. It’s sad to find such novelty in the notion that there is someone crunching the data who isn’t “fixing the facts around the policy,” but the Navy in particular, in my opinion, is bound to be more honest than many: it’s a lot cheaper and easier to hide the loss of individual soldiers because ideological prediction somehow became policy than it is to smooth over the loss of a multi-billion dollar ship, and as far as much of the budget-driven analysis produced by the Air Force, spare me, please. That’s not analysis–it’s marketing. The Navy, on the other hand, has to live in the real world.

     Anyway…the report I am referencing comes from the US Navy’s Center for Contemporary Conflict, and the primary focus of it is to consider all the factors that led to the end of the Cold War, as opposed to the knee-jerk Reagan-worship that characterizes so much US history of the era. The section I will be focusing on here is about the role of peace and human-rights campaigns, and their effectiveness.
     As an activist, it can be very difficult to maintain one’s sense of hope. Activists in this nation for the last forty years have been blamed for every variety of pathology that has afflicted the American body politic-from the widely-accepted talking point that says American protesters, fueled by the media, undermined US troops in Vietnam and “lost” the Vietnam War.Protesters are blamed (or credited) for freezing the US nuclear power industry. Protest movements against environmental destruction are blamed for the lack of newly-constructed oil refineries in the US, and thus blamed for high gas prices today. Protesters against apartheid in South Africa were routinely mocked and ridiculed, even as the US government was calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist. And the protests against the atrocities carried out during the covert war in Central America, by the pro-government death squads in El Salvador, and by the anti-Sandinista Contra terrorist army in Nicaragua-those were like nothing I had seen in this country since Vietnam, and they were treated the same way: with mockery and derision in the State Media, with surveillance and infiltration by the FBI, and with tear gas and rubber bullets in the streets. Much as Occupy was treated just last year, keeping an old tradition alive.
     So why protest? Why put oneself through it?…
Because it works. From the Navy:

In response to the development of new nuclear weapon systems…and statements by Reagan…suggesting the United States could…win a nuclear war, massive protest movements arose in both Western Europe and the United States. These movements sought an end to… the nuclear arms race. Reflecting this focus, in the United States the campaign emphasized the call for a bilateral “freeze” in nuclear weapons development. It may sound strange to give some credit for ending the Cold War to both Reagan and his most vociferous opponents, but there is good reason to do so. The peace movements of the 1980’s did not succeed in getting their explicit policy demands adopted…However, they did succeed in moderating Western policy. In response to the peace movement’s success in appealing to public opinion..Reagan…ceased all rhetoric suggesting the idea of a winnable nuclear war; instead, President Reagan began speaking regularly about his own concerns regarding the dangers of nuclear weapons. In addition, the United States entered new nuclear arms talks earlier than the Reagan administration had originally intended, and, after talks broke down in fall 1983, the administration worked to ensure talks would resume again as soon as possible.

You mean…Reagan didn’t just ride up on his white horse and smite the Evil Empire to end the Cold War?

 Another, even more important strand of grassroots activity was centered in Eastern Europe… The efforts of groups like Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia paved the way for the revolutions of 1989 that swept away the existing Communist rulers across Eastern Europe. The most decisive events in ending the Cold War…took place on the ground in Eastern Europe. The citizens of these countries who organized and participated in these events have the most obvious, direct links to the crumbling of the Soviet bloc, so their contribution to the end of the Cold War should not be underestimated…Gorbachev’s response to these events was also critically important. In the past, most notably in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Union had responded to stirrings of independence in its satellites with military intervention. In 1989, Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union would not use its military to assist the Communist governments in these countries in suppressing the opposition movements. This decision had nothing to do, at least directly, with U.S. strength…In fact, many of the ideas and proposals embraced by Gorbachev had their origins in liberal-leaning Western NGOs and research institutes and were transmitted to the Soviet leader through transnational channels rather than through government-to-government communication…(emphasis mine).

So…protests DO work. Activism works. All that marching, protesting, demanding accountability…WORKS. Not only does it work to end unjust policies, it works to encourage just policy. So to all of you working to end the wars, the injustices,  and the tide of “friendly fascism” here at home, be of good cheer. It will work. Know that you are doing the right thing, and in a way that will actually accomplish something good,eventually, and in ways you may not anticipate.

(This post is an updated edit of a post that originally appeared on Man in the Street).