The West’s Dangerous Gambit in Ukraine

Last month, former Norwegian Prime Minister, and now NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia that the Western military alliance would stand with Ukraine as Russia masses troops on Ukraine’s border.

Of course, it is conventional wisdom in western capitals that Vladimir Putin is an imperial monster, and he is always ready to brutalize his neighbors with military force. But what if conventional wisdom is wrong? What if Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are legitimate spheres of influence for the Russian nation, with deep cultural, language, and religious ties going back to the 10th century when Ukraine converted to the Eastern Orthodox religion? What if NATO and the West are the imperialists, attempting to bully Russia from involving itself in a nation whose historical ties to Russia are far deeper than the United States’ ties to Canada? 

And how has the United States reached the point in our alliances where a former UN climate change bureaucrat from Norway can threaten to send boys and girls from Wisconsin to die in the Donbass? Since Stoltenberg’s warning, Secretary of State Blinken has seemingly walked back NATO’s position and asserted that, because Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, the West would not respond with force but instead put crippling sanctions on Russia if it were to move on Ukraine. 

The great Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington warned that Ukraine was precisely the type of nation that could witness a “clash of civilizations” because it was “cleft” between the Orthodox civilization of Russia in eastern Ukraine, and western Ukraine which leans toward western Europe. In the case of nations that are cleft between two civilizations, Huntington advised that the two “principal” nations leading the two civilizations—the United States and Russia in this case—would need to display restraint and diplomacy and work out a deal that might protect the interests of both civilizations in that cleft nation.

Has the Western foreign policy establishment taken Huntington’s advice and looked to diplomacy? Hardly. Let’s look at the recent history of Western meddling in Ukraine.

In late 2013, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to reject an offer of greater economic integration of Ukraine with the West. What was the West’s reaction to the perfectly understandable decision of the Ukrainian president to remain within the Russian sphere of influence? The U.S. State Department aided protesters who forced Yanukovych from power and took an active role in selecting his replacement. Then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who personally attended the protests against Yanukovych, was recorded telling the U.S. Ambassador to Kiev that “Yats is the guy.” In other words, opposition leader and pro-American Arseniy Yatseniuk should be installed as the Ukrainian President. Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador were also recorded discussing which opposition leaders should go into the government and which should not. 

The Western foreign policy elite did not quite understand that sacking a pro-Russian Ukrainian president and installing a pro-American one is the geostrategic equivalent of Vladimir Putin arranging for the sacking of the Canadian prime minister and installing a pro-Russian one. For the Russians, the Americans’ imperial meddling was a bridge too far and they promptly invaded Crimea, where 65 percent of the population are ethnic Russians and nearly 80 percent are Russian speakers. It is almost never reported in the Western media that what amounts to an American coup d’état was the proximate cause of Russia’s invasion of Crimea and prompted Putin to send his “little green men” into the Donbass. It was arrogant U.S. meddling that instigated the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

What, one might ask, would be the U.S. reaction if the Russian navy were to hold joint exercises with the Canadian navy in Lake Ontario?

Has the foreign policy establishment reconsidered its position in light of Putin’s determined actions to prevent eastern Ukraine and Crimea from slipping out of Russia’s orbit? Absolutely not. In fact, they have doubled down.

In September, U.S. and NATO troops held joint exercises with the Ukrainian military on Ukrainian soil with 15 NATO nations and 6,000 troops participating.  These land exercises followed NATO naval exercises in the Black Sea in June that saw 30 NATO ships, 40 NATO aircraft, and 5,000 NATO soldiers participating. Russian displeasure at these June exercises was extreme and nearly led to a hot war when a British destroyer, HMS Defender, sailed into territorial waters in the Black Sea claimed by Russia. The Russian navy fired warning shots and Russian planes buzzed the British ship. These naval exercises followed similar maneuvers by NATO in March.

This American and NATO saber-rattling during 2021 follows billions of dollars in military aid given by the U.S. to Ukraine since 2014.  And, serious Western diplomats are surprised that Russia chooses to mass troops on the Ukrainian border? 

What, one might ask, would be the U.S. reaction if the Russian navy were to hold joint exercises with the Canadian navy in Lake Ontario and Russian troops were to hold joint land exercises outside of Toronto?  

All these military exercises are defended by NATO as “protecting democracy,” while a more precise definition might be “imperialism by democracies.” It is not well understood that Jacobin crusaders for democracy are among the most dangerous people on the world scene. We are too early in the Biden Administration to know if they will become global crusaders for democracy like George W. Bush. One thing is clear, however: these crusaders have thrown the American constitutional tradition to the wind. In George Washington’s Farewell Address, probably written with Alexander Hamilton, two of the most important authors of the American constitutional tradition, warned, “Nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings toward all should be cultivated.”

The Framers of the American Constitution did not advise the United States to become the crusader nation for democracy. Just the opposite. They recommended a foreign policy of humility and restraint. However, the United States, starting with the Spanish-American War, through Woodrow Wilson’s crusade for democracy, and now with our post-Cold War foreign policy, America has instead adopted a policy of arrogance and belligerence. We are in dangerous times.