What is Crimea? asked William Taubman, one of Khrushchev's biographers. "How did this lovely peninsular become not only the apple of discord between Russia and Ukraine, but the potential spark for a new European [and Russian-American nuclear] war"?
In early 2015, I read a report issued by three Washington-based think tanks titled "Preserving Ukraine's Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression." It was released after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. From their havens in Washington, the think tank desk warriors, still "marooned in the Cold War" in Mark Danner's useful phrase, urged the U.S. to get tough and send "defensive" weapons to Ukraine, adding "The West has the capacity to stop Russia. The question is whether it has the will," echoing all those valiant home front fighters past and present whose counsel and misinformation resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 American GIs and millions of Asians and Middle Easterners. Today, with virtually no opposition a dangerous proxy war between two great nuclear powers is underway.
Happily, a far more rational approach arrives from Constantin Pleshakov, Yalta-born, now a U.S. citizen teaching at the Five College Consortium in Massachusetts and a former foreign policy analyst at the Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies in Moscow. Pleshakov wrote "The Tsar's Last Armada" and "Stalin's Folly" two books about the failures of the Tsarist and communist regimes.
What Pleshakov does exceedingly well is provide Americans with a clear-eyed, insightful alternative to our customary good guy/bad guy imagery, which lays all the blame on Putin.
What Pleshakov does exceedingly well in "The Crimean Nexus" (Yale) is provide Americans with a clear-eyed, insightful alternative to our customary good guy/bad guy imagery, which lays all the blame on Putin. Or as a skeptical Henry Kissinger put it in the Washington Post back in 2014: "For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one."
The Russian-Ukrainian relationship, Pleshakov explains, "is staggeringly complex. The two countries, their populations, culture, history and economy are so interconnected that they may be called the conjoined twins of the Slavic world." So close are the two countries they claim a Kievan Rus' creational and cultural ancestry. Ukraine's most prominent writer, Nikolai Gogol, wrote his novels in the Russian language.
Historically, both Russia and Ukraine carried out regular anti-Semitic pogroms, the worst by Ukrainian hero Boghdan Khmelnytsky, the slaughterer of Jews in 1648. During the gory Russian civil war of 1918-1920, Red, White, Polish and Ukrainian forces killed hundreds of thousands. (My father, born in the Ukraine not far from Zhitomir, was a drafted combat veteran of the Tsar's WWI army; after the Bolshevik Revolution he was abducted by the Whites and forced to serve with them until he deserted, sickened at their blatant anti-Semitism and unrestrained violence.) The brutality reappeared during the 1930s when Stalin imposed a famine which caused several million Ukrainian deaths. And after the Nazi invasion in 1941, a large number of Ukrainians joined the Wehrmacht and the SS to fight the Russians.
In 1954 Crimea, predominantly populated by Russians, was returned to Ukraine, then a Soviet puppet republic, as a political gift from Nikita Khrushchev. Crimea also includes a sizable number of Tartars with a remarkable leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, who was Andrei Sakharov's friend and a Muslim advocate of non-violence who dreams of re-establishing a Crimean Tatar Republic.
So close and entwined were the two nations and cultures, that Pleshakov wisely comments, "One would have thought that on a space like that, great powers would tread carefully. But no such luck."
After the annexation of Crimea and reflecting Russian opinion, Mikhail Gorbachev, hardly an admirer of Putin, approved, as did the House of Romanov's exiled leader, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna.
"Peace in Ukraine," writes Pleshakov, "between 1991 and 2013 was made possible by the precarious balancing act of all four of its presidents, including the 'pro-Western' Yuschenko and the 'pro-Russian' Yanukovych. The February 2014 coup (call it a revolution of it makes you feel better) threw the country off balance and the submerged interregional tensions surfaced with a boom."
Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow democratically elected Ukrainian president, was forced to flee eastward to the Donbass region and Russia after the Euromaidan street battles in Kiev. Pleshakov makes clear that, like his anti-Moscow predecessors and successors, he ran a corrupt, dysfunctional government. If Yanukovych's regime "was a rogue state," defined by "infighting, corruption, abuse of executive power, and ineffectiveness," U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine in 2013-14 can also be described as rogue diplomacy, where apparently U.S. State Department employees were given the freedom to act on their own to find a pro-American successor, presumably yet another case of attempted regime change which had worked so brilliantly in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
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If Obama was paralyzed by events in Ukraine, Putin was no less to blame. Pleshakov concludes, somewhat questionably, that the Russian is "largely reactive" in foreign policy, that is, if one cares to overlook his destructive role in Grozny and Aleppo. All the same, Russia "deemed Western involvement in Ukraine unacceptable" since close ties with NATO was considered yet another American scheme to create a cordon sanitaire around Russia. Joseph Biden and John McCain – Pleshakov calls him "a loose cannon [who] had been bashing Russia for years" – traveled to the Baltics and announced that the U.S.was ready to jump in and protect them should Putin dare invade and thus trigger NATO's famous Article 5, where an attack on one member is tantamount to an attack on all members. By then, U.S. and NATO forces were already sending troops, weapons, ships and planes toward the Russian borders and Moscow was in turn shipping nuclear missiles westward.
So why is distant Ukraine so important to Washington? Part of the answer is that Americans tend to see themselves as unique, God's gift to the world.
To which Putin - writing in the NY Times, which detests him and would love to see his regime changed, said "God created us equal.... It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace in the United States."
To which the neocon interventionist Robert Kagan answered in the Times: "What gives the U.S. the right to act on behalf of a liberal world order? In truth, nothing does, nothing beyond the conviction that the liberal world order is the most just."
And to which Eric Margolis, a liberal American columnist, had earlier asked, "Who came down from the mountain and said the U.S must police the globe from the South China Sea to the jungles of Peru?"
In his chapter "How to Proceed," Pleshakov briefly outlines the non-interventionist views of Ron Paul (Crimeans have the right to determine their form of government) and Paul Craig Roberts, Ronald Reagan's former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (U.S. intervention creates the possibility of a "great power confrontation, which could be the end of all of us").
The pro-interventionist British historian Andrew Wilson argues that the Ukrainian upheaval was "on behalf of everybody in the former Soviet Union" and with other pro-interventionists hoped it might lead to similar rebellions in Putinland and East Europe. The neocon pro-interventionist Robert Kagan believes the U.S. has a crucial role to play, saying, "Many Americans and their political leaders in both parties, including President Obama, have either forgotten or rejected the assumptions that undergirded American foreign policy for the past seven decades. In particular, American foreign policy may be moving away from the sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world and back toward the defense of narrower, more parochial national interests."
Realist views are expressed by Kissinger, for one: "... if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side's outpost against the other – it should function as a bridge between them.... A wise U.S. policy would seek a way for the two parts of the country to cooperate with each other. We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction." And by others including Dmitri Simes, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and Jack Matlack, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia ("Americans, inheritors of the Monroe Doctrine, should have understood that Russia would be hyper-sensitive to a foreign-dominated military alliance approaching or touching its borders").
So what to do, especially with our new President? Pleshakov's outstanding book offers glimpses of possible answers. But as of now, America's gift to East Europe, the Middle East and everywhere else is an illusory bequest of "freedom" and then offering our vaunted, if regularly defeated, military machine to set things right if things go wrong. As General (ret.) Daniel Bolger astutely put it in a NY Times Veterans Day Op Ed a few years ago: "If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I think we're there."
Republished with the author's permission from History News Network