American Appeasement of Russia Led to War in Ukraine
As I write this, the first shells are exploding in Ukraine in what promises to be the bloodiest war in Europe since 1945. The most frustrating part is that this was all preventable. This was not an unseen, spontaneous natural disaster. The lessons of history are there for us to learn from, but the West has willfully ignored them. A long chain of appeasement that runs across administrations and countries has emboldened Putin and resurrected his dream of a revived Soviet Union.
It's important to understand the nature of Russia. For all intents and purposes, Russia is a dictatorship. Putin himself was a former KGB thug. He has the vast power of the government, economy, and media. Its "elections" are mere political theater. In 2011, massive crowds in Russia protested his rigged "re-election." The leading pro-democracy activist, Alexei Navalny, was poisoned by the Kremlin and now sits in jail. The Kremlin has killed former party members and dozens of journalists. The Russian government repeatedly sponsors cyber-attacks and has attempted to interfere with elections of Western countries. It supports dictators around the world, including in Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. In 2018, Russian mercenaries directly attacked U.S. forces in Syria. Now the world watches in horror as Putin's army launches an unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
Putin has begun all this for a couple of intertwined reasons: nationalism and power. He's said the collapse of the Soviet Union was "a major geopolitical disaster of the century." It is nationalism in the most primitive, tribal, Nazi-like form — the elevation of some mystical "motherland" above all rights of individuals, including Russians. Putin feels betrayed that the Ukrainians are increasingly sympathetic to the West, economically and spiritually. He wants to punish them and simultaneously send a message to his people. Freedom-loving people are a threat to his power. He sees former Soviet states like Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and others join the E.U. and become prosperous. Therefore, he tries to sow discontent in Western countries in any way he can. He can be seen then as the stable alternative and reassert Russia's sphere of influence. Because America is still seen as a symbol of freedom to people around the world, we are naturally his enemy.
So what have been the Wests' relations with Russia? Any discussion of this topic cannot leave out energy. Europe's pursuit of green energy has left it vulnerable to Russia. Forty percent of Europe's natural gas is supplied from Russia. This is a result of a combination of banning fracking in many countries, restricting imports of LNG (liquefied natural gas) combined with America restricting LNG exports, and the shutting down of nuclear and coal plants. Europe's dependence means it's feeding the bear that threatens it.
In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. Shortly after, President Obama announced a "reset" policy with Russia. This was consistent with President Bush, who found Putin "straightforward and trustworthy." In 2014, Putin punished Ukraine for ousting its pro-Russian puppet president by annexing Crimea. The West responded with tepid sanctions. President Trump equated Putin's killings of journalists and dissidents with the actions of the United States not once, but twice. "There are a lot of killers," Trump told Bill O'Reilly in a 2017 interview. "You think our country's so innocent?" In 2015, he said, "I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know." He continued to describe Putin as a leader and someone whom he respects.
No, the United States isn't perfect. But the lack of moral clarity when equating a country that has representational government, freedom of speech, real elections, a mostly free economy, and a separation of church and state with the monstrosity of a dictator like Putin emboldens the Kremlin and does real damage. Putting Putin on an equal footing affects the way we think of our relations with him.
If someone were your moral equal, why would you hesitate to become largely dependent on him for natural gas? To Trump's credit, he did in fact warn Europe that this was not a good idea. But the point is that the lack of moral clarity dilutes our thinking. It would be like going into business with a known con man — you are only fooling yourself. It also gives the Kremlin the green light to accelerate thuggish tactics because it sends the message that we do not care. Trump's quote is indicative of the waffling Western leaders have shown toward Putin.
So what's wrong with the precedents set by all these administrations? The common denominator is that they negate the nature of Russia. The West views these events — the invasion of Georgia here, attacking American troops there — as episodic. Westerners haven't connected the dots.
In relation to other nations, the first question one should ask is, what type of country is this? Is it mostly free or controlled? Does it respect individual rights? How can its past inform us? What are its ambitions? Any honest assessment of Russia would have concluded that it was not a country to be trusted, much less become dependent upon for natural gas, as Europe has. Instead, we project our sense of life onto Russia and assume that the Russians think like us. Consider the context of Obama's "reset" policy. Stable, good-willed countries don't invade other countries for no reason. This should have been a huge clue for Obama that Putin and the Russian government are not like other foreign nations. Treating them as if they only sanctioned their behavior.
I am not saying we should have gone to war with Russia. I am saying there is plenty the West could have done to deter Russian aggression outside military action: sanctions with teeth, diversifying energy, and morally condemning the hell out of their aggression, for starters.
This last point is important. The power of the bully pulpit cannot be overstated. One of the best traits Ronald Reagan had was that he called a spade a spade. The "evil empire" is what he called the Soviet Union. After the Berlin wall fell, freedom fighters in the eastern bloc said his rhetoric had given them courage and hope. There is something motivating to knowing that the United States is on your side.
Today's leaders have lost that power of rhetoric. There is no animating love of freedom running through their veins. There are no spokesmen for the American story. The Russians and the Chinese fear it. They fear it because of the ideas it represents. At some level, they know freedom beats authoritarianism every time. They don't want that to be broadcast to the world. That's the kind of spirit that needs to be revived in America and in the West if we want to avoid the mistakes of the past.
Image via Pexels.