Russian Barbarism, American Incompetence, and Ukrainian Suffering

Nothing will excuse the senseless and barbaric war Russia is waging in Ukraine. The war, however, did not take place in a vacuum. To pierce the context of the war is to explain it, not to justify it. Yes, there is, indeed, a distinction with a fundamental difference.

I remember being in Washington, D.C. during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whether one was a conservative or liberal, we all suffered from the lofty hubris of the logical fallacy that the future was the present only more so. This was a classical error in the study of comparative government that Zbigniew Brzezinski roundly criticized regarding American scholars’ typical view of the Soviet Union.

Whatever the power structure of the Soviet present, it was argued that the future would reflect the present only more so. And so, it was not surprising that as the Soviet Union collapsed and calls for both democracy and capitalism echoed throughout Eastern Europe, scholars, pundits, and politicians saw the rise of two new stars in the East, democracy and capitalism.

Only once did I witness this euphoria punctuated. It was by a realistic, combat-experienced, retired naval officer. To this day, I remember exactly when and where he said it because in the symphony of exhilaration it was as if someone had rolled the drums at an inopportune and dissonant time. He said, “I don’t know what the future will look like. I only know that all these predictions will be wrong because they generally are.”

He may have been drowned out by the Hallelujah Chorus on that day, but he obviously knew the chorus was praising political and economic ideologies that were distinctly American and had nothing to do with the history and culture of Russia.   

It was Barry Goldwater who transcended vengeance and strongly lamented that every nation needed heroes and the children of Russia were being deprived of heroes. Goldwater observed that it would not bode well for the future.

He was right. Self-congratulatory in our arrogance, flattered by all the Eastern Europeans who came to the various think tanks to learn about democracy and capitalism, and finding unrelenting mirth in their enthusiastic purchase of a t-shirt emblazoned with the meme, “First kill all the lawyers,” we believed if it was not the end of days for communism and dictatorship, it most certainly was the end of history. Francis Fukuyama was the hero of the day. Few bothered to reflect that Hegel, Marx, and even Heidegger had proposed the end of history, all with absurd implications.

We pushed for German unification, and while there is no written document to prove it, the Russians believed unification of Germany was acceded to by guarantees that NATO would not move east.

We learned, of course, nothing from history because in our culture the function of history is only to reveal the ugly side of the development of America. Diplomatic history is hardly taught, and worse it is eschewed as elitist.

So, we were to repeat the vindictiveness of the Treaty of Versailles by pushing NATO east as the Soviet Union convulsed. To an ultra-nationalist like Vladimir Putin, it was an unforgivable act of humiliation reminiscent of the way Germany and Russia were degraded at the Rapallo Conference, a vindictive act that led to the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

At Versailles, we were not intellectually equipped to anticipate the return of Germany embittered by defeat. As we similarly celebrated the end of history in 1990, we could not anticipate the ultra-nationalism of Vladimir Putin.

But we should have. We should not have provoked the Russian bear, and once having done so, we should have not recently deceived ourselves into thinking that Russia was not going to invade Ukraine as Putin flooded the border area with over 100,000 troops.

We should have made Russia feel the wrath of sanctions before the first troops crossed the border. It is clear, now, that NATO pushing east is no longer the issue. Putin wants to recreate the Russian empire.

Presidents Clinton, Bush (W), and Obama created the catalyst for what is going on in Ukraine albeit explaining their incompetence does not give justification for Russian war crimes.

And what next? Will Russia go into Poland and tell NATO that the Russian nuclear arsenal is on high alert? If that is the sine qua non for disengagement, there is nothing to stop the Kremlin from opening shop in Paris.

But the greatest measure of incompetence goes to President Biden and the European environmental movement. By cutting off the Keystone XL Pipeline and withdrawing support for Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline, Biden increased dramatically the West’s dependence on foreign oil.

For their part, the European environmental movement acted as if Chernobyl was the engineering standard for nuclear reactors and made much of Europe dependent on Russian oil and gas.

Even if we give up the 500,000 barrels of dirty oil we import from Russia every day, the Europeans do not have the luxury of shutting down Russian imports. They are not going to sit in the dark and shiver. NATO will find a big crack in its armor.

Yes, the atrocities we see daily from the streets of Ukrainian cities are a consequence of Russia’s decision not only to invade Ukraine but also to pursue a war without the constraints of decency, not to mention the Geneva Conventions.

The great curse that should never fall upon us is that someday we might be a second or third-rate power and we and our children will have to bear the consequences of the incompetent decision-making of some great power.

Imagine sleeping on the cold floor of a train station waiting to escape death because the leaders of powerful foreign countries became obsessed with their momentary triumph of having embraced the Hegelian ideal of the end of history while failing to deal with the consequences of becoming energy dependent on their primary adversary.

Just remember, when Mitt Romney said Russia was America’s greatest threat, Barack Obama scoffed, and a sycophantic media followed like so many lemmings.   

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center.

Image: Ліонкінг

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