Anti-war demonstration in Kiev, Ukraine, May 22, 2014
A friend wrote recently: "I've not been having the most easy time understanding what's up in Russia. I found this op-ed in The Nation pretty helpful for getting a new perspective on things." I agreed. Katrina vanden Heuval and Steven F. Cohen are very alarmed by the United States' behavior in relation to Russia in the Ukraine crisis and more generally. There's a lot still to play out here and they've got a point:
I don't know if the label "Cold War" is entirely accurate for reasons I'll get into in a moment, but I am profoundly concerned that our rulers seem so confident that they can dictate to the world's other largest possessor of nuclear weapons as if it were a minor flyspeck of a country. No country likes to be humiliated and dismissed. This kind of U.S. imperial insouciance isn't working very well these days; much of the world has noticed that they can defy the U.S. at least for awhile; ask the Maliki in Iraq or the Pakistani spooks and the Taliban.
The current unquestioned elite consensus never delves into whether Russia might have legitimate concerns when many Ukrainians, some European governments, and the United States, at least reflexively, want to extend alliances Russia view as hostile -- the European Union and NATO -- right up to Russia's borders. There's a whole lot of pain and history mixed into the intra-Ukrainian dispute with all its ramifications. All U.S. rulers seem able to do is fall back on old nostrums.
Because this plays to the mix of ignorance and U.S. triumphalism ordinary citizens of this country revert to when, if at all, we think of Russia, it is easy for our rulers to walk us into dangerous waters with no public discussion. Sure, contemporary Russia isn't the old Soviet Union. It is much reduced territorially and economically; Putin's xenophobic nationalism echoes similar sentiments in other countries, but this kind of nationalism doesn't offer much foundation for any widespread international bloc opposed to Europe and the United States. Nationalists aren't well equipped for making common cause with other nationalists for very long.
All this could lead to Ukrainian civil war, Russian intervention, even a wider war, especially if leaders continue to have a free hand, without democratic discussion, to blunder about in dangerous waters.
But there are some interesting counter trends, suggestions that the rift with Putin's Russia is not so far reaching as our media portray it. Russia saved President Obama's ass last fall by sponsoring a deal with Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad to organize the removal of that government's chemical weapons stockpile. This was a brilliant coup for President Putin (especially since investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has published some plausible evidence that the terrible precipitating gas attack was carried out by Turkish-sponsored insurgent rebels, not Assad's forces.) As far as I can find reported, chemical weapons removal under international control is still going on quite successfully, despite disputes about the last 7 percent of a stockpile at one site.
Even more important, nothing -- neither Israeli intransigence, nor U.S. posturing about Ukraine -- seems to have yet derailed the multi-party talks about Iran's nuclear industry. Cooperation with Russia is essential to those talks, yet they seem to be proceeding, despite recurrent stumbling blocks. After all, the U.S. and Iran haven't talked respectfully for 35 years; it takes some time to re-establish communication, much less cooperation.
If Syrian chemical weapons disposal fails and the Iran nuke talks collapse and media outside the United States point the finger at Russia, I'll take seriously the talk of a new "Cold War." Until then, I think we may be unfortunate enough to be spectators as our country becomes embroiled in yet another imperial muddle, risking much more serious trouble without any popular consultation. Such initiatives end badly.