Conflicts have a history of spinning out of control. Trotsky, the one-time close comrade of Lenin, reportedly said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians were not interested in war until President Volodymyr Zelensky took his counterproductive stance on NATO membership and President Vladimir Putin subsequently launched his invasion and united most of Ukraine’s people against him.
Some observers talk about the war between the West and Russia. Although this could not happen as long as Angela Merkel is around in Germany (she retains a great deal of influence), France remains French and President Joe Biden stays cool, it may be a “damned close-run thing” (as the Duke of Wellington was supposed to have said after the victory over Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo).
Putin, I believe, is not interested in territorial aggrandisement but he is interested in Russia not being threatened. Biden knows that many of the US’s top political science and history professors share this interpretation and sympathise with Russia’s predicament, even as they oppose Putin’s use of force. (In a public letter written to President Bill Clinton, these top professors advised him not to expand NATO.) Biden and other NATO leaders have to bite on this truth.
The Soviet Union’s President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been a partner of the West in ending the Cold War, believed he had an understanding with President H.W. Bush and the German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher that in return for allowing Germany to be re-united and for a united Germany to be a NATO member there would never be any further expansion of NATO.
Indeed, there was serious talk of Russia becoming a NATO member itself and Russia joining the “European House”, as Gorbachev expressed it, (as did Putin). No less than Clinton’s Secretary of Defence, William Perry, argued in a speech at a conference organised by the British newspaper, the Guardian, that the gains between Russia and the US had been “squandered”, more as a result of US than Russian actions.
“In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years, I have to say that the US deserves much of the blame. Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in the eastern European nations”. He went on to say the decision reflected a “contemptuous attitude” among American officials towards the troubled former superpower.
The second major misstep, Perry said, was the decision of President George W. Bush to deploy a ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe in the face of determined opposition from Moscow. “We rationalised the system as being able to defend against an Iranian nuclear missile- but they don’t have any. The Russians said, ‘Wait a bit, this weakens our deterrence. The issue again wasn’t discussed on the basis of its merits—it was just ‘who cares about what Russia thinks?’”
The administration of Barack Obama did modify the missile system based in Eastern Europe, replacing long-range with medium-range interceptor missiles. Russia welcomed this but pointed out rightly that the missiles could still be turned towards Russia and reach Moscow. It remains a bone of contention.
Later came the US and EU decision to support the revolution in Ukraine in 2013, even though there was no good reason for it since an election was in the offering and it meant tolerating, even supporting, militants who were members of organisations with a fascist, Nazi, pedigree.
Now the West is supporting an unnecessary war, playing with fire as it builds up Ukrainian firepower, a country whose leadership, if it finds itself losing badly, would probably have no qualms about using NATO weapons to fire into Russia, thus provoking a Russian attack on nearby NATO members. That could lead to a Third World War. To his credit, Biden would not tolerate such a Ukrainian offensive.
If only Zelensky had said in the days leading up to the Russian invasion, “Ukraine has no attention of applying for NATO membership”— 9 words—which in fact is the de facto position of NATO—there would have been no Russian invasion. By his refusal to do this he has created a situation where parts of whole towns have been destroyed—in the case of Mariupol, totally destroyed. Ukraine has no money to rebuild its country, and it should be aware of the likelihood that the West will never give it anything like the full amount of what it will need.
Ukraine is now burdened by the fast-growing number of the quite unnecessary deaths of its young solders, with all the concomitant pain that is heaped on their loved ones. Plus, the killing of thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians. For what? To defend the macho egos of Zelensky and his fellow rulers. Zelensky in the days before the invasion had peace within his grasp, but he threw it away as casually as he would a cigarette packet with his refusal to say Ukraine would not seek to enter NATO.
The great English poet and writer Rudyard Kipling wrote about the First World War in which his son died, “If any question why we died, tell them because our fathers lied”. So, it is with Ukraine.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com