After the most horrible, bloody century of war in history — 1914 to 2014 — wouldn’t you hope that humankind has learned something about war and peace?
After all these years, we are still attracted to war like mindless, flying insects to a lightbulb on a dark night. In recent decades, we’ve certainly not hesitated to invade, shoot and bomb, using ever more-effective killing and maiming technology. But we’ve also perfected the art of economic war. Politely known as “Economic Sanctions.” At this very moment, the U.S. and Great Britain are threatening to unleash the equivalent of unlimited economic war on Russia.
The economic sanctions are intended to defend the “sovereignty” of Ukraine and Crimea, whatever “sovereignty” means in that part of the world, with it’s emotional history and artificial national boundaries. In the course of such defense, economic sanctions and/or military intervention might just as well destroy Ukraine and Crimea. Sort of like the U.S. destroyed Vietnamese villages to save them, and invaded Iraq to save it, instead ransacking and wrecking Iraq for ten years before abandoning it.Embed from Getty Images
As the Ukraine reached the boiling point in recent days, I’ve engaged in discussion with Clarissa, a blogger who knows much more about Russia and Ukraine than I do. She’s posting daily about the developing situation. You can scroll through her many posts and interesting discussion threads at her blog.
I’ve been learning a lot, but also arguing a lot. I used to think I understood this kind of stuff. But as old age sets in, I find I no longer understand anything about the human obsession with war, both military and economic.
Below I express my puzzlement in comments I’ve written for Clarissa’s blog.
I guess I’m being blindsided. I read every story about Ukraine and Crimea in this morning’s Washington Post, including an analysis of the emotions and history involved by a former colleague of mine at the Baltimore Sun. I don’t give any credence to cable news speculation.
Forgive me, but I have read no credible evidence that this is anything but a civil war of WORDS involving Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. In fact, if it is a civil war, I’d put the emphasis on the word “civil.” There’s much hand-wringing about a Russian “invasion” of Crimea. Really? Has a single shot been fired? The Russian and Ukraine soldiers in fact seem quite chummy.
The main issues seem to be emotional grievances regarding the official language in Ukraine (reminds me of Quebec’s grievances against English-speaking Canada), “sovereignty,” and which paper money to use. I suspect the “crisis” might blow over if the U.S. would butt out and Ukraine simply decided to recognize both Russian and Ukrainian as official languages.
I do not understand what makes the U.S. and European countries so self-righteous that they must declare economic war on Russia. Yes, I see one blog report that one person has been tortured and killed. There are anecdotes about “volatile protests,” outside agitators and thugs beating up people. As a journalist, know the difficulty of confirming such anecdotes.
In the U.S. most of this would be called street crime, police brutality, or “the right to gather in public and express grievances,” protected under the Bill or Rights. How many confirmed casualties in Ukraine or Crimea? I’m serious. There are 500 murders a year in Chicago. Multiple murders every weekend in Washington and Baltimore. Is it more dangerous right this moment to be in Kiev or in Chicago?
The U.S. government “said the vote was rigged and discounted it as illegal.” (The Washington Post) I ask: How does the U.S. know that?
I’ve studied politics my whole life, and I have no trouble at all believing that a large majority of people in Crimea would vote allegiance to Russia, and did so on Sunday. Where is the evidence to the contrary? (Yes, 97% seems an obvious exaggeration. So what?) I cannot even verify the election results in my own state, Maryland, where we use a computerized voting system with no way to audit the results. If the computers have not already been hacked, they will be some day soon.
It seems to me that the U.S. and Great Britain foment wars and economic hardship by meddling in internal affairs of other countries.
Sorry, I know I sound naive, and maybe I am. I have a healthy skepticism about what is true or false or propaganda or posturing. — John
Clarissa responds to my comment:
“The main issues seem to be emotional grievances regarding the official language in Ukraine (reminds me of Quebec’s grievances against English-speaking Canada), “sovereignty,” and which paper money to use.”
– These are definitely not the central issues for anybody in Ukraine or Russia. Honestly, this is the first time I hear about paper money in this context at all. I get my news from Russian and Ukrainian media and people I know who live in these countries.
“In the U.S. most of this would be called street crime, police brutality, or “the right to gather in public and express grievances,” protected under the Bill or Rights.”
– If the Russian troops crossed the US border, would this still be called street crime and police brutality?
“I suspect the “crisis” might blow over if the U.S. would butt out and Ukraine simply decided to recognize both Russian and Ukrainian as official languages.”
– In 1994, Ukraine, Russia and the US signed the Budapest accords in which the US promised not to butt out in case Russia violates the territorial wholeness of Ukraine in its 1994 borders. Out of these 3 countries, Ukraine is the only one that fulfilled its part of the agreement by handing over its entire nuclear arsenal to Russia, the country that has invaded right now. If the US didn’t want to have anything to do with what is happening in that area, it shouldn’t have signed the agreements. Wouldn’t you agree that you can’t enter into a contract, get everything you wanted from the other party, and then refuse to fulfill your part of the obligations you freely undertook?
” Is it more dangerous right this moment to be in Kiev or in Chicago?”
– If you look at the map, you will see that Kiev lies pretty far from the Russian border, there are no Russian troops there. Yet. The invasion is taking place in the Lugansk, Kharkov, Mariupol’, Kherson and the Crimea areas. Tragically, these are, indeed, highly criminalized areas. 😦 However, now on top of the street crime and the mafia, there are foreign troops there.
“It seems to me that the U.S. and Great Britain foment wars and economic hardship by meddling in internal affairs of other countries.”
– Russia has been invading Ukraine long before the US even existed. This is not about the US and definitely not about the UK, which has been selling itself to the bandits from Russia for years.
“Sorry, I know I sound naive, and maybe I am.”
– I’m very grateful to you for trying to understand.
end of Clarissa’s reply
My further response:
“- If the Russian troops crossed the US border, would this still be called street crime and police brutality?”
“- Russia has been invading Ukraine long before the US even existed. This is not about the U.S. and definitely not about the UK.”
Both good points! And you can see the absurdity when you place the above two statements side-by-side in historical and geopolitical context. I’m not an expert on any of this, so I hesitate to make the following analogy, and I welcome more knowledgeable observers to correct me:
Doesn’t it seem that Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea have a long history of marriage of convenience and breakups? Tumultuous relationships, to be sure, trial separations and divorce, friendly or otherwise. But they are geographically intertwined; they HAVE to live near each other over the long run, and so they do. As you point out, this love-hate affair has been going on since LONG BEFORE the U.S. existed. I agree, it’s NOT about the U.S. or the UK, so what gives the U.S. and UK the right to declare economic world war?
Regarding the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the U.S., Britain, and Russia reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, and Ukraine agreed to return its nuclear weapons to Russia. Well.
The salient point here is the nuclear weapons. You could keep an international courtroom full of lawyers busy for a century, arguing what the wording of the Budapest Memorandum (contract?) means.
Would the world be a better place if Ukraine had those nuclear weapons at this moment?
A few Ukrainian NATIONALISTS would say “Yes,” but they would be crazy. Everyone else, especially Russia, Crimea, U.S. and UK, understands, in retrospect, the wisdom of the nuclear weapons accord made at Budapest. After the past century of European and Russian history, can’t we all agree that emotional NATIONALISM is not sufficient reason to start a shooting war?
And thank God the U.S. and UK commitment to the territorial “sovereignty” of Ukraine is definitely not a “mutual defense treaty” requiring the U.S. and UK to defend militarily the sanctity of the region’s artificial boundary lines.
What exactly does the word “sovereignty” imply in this case? Can anyone untangle the history and mythology behind these lines on a map? Let Russian, Ukraine, and Crimea work this out in divorce court. — John
Let me repeat that I respect Clarissa and her knowledge of Russia and Ukraine. I appreciate her willingness to engage in informative discussions with me and others on her blog. I recommend her blog for anyone following developments in the Ukraine.
Is there any conclusion? Is history ever over? When will we ever learn?
— John Hayden
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” ~Aldous Huxley
So it would appear.
I read your post with interest. I’m replying from Vienna, about 370 miles from Ukraine. So events there are not the distant marital spat some ‘reluctant to learn the lessons of history’ Europeans are engaged in that you seem focused upon. There are ample historical precedents that show us a nascent imperialist Russia represents a threat to the self determined aspirations of the neighbouring states who finally freed themselves from the tyranny of the former Soviet empire. It’s true, Russia has a turbulent history with its neighbours and former vassal states. However, if you canvass opinion from within those countries such as Poland, the Baltic states, Finland and others, including Ukraine itself, they are happier to have the option of self determination rather than diktats from Moscow.
I don’t think it’s quite as simple as you would like to imagine it. There are no warmongers in Europe at the moment and this is partly why Moscow is able to act as a regional bully. Europeans are painfully aware of the folly of war. Unlike the US we have had to rebuild the cities and infrastructure of the continent twice in recent history, so we are up to speed with the concept of rushing blindly into conflict.
The question I think you miss is the one regarding personal and national integrity. Russia did not wage a PR campaign in Crimea, it sent in its military might to allegedly safeguard its compatriots. This is an argument that it could use to justify intervention in any bordering state.
In a country with the benefit of linguistic homogeneity, the US is an English speaking nation with Spanish enclaves, don’t dismiss the significance of different languages. If the Ukrainians were simply Russians with their own language, it rather begs the question, why? Different languages do not evolve because people want to be together, they evolve because they are pursuing their own cultural and national identity.
Which raises the hypothetical scenario, how would the US react to Cuba, say, annexing Florida? It could justify its actions with an appeal to protecting the rights of its fraternal brothers and sisters in the Hispanic community of Miami. Using the same logic, it could argue that it was righting the wrongs of history by returning Florida to its rightful place among the global family of Spanish speaking nations. Naturally I expect he US would shrug its shoulders and say, “Hmm, they’ve got a point.”
That’s how it plays among the small democracies in Russia’s back yard. They can’t help but wonder who’s next and the assurances from Uncle Vlad that no-one is next don’t carry much weight.
If I lived in Wyoming or Oregon and it was all just so much bluster blowing in from far away, I might wring my hands in despair and shake my head at the perpetual folly of humankind. It isn’t a hypothesis however when Germany is reliant upon Russia for 60% of its gas. Which is a harsh reality when the temperature is below zero and the Russians have already made it clear that the line of supply – they control the flow, the volume and the price – is a legitimate bargaining chip when they feel that the West is interfering in their affairs.
You mention sovereignty as though it were some abstract nebulous construct. Perhaps your own nation’s history is not fully appreciated by those who are the beneficiaries of the work of men like Paine, Jefferson, Washington and Franklin. People have the right to self determination even if what they choose is not popular outside their borders. That is what the Ukrainians were exploring when the Russians didn’t like the way their hand looked. Remember, the catalyst in all of this was the agreement between Ukraine and the EU to strengthen ties and co-operation which Yanukovitch, under pressure from Moscow, tore up at the last minute and unexpectedly pledged fealty with Russia.
Business will win out in the end, Gazprom and others will profit and ordinary people will suffer. Putin will ignore the calls to respect the integrity of sovereign states and denounce the West as hypocrites while he pursues his own agenda anyway.
What does it mean? I wouldn’t want to be a Tatar in Crimea at the moment. I wouldn’t want to suddenly find myself a subject of a country with a human rights record like Russia. Oligarchs? Greenpeace activists? Pussy Riot? You shrug your shoulders and wonder when the human race will learn. I do the same, but the fundamental question still remains, do we appease dictators or do we turn a blind eye and hope they disappear? Ask a Chechnyan, a Georgian or an Ossetian what happened to their referendums?
Rumours of war may be exaggerated but Russia has a sense of its own global importance that most in the West do not appreciate. It feels, personified by Putin and his Duma, slighted by the West and wants to assert itself once more, to recapture the power that the old Soviet Union had. They are not interested in delicate Western sensibilities, they have an “If you don’t like what were doing, tough, get over it” attitude. That’s why they can ignore contracts they signed, Budapest 1994, and unilaterally declare them void when it doesn’t suit their agenda. It’s not unlike the Manifest Destiny of the US and the reality is, just like Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China it’s not going away.
Perhaps that may give a different perspective. I’m not your audience, I wish the human race would grow up and get over itself too. The West has its own well blotted copybook, we’re well aware of that. It was only public opinion that prevented another misadventure in Syria recently. But, the jubilant crowds singing and dancing in the streets of Moscow and Simferapol are the ones to speak to, their memories seem to be found wanting at the moment.
Peter J Levine
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Thank you Peter! Your knowledge and perspective from Europe is definitely clearer than my muddled perspective from the U.S. You make so many valid points regarding the history and policies of Russia, Europe, and the U.S. I will try to assimilate what I’ve learned from Clarissa and from you into my understanding of the situation.
For the moment, I’ll simply say that the U.S. history of “manifest destiny” and the European history of imperialism are roughly equivalent to the Russian history of empire in its part of the world. I think the imperialism (past and present) of the U.S., European nations, and Russia are painfully similar and deserving of condemnation. At this point in history, I think it would be wiser to not respond in a belligerent manner, either militarily or economically. I acknowledge that I’m in way over my head here.
While I will never discount the tendency of world powers — like America — to frame the affairs of other nations in ways that suit the government’s idea of national advantage, I see this as more than just a manufactured spat. Ukraine is agriculturally rich, desirable for a conglomerate nation like Russia to annex, and has suffered a long history of occupation. It seems to me that it’s about time for a small nation with its own distinctive language and culture to be allowed to manage its own affairs without a heavy hitter — nuclear-armed, whereas note that Ukraine surrendered all nuclear armaments in the aftermath of Soviet breakup — rolling in troops and staging referenda. Honestly, can you imagine if Mexico were more militarily threatening and decided to perform a similar maneuver in areas of Texas, Arizona or Southern Cal? Because many people ethnically Mexican live there? Well?
I can’t be impartial, I realize, because I have Ukrainian friends or clients at least, and it is painful to think that an old woman in her eighties, whose earliest memories are of German soldiers billeted in her house, might die without knowing whether her hometown was governed by Ukrainians or by an empire-building headcase like Vladimir Putin. Seriously, anyplace in the world deserves better than a government which fleeces its people to live like Roman Emperors or French kings, with the support of the Russian Bear, and then having to fear the Bear when it deposes the Neros and Louis XVI’s.
Yes, Ms. Sled, the situation has intensified in the time since I wrote this post. I agree with you about Ukraine having a right to manage its own affairs. And the Russians in Crimea have a right to be associated with the Russian Bear, if that’s what they want. Of course it gets more complicated from there. What about the other concentrations of Russian-speaking people in other parts of Ukraine? Who has the right to draw the boundaries, and how? Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to gerrymander an entire country by trying to separate out each ethnic community. People acting in good faith must agree on reasonable boundary lines.
However, it seems to me than President Obama’s repeated assertion that the boundary lines of sovereign nations can never be changed seems to disregard history. Boundary lines are always changing, over the course of decades and centuries. A main problem is that many of the world’s boundaries have been arbitrarily drawn by great powers at the end of great wars. The boundaries and so-called nations of the Mideast were established in large part by U.S. and British petroleum companies in the first half of the 20th century. The boundaries of Eurasia were scrambled by two world wars, and then again by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Countries should be able to agree on adjustments from time to time without going to the brink of war or economic war. But of course, humankind has almost never resolved issues involving territory and resources except by WAR.
Yes. That’s the part that bothers me.
And it’s fairly disingenuous to frame the Ukraine situation, as Russia has tried to do, as concern for ethnic Russians or organic changes in national boundaries. The Ukrainian population had had it with a government which was apparently corrupt beyond our wildest imagination and managed to bring it down with one of the most impressive civil-disobedience and peaceful protest movements ever seen. Promptly Russian troops roll into Crimea. It is perhaps Putin and his clique, not Russians at large, that are the “bear” here, but the practical result is the same. If economic war stands in for a shooting war, that’s something.
Reblogged this on NewsFusion.