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The US is Reaping What it Sowed in Ukraine

Issue 269

Will the prospect of a 21st Century version of the Cuban Missile Crisis be enough to bring America's irresponsible leaders to their senses?

Medea Benjamin & Nicolas Davies Feb 14

What are Americans to believe about the rising tensions over Ukraine? The United States and Russia both claim their escalations are defensive, responding to threats by the other side, but the resulting spiral destabilization in the country.

Not all U.S. allies support its current policy. Germany is refusing to funnel more weapons into Ukraine, in keeping with its longstanding policy of not sending weapons into conflict zones.

“The Minsk Agreement hasn’t of escalation can only make war more likely. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is warning that “panic” by U.S. and Western leaders is already causing economic been applied by both sides,” German Social Democrat Member of Parliament Ralf Stegner told the BBC Jan. 25, referring to the process agreed to by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in 2015 for the ending the civil war between the Ukrainian government and ethnic Russian separatists in the country’s east. “It just doesn’t make any sense to think that forcing up the military possibilities would make it better. Rather, I think it’s the hour of diplomacy.”

Most American politicians and corporate media, however, have fallen in line with a one-sided narrative that paints Russia as the aggressor, and support sending more weapons to Ukrainian government forces. The most critical events that have been airbrushed out of that narrative are the violation of agreements Western leaders made at the end of the Cold War not to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, and the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in February 2014.

Western mainstream media accounts date the crisis in Ukraine back to Russia’s 2014 reintegration of Crimea, and the decision by ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine to secede as the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.

But these were not unprovoked actions. They were responses to the U.S.-backed coup, in which an armed mob that included the neo-Nazi Right Sector militia stormed the Ukrainian parliament, forcing the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, and members of his party to flee for their lives. The remaining members of parliament voted to form a new government, subverting the political transition and plans for a new election that Yanukovych had publicly agreed to the day before, after meetings with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland.

Underlying all these tensions is NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe, in violation of commitments Western officials made at the end of the Cold War.

The U.S. role in managing the coup was exposed by a leaked 2014 audio recording of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt working on their plans, which included sidelining the European Union (“Fuck the EU,” as Nuland put it) and shoehorning in U.S. protege Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister.

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk was forced to resign after two years when a corruption scandal broke, and President Petro Poroshenko was outed in a tax evasion scandal revealed in the Panama Papers. Ukraine remains the poorest country in Europe, and one of the most corrupt.

The Ukrainian military had little enthusiasm for a civil war against its own people in eastern Ukraine, so the post- coup government formed new “National Guard” units to assault the separatist-declared republics. The infamous Azov Battalion drew its first recruits from the Right Sector militia and openly displays neo-Nazi symbols, yet it has kept receiving U.S. arms and training, even after Congress explicitly cut off its funding in defense appropriations for the 2018 fiscal year.

In 2015, the Minsk and Normandy negotiations led to a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from a buffer zone around the separatist-held areas. Ukraine agreed to grant greater autonomy to Donetsk, Luhansk areas of Ukraine, but it has failed to follow through on that.

A federal system, with some powers devolved to individual provinces or regions, could help resolve the all-or- nothing power struggle between Ukrainian nationalists and Ukraine’s traditional ties to Russia that has dogged its politics since independence in 1991.

But the U.S. and NATO’s interest in Ukraine is not really about resolving its regional differences. The U.S.-backed coup in 2014 was calculated to put Russia in an impossible position. If Russia did nothing, post-coup Ukraine would sooner or later join NATO, as NATO members already agreed to in principle in 2008. That would mean NATO forces would advance right up to Russia’s border.

On the other hand, if Russia had responded to the coup by invading Ukraine, there would have been no turning back from a disastrous new Cold War with the West. To Washington’s frustration, Russia found a middle path out of this dilemma, by accepting the result of Crimea’s referendum to rejoin Russia, but only giving covert support to the separatists in Luhansk and Donets.

In 2021, with Victoria Nuland back in the State Department, the Biden administration quickly cooked up a plan to put Russia in a new pickle. The United States had given Ukraine $2 billion in military aid since 2014, and Biden has added another $650 million to that, along with deployments of U.S. and NATO military trainers.

Ukraine has still not implemented the constitutional changes called for in the Minsk agreements, and the military support the United States and NATO have provided has encouraged its leaders to effectively abandon the Minsk-Normandy process and simply reassert sovereignty over all of Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea.

In practice, Ukraine could only recover those territories by a major escalation of the civil war. When it began shipping military equipment south and east towards Crimea and the Donbass region in March 2021, Russia responded by moving troops and conducting military exercises close enough to Ukraine to deter any new offensive.

In October, Ukraine launched new attacks in Donbass. Russia, which still had about 100,000 troops stationed near Ukraine, responded with new troop movements and military exercises.

Underlying all these tensions is NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe, in violation of commitments Western officials made at the end of the Cold War. Russian officials are warning that U.S.-Russian relations are close to the breaking point. If the United States and NATO are not prepared to negotiate new disarmament treaties, remove U.S. missiles from countries within range of Russia, and dial back NATO expansion, Russian officials say they will have no option but to respond with “appropriate military-technical reciprocal measures.”

This expression may not refer to an invasion of Ukraine, as most Western com- mentators have assumed, but to a broader strategy that could include actions that hit much closer to home for Western leaders.

For example, Russia could place short-range nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad (between Lithuania and Poland), within range of European capitals. It could establish military bases in Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and other friendly countries. It could deploy submarines armed with hypersonic nuclear missiles to the western Atlantic, from where they could destroy Washington in minutes.

It has long been a common refrain among American activists to point to the 800 or so U.S. military bases all over the world and ask, “How would Americans like it if Russia built military bases in Mexico or Cuba?” We may be about to find out.

Hypersonic nuclear missiles off the East Coast would put the United States in a similar position to that in which NATO has placed the Russians. So the revived Cold War that U.S. officials and corporate media hacks have been mindlessly cheering on could very quickly turn into one in which the United States would find itself just as encircled and endangered as its enemies.

Will the prospect of such a 21st century Cuban missile crisis be enough to bring America’s irresponsible leaders back to the negotiating table? We certainly hope so.

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