At this moment—February 2022—the Neocons are at the helm of US foreign policy. The Ukrainian crisis gives them new energy, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military maneuvers are providing them with welcome pretexts to project US transcontinental power. But they are playing with fire. Putin is not bluffing. The safeguard of its “Near-Abroad” sphere is a fundamental part of Russia’s geopolitical goals under Putin.
As the US-European alliance has warned, the invasion of Ukraine would most likely come at tremendous cost not only to Ukraine, but also to Russia. Still, History has taught us that nations go to war for less important reasons than Putin’s legitimate security concerns about eastward encroachment by NATO. To listen to people like US Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) characterizing Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country”, or to see US President Joe Biden sending troops toward a war that threatens our species’ survival, one is not much reassured by the judgment of our government leaders. There is an aphorism attributed to Sun Tzu, the 5th-century BC Chinese strategist and philosopher, still meaningful in our time: “Give your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.” In other words, it is prudent to “leave an opening” for an enemy (or a threatening belligerent power) to exit a conflict while avoiding total defeat. This is not appeasement; it is wisdom.
Certainly, Ukraine has the right to national self-determination and to choose its allies freely, but from the 13th-century Mongol invasion, passing through the Ottoman and the Russian empires, to its inclusion in the Soviet Union, the country has been the envy (and the victim of siege and confrontation) of a myriad of powers. The latest conflict is but a new episode of a long-playing series.
The West would like to stick it to Putin and Russia regardless of the merit of their security claims. Russia endured the enlargement of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s because of its weakness following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Today, Putin estimates that Russia is sufficiently strong to challenge any further encroachment of Russia’s sphere of influence, which it feels Ukraine’s closer alliance with the US and Western Europe would constitute.
Geopolitical confrontations are rarely over principles alone; they are almost always about rapport of forces and national interest. The art of diplomacy is not incitement, nor threat, but rather to find the just measure that addresses concerns of both or all parties.
The people of Haiti can certainly sympathize with the plight of a smaller nation being threatened by a powerful, imperialist neighbor; but, as Georges Brassens surmised, it’s preferable to go slow when dying for nationalist ideas. Biden did the right thing by reminding Putin of the historic US-Russia alliance against the Nazis, but to resolve the current crisis, words or threats of repercussions alone would not be enough. All avenues to peace must be tried before plunging into the abyss.
I personally don’t think Russia wants to occupy Ukraine or expand the non-Donbas areas of Ukraine. I believe that what Putin wants is what we used to call Finlandization during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, that is, essentially, a kind of geopolitical understanding of neutrality that respects the fundamental interests of all parties involved.
Naturally, we should not exclude the possibility of more egregious aims by the Russian leader, just like the hawkish commentators have warned us; after all, in the 18th century, Catherine the Great had no qualms about “liquidating” the Cossacks from Ukraine and Crimea after defeating the Ottoman Empire.
The challenge of the current diplomatic activity is to find a just and acceptable balance among the interests of Ukraine, the Western alliance and Russia. Let us all chant, as John Lennon exhorted us in the sixties, “Give peace a chance!”