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What is Russia Doing?


There is a joke that I should be bored with by now but I’m going to write it once again, for two reasons. One is that humor receives a better reception than pedantry. The second is that I can’t find a simpler way of expressing the idea.

Man on the street interview:

Q) What do you think is responsible for the ignorance and apathy of the American citizen?

A) I don’t know and I don’t care!

Particularly in the area of foreign policy, Americans seem to display the degree of knowledge and involvement epitomized in the above answer. We know what makes the joke funny, and, I add, we cannot easily dismiss it because we also know it touches on something truthful —  and that leads to another question. Why don’t you know, and why don’t you care?

The best answer seems to be, because my country knows for me, and my country cares for me also.

Trust! It’s a question of trust.

True or False: If you can’t trust your own government, what can you trust?

OK. This isn’t really a true or false proposition, but the answer is, you can trust something else. In the spirit of anarchism, you might trust anything else before submitting to authority. Why? Because authority never gives a damn about you, for one thing, and, for another, because trusting authority is contagious. You’ll soon be trusting everything you see, read, and hear.

If you’ve been reading newspapers, watching television news, or even if you’ve just seen a few political cartoons, you probably know a few things about Vladimir Putin. He’s scheming, iron-fisted (the curtain), and aggressive. What would you expect from a former KGB?

Barack Obama, by contrast, is above board, conciliatory, and anything but aggressive (the Peace Prize). This you know just because you live here.

For those that find Putin’s attitude, in general, and his actions in Crimea, in particular, unfounded and indefensible, there are some things to consider. Such as deeply entrenched government planning policy and historical facts.

“Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere….We continue to recognize that collectively the conventional forces of the states formerly comprising the Soviet Union retain the most military potential in all of Eurasia; and we do not dismiss the risks to stability in Europe from a nationalist backlash in Russia or efforts to reincorporate into Russia the newly independent republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and possibly others….The U.S. must…protect a new order…for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”

These words were not intended for public release. They are from the leaked version (before it was softened for public consumption) of the Defense Planning Guidance, published by the New York Times on March 7, 1992. They were read and understood by every Russian involved in foreign policy.

In case anyone is still wondering, the planning doctrine also served notice that, “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil.”

The neoconservatives behind the planning doctrine are receding from memory and, although they slanted Republican, the doctrine of maintaining American primacy by any means necessary is embraced by the Democratic party as well. It is a fixture of American foreign policy and foreign policy decisions are inexplicable without taking this into account.

The U.S. spent its “peace dividend” from the dissolution of the Soviet Union by doubling down, world hegemony now being a realistic goal. These were heady times for Defense and State. No strong enemies. No strong rivals. How to keep it that way?

Enter NATO (a military alliance), which is best understood by a simple equation, NATO = U.S., because without U.S. funding and direction there would be no NATO. When the Soviet Union was dissolving, a promise was made to Mikhail Gorbachev by the George H. W. Bush administration that, besides a re-unified Germany being allowed to remain in it, NATO would not be extended “one inch to the East”. This was the assurance that the U.S. would not take advantage of the situation and would respect the independence of Moscow’s former allies and republics. This hasn’t quite been the case, but what would you expect from a former CIA?

1999 saw the addition of Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic. In 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were added. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, bringing the total in the military alliance to 28 member countries.

Long prized by the U.S. for NATO membership are Georgia and especially Ukraine, countries that share Russia’s southwestern border. Ukraine under deposed President Viktor Yanukovych leaned West, but wouldn’t break. It balked at joining NATO, preferring only to cooperate with it on a certain level. This naturally made it pro-Russian.

That affront to American primacy (euphemistically known as “democracy”) led to the U.S. backed February 22 coup that ousted him, and, with the help of the muscle from neo-Nazi militias from western Ukraine’s Right Sektor and Svoboda parties, set up pro-Western Oleksandr Turchynov as interim leader. Some of these militias are now part of “National Guard”, under the auspices of the national security ministry run by four far-right Ukrainian nationalists.

The White House is downplaying references to neo-Nazis in the new government as just so much Russian propaganda. This is something else you probably know. Russians use propaganda. Washington is understandably sensitive about this neo-Nazi business.

NATO is pressing on Russia’s border and Putin is supposed to regard this as a spreading of democracy? A sign of respect for Russian sovereignty and Russian regional interests? Recall the U.S. reaction when Soviet missiles were headed for Cuba, practically igniting nuclear war. We are ringing Russia with military bases little by little.

Putin reacted rationally to the provocation by annexing Crimea, otherwise his Black Sea naval base would become an unprotected pawn. If the U.S. is acting rationally, it could be luring Russia into a war.

James Rothenberg can be reached at:


James Rothenberg can be reached at:

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