Ukraine: Coup, Couth, and Consequences

The controversy over alleged Russian “aggression” in Ukraine is already raining on the Kremlin parade with which Russia will mark the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Adolf Hitler and the Nazis on May 9. U.S. President Barack Obama set the tone by turning down the Kremlin’s invitation to take part in the celebration, and allies in Western Europe have been equally uncouth in saying No.

The fanfare on Red Square will be a “Last Hurrah” for most surviving World War II veterans, since few are likely to be able to be there for the 75th or 80th anniversaries. Though I was only five years old on V-E Day – marking the victory in Europe – I was delighted to receive an invitation to go to Russia this week for a smaller-scale celebration marking an equally important 70th anniversary – April 25, 1945, the historic day on which U.S. and Russian troops met at the Elbe River.

On V-E Day, which came a couple of weeks later on May 9, 1945, I recall the thundering celebration as one of my most vivid early memories. So I find it a particular shame that for this year’s 70th anniversary the usual thunderclaps of applause will be muted.

Tragically divided once again by hate, greed, and power-lust, Europe lies in the shadow of war, as the violence percolating in Ukraine threatens to result in wider, more open military intervention from outside. Equally sad, responsibility for the turmoil in Ukraine lies mostly at the doorstep of Washington. Worse still for one who normally pretends to understand what drives foreign policy, how shall I explain to my hosts what lies behind U.S. actions in central Europe, when – try as I may to come up with cogent explanations that make some sense – the reasons elude me.

For those who may find my straightforward allocation of blame surprising, do not feel you must rely on me (although I have been watching what happens in Russia and Europe for half a lifetime). I strongly recommend the trenchant insights of John Mearsheimer, pre-eminent political science professor at the University of Chicago, and professor Stephen F. Cohen of Princeton and New York University, a distinguished Russianist who has been a Kremlin watcher even longer than I have.

Last fall, a year into the burgeoning troubles in Ukraine, Mearsheimer stunned those who had been misled by hate-Putin propaganda when he placed an article in the Very-Establishment journal Foreign Affairs entitled “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault,” and more recently followed up with a more recent op-ed entitled “Don’t Arm Ukraine.”

As for Professor Cohen, if you have not already done so, please take the time to read his recent “Why We Must Return to the US-Russian Parity Principle: the Choice is Either a New Détente or a More Perilous Cold War.” and his earlier “Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War.”

You will emerge from that reading far better educated on the realities than those malnourished on the thin gruel of the co-opted corporate media, which – unashamedly – are well into a redux of their familiar drum-beating to send people from our poverty draft merrily off to war. And for extra credit, I highly recommend veteran journalist Patrick L. Smith’s recent interview of Professor Cohen, Part 1 of which Salon has published under the title “The New York Times Basically Rewrites Whatever the Kiev Authorities Say.”

Some Visitors to Moscow

U.S. leaders along with its foreign “vassals” – as Russian President Vladimir Putin has called them – have responded to the Kremlin’s invitations to the V-E celebration with “regrets.” Not so Chinese President Xi Jinping , whose plan to come for the anniversary observance was announced in January. The President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, will also take part.  Signs of the times.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has devised a compromise. So as not to appear to be breaking ranks with other “vassals,” she will shun the parade but will travel to Moscow on May 10 to lay a wreath at a war memorial. The U.S. will be represented by U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft.

It may be difficult for history-starved Americans to understand why it should be that most Russians react so negatively to what they regard as something more serious than a mere gratuitous snub. From watching Russian media one gets the clear impression that veterans and most men/women-on-the-street view the boycott as more serious than a petulant slight – but rather as a supreme indignity.

For example, during Putin’s four-hour TV tour de force Q&A with Russian citizens on April 16, one questioner said the world leaders who boycott the celebration “insult the memory of war veterans of the Red Army. … We liberated them out of that Nazi plague, or they would still be shouting ‘Heil!’”

And a retired colonel, who fought in the five-month-long, pivotal World War II battle of Stalingrad as a 19-year-old battery commander, had this to say: “In the first years of the war, the Red Army, our people, were fighting all of Europe singlehandedly. … Yes, we had allies, but they opened the second front too late.”

Putin replied with a mix of condescension and feigned understanding: “Some simply do not want to go, but some are not being allowed to go by the ‘Washington apparatchiks,’ who say, ‘No way.’ And they say, ‘We won’t go,’ although many would like to come.”

Putin then underscored what he sees as the importance of the anniversary observance: “We pay tribute to a generation of victors. We do this so that the present generation, both here and abroad, never forgets about this and never allows anything like this to happen again.”

But what about those aging Russian veterans claiming the lion’s share of credit for defeating Germany? Do they exaggerate?

The Facts

As journalist Martin Sieff keeps pointing out, the current crop of young Americans and Russians has grown up fairly ignorant of how crucially important the Grand Alliance of WWII was to the survival of both their great nations, but all serious Western historians recognize that the Russian people made the greatest sacrifices. The nearly 27 million total of Soviet military and civilian dead was more than twice the death toll of all Americans, Britons, Commonwealth citizens, French and even Germans killed in the war combined.

None other than British War Premier Winston Churchill publicly acknowledged, “It was the Red Army that tore the guts out of the Wehrmacht.” Over 80 percent of the German soldiers killed in World War II died fighting the Red Army.

These facts have been largely forgotten on both sides of the Atlantic, in the United States and Western Europe. At next month’s anniversary observance, pity the squandering of such an excellent opportunity to remind the world that there is strength in unity.

It is altogether understandable, of course, that at the end of WWII, many Europeans looked at their liberation by the Red Army with very mixed emotions. To begin with, in central Europe, liberation was followed by decades of Soviet occupation with harsh rule by Kremlin-installed satraps. So V-E has always been regarded there with considerable ambiguity.

In his extended Q & A on April 16, Putin made an unusual allusion to that dark period in addressing “the ugly nature of the Stalin regime” and the reaction that persists to this day. He conceded: “[It] “may not be very pleasant for us to admit. But in truth, we, or rather our predecessors, gave cause for this. Why? Because after World War II, we tried to impose our own development model on many Eastern European countries, and we did so by force.

“This has to be admitted. There is nothing good about this and we are feeling the consequences now. Incidentally, this is more or less what the Americans are doing today, as they try to impose their model on practically the entire world, and they will fail as well.”

More Recent History

The Ukraine crisis and other circumstances now clouding the May 9 celebration are perhaps the inevitable consequence of another lost opportunity, the chance for an enduring peace in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That hope was squandered by Western leaders who reneged on earlier promises to welcome a very new kind of Russia into European security arrangements, as the Soviet empire fell apart.

In sum, instead of President George H. W. Bush’s 1990-91 vision of a “Europe whole and free” from Portugal to the Ural mountains, the world got the “Wolfowitz doctrine” of 1992 embodied in the draft Defense Policy Guidance drafted by then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.”

While George H. W. Bush softened the rhetoric, the Wolfowitz approach did become the core principle of a “We-Won-the-Cold-War” triumphalist policy, with which Bush the Elder, Bill Clinton and Bush the Younger went back on the elder’s promise “not to take advantage” of the fall of the USSR and not to paint Russia as the big loser.

During an interview late last year, former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev reminisced about what could have been: “I remember the Paris Summit in 1990. Europe offered an example of how to build … a new relationship. The Americans – and Bush senior, talked about it. And I spoke about it. … And one wonders how people can object to their own decisions.

“It all began with the fact that the United States suddenly started talking about the creation of a ‘new empire.’ An over-empire, a super-empire. Alas, God and fate had put the task before them. Yes, they thought their moment had come.”

Despite promises by top U.S., German and NATO leaders not to move NATO to the east of a reunited Germany (which joined NATO in 1990), 12 new members – all of them to the east – subsequently joined, bringing total NATO membership to 28. Worse still from Moscow’s point of view, a NATO summit meeting in Bucharest declared on April 3, 2008:  “We agreed that these countries (Ukraine and Georgia) will become members of NATO.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had sternly warned U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns two months earlier that the Russians would say a loud NYET to that. They did. Accordingly, it should have come as no surprise that the Russians decided that the U.S.-arranged coup d’état of Feb. 22, 2014, in Kiev was one “regime change” too many.

I have watched many government overthrows – oops, sorry, the present term of art is “regime change” – but the way this coup was advertised in advance, for me, that was a first. The key U.S. dramatis personae – Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. ambassador in Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt – had been overheard plotting the coup more than two weeks before Feb. 22 in an intercepted telephone conversation that was posted on YouTube. George Friedman, head of the well-connected STRATFOR think tank, has said, “It truly was the most blatant coup in history.”

Annexation of Crimea

What prompted the Kremlin’s strong reaction? Was it the coup d’état on Moscow’s doorstep or the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO or the risk of losing Russia’s only warm-water naval port to NATO or was it concern over U.S. plans for missile defense? The correct answer, of course, is all-of-the-above; indeed, they are inextricably linked.

Putin has been very upfront about what moved him to action on Feb. 23, 2014, the day AFTER the putsch in Kiev. By the way, there is not one scintilla of evidence that either Putin or any other Russian leader planned to annex Crimea BEFORE the Feb. 22, 2014 coup.

After the Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to be rejoined to Russia, Putin permitted himself a somewhat jocular passage following a serious one, in addressing this very serious missile issue in a speech on March 18, 2014. to the Russian Duma and other officials at the Kremlin:

“Let me note too that we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and [the naval base at] Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. These are things that could have become reality were it not for the choice the Crimean people made, and I want to say thank you to them for this. …

“NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round.”

Putin has not disguised Moscow’s motives regarding the annexing of Crimea. This, for example, is what he said on April 17, 2014, during last year’s marathon Q & A on live TV:

“I’ll use this opportunity to say a few words about our talks on missile defense. This issue is no less, and probably even more important, than NATO’s eastward expansion. Incidentally, our decision on Crimea was partially prompted by this.” (emphasis added)

Clear enough? In Putin’s eyes, missile defense systems in European countries near Russia and in adjacent waters would pose an existential threat to the forces upon which Russia relies as a deterrent. In recent weeks, several top Russian national security officials have weighed in strongly on this issue.

This is not only a mark of their genuine strategic concern; Russian leaders also see it as increasingly difficult, in present circumstances, for the U.S. to justify a European missile defense system by using the same paper-thin rationale that such is needed to defend against missile attack from Iran.

During an interview on April 18, Putin again drew attention to George W. Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 – a key anchor for deterrence. Putin listed it high on the list of serious problems with the U.S.

(On Dec. 13, 2001, President George W. Bush gave Russia notice of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, in accordance with the clause that required six months’ notice before terminating the pact. This was the first time in recent history that the United States has withdrawn from a major international arms treaty.)

Speaking the day before at an International Security Conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted on the need for “joint efforts based on respect for the legitimate interests of all partners,” if peace is to be preserved. He, too, focused on the U.S. missile defense programs as the primary cause of concern:

“Ground-based missile defense systems will be deployed in Romania this year and in Poland by 2018. More ships with missile defense systems are being deployed. We perceive all this as part of a global project that is creating risks for Russia’s strategic deterrence forces and upsetting regional security balances.

“If the global missile defense program continues to be implemented without any adjustments, even as talks on the Iranian nuclear program are making headway, … then the specific motives for establishing the European missile defense system will become obvious for everyone.”

Lavrov was more soft-spoken than the official statement issued by his own ministry a week before on April 10. That statement quoted President Obama’s public assurance in a speech in Prague in April 2009 about how the elimination of the “Iranian threat” would also eliminate the main reason for the deployment of a missile defense system in Europe.

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement adds: “Against this background, the statements that ‘the missile defense program is not directed against Russia’ look even less convincing.”

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at:

A version of this article first appeared on

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: A version of this article first appeared on