A Culture of Cheating: On the Origins of the Crisis in Ukraine

The current tensions between the United States and Russia with regard to Ukraine goes back to a series of NATO actions and omissions following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989/91.  On the Russian side there is a widespread perception of having been mislead by the US and NATO, a pervasive malaise about a breach of trust, a violation of a “gentleman’s agreement” on fundamental issues of national security.

While the US protests that it never gave assurances to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastwards, declassified documents prove otherwise.  But even in the absence of declassified documents and contemporary statements by political leaders in 1989/91 including Secretary of Sate James Baker and German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (which can be consulted in YouTube), it is all-too-obvious that there is a festering wound caused by NATO’s eastward expansion over the past 30 years, which undoubtedly has negatively impacted Russia’s sense of security. No country likes to be encircled, and common sense should tell us that maybe we should not be provoking another nuclear power.  At the very least, NATO’s provocations are unwise, at worst they could spell Apocalypse.

We in the West play innocent, and retreat into “positivism”, asserting that there was no signed treaty commitment, that the assurances were not written in stone.  Yet, Realpolitik tells us that if one side breaks its word, or is perceived as having double-crossed the other side, if it acts in a manner contrary to the spirit of an agreement and to the overriding principle of good faith (bona fide), there are political consequences.

It seems, however, that we in the West have gotten so used to what I would call a “culture of cheating”, that we react surprised when another country does not simply accept that we cheated them in the past, and that notwithstanding this breach of trust, they should accept the “new normal” and resume “business as usual”, as if nothing had happened.  Our leaders in the US, UK, EU contend that they have a clean conscience and refuse to consider the fact that the other side does feel uncomfortable about having been taken for a ride.  A rational person, a fortiori a statesman, would pause and try to defuse the “misunderstanding”.  Yet, the US culture of cheating has become so second nature to us, that we do not even realize it when we are cheating someone else, and we seem incapable to understand that denying our actions and reneging on our words adds insult to injury.

The culture of cheating is family of the doctrine of “exceptionalism”. We self-rrighteously claim the right to cheat others, but others cannot cheat us. Quod licet Iovi non licet bovi (that which Jupiter can do is not permitted for the bovines). This constitutes a kind of predator behaviour that neither religion nor civilization has succeeded in eradicating. We mount false-flag operations and accuse the other side of the same. The CIA and M15 have been caught red handed in so many occasions – and yet no one seems to be asking whether in the long run such behaviour is not counter-productive, whether our credibility is shot.

Perhaps one explanation for this kind of behaviour is that we have elevated the culture of cheating to a kind of secular virtue – equivalent to cunning, daring and boldness.  It is seen as a positive attribute when a leader is “craftier” and “sneakier” than his/her rival.  The name of the game is to score points in an atmosphere of perpetual competition, where there are no rules.  Our geopolitical competitors are just that – rivals – and there is no interest whatever in fraternizing with adversaries.  Cooperation is somehow perceived as “weak”, as “Un-American”.   “Dirty tricks” are not seen as dishonest, but as clever, even patriotic, because they are intended to advance the economic and political interests of our country. In a way, “dirty tricks” are perceived in a positive light as artful, ingenious, adventurous, even visionary. This curious approach to reality is facilitated by a compliant and complicit corporate media that does not call out our bluff and instead disseminates “fake news” and suppresses dissenting views.  Unless an individual has the presence of mind to do his/her own research and to access other sources of information, he/she is caught in the propaganda web.

The US government has practised this culture of cheating in its international relations for more than two hundred years, particularly in its dealings with the First Nations of the continent, who again and again were lied to, and whose lands and resources were shamelessly stolen.  As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his book Why we can’t Wait : “Or nation was born in genocide” (p. 120).  How many “Indian” Treaties were broken, again and again? And when the Sioux, Cree and Navajo protested, we massacred them.  See the studies of the UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.[1]

This “culture of cheating” can be documented countless times in connection with the Monroe Doctrine and US relations with Mexico, Latin America, Hawaii, the Philippines, etc.

One of the elements that is totally missing from the Ukraine debate is the right of self-determination of peoples. Undoubtedly the Russians in the Ukraine are not just a minority, but constitute a “people” — and as such the Russians in Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea possess the right of self-determination. enshrined in the UN Charter and in Article 1 common to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Until the deliberately anti-Russian coup d’état of February 2014, the Ukrainians and Russian-Ukrainians had lived side by side in relative harmony.  Maidan brought with it russophobic elements that have since been exacerbated by the systematic war propaganda and incitement to hatred, both prohibited by article 20 of the ICCPR. Thus, it is not certain whether the Russians in the Donbass feel safe enough to want to continue living with Ukrainians who have been and are being incited to hatred against them. Back in March and June 1994 I monitored the parliamentary and presidential elections in the Ukraine as representative of the UN Secretary General.  I travelled around the country.  No doubt that the Russian-speakers had a profound sense of Russian identity.

There would be no conflict in Ukraine today if Barack Obama, Victoria Nuland and several European leaders had not destabilized the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych and organized a vulgar coup d’état to install Western puppets.  Bottom line:  Western interference in the internal affairs of other States can backfire, and the culture of cheating and deceit that we continue to practice renders it impossible to reach sustainable solutions.  The UN Charter, the only existing “rules-based international order”, has the necessary mechanisms to resolve our differences on the basis of the principles of sovereign equality of States and the self-determination of peoples.


[1] http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/demo/TreatiesStatesIndigenousPopulations_Martinez.pdf

https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Reassessing+the+paradigm+of+domestication%3a+the+problematic+of…-a0238269291. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/EMRIP/Pages/Treaties-Constructive-Agreements.aspx


Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of twelve books including “Building a Just World Order” (2021) “Countering Mainstream Narratives” 2022, and “The Human Rights Industry” (Clarity Press, 2021).