Over Your Dead Body

Photo: NATO.int

“NATO’s Approach to Russia is defense and dialogue”

– North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Who is to Blame?

Now that war has come, the question of who to blame must be fairly addressed; for to answer it is to suggest the contours of a possible resolution.

First of all, Russia has made a grave and deadly misstep. The invasion occurred at the very moment when it appeared to have attracted maximum attention to its legitimate grievances against NATO and the U.S., and when several Western European states were suing for peace. French president Emmanuel Macron’s shuttle diplomacy – conducted it appears, without U.S. sanction – was creating momentum for a settlement that might forever (or nearly so) deny Ukraine membership in NATO (a key Russian demand), plus provide added security guarantees. Other countries too were pressing for resolution of the conflict in order to protect their national, economic interests.

Germany’s just-elected chancellor Olof Scholz was anxious to safeguard his shiny new, Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a conduit of cheap natural gas. The Netherlands wanted the Russian oil spigots kept open. Italywas keen to maintain sales of machinery, luxury clothing and footwear to Russia; Belgium to ensure its trade in pharmaceuticals, chemicals and gemstones; and other countries outside the EU, (for example Egypt and Turkey), their purchases of cheap Russian wheat. Even the U.S. determination to humiliate its longtime nemesis was beginning to weaken, however intoxicating the prospect of tankers shuttling expensive LNG to Europe in lieu of Nord Stream gas. Biden knows there is little political gain from economic sanctions that will be paid for by American car and truck drivers more than by Putin, his family, or cronies.

The greatest constituency for peace of course, is the Ukrainian and Russian people, long linked, as Putin likes to say, by language, history, and culture. They will pay for this war in blood and money.  Military and civilian causalities are already starting to mount, especially among Ukrainians, and however long or short the war, its impacts will be felt for years if not decades. There are limited but growing voices in Russia condemning the war – and not just jailed dissident Alexei Navalny – and it’s unclear if Putin will be able to claim a propaganda triumph to match his certain military victory. Assertions of Ukrainian “genocide” against ethnic Russian separatists in the Donbas region (the Donetsk and Luhansk statelets) don’t have great plausibility in the mainland, and bank-runs, stock-declines, and inflationary pressures may not be met with the same equanimity as during what Russians call The Great Patriotic War against Hitler and Nazism.

The Russian economy is buttressed by vast cash reserves built up over a decade from oil sales for the very purpose for withstanding sanctions. And if the present war is relatively short, and the sanctions of limited scope or duration, it may emerge with its economy intact. Ukraine’s poor economic performance since independence on the other hand, puts its eventual recovery in doubt. If Russia may be counted a corrupt petrostate, Ukraine is a kleptocracy without the oil, and it has neither the political nor the economic infrastructure to withstand the Russian onslaught, or to quickly rebuild afterwards.

But Russia is hardly the only party that merits blame for the current debacle. The U.S. does too, and its aggression and mendacity predate that of Russia. When even cold warriors, like NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman, blame NATO expansion for the Russian invasion, you know there is a U.S. and NATO credibility problem.

“The first log [on the fire of war] was the ill-considered decision by the U.S. in the 1990s to expand NATO after — indeed, despite — the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Friedman’s point, echoed by many on the left, is that NATOs expansion of membership during the late ‘90s and early 2000s — Poland (1999), Hungary (1999), Czech Republic (1999), Latvia (2004), Lithuania (2004), Estonia (2004), Slovenia (2004), Slovakia (2004), Romania (2004), and Bulgaria (2004) – brought the alliance literally to Russia’s doorstep: Estonia and Latvia share a border with Russia; Lithuania and Poland with Russian ally Belarus.

In the absence of any plausible threat from Russia at the time, expansion put the lie to NATO’s frequent claim that it is “a defensive alliance, whose purpose is to protect our members.” If true, what was the purpose of NATO’s officially stated policy to “welcome Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO and stand by the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance.” Ukraine has an almost 1,500-mile border with Russia, and NATO member states are positively bristling with armaments pointed in its direction. Poland, a country larger than the United Kingdom, has been a major recipient of U.S. arms sales.  While it is not thought to be a base for U.S. nuclear weapons, it does participate in NATO’s SNOWCAT program to provide conventional assistance during a nuclear exchange. (The U.S. houses nuclear bombs in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.)

NATO expansion occurred under the Clinton and George Bush administrations, despite dissenting voices within the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including defense secretary William Perry and cold-war patriarch George Kennan, that counseled restraint. They argued that expansion was a needless irritant in a relationship that without it, might grow into friendship, and that NATO had neither the will nor the resources to come to the defense of a raft of new members no more democratic – and in some cases less – than Russia itself. The goal of the U.S. and NATO, as Perry said, should be to persuade Russia “that NATO could be a friend rather than an enemy.” Kennan stated:

“Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.”

Left unmentioned by Friedman, Perry, and Kennan, was the prior string of broken promises that preceded NATO expansion. Declassified documents published in 2017 prove that all the key presidents and prime ministers during the crucial period (1990-1991) when the USSR was breaking apart — including G.H.W. Bush, Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Francois Mitterrand — offered assurances that NATO would “rule out expansion to the east” in exchange for Russian agreement to German reunification. Those promises were kept until Bill Clinton, eager to placate Lech Walesa and Polish-American voters in the 1996 election, agreed to open-up NATO eligibility to Poland and other states formerly within the Soviet sphere of influence. Newly discovered papers in the Clinton archives indicate that NATO members at the time were also seeking – contrary to the organization’s self-defense charter – to enlarge its military umbrella “out of area” in order to engage in what it called “humanitarian interventions.” Russia’s fear of NATO is grounded in geography, history, and experience. If NATO expansion had not occurred, or if it had been limited in scope, the current Russian aggression would likely not have happened.

What is to be done?

The chicken hawks at the State Department, foreign policy think tanks, and in the mainstream media, are bristling with bellicosity and groupthink. The letters and comments pages in the NYTimes are little different; liberal anti-communism has shifted almost seamlessly to Russophobia. The volume of the jingoist echo chamber is amplified by very architects of the current crisis – including foreign policy wise hands such as Madeleine Albright (U.S. Secretary of State from 1997-2001) and Richard Haasse (president since 2003 of the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations). In place of analysis, the former offers insult, hypocrisy, and sanctimony:  Putin is “small and pale,” Albright quotes from her diary notes of a meeting in early 2000, just months after the first major NATO expansion, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” The Secretary who oversaw the last four years of a sanctions regime against Iraq that killed some 500,000 children, asserts that the United States leads a global alliance “governed by the rule of law”. The person most responsible, along with Bill Clinton, for preventing any meaningful U.N. response to the genocide in Rwanda, has the chutzpah to argue that Putin is driven by “cynicism and lust for power.”

Richard Haass, who advised and supported Secretary of State Colin Powell (the Great Prevaricator) during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, argues that no nation has the right to “change by force” another sovereign country. He too supports a wide range of economic sanctions, but also much more:

“The aim then should be to expand support to Ukraine — military, intelligence, economic and diplomatic — to such an extent as to significantly raise the costs of any Russian occupation. That should be possible, not least because Russia’s approximately 190,000 troops and Russian-backed separatist forces that are in or near Ukraine are unlikely to be able to readily pacify a country of Ukraine’s size and population.”

The goal in other words, is to build up Ukraine’s military so that it can sustain a long and punishing war — not to defeat Russia, but to make it pay a significant price. An additional goal should be to take advantage of a stalemate to try to drive a wedge between Russia and China to strengthen the U.S. hand in its contest with the latter.

In the midst of such an outpouring of bullshit, it’s important to clearly state where U.S. policy is currently heading: Ukraine will become the proxy in a new, cold-war with Russia. The Biden administration and congress is essentially saying to Russia: “You will get your way, but only over Ukraine’s dead body.”  Ukraine cannot win a war with Russia; it can only lose it more or less quickly. They would be better off suing for peace now than fighting to the death for an international Pax American that they had no part in creating and from which they will never benefit.

Finally, U.S. and European citizens, who will pay the financial cost of the arms, matériel, and much of the sanctions, would be better served by a clear statement from national leaders that NATO membership for Ukraine is not in the cards, and that following the conflict, all sides should withdraw their most dangerous weapons from the NATO/Russian border. The U.S. should also immediately begin discussion with Russia to restart the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty suspended by Donald Trump in 2019, and establish protocols for a new START treaty to reduce and finally eliminate the threat of global, nuclear war. The current war has two parents, but it will take greater wisdom than either has so far shown to end it.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu