Our 30-Year Victory Dance on Top of Russia Planted the Seeds of War in Ukraine
I was reading a book by Stream contributor Prof. Paul Kengor on Ronald Reagan and the Cold War, and I had a kind of epiphany. Suddenly I understood why Russia’s troops are even now invading neighboring Ukraine:
Vladimir Putin is a monster. But he’s a monster we created. Don’t worry, I will explain. But first a short history lesson.
Liberators or Conquerors?
When German soldiers marched into the Soviet Union in 1941, at first many greeted them as liberators from Stalin. Russians quickly learned better, of course. Hitler’s regime was built on radical Darwinism applied not to species but to races: He saw all Slavs as “subhumans,” fit only to serve Aryan masters as serfs and menial laborers.
The Nazi hierarchy specifically ordered the Wehrmacht to suspend the old rules of war. Make no distinctions between enemy soldiers and civilians. Take no account of the well-being of conquered territories, except insofar as it served the German war effort. Don’t worry if Russian POWs die of malnutrition, unless they’re needed for slave labor in factories. And organize killing units to wipe out local Jews and “commissars.”
Within months, Russians who might have welcomed another regime other than Stalin’s were forming partisan units to fight for him against the Germans. They sabotaged rail lines, murdered officers, poisoned wells, and forced the Nazis to commit many thousands of troops to subduing already conquered regions. A big part of Nazi defeat in Operation Barbarossa can be traced to their brutal policies.
No Partisans in West Germany
By contrast, when Americans and Britons stormed into Germany, no partisan units formed. Generally, Germans were relieved that Western forces, and not the Russians, were the ones moving in on them. This even though the Allies had bombed whole cities into rubble.
While Germans might still have been infected with Nazi ideas, they knew that Western soldiers had not come to wipe them out. Nor to subject them as slaves, or colonize their country. We said that we came to liberate even the German people from a totalitarian government. And our actions showed that we meant it.
Reagan Wanted to Liberate Russians, Not Crush Them
Likewise, Ronald Reagan in his speeches assured the world, including those listening in Russia, that his quarrel was with Communism — not Russians. He denounced the godless system which had starved and tortured Russians for seven long decades. But he never demonized Russians as a nation or a race. He didn’t speak of making the U.S. the single hegemon of a “unipolar” world. Nor did he show any sign of wishing a perpetual quarrel with Russia.
Reagan’s honest rhetoric, both in public and in private talks with Mikhail Gorbachev, doubtless played a role in the almost bloodless collapse of first the Soviet Empire, then the Soviet Union. Russians knew that they weren’t surrendering to America; they were just shaking off a deadly, toxic regime.
The Cold War: Too Profitable to End
Too bad that American policymakers didn’t get Ronald Reagan’s memo. Too many conservatives clung to a Cold War stance, pretending that Russia posed a permanent threat to Europe. Too many liberals weaponized human rights concerns as pretexts for advancing American power. Both factions of our foreign policy elite — the neocons and the globalists — agreed that the U.S. should treat the Soviet implosion as a power vacuum that we must fill.
Exploiting the erratic leadership of Boris Yeltsin, neoliberal economists like Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs flew over to Russia — handing them economic schemes that let billionaire oligarchs steal most of the country’s wealth.
Military contractors poured money into lobbying efforts by old pals of the Bush family to extend NATO right up to the borders of Russia itself. George Kennan, the U.S. diplomat who invented the policy of “containment” of Communism, warned at the time that such expansion would be “the most fateful error of American policy in the post cold-war era.”
For my own part, as a graduate student at Hawaii Pacific University, working on my masters in military science and operational studies, I wrote in the school newspaper that NATO should be disbanded after the U.S.-led air attacks on civilians in Yugoslavia.
We Pounced to Fill a Power Vacuum
We should have acted as magnanimous partners with the Russian people in a joint victory against Communist dictatorship. That is how the U.S. treated the people of Germany and Japan, after bitter fighting in World War II. Instead, our elites essentially pounced on Eastern Europe, seeking to make it a part of the EU, NATO, and the American sphere of influence.
We would set the terms going forward, and guarantee the outcome. The Clinton administration convinced newly independent Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons — the one thing that would have forever guaranteed its sovereignty. In return? We promised to police its integrity against Russia.
Our CIA Staged a Coup
Are we ready to fight a shooting war right now against Putin’s Russia to keep that promise? I hope not. That foolish promise both left Ukraine forever vulnerable, and kept our hooks in the country. So did our CIA’s involvement in the 2013 coup against the (pro-Russian) winner of Ukraine’s elections. There’s even audio of the U.S. ambassador mulling over whom we should pick as Ukraine’s president.
Would we, the United States, tolerate Vladimir Putin meddling this way in Mexico or Canada? How long would we leave such a regime in place?
What the Chinese People Believe Us?
What worries me more than the current Ukraine war is our future conflict with China. We insist that we object not to China as a nation, race or culture. We only object to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with a long history of mass murder, that currently keeps Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps.
Should the Chinese people believe us, though? Our track record with how we treated post-Communist Russia suggests that they shouldn’t. When the CCP tells its people that our concerns over Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the Uyghurs aren’t sincere — that they’re “imperialist” evidence of “anti-China” sentiment … Chinese sadly have good reasons to believe it.
We Should Have Been Better Than That
Yes, it was enormously tempting to take ruthless advantage of the Soviet Union’s collapse, for short-term American interests. But part of American exceptionalism is that we should resist such selfish, Machiavellian behavior. If we want people to see America as a model and an ally in fighting for freedom, we can’t give in to such passions.
Russians didn’t collude with Donald Trump to win the 2016 election. But they did find him refreshing. He stopped peddling all the high-minded, idealistic rhetoric that had masked American power-mongering from 1991 onward. He spoke of America’s national interests and real security needs. The Russians were relieved at the end of hypocritical happy-talk. They refrained from aggressive actions, and responded to Trump’s firm policies.
And we see how Russia has responded to the chaos and weakness prevailing under The Secret Committee Formerly Known As Joe Biden. It has pounced, and there’s little we can do short of risking destruction.
How will China exploit the power vacuum in the White House? Let’s pray for the people of Taiwan.
Jason Jones is a senior contributor to The Stream. He is a film producer, author, activist and human rights worker.