Russia is massing tanks and troops on the Ukrainian border. Inevitably, we are about to hear many ‘Putin is Hitler’ media stories. What will go unsaid is that the seven-year crisis in the Ukraine was largely an American creation, due to the US’s congenital meddling and interventionism in nations with little strategic importance to the United States. There is great irony in Biden administration officials trying to get ahead of a potential crisis that was largely caused by Biden’s nominee for undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Nuland.
The potential area of conflict is Ukraine’s Donbass region, the eastern-most portion of Ukraine where most people speak Russian as their first language. In early 2014, civil war broke out in the Donbass after a US-backed coup d’état had ousted the Russian-leaning government in Kiev. The coup was clearly orchestrated by Nuland, who was then assistant secretary of state for European affairs; she probably had the CIA’s assistance. Someone, likely the Russians, intercepted and leaked Nuland’s phone call to the then-US ambassador Jeffrey Pyatt. Their discussion was to decide who was to be the next prime minister of Ukraine. Nuland’s choice was Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a rabidly anti-Russian politician. Nuland famously said: ‘I think Yats is the guy.’ When Pyatt warned Nuland that the Europeans might not support Yatsenyuk, Nuland diplomatically replied: ‘Fuck the EU.’ Yats ended up as prime minister.
Neoconservative revisionist historians like to point to Russia’s invasion of Crimea as the origin of the recent Ukrainian crisis. This account of history is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Nuland’s meddling in the internal politics of Russia’s neighbor is the equivalent of Putin orchestrating a coup in Canada to install a pro-Russian prime minister. American diplomats should not be arrogantly choosing the prime ministers of countries in the backyards of other great powers. The US’s blockheaded diplomats instigated the crisis.
Not surprisingly, within a month of the American coup in Kiev, Putin took Crimea, the most heavily pro-Russian part of Ukraine with deep historic, religious and cultural ties to Russia. During that same month of March, ‘little green men’ — armed soldiers not wearing insignia — began appearing in eastern Ukraine. The green men were Russian special forces sent to stir up an insurgency, which they did. Large sections of the Donbass fell under Russian control.
In February 2015, the French president, German chancellor and President Putin of Russia met in Minsk to try to prevent a major regional war. The Minsk accords was the kind of compromise that American diplomats should have pursued earlier. The Minsk agreement envisioned a return of the Donbass to Ukraine but with a measure of autonomy and a recognition of the region’s cultural bond with Russia. The Minsk accords and the subsequent ceasefire are now breaking down.
The American people expect our diplomats to understand the politics and culture of other nations and to work out compromises that will avoid wars. With Victoria Nuland, you have a ‘diplomat’ who does not care to understand the perilous politics of a nation like Ukraine; she simply wants to bully that divided country until a pro-American politician leads it.
Ukraine is what Samuel Huntington described as a ‘cleft’ nation, deeply divided internally because ‘large groups belong to different civilizations’. Ukraine, he pointed out, is ‘divided between the Uniate nationalist Ukrainian speaking west and the Orthodox Russian-speaking east’.
Given the potential for a conflagration in Ukraine to spread into a disastrous war between the West and Russia, one would think that our Russian ‘experts’ would be cautioning diplomacy, would recognize Russian interests in eastern Ukraine and would be looking for a compromise that would also protect Western interests in western Ukraine. Huntington himself argued that, in the situation of a smaller nation divided between two civilizations, the leading nation in each civilization — in this case, the US and Russia — ‘should negotiate with each other to contain or to halt fault-line wars’.
Vladimir Putin is a garden variety authoritarian dictator who will deal ruthlessly with political opponents. But ordinary Russians who do not threaten his power can live their lives in peace, can worship where they want, and can run their own businesses. In short, Putin is not Hitler; he is actually a vast improvement over the Soviet Union.
Therefore, President Biden has two choices toward Ukraine. He can embrace diplomacy and work out a deal with Russia, or he can view Ukraine as simply another province in the American empire, the Nuland approach. One approach will bring peace, the other may bring war.
William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism from the University of Michigan Press.