As recently as last week, all red flag indicators were pointing to Armageddon. The threat of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine and plans for forceful western retaliation were bandied about by the U.S. and NATO officials and the media. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was screaming for help and announced an imminent coup to overthrow him, orchestrated by the Russians in coordination with Ukraine‘s wealthiest man Rinat Akhmetov.
That turned out to be another false alarm, but a couple of thousand neo-Nazi and radical nationalists did assemble near his office and shouted anti-Zelenskyy slogans. In the meantime, the bipartisan chorus calling for a powerful Russia-repulsion strategy included Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, who read his list of “mother of all sanctions” that would destroy Russia‘s economy and its financial system, and Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, who demanded to stop President Biden’s “Surrendering to Our Enemies.” Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, went even further by not ruling out a nuclear attack on Russia.
On top of that, the presence of thousands of U.S. and NATO military advisers and trainers in Ukraine, the huge flow of lethal and other weapons, and military drills with fighter planes and ships in the Black Sea need only a little spark to start what Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev called “unthinkable” war between the nuclear powers. So, the obvious question is whether there is anything that can be done to stop this madness.
Some optimists are counting on Winston Churchill’s famous remark that the Americans will do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all the other options. Of course, there are many smart Americans who know how to put on the brakes and reverse this course, but unfortunately you do not see many of them in the foreign policy leadership positions.
The situation is much worse than during the Cold War when the rhetoric on the right and left in the U.S. somewhat balanced each other, but today they are practically unanimous: Vladimir Putin is the ultimate evil. If something goes wrong in any part of the world, he is to blame.
The war party is not prepared to admit Washington’s own miscalculations, including the fundamental one that occurred on April 30, 1998. On that day the U.S. Senate voted to expand NATO by accepting Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary as members.
President Bill Clinton, who pushed for the expansion, also claimed to be the best friend of Russia‘s then-President Boris Yeltsin and even helped his pal to win the 1996 elections. Clinton’s fellow Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of 19 senators who voted against expanding NATO, saying explicitly that “This is the road to nuclear war.” However, he did not convince 80 other senators who voted in favor of the expansion bill.
Former U.S. ambassador to Moscow George Kennan, by no means a friend of Russia and one of the authors of the policy of containing the USSR, called the process of NATO expansion a tragic mistake. But then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and even Henry Kissinger, who is still considered an outstanding strategist, also embraced the geopolitical miscalculation of supporting NATO expansion.
In this tragic story, one cannot fail to mention George W. Bush, who expressed gratitude and even public admiration for Mr. Putin’s help in the 2001 Afghan operation, and yet pushed through a second round of expansion in 2004 — including three former Soviet republics — and in 2008 launched a campaign to add Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. For Russia, this move was a “red security line” that couldn’t be crossed, just as it would be for the U.S. if Russia or China managed to include Mexico, or for that matter any country in the Western Hemisphere, in their military blocs.
It did not have go this way. After the collapse of USSR 30 years ago, Russia was ready to be a part of the West and a U.S. ally. Regrettably, the Deep State announced instead the arrival of the era of a unipolar world order under Washington’s leadership. Any country that rejects this approach and claims the right to have its own security interests is called a rogue state and its leaders labeled “dictators,” “thugs,” or even “killers” in Mr. Putin’s case.
To qualify for the role of hegemon, one needs a huge military machine and corresponding budget. Here comes NATO and the U.S. Congress, who are ready to allocate anything requested by Pentagon and myriad lobbyists in an effort to perpetuate a fading unipolar world order.
Again, NATO‘s eastward expansion is the main factor leading to the current crisis. Last week, the world’s attention was focused on the conversation between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin. Everyone was worried about one question: Will they be able to find at least some reasonable compromise and avoid making any fatal mistakes?
Apparently, we have some good news, and the “day of reckoning” is postponed for now. Mr. Biden is not prepared to use American military force in Ukraine, and both presidents agreed to continue the dialogue in search of crisis resolution with the several U.S. and Russian experts’ groups.
However, the danger did not disappear. There are many hotheads in Ukraine who might try to play the “wag the dog” game and embroil America into a war with Russia on their behalf. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili tried the same game with devastating results for his country and himself, but it looks like Mr. Zelenskyy did not learn the lesson.
As a comedian who portrayed Napoleon in one of his shows, Mr. Zelenskyy might think he can succeed where Mr. Saakashvili failed. As it happens, there are many equivalent hotheads in Washington who are ready to jump in. We’re not out of the woods yet.
• Edward Lozansky is president of American University in Moscow.
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