Recently making the news was the successful attempt by President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at the G-7 summit in Germany, to get all seven industrialized nations to continue economic sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and military meddling in eastern Ukraine, as did the recent U.S.-led allied boycott of Russia’s celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in May of 1945. Yet the seventy-first anniversary of the allied D-Day landings in Normandy in June of 1944 went off as planned.
Russia was iniquitous to have violated international law and snatched Crimea and is also wrong to be militarily stirring up an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. However, the Western media, in their usual self-righteous manner, avoid any discussion of the Russian perspective or motives for Russia’s actions. Although despite my first name, I have no Russian blood and do not favor Vladimir Putin’s autocracy; however I think some exploration of the Russian side of things is in order.
Ukraine has always been important for the Soviet Union and Russia because of its industry, agriculture, culture, and large Russian-speaking population. In February 2014, the Russia-friendly, democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by unelected street protesters and replaced by a Ukrainian government actively hostile to Russia. Russians believe that such street protests were instigated by the CIA to get a more Western-friendly government – a conspiracy theory not out of the realm of possibility, given the CIA’s track record of overthrowing democratically elected governments and replacing them with more U.S.-friendly ones.
Salvaging what they could from an important nation in their sphere of influence (those "so yesterday" great power spheres of influence do still exist, as the U.S.-enforced Monroe Doctrine in the entire Western Hemisphere attests), the Russians took advantage of the chaos in Ukraine to snatch Crimea, a very Russophilic region transferred from Russia to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev only in 1954. That strategic region housed bases from which the Russian Black Sea fleet already operated. In addition, Russia continues to destabilize the eastern, more Russophilic, part of Ukraine to keep the country out of the ever-expanding NATO alliance, which the Russians regard as hostile and right on its borders.
After the Cold War had ended and the Warsaw Pact alliance had collapsed, to get then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to allow Germany to re-unify in 1990, George H.W. Bush agreed formally that NATO would not expand into what had been East Germany. Yet subsequently, the Western alliance’s repeated expansion eastward right up to Russia’s borders violated the spirit of that agreement. More recently, George W. Bush promised that Ukraine and Georgia, a country which in 2008 started a war with Russia, would be admitted to NATO. Yet the United States and its NATO client states haven’t the faintest idea why Russia might be nervous about these developments, because they assure themselves that they are benevolent. Really?
In 1999, the U.S.-led NATO alliance violated international law and went to war with Serbia, a Russian ally in the Balkans, and dismembered the country – yanking out the province of Kosovo and making it a new country. In 2001, the U.S.-led alliance invaded Afghanistan, a country outside the European continent that NATO is supposed to be protecting. Then there was the U.S.-led coalition of the willing that again violated international law, invaded Iraq, and overthrew the dictator Saddam Hussein. In 2011, Russia agreed to a United Nations Security Council Resolution for a no-fly zone in Libya to protect opponents of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a former Russian ally. Instead, U.S.-led NATO, acting again outside of Europe, used the resolution authorizing limited military action to overthrow Gaddafi. The Russians felt swindled.
More generally, after the Cold War ended, instead of including the loser, Russia, in the larger European realm – as the Congress of Vienna did with France in 1815 after it lost the Napoleonic Wars, leading to a century with no European-wide war – the United States followed the post-World War I model of punishing Germany, which led to World War II, by not only excluding Russia but penalizing it because NATO was expanded to its borders. The West’s rubbing Russia’s nose its Cold War defeat has been a major factor in the rise and success of the nationalist autocrat Vladimir Putin.
Given its long history of being invaded by the Vikings, Mongols, Swedes, French, and Nazis, the Russians are determined to have a friendly protective buffer zone in Eastern Europe. The last Nazi invasion during World War II resulted in the most titanic and fierce combat in world history, vast tracts of the Soviet Union being scorched earth, and 27 million dead – by far more than any other country in World War II. Two out of every three German divisions in that war were sent against Russian forces, and Russia inflicted almost 75 percent of German casualties during the conflict.
The Russians always felt that D-day in the West should have come earlier in the war to relieve pressure on the eastern front. They didn’t believe the excuse that the vast U.S. industrial juggernaut, in its safe haven from the conflict, could not produce enough small Higgins landing boats to hit the beaches at Normandy until June of 1944. The Germans had been on the run since their loss at the Battle of Stalingrad to the Russians in late 1942 and early 1943. Although you would never know it from U.S. history books, the United States may have defeated Japan, but the Russians had already turned the tide against Nazi Germany long before the Normandy landings. Instead, prior to 1944, the Western allies had wasted time, men, and weapons invading non-strategic regions of the world, such as North Africa and the Italian peninsula, while the Russians won the war in the heart of Europe.
The prior catastrophic invasions of Russia do not excuse the Russian annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine to keep the country out of NATO, but they do make Russian behavior less ominous and more understandable. Russia feels surrounded and vulnerable and thus succumbs easily to nationalist demagogues like Putin.
However, in the future, perhaps the United States will be more understanding of the relatively weak Russia’s need for a geostrategic buffer zone in Eastern Europe as the more powerful China rises in East Asia, and the Americans need an ally to balance it there.