The Ukraine war has generated great controversy, but of one point there can be no doubt, and Benjamin Abelow, a physician with a longstanding interest in public affairs, has properly emphasized this in his brief and excellent book. The policy of the United States toward the war, and more generally toward the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin, has been one of direct confrontation rather than peaceful accommodation. It is hardly a surprise that supporters of a noninterventionist policy have criticized the United Sates for this, but a number of those in the foreign policy “establishment” have done so as well, and Abelow has been able to secure the endorsement of some of these for his book. Jack Matlock Jr., for example, the last American ambassador to the Soviet Union, writes that the book is a “brilliant, remarkably concise explanation of the danger that U.S. and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] military involvement in Ukraine has created.”
The split in the foreign policy establishment raises a question. What exactly is the objection of these dissenters to current US policy in the Ukraine? It cannot be just that it is an “activist” foreign policy, as they do not reject in principle America’s role as a global superpower. It is rather that American policy makers have gone too far, and in doing so disregarded a fundamental fact; viz., that a friendly Ukraine is not a vital national interest for the United States, but it is one for Russia. Russia perceives a hostile Ukraine as an “existential” threat, and if the US continues massively to oppose Russia, this could lead to nuclear war, with disastrous consequences.
Abelow states the essential point in this way:
Even from a blinkered American perspective, the whole Western plan was a dangerous game of bluff, enacted for reasons that are hard to fathom. Ukraine is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a vital security interest of the United States. In fact, Ukraine hardly matters at all…. In contrast, for Russia – with its 1,200-mile shared border and its history of three major land-route invasions from the West, the most recent of which, during World War II, caused the death of roughly 13 percent of the entire Russian population – Ukraine is the most vital of national interests. (pp. 60–61, emphasis removed)
One might be inclined to object: Even if Abelow is correct, isn’t it the case that Putin bears primary responsibility for the current crisis owing to his military incursion, which has for its goal the return of a good part, if not all, of the Ukraine to Russian sovereignty? Suppose that this were true, although as I shall endeavor to show, it is in fact false. It is irrelevant to the point to which Abelow has drawn our attention. Even if Putin’s responsibility for the war were total, it would not weaken the inescapable fact that an aggressive US policy risks nuclear war over what is an existential threat to Russia but not to America. We may go further. Even if Putin wishes to restore Russia to the position it held before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, his success in doing so would still pose no direct threat to the security of the United States.
In fact, though, it isn’t the case that Putin bears primary responsibility for the crisis. Abelow with characteristic concision gets to the heart of the matter:
The underlying cause of the war lies not in an unbridled expansionism of Mr. Putin, or in paranoid delusions of military planners in the Kremlin, but in a 30-year history of Western provocations, directed at Russia, that began during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and continued to the start of the war. These provocations placed Russia in an untenable situation, for which war seemed, to Mr. Putin and his military staff, the only workable solution. (p. 7)
Abelow documents his thesis to the hilt, placing great emphasis on the promise of the United States to refrain from expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders. Supporters of current US policy have countered by pointing out that the United States made no written commitment to this effect, but this is a mere technicality, and the weight of the evidence supports the Russian view of the question.
In describing this episode, I am not suggesting that Western assurances were legally binding, or that the violation of these assurances fully explains Russia’s invasion of Ukraine … I simply want to note that the West acted in a way calculated to deceive Moscow, and this episode laid the foundation for the evolving Russian sense that NATO, and the United States in particular, could not be trusted. (p. 12)
In the years since this broken promise, the US has continued a policy of provocation and hostility.
In late 2013 and early 2014, anti-government protests occurred in Independence Square in Kiev. These protests, which were supported by the United States, were subverted by violent provocateurs. The violence culminated in a coup in which armed, far-right Ukrainian ultra-nationalists took over government buildings and forced the democratically-elected pro-Russian president to flee the country. (p. 15)
It soon afterward came to light that Victoria Nuland, a neoconservative warmonger of long standing, and some of her colleagues had a hand in these developments.
As if this were not enough, the United States has again and again stated an intention to admit the Ukraine to NATO, in the face of Putin’s repeated declarations that this would be an intolerable state of affairs for Russia.
It would be a serious mistake to discount Abelow as unduly pro-Russian in his sympathies. The efforts he supports to secure a peaceful settlement by making concessions to Russia are in the best interests of the Ukrainians themselves, even those hostile to Russia. True friends of Ukraine should not send vast amounts of military aid to the intransigent Zelensky regime: that is the way to what Kant in another context aptly calls the peace of the graveyard.
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