It’s tragically comic, but the new wave of Americans’ interest in U.S. foreign policy, characterized by blue and yellow profile pics and bans of Russian vodka, cats, and Tchaikovsky, has this writer actually longing for Americans’ famously steadfast apathy of years gone by. Whereas, Americans once were unified in their utter disinterest bordering on discontent for the victims of its foreign policy, today Americans on both sides of the aisle are unified against “the Red Menace” and in the need for a humanitarian intervention to save Ukraine.
Of course, it’s that same willing ignorance and apathy that brought us to this point. Indeed, the current pro-war, anti-Russia discourse surrounding the 2022 Ukraine-Russia war could be viewed as a major win for US hawks who prefer rising tensions with Russia. But how did we get here?
(Writer’s note: I will mostly omit the question of NATO expansion in this article (that issue has received a lot of coverage recently) and will instead focus on other aspects of US-Russia relations from the last decade.
“The 1980’s are calling, they want their foreign policy back”
The US population has been subjected to a constant barrage of renewed anti-Russia propaganda for at least the last decade. Gone are the liberal domestic-focused sentiments exhibited by Democrat candidate Barack Obama in a 2012 debate when he witfully criticized Republican Mitt Romney’s hawkish, anti-Russia foreign policy as old fashioned. Obama quipped the instant classic, “The 1980’s are calling, they want their foreign policy back.” Obama was right. Twenty years of post-Soviet Russia had clearly demonstrated a willingness to "play ball" with the US, facilitating the US Wars on Terror (more accurately, Terror Wars) against Al Qaeda and anyone else in the crosshairs of the US War State.
All this changed in 2011, when the new liberal “humanitarian interventionist” establishment reached critical mass: people like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Samantha Powers (currently head of USAID for Biden), and Susan Rice (currently head of the United States Domestic Policy Council). As described by the late journalist Michael Hastings in his Rolling Stone article “Inside the Obama War Room” these liberal hawks convinced Obama, against the recommendations of veteran hawk and holdover from the Bush administration Robert Gates, that the US needed to intervene in Libya to stop a genocide in 2011. Those fears proved to be entirely made up, but they were a sufficient casus belli for the Obama administration to intervene against Gaddafi’s forces to the direct benefit of Islamic extremist groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Ansar Al-Sharia. A former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group put it bluntly: “If there is a power vacuum in Libya there will be an open market for al Qaeda.” Russia, America’s former ally in the Terror Wars, strongly opposed US/NATO intervention in Libya, correctly fearing a rise of extremist forces in North Africa. Thus, Obama’s war in Libya marked a turning point in US-Russia relations and Russia’s view of the NATO alliance. With NATO directly intervening in a country despite there being no defensive threat to NATO members, the idea that NATO is a "purely defensive" pact had been laid to rest in the minds of Russia’s leadership.
US foreign policy had redirected. Rather than the “Dumb Power” that described the Bush administration’s large, boots-on-the-ground invasions, the liberal hawks’ new “Smart Power” and “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” policies would instead “Lead from Behind” by empowering dissident extremist groups to rise up against their local governments with help of US air support and pallets of US dollars. That set the stage for America’s new war footing, and in the subsequent years of Obama’s administration, he supported major military interventions in several different countries, including Syria, Iraq (after withdrawing per the agreement signed by Bush, Obama re-intervened in the name of confronting ISIS), Yemen, and Egypt, among others.
It was Obama’s intervention in Syria against Russia’s ally Bushar al-Assad that was the final nail in the coffin of the U.S.-Russia alliance against Islamist Extremists which had held predominance for the previous decade. In 2013, the Obama administration began openly backing so-called "moderate rebel groups" in the new proxy war against Assad’s government in Syria. According to Seymour Hersh, this direct aid from the U.S. government actually went back further and could be directly linked to the Libyan consulate (see: The Red Line and the Rat Line). Aside: Obama himself later described the existence of such "moderate rebels" which he himself had championed for years "a fantasy." This begs the question, if those groups weren’t moderates, who were they? We now know that US weapons ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda (AQ) linked groups like the al-Nusra Front (now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), whose leader had even sworn allegiance to AQ frontman Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The fact that the US was actively supporting known terrorists is even confirmed in official US government documents, specifically a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 (at the time headed by Russiagate victim Michael Flynn) that noted the US was supporting groups in Syria with known links to AQ and other groups that would later be called ISIS. But the report went even further, shockingly stating in black and white this support by the Obama administration and its allies risked, "THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME…".
The West’s support of AQ-aligned terrorists was simply too much for Russia to bear, so in 2015 Putin ordered Russia’s military to intervene in Syria against AQ and ISIS in favor of the Assad government. This writer has not forgotten that following this announcement, the same so-called liberal hawks who supported backing the "moderate rebel" fantasy began openly calling for a "No-Fly Zone" to establish "Humanitarian corridors" in Syria, something we hear today vis-à-vis Ukraine. If Obama had followed through on that, it would have certainly meant direct conflicts between US and Russian air forces, which very easily could have devolved into a new world war with Russia. Luckily, Obama knew better and refused to take the bait. However, the entire Syria debacle had done irreparable damage to the U.S.-Russia relationship. Russia’s leadership recognized that it could no longer sit idly by while out of control hawks in the US government ran roughshod all over the world.
“Fuck the EU”: Victoria Nuland’s New American Century
Unfortunately, Obama’s new "sober realism" did not extend to NATO expansion in Europe. In late 2013-2014 members of the Obama administration, including current Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland (Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff and wife of Project for a New American Century (PNAC) co-founder and arch neocon Robert Kagan), as well as posthumous liberal heartthrob John McCain, could be seen palling around with ethno-nationalist, Nazi-aligned groups at the Maidan protests in Kiev and pushing for a regime change.
We got a taste of what Nuland and the U.S.’ had in mind for Ukraine, when two months before the February 21st, 2014 overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically-elected Yanukovych government, a phone call was leaked providing ironclad evidence that the US was planning to employ Ukrainian ethnonationalists (among others named by Nuland is Tyahnybok, founder of Svoboda or "Social-National Party," a not-too-subtle nod to the Nazi, "National-Socialist Party") to overthrow the Ukrainian government.
In the call, Victoria Nuland (then Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Dept) and Geoffrey Pyatt (then US Ambassador to Ukraine) go so far as to name their preferred interim president, Yatsenyuk ("Yats is the guy") and named Biden as supporting their plans in case "The Russians…try to torpedo it [the coup]." If you haven’t heard the full recording, it really is a must hear. US media in 2014 limited its coverage to "US official says bad word about our European friends" and completely ignored the coup plot. You can hear the recording on The Guardian, "‘Fuck the EU’: US diplomat Victoria Nuland’s phonecall leaked – video."
It has been said that the 2014 Ukraine coup was the most public coup of all time. Nevertheless, the coup went forward successfully, albeit with a different Western-aligned leader. Oh, and just like planned by Nuland and Pyatt, those ethnonationalist, arguably Nazi groups who helped form the new government took (and still hold) important political offices in Ukraine’s new government, including becoming members of the Kiev parliament (e.g. Tyahnybok), and incorporating into the Ukraine National Guard (e.g. the Azov battalion, who’s logo, the Wolfsangel, is one of the original symbols used by the 2nd SS Panzer Division of the Nazi Reich).
However, this wealth of evidence wasn’t enough to stop liberal and conservative hawks alike from shamelessly promoting the New Ukraine. US officials looked the other way at the anti-gay and anti-Romani pogroms and state-sponsored beatings that began happening in regions controlled by the new government. They also ignored the onslaught of anti-Russia laws emanating out of Kiev, including a renewed push to ban of the use of the Russian language in official business and a requirement that all Ukrainian citizens know the new official language, which finally passed in 2019.
All of this was too much for Putin to bear, who reportedly became incensed at the shameless hubris of the US political class. It was at this point, a month after the US-backed coup in Kiev, that Putin ordered his forces already stationed at the strategically important Sevastopol Naval Base, which had been built by and held by Russia since 1783, to seize the Crimean Peninsula. It should be noted that prior to this seizure, a popular referendum in Crimea voted to rejoin Russia by 97%.
Nevertheless, US media cried foul. Without whispering a word about the February coup or the recent pushes to join Ukraine into NATO, i.e. the context that led to Russia taking such a big and overt action, the talking points simply became "Russian aggression" and "Russia annexed Crimea."
A new century, a new "Red Scare"
The US public quickly forgot about Crimea until renewed interest in Russia came in 2015, when then candidate Donald Trump could be heard questioning the relevance of NATO and the rightness of US military might around the world. We now know that his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, and her lawyer Michael Sussman, were central in what would come to be known as Russiagate, the claim that there were secret ties between the Kremlin and Trump campaign, which conspired to change the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
We can see now that this was all part of the plan. The Russiagate conspiracy hoax, created not-seen-since-the-1950’s Russiaphobic hysteria. None of the claims about Russian ties panned out, but that didn’t (and doesn’t) matter – the damage was done. Despite the Mueller report showing no evidence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy, and the most "Russian meddling in our elections" that was ever proven were simply meager tens of thousands of dollars spent on silly Facebook ads, Americans by-in-large bought it, and still have not come to terms with the fact they were duped. Instead, Russia fears have been internalized, the facts be damned. In 2019, Donald Trump was even impeached by congressional Democrats for refusing to provide Ukraine with direct military aid, a policy unironically also held by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Which brings us to February 24th 2022. Around the 8th anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup in Kiev, and after another round of failed requests for the U.S. government (now headed by Joe Biden) to accept an independent, non-NATO member Ukraine, Russia invaded greater Ukraine. Immediately the same voices were heard calling for the US to intervene with sanctions and aid, including again from Victoria Nuland. Luckily, Biden has held fast against these renewed calls to directly intervene militarily, risking thermonuclear war, to the chagrin of many analysts and the more "war-like" politicians.
A house of cards, an empire of lies
After being force-fed a decade of lies about Russia (from Syria to Crimea to Russiagate), Americans are expertly poised to fear and hate Russia, the new Red Menace.
The overwhelming weight of evidence of Russia’s legitimate grievances with the US mean nothing, because most Americans have never heard of it. Somehow such alternative viewpoints never make it into the carefully crafted news narratives of the mainstream. What’s worse, these lies and propaganda build upon each other and support each other. For example, if one had no idea that the US and allies were attempting to replace Assad with Al Qaeda in Syria, then they would have been more willing to believe that Russia’s intervention there was for the all wrong reasons. Similarly, if one did not know about the February 2014 U.S.-backed coup in Kiev, then claims that Russia had aggressed into Ukraine and stolen Crimea in March 2014 would be much more shocking and seemingly unprovoked. Lastly, if one had just been subjected to five years of relentless Russiagate reporting on the existential threat Russia’s Putin represented for our beloved freedom and democracy, one could be forgiven for believing these latest claims about Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
This is the Washington playbook. Make up lies to support ongoing crimes, and new lies to justify future crimes. History always starts the day after the opposition reacts, as we saw with Crimea, and there’s no need to consider the enemy’s motivations. It’s much simpler to pretend the US is the indispensable nation, the shining beacon on a hill, and defender of the weak and helpless against the forces of tyranny. As President Biden said in his February 24th response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, "America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. That is who we are."
As is often the case, the truth is more complicated.
Dr. Josh Everson is a toxicologist and research scientist with over a dozen peer-reviewed publications. He is an antiwar advocate and member of the Horton school of revisionist foreign policy. Visit him on Facebook.