Reprinted from The Nation with permission of the author.
Ukraine shares a border with Russia the way Mexico and Canada do with the United States. Since 1823, we have claimed the right to defend our hemisphere in accordance with the Monroe Doctrine, and now Russia is putting into practice a similar policy against a militarized Ukraine. The parallels are close; the reasons for a defensive posture, obvious. Yet Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the US no longer believes that there are spheres of influence.
Or rather, there is just one sphere: the ever-expanding terrain of legitimate Western democracies approved by NATO. This worldview – an immediate, unexamined consequence of the fall of Soviet communism in 1991 – cut a clear path through the Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and (for all the fuss) Trump administrations. But there were two bumps that might have served as a warning. In 2008, Georgia’s attack on Russian troops in South Ossetia was answered with decisive and crushing force, and in 2014, Russia responded to the US-backed coup in Ukraine by annexing Crimea. Vladimir Putin explained that when he next visited Sevastopol, he would prefer not to be greeted by NATO sailors on the Black Sea.
The US, long a one-party state in foreign policy, uses a different calendar from Russia. For us, the time line starts in 2014. For Russia, it goes back to 1999, when the first group of former Eastern bloc countries were admitted to NATO: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. An additional group joined in 2004: Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. To the US and its dependent NATO allies, this was a natural reiteration of Manifest Destiny and, like the first version, well-meaning, brave, and innocent. One look at a map will tell you what the Russian reaction was bound to be.
Democrats, Republicans, and the liberal corporate media now find themselves in predictable harmony on Ukraine – coordinating all their stage effects, and as uninstructed by history as they were in Iraq. Meanwhile, Putin, his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and his lead negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, have clarified their chief demand again and again: no further eastward expansion of NATO – specifically, a promise that Ukraine will not be admitted. Yet the phrase “eastward expansion of NATO” is only occasionally cited in mainstream reports and is never explained. The average reader of The New York Times would take it to be a Russian locution of indeterminate origins.
Recent Times reporting on Russia is marked by an overriding tendency. A brief selection follows. (An antidote, in advance, is John Mearsheimer’s 2015 lecture – available on YouTube – “Why Is Ukraine the West’s Fault?” The root cause of the crisis, as Mearsheimer argues in detail, was the decision to fortify Ukraine as a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. This began with the expansion of the European Union and NATO, was heated up by the US-sponsored Orange Revolution, and finally ignited with the US-backed Ukraine coup of 2014.)
- Times print edition, January 16, Anton Troianovski and David E. Sanger, “Putin Could Cause Trouble Not Just in Ukraine but in West, Too.” The authors speak of “the security crisis Russia has ignited by surrounding Ukraine on three sides.” Note that Russia has “surrounded” Ukraine; not that NATO put Russia’s back to the wall. Troianovski and Sanger add that “by the White House’s accounting,” Russia has been “sending in saboteurs to create a pretext for invasion” (italics added). This is the same White House that cleared the August 29 drone strike that killed 10 civilians in Kabul. (An event, incidentally, on which Times reporting has been as forthright and penetrating as its coverage of Russia, NATO, and Ukraine has been slanted and deceptive.)
Troianovski and Sanger continue: “There were hints [by Russia]…that nuclear weapons could be shifted to places – perhaps not far from the United States coastline – that would reduce warning times after a launch to as little as five minutes.” Hints? From whom? And with what authority, what plausibility? The sentence is a shameless provocative conjecture posing as a fact.
Again, the crisis was “touched off by the Kremlin’s release of a series of demands that…would effectively restore Russia’s sphere of influence close to Soviet-era lines.” Here, at last, the authors arrive at a flat falsehood. The Soviet sphere encompassed Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania – all now members of NATO – and none of those countries is required by Russia to exit the West and install a Soviet-style puppet government. How did this sentence get past a fact-checker?
January 14, Troianovski and Sanger, “Russia Warns It May End Talks on Ukraine.” Summaries can mislead by grammatical as well as historical omission. “Russia,” the authors say, “is demanding that NATO drastically scale back its presence near Russia’s borders in Eastern Europe.” The adjective they omit before “presence” is “military.” Why elide that? And why not mention the broken 1990 vow by the George H.W. Bush administration: that NATO would extend “not one inch” east of Germany? Because if you say the very presence of NATO is being pushed back, you imply a return of Russian dominance on the Soviet scale.
January 9, Sanger and Eric Schmitt, “As Talks Loom, U.S. Draws a Line on Ukraine.” Putin “is demanding an end to NATO expansion,” and specifically a pledge not to admit Ukraine. True, but then the same sentence asserts, fantastically, that these “demands amount to a dismantling of the security architecture of Europe built after the Soviet Union’s collapse.” No expansion has become synonymous with dismantling.
January 15, Sanger, “US Says Moscow Sent Saboteurs to Roil Ukraine.” Concerning “US says,” no comment. Expect much more of this from the Times, CNN, and our one-party foreign policy. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen were barely a first course. With Ukraine, they seem to think they have found a man-size battle, worthy of the owner and proprietor of the world’s only sphere of influence.
David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale University. His latest books are American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (Verso Books), and How Words Make Things Happen (Oxford), both published in 2019.