Much finger pointing has occurred on the downing of Malaysia flight MH-17 over separatist-held territory in Ukraine. The American media – still reflexively anti-Russian even though the Cold War has been over for almost a quarter century and heaping blame on Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, since even before his annexation of Crimea – has gone hog wild with recrimination after the downing of the aircraft.
And Russia and Putin are easy targets. In America, our story line goes much like this: after the Cold War ended, the United States benevolently showered Russia with assistance, acceptance into the G-8 talkshop of industrial democracies, and "experts" on creating a democracy (I was on one of those trips), but the Russian people let the dour Vladimir Putin ruin our efforts to export democracy there by re-instituting autocratic rule. Americans feel rejected, because the Russians just didn’t want to be like us. And with our usual assumed benevolence, we just don’t understand why Russia is behaving in a "20th century manner," by annexing Crimea and funneling training and weapons to Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, when the rest of the world, including America, has moved on to a new era in the next millennium. Americans – always very ahistorical, and even more so with the advent of 24-7-365 cable "news" – have amnesia about any role the United States might have had in bringing U.S.-Russian relations to their current sad state of affairs.
After the Cold War ended, the then-democratizing Russia, still inducing suspicions in the West, was excluded from the expanding NATO and European Union. After the Berlin wall fell, in a verbal promise to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to coax him to agree to the reunification of Germany, then-President George H. W. Bush pledged to Gorbachev that NATO, a military alliance hostile to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, would not expand into the territory of the now defunct Soviet-led Warsaw Pact (that is, Eastern Europe). In violation of that promise, the outdated NATO alliance, instead of going the way of the Cold War, repeatedly expanded and is now on Russia’s borders. In fact, during the latest crisis over Ukraine, the United States has reinforced forces near Russia and increased their "training" activity. In addition, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been trying to win increased influence in the oil and gas-rich former Soviet Central Asian states on Russia’s borders. The Cold War ended but the U.S. containment noose around Russia just moved eastward and northward toward a weaker Russia.
This US tack was very unwise. After the Napoleonic Wars, at the Congress of Vienna, European nations welcomed France back into the community of European nations; a century with no European-wide war ensued. Yet the triumphalist behavior of the United States and NATO after the Cold War more resembled what the allies did to a defeated Germany after World War I; Germany was unfairly blamed for starting the war and required to pay reparations, thus leading to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II. The United States keeping post-Cold War Russia out of Europe and humiliating it, instead of being more inclusive, has made Putin’s nationalism resonate in Russia.
So Russia has experienced a shrinking protective buffer in surrounding areas. But isn’t such a protective buffer so last century? To the Russians, who know history all too well, not in the least. In the past, for example, Russia has been invaded by Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany, and it lost a staggering 25 million people in World War II – with total dead a quantum leap above that of any other country. The Russians see their critical buffer zone eroding and are trying to salvage what they can of it. For Russia, Ukraine has always been the crown jewel of Eastern Europe and is very important economically for Russia. Prior to a coup induced by street protests (not the way a democracy is supposed to work), a Russian-friendly government existed in Ukraine. Now that that is gone, Russia’s unacceptable annexation of Crimea and military aid to the Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country should at least be put in perspective. Furthermore, US hypocrisy in criticizing Russia for such assistance to shore up its withering buffer zone is nothing short of amazing.
I believe that Latin American countries would say that the United States’ Monroe Doctrine is still alive in a US sphere of influence that consists of the entire Western Hemisphere. And fairly recently, the United States decided to help the Kosovo Liberation Army rip off a province of Kosovo from Serbia, a traditional ally of a weakened Russia. Also, Russia felt double crossed by the Americans when the West overthrew Muammar Gaddafi of Libya after getting the Russians to vote for a United Nations Security Council Resolution that only allowed military actions for humanitarian reasons to save the lives of Libyan civilians. Finally, the CIA has attempted to aid many rebellions around the world, far from the US sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere – even perhaps in Ukraine’s street protests against the former pro-Russian government, which is not out of the realm of possibility.
In Ukraine, one other parallel exists with World War I. One of the events that led to the unnecessary US entry into World War I was the German torpedoing of the British passenger ship Lusitania, killing almost 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. Yet the German embassy in the United States had put an ad in newspaper warning Americans not to sail on the Lusitania and the ship was carrying munitions through a declared war zone.
The Malaysian aircraft shot down was civilian, but like the Lusitania, it was unbelievably traversing a war zone (regardless of who you want to win the war in eastern Ukraine). Unless it can be proven that the Ukrainian separatists or the Russians shot down the plane intentionally (which is doubtful, given that it would be in neither party’s interest to do so, Ukrainian-released communications among the separatists indicating surprise that the aircraft was civilian, and the Russian experience of heavy international fallout from the downing of a Korean airliner during the Cold War in the 1980s), there is not much substance to the cries of "war crime" in the West. It is the Ukrainian government’s fault for an incredible failure to completely close its airspace to civilian airline traffic (some other airlines had wisely rerouted their planes anyway). The separatists or Russians may have been incompetent in shooting down a civilian plane, but incompetence can happen in the chaos of war.
And the hypocrisy of US foreign policy – famous in the world for criticizing other countries for the same things it has done – is again on display. Do Americans remember the Iranian civilian airliner that the world’s most sophisticated US Aegis air defense system blew out of the sky, without an apology, in the Persian Gulf during US meddling in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Of course not, because the sad fact is that most Americans don’t care about history.