“I can no longer say that this Cold War will not lead to a ‘Hot War.’ I fear that they could risk it. […]The statements and propaganda on both sides make me fear the worst. If anyone loses their nerve in this charged atmosphere, we will not survive the next few years. […]I do not say such things lightly….I am a man with a conscience. But that’s how it is. I’m really extremely worried.”
~ Mikhail Gorbachev
“I’m uneasy about beginning a process of military engagement without knowing where it will lead us and what we’ll do to sustain it. […] I believe we should avoid taking incremental steps before we know how far we are willing to go. This is a territory 300 miles from Moscow, and therefore has special security implications.”
~ Henry Kissinger
“It is an extremely dangerous development, which has been brewing ever since Washington violated its verbal promises to Gorbachev and began expanding NATO to the East, right to Russia’s borders, and threatening to incorporate Ukraine, which is of great strategic significance to Russia and of course has close historical and cultural links. […] The Russian autocracy is far from blameless, but we are now back to earlier comments: we have come perilously close to disaster before, and are toying with catastrophe again. It is not that possible peaceful solutions are lacking.”
~ Noam Chomsky
“Outside countries should leave Ukraine to resolve the conflict itself. However, even as the US demands that the Russians de-escalate, the United States is busy escalating! […] Why is ‘winning’ Ukraine so important to Washington? Why are they risking a major war with Russia to deny people in Ukraine the right to self-determination? Let’s just leave Ukraine alone!”
~ Ron Paul
One can rarely find four thinkers as distinct from one another as Gorbachev, Kissinger, Chomsky, and Ron Paul, and yet, for all of their differences, each of them is clearly guided by a systematic, thoroughly considered intellectual framework. All four of these thinkers have concluded, starting from different practical and moral premises, that further escalation of the Ukraine crisis by the United States would be a dangerous, deeply inadvisable behavior.
Two of these thinkers – Gorbachev and Kissinger – played crucial roles in helping to maneuver the world out of the existential danger of the Cold War. One might consider them to have made tactical or even moral errors, but they deserve recognition for being among the cooler heads that prevailed, helping defuse decades-long tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that could have easily ended in a nuclear holocaust.
The other two thinkers – Chomsky and Paul – are thought leaders of principled polar opposites of American thought, left-progressivism and right-libertarianism. While sharply at odds over economics, philosophy, and politics, these two systems are both vastly superior to the American political establishment, which is dominated by a tight alliance of special-interest pressure groups, whose primary purpose is to protect existing political privileges through lobbying at the expense of innovative entrepreneurs, consumers, and people of merit in general. Left-progressives and right-libertarians each have a vision of human dignity and morality that is driven by principles and conscience. The American political establishment, represented by virtually indistinguishable “neoconservative” Republicans and “humanitarian interventionist” Democrats, is driven solely by the impulse to entrench the politically connected interests of the status quo at all costs. While both right-libertarians and left-progressives strongly favor peace as an integral component in their project to improve human well-being, the amoral interventionist political establishment in the United States does not care about human well-being. Bombs will drop, drones will massacre innocent civilians, everyone will be deprived of privacy, dignity, and due process – but they will have their privileges and their dominance, even though the world might burn for it.
The “neoconservatives” and “humanitarian interventionists” in the United States speak and act out of misguided short-sightedness, but the pressure they constantly exert on President Barack Obama could be the greatest threat to world peace and the progress of human civilization today, turning a tragic but local conflict into one that could escalate into World War III.
Obama rose to power through left-progressive idealistic rhetoric, but he has shown to be far more inclined toward accommodation to the entrenched political establishment. Even so, he has been reluctant to send lethal weapons to Ukraine, as vestiges of his left-progressivism have given him justified unease at the prospect. Yet the chorus of establishment hawks has recently grown to a warmongering holler. The worst among them are John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who even seek to mandate that Obama send weapons to the Ukrainian regime of Petro Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatseniuk. This same regime has been confirmed to have murdered over 5,300 of its own civilian population, to have employed savage, indiscriminate tactics – such as the deliberate shelling of densely populated neighborhoods and the use of cluster munitions – to have reinstituted military conscription at the point of a gun, and to have incorporated overtly fascist paramilitary “volunteer” units into Ukraine’s military structure. American “neoconservative” and “humanitarian interventionist” politicians, in the name of humanitarian ideals (mostly, vague sound bites about “territorial integrity” and “national self-determination” – neither of which concepts they actually respect with any consistency), seek to aid and abet genuine moral monsters who have already killed thousands and terrorized and displaced millions.
The civil war in Ukraine has thus far been confined within the borders of Ukraine, with modest support from Vladimir Putin’s regime for the Donetsk and Luhansk separatists. (If Putin’s support were indeed decisive or fully commensurate with his abilities, he would have occupied all of Ukraine by now – but his behavior demonstrates that this is not his intention. Putin does not have any grand design on Ukraine, and his sporadic assistance to the separatists has largely been reactive, to prevent their complete obliteration.) If the United States funnels weapons to the Poroshenko/Yatseniuk regime, a local conflict will be turned into a global one, with the United States fighting a proxy war against Russia. If the United States then makes the fateful step of introducing ground troops, the proxy war will quickly turn into a direct war. From a direct conventional war to a nuclear war is only a small step, which is why the actual strategists of the Cold War – wiser men than today’s hawks – understood that it would be unacceptable for the militaries of the United States and the Soviet Union to ever fight one another directly.
Arming the Ukrainian government will perpetuate its ability to inflict a massive death toll upon civilians. Furthermore, it would be completely counterproductive to any lasting peace. Both the separatists and Putin will see it as a validation of the claim that the United States has been behind the “regime change” in Ukraine all along. They will furthermore see it as another step toward Ukraine’s absorption into NATO – an alliance that was originally formed specifically to counter the Soviet Union. One of Putin’s consistent demands throughout the past year has been for a commitment that Ukraine’s membership in NATO would be out of the question. It should be an easy commitment to give – considering that NATO has no real appetite to allow Ukraine to join, and Ukraine’s precarious situation would only endanger the security of all other NATO members, who would be compelled to assist in any of Ukraine’s wars. Yet, instead of acceding to this one demand – which could resolve everything – Western governments have given the Poroshenko/Yatseniuk regime every hope of eventual NATO membership, with no intention of following through. Still, sending weapons at this juncture would strongly reinforce this hope on the part of Poroshenko and Yatseniuk, and the corresponding fear on the part of Putin.
While thoughtful men of principle and even hyper-intelligent ruthless pragmatists (like Kissinger) are against escalating the Ukraine crisis, the “neoconservatives” and “humanitarian interventionists” are neither thoughtful nor pragmatic. Many of them are driven by blind hatred for Russia and a desire to re-ignite the Cold War to re-live its alleged glory days. They would again place the world just a few steps away from nuclear annihilation, just to re-enter a paradigm which is conceptually familiar to them. They are so afraid of a possible new world of hyper-pluralism, individualism, accelerating technological progress, and the irrelevance of national boundaries – that they would place all humankind at risk just to avert their discomfort. Perhaps some of them truly believe their own rhetoric – that Vladimir Putin is a new Hitler and that the annexation of Crimea – a historically Russian territory until Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954 in order to gain support from the leadership of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – is in any way similar to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. (Never mind that Putin has never perpetrated a Holocaust and that the ethnic chauvinists, xenophobes, and anti-Semites are predominantly fighting on the side of the Ukrainian government and wearing Nazi emblems – while many of Putin’s unofficial allies have donned the emblems used by the Russian resistance to the Nazi invasion during World War II!) Perhaps some of the hawks truly believe that the United States has a moral duty to spread “democracy” and “self-determination” at the barrel of a gun to the rest of the world, and to serve as a global policeman, punishing all violations of these vaunted American principles. Yet what the ordinary people who suffer the consequences of American foreign-policy interventionism see are not “democracy” and “self-determination”, but rather dead bodies and homes reduced to rubble. Yes, Vladimir Putin is a ruthless autocrat who suppresses dissent and free inquiry. Yes, Viktor Yanukovych was a corrupt kleptocrat who sometimes employed thugs to deter and punish criticism of his expropriation of the Ukrainian people. At worst, Yanukovych may have ordered snipers from the Berkut police to fire upon the Maidan protesters during his last days in power (although it is perplexing why the snipers fired upon both the protesters and at Berkut police themselves). But neither of them murdered thousands of innocents among their own population, nor used indiscriminate shelling against them. It is one matter to suffer under a repressive autocracy, which will spare you if you keep your head down; it is quite another to quake under omnipresent brutality, murder, and destruction, from which no one is safe and where your next trip to the grocery store could result in your limbs being torn from your body. People who, under Yanukovych, were able to eke out a modest living and hope for gradual improvement, have been devastated and sometimes utterly destroyed by the savage Ukrainian civil war. A swath of Third-World barbarism has been carved out of a region that had, for seventy years, only known drab Second-World sub-optimality. Even if Putin were attempting to resurrect the Soviet Union – quite a far-fetched allegation – the Ukrainian government is creating another Liberia in Europe.
As tragic as it might be, Putin’s most advantageous response to any US decision to send arms to Ukraine would be to immediately escalate the situation, before those arms could arrive to make a difference on the battlefield. This means that the trickle of Putin’s support for the separatists would become a flood, and it would not be surprising if Russian forces directly and openly entered Ukraine and pressed toward Kiev. Undoubtedly, the Ukrainian military would put up a stiff resistance and turn every civilian settlement along the way into another Donetsk Airport. Tens of thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians would be killed in the process, and all of their lives would be lost in vain. Nobody truly wants this outcome, but the hawks in the US Congress are blinded by their desire to punish Russia. They fail to realize that this carnage is precisely the result they would get by further goading Putin on with escalation from the American side. In the face of such thoughtless saber-rattling, one should applaud the frantic, heroic efforts of European leaders – particularly Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande – to forestall a deadly and irreversible sequence of events and to reach a diplomatic solution.
“A bad peace is better than a good war,” counsels an old Jewish and Russian proverb. Benjamin Franklin agreed. “There was never a good War, or a bad Peace,” he wrote in his bestselling Poor Richard’s Almanack – one of 18th-century America’s civilizing moral influences. Right now a sub-optimal peace – what some would consider a bad peace – is the best that could be hoped for in Ukraine. This would involve some manner of sustainable demarcation between the territory held by the Ukrainian government and the rebel People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. It does not matter whether this demarcation takes the form of officially recognized independence or broad “regional autonomy” – as long as the shells stop falling and the civilians stop dying. National borders are artificial fictions, but human lives are real. It does not matter where officials and diplomats decide to draw their lines on the map, as long as the result is a mutually acceptable understanding of future behaviors, by which living humans would be spared from slaughter.
The Minsk Agreement reached in September 2014 was unsustainable precisely because the Ukrainian government never intended to abide by the agreed-upon demarcation line; Ukrainian troops stubbornly held onto the ghastly, apocalyptic ruin of the once-state-of-the-art Donetsk Airport, despite the fact that it will never be usable as an airport again. According to the Minsk Agreement, the Donetsk Airport was to fall within the autonomous separatist-held territory. Its location was sufficiently close to the city of Donetsk for the Ukrainian army to continue to shell civilian neighborhoods. Understandably, the separatist rebels could not tolerate such a situation of perpetual bombardments, and so they threw their forces at the airport in wave after wave of bloody assaults, until it finally fell. Unfortunately, what also fell in this struggle was the entire premise of a sustainable demarcation line. The Ukrainian government would not respect its commitments, so the separatists saw no need to respect theirs as well. They have launched an offensive in the hopes of creating more buffer territory around their capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk. Tragically, this offensive involves shelling of population centers such as Debaltseve and Mariupol, whose residents are innocent victims, much like the inhabitants of Luhansk and Donetsk. In perpetrating these attacks, the separatists have become as bad as the regime forces they oppose – using the same indiscriminate tactics and the same mass-impact weapons.
It does not matter which side bombards the civilians of Eastern Ukraine, who used to be one another’s neighbors and whose social, cultural, and economic lives used to be tightly intertwined. All of these assaults are a savage, ultimately pointless folly. The lives they take can never be restored, and the ill will they engender can never abate. This is why the idea that the Ukrainian government should ever regain de facto control over the separatist-occupied regions is an absurdity. Who would accept living under a government that murdered their neighbors and families and ruined what meager livelihoods they had? A lasting peace agreement might keep these territories nominally within the boundaries of Ukraine, in order to save face diplomatically, but the actual governance of these territories must be delegated to the people who live there, even if these people would make economically and politically counterproductive decisions. Donetsk and Luhansk might well become neo-communist enclaves and will certainly need decades of painstakingly slow economic recovery to restore 2013-level standards of living. However unfortunate this may all be, it is better than children being blown to bits. If peace is restored, along with free movement across borders (which existed prior to the civil war), the more ambitious and talented residents of these territories will be able to emigrate to the West, to Israel, or even to Russia, where their prospects would be greatly improved. Such emigration has already been happening for decades and has enabled the best minds and the better cultural vestiges of the former Soviet republics to be preserved.
With two key points – (i) broad autonomy for the rebel-held areas, separated by a buffer zone to prevent shelling of population centers, and (ii) a commitment for Ukraine never to join NATO – a peace plan might just avert escalation of the savage Ukrainian civil war. There may still be occasional violations of any resulting cease-fire, since neither side has full control over its fighters. However, redirecting the incentives and conversation away from escalation and toward peaceful coexistence is imperative to avoid making this tragedy worse. Eventually, if peace becomes the general rule rather than the exception, armed attacks in the region could equilibrate to a level very close to zero, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics could become unofficial statelets, like Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia – de facto autonomous enclaves that are governed poorly but pose no threat to world peace or to anyone outside their boundaries.
If, on the other hand, weapons are sent to the Poroshenko/Yatseniuk regime and events spiral out of control into a World War III, then all of human civilization would be in grave danger. Decades of economic, technological, and cultural progress could be wiped out in days. The infrastructure – not just in Eastern Ukraine but in the West itself – could be devastated sufficiently to bring about another Dark Age, if humankind survives at all. Gone would be the dreams of colonizing other planets, dramatically extending human lifespans and curing chronic diseases, creating radical abundance through technological innovation, and obliterating age-old superstitions and oppressions. The old hawks who seek to relive the Cold War would plunge the world into a predicament far worse – all because they could not let go of their fear, their hatred, and their obsolete zero-sum “us versus them” worldview. Putin would, of course, also be complicit in such a scenario, but not because he would have made the first move. His foremost objective – as has been the case for every Russian autocrat – will be to avoid humiliation and save face, to claim a dignified resolution with an image of strength – no matter what the substantive outcome, in order to avoid domestic unrest. For Russian strongmen, much is forgiven – but losing a war (or seeming to lose it) is unacceptable and is practically a sentence of deposition, if not death. This is why, if the West ratchets up military pressure on Putin, he will have no incentive to put the brakes on the deadly cycle of escalation.
The saber-rattling of hawks in the US Congress and their supporters threatens the progress and the very survival of humankind. One can only hope that cooler heads – the thinkers, the thoughtful idealists, the pragmatists, the diplomats – will prevail and enable a local conflict to remain local and to eventually subside. The next few decades will be crucial for setting the course of human civilization for millennia hence – if people of conscience will be able to wrest those millennia from the short-sighted jingoists who would rob us of them.