Similarly, if the current conflict with Russia over Ukraine and Crimea is
to end peacefully, both sides must diligently strive to understand the minds
and motivations of their opponents.
And yet, as I read and listen to the commentary in the American media
regarding this conflict, I find little evidence or interest in seriously
inquiring what it is like to think like a Russian. Robert Parry and Stephen
Cohen are noteworthy exceptions. One need not agree with, still more
justify, the Russian point of view. But at the very least, one must
So why should the Russians feel compelled to interfere with the internal
politics of Ukraine? Why should they respond so militantly to the ouster of
a pro-Russian (and legally elected) Ukrainian president by pro-western
To understand this, we must, of course, look back at recent history.
Twice in the past century, German troops rolled across the plains of
Poland and Ukraine to attack Russia. In the previous century, Napoleon’s
army did the same. In the latest of these invasions, as many as twenty-five
million Soviet citizens perished, including about ninety percent of the male
cohort born from 1920 to 1923. So Russians have good reason for concern
about the security of their western border and are eager to establish and
support non-threatening regimes along that border, which is precisely what
they did by establishing the Warsaw Pact in 1955 to counter NATO.
This is an attitude that citizens of the United States – bordered on the
north and south by friendly and unthreatening countries, and on the east and
west by vast oceans – are not inclined to appreciate. Less so, when we
consider that not a single Nazi bomb fell on American soil, and that for
every American life lost in that war, more than fifty Soviet citizens were
Conventional American opinion asserts that the “captive satellite
countries” of eastern Europe were part of a grand Soviet scheme to spread
communism throughout all of Europe. Surely that thought crossed the minds of
Stalin and his Politburo, unquestionably among the most brutal tyrants in
human history. But might not the Soviets have been even more motivated to
secure political control of the land traversed by Hitler’s Wehrmacht?
The right-wing version of history tells us that an ailing FDR “gave up”
eastern Europe to the Soviets at the Yalta conference. They fail to note
that all that territory was, at the time of the conference, occupied by the
Red Army, having been won at horrendous cost. What was FDR’s, and
Churchill’s, alternative? Retake the territory with the American and British
armies? Get real!
From this Russian perspective on recent history, a Ukrainian “turn to the
West” can not be regarded as a trivial matter.
More history: As we all know, in response to post-war
Soviet expansion, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949.
When the Soviet Union broke up, the first President Bush reportedly assured Soviet President
Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze that, in exchange for a unified
Germany and the political independence of the Warsaw Pact nations, NATO
would not expand to the Russian border. And yet NATO did just that. Through
there was no formal agreement, many Russians believe that they were betrayed
by NATO and the western powers. And so today, NATO member countries are now
at the entire western border of the former Soviet Union, from the Baltic to
the Black Seas, and include former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and
“Spheres of Influence” is a long-standing, though usually informal,
understanding in international diplomacy, whereby one nation’s incursion
into another’s “sphere” is regarded as a provocation which, in extreme
cases, can lead to war.
For example, imagine a military alliance between Mexico and Russia,
complete with Russian troops and missiles stationed in Mexico. How would the
United States react? How should it?
Or imagine such an alliance with Cuba. No wait, this isn’t simply
hypothetical! It actually happened in the sixties and very nearly led to
a thermonuclear war. And how was it resolved? By a mutual agreement between
Moscow and Washington that both sides would withdraw nuclear weapons from
each others’ “sphere of influence,” first in Cuba and later in Turkey. (For
more about “sphere’s of influence,” see
2008 essay on the topic).
So when NATO decided to expand to the borders of the former Soviet Union,
the Western leaders seemed to believe that this was no big deal. The
temptation flaunt their “victory” in the cold war proved to be irresistible.
The Russians, on the other hand, who history tells us do not respond kindly
to humiliation, were not impressed. It is astonishing what little notice our
politicians and media have taken of the Russian attitude regarding this NATO
So today, when there is talk in Ukraine, well inside of Russia’s “sphere
of influence, of joining NATO, should the Russians be alarmed? When the NATO
countries tell the Russians that they have no intention of recruiting
Ukraine, should the Russians be reassured?
Perhaps they should. But recall, I am not asking what the Russians should
think, but what they probably do think, in the light of recent US and NATO
behavior. That is the state of the Russian mind that Western diplomats must
understand and deal with.
Concerning Crimea: Russian officials will tell us that the Crimea is
traditionally Russian territory, and that the majority of Crimeans are
ethnic Russians who desire union with the Russian Federation.. The
attachment of the Crimea to Ukraine was due to an anomalous decision by
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. It was regarded as trivial at the
time, since in either case the Crimea would be inside the Soviet Union. The
very idea that the Soviet Union would disintegrate was, at that time,
And yet it happened: the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
And so now the Crimean government has proposed to settle the issue in a
referendum later this week.
In response, the Ukrainians insist that the referendum is illegal, and
they present a compelling case. But again, what we are seeking here is an
understanding of the Russian mind, right or wrong. In any case, the Crimean
issue may be moot: if Putin and the Russians want it, they can take it and
the Ukrainians can do nothing about it. Such is the opinion, remarkably, of
Khrushchev’s granddaughter, Nina Khrushcheva, now a professor of
international politics at New York’s New School University.
Press reports tells us that the Russian public is solidly behind Putin in
this dispute over Ukraine and Crimea. But, of course, the Russian public is
reading and listening to the predominantly government-controlled media. On
the other hand, the American public is overwhelmingly supportive of the new
Ukrainian government. But that public is “informed” by the corporate media,
which means primarily the five corporations that own 80% of the American
media – the same media which, at one time, convinced most Americans that
Saddam Hussein was threatening all of us with weapons of mass destruction
and had a part in the 9/11 attacks.
As for myself, desperate to find some accurate information about this
issue, I am inclined to share my compatriots’ condemnation of Putin’s
behavior. But there is much to blame on both sides. Neither Yanukovych’s
Ukrainian government nor its successor give us much to celebrate. What media
sources, if any, are giving us an accurate account of just what is going on
in Ukraine and Crimea? We just don’t know. Which means, of course, that we
are ill-prepared to make an informed and rational assessment. Such is the
sorry state of our media.
Let us hope that our diplomats, and theirs, strive diligently to
understand the perspective of their opponents. The Russians have concerns,
some legitimate and some not. But both sides share an overarching interest
that the conflict not escalate, and that we avoid a reinstatement of the
cold war. It is time, in short, for cooler heads to prevail.
Meanwhile, on our side, the neo-con warriors – McCain, Palin, Graham,
Bolton, FOX News, etc. – rant on, eagerly supported by the
military-industrial complex. Some are even talking of “military assistance”
to Ukraine. If this includes “boots on the ground,” that would inevitably
lead to a confrontation of US and NATO troops with the Russian military.
The very thought of which conjures in my mind a single word: