Monday, March 10, 2014

Risk in Ukraine


I still remember playing the game of “Risk” as a child more than 60 years ago. It was, and still is, a popular board game where the object was to conquer the world. It could be played by two or more combatants who initially drew cards containing the names of different countries or regions. Players would plant one of their armies on each country they had picked and then would proceed to attack neighboring countries by rolling dice.

Success with the dice was important but it was still a game of strategy. You could be cautious or daring and each strategy had its risks. It seemed to me at the time that it was better to control small areas, protect your home base, and marshal your forces together rather than spreading yourself too thin over the whole board.

Russia, for example, was so large that it was divided up into a number of regions with strange sounding names. Controlling that vast area was virtually impossible until you had gained an overwhelming superiority over your opponent. I distinctly remember that one of those regions was called Ukraine. It was completely land-locked and surrounded by a host of countries from which it could be easily attacked.

Today, I find it hard to believe that the Wall Street Journal, my favorite newspaper, is beating the drums for a very aggressive US posture on the Ukraine. It seems that not a day goes by without an editorial or an op-ed calling for the US to get involved in the Ukraine.  What kind of madness is this? The Ukraine is a next-door neighbor to Russia and we are about 6000 miles away. The Ukraine became an independent country with the break up of the Soviet Union only a short time ago.  Historically, it has always been dominated by its powerful neighbor to the East.

Nevertheless, ever since it became an independent republic NATO and the European Union have been trying to incorporate the Ukraine into their orbit for what reason I cannot say. Both we and the Europeans have been thumbing their noses at the Russians and literally forcing them to take action. The Wall Street Journal always applauds when two companies bid against each other to acquire another company. Yet, when Russia outbid the Europeans for the Ukraine and its assets, the Journal cried foul.

Now, the Journal and others demonize Vladimir Putin and call him a dictator. Yet since when have we opposed dictators, even those near our doorstep? We have allowed a brutal dictatorship in Cuba for over 60 years, and we will do nothing to topple the one that has ruled and ruined Venezuela for over a decade. We support practically every dictator on the continent of Africa.

Despite media attacks on Putin it would appear that both Russians and Ukrainians today enjoy a greater degree of freedom than at any time over the past 100 years. Recently former chess champion and political commentator Gary Kasparov wrote that the way to punish Putin was to threaten the investments of Russian millionaires in the West. Wealthy Russians did not buy luxury homes in New York and San Francisco during the Stalinist era.

In another recent Journal op-ed Matthew Kaminski argued that the recent revolution in the Ukraine created an environment that was an embarrassment to the Russian dictator. He mentioned new Ukrainian leaders who wait on line like everyone else at airports, who take the subway to work, or who stand in line in the government cafeteria. Kaminski contrasted such leaders with those in repressive Russia, but when he returns home from Kiev, he will be hard pressed to find any American politicians flying economy or taking the subway to work. Is President Obama a dictator because he flies in luxury aboard Air Force One? I doubt if ultra liberal mayor Di Blasio takes the subway to work each day.

At about the same time I was playing “Risk” as a boy President Eisenhower warned against the military industrial complex in this Nation and also argued that this country should never get involved in a land war on the continent of Asia. We have repeatedly ignored this advice to our great harm. Now we are sending planes and war ships into Lithuania and the Baltic Sea right into Russia’s front yard.  This could be far more serious than the mess we have created in Afghanistan where all we had to deal with was neighboring Pakistan.

We cannot and should not be the world’s policeman. When we have tried we have often done more harm than good. We deposed a dictator in Iraq but does anyone know how many Iraqi lives were lost in the process? You could even argue that despite their obvious political differences, our last two Presidents have de-stabilized the entire Middle East. Do we want to do the same in the great borderland between Europe and Asia?  After all, what is NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, doing in the Ukraine? Any child looking at a “Risk” board would see that the Ukraine is far from the North Atlantic.


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