In March of this year I wrote the following about the situation in the Ukraine.
"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 of liberating them? 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?"
Subsequent events, even last week’s tragic downing of a Malaysian airliner, have only reinforced my opinion that the United States should not get involved in the current conflict. When I refer to recent events, I am not just thinking of the Ukraine.
Consider the new developments in Iraq where we fought for ten years to remove a brutal dictator, and then establish a new government based on democratic principles. It turns out that a Shiite minority dominated the new government and excluded important elements in the population from participation. We even trained and armed an Iraqi army of over 200000 men that seems to have just withered away in the past few weeks in the face of a heavily armed Sunni insurgency.
In Afghanistan I fear the same result and the inevitable return of the Taliban. A recent election drew immediate cries of fraud. At the same time our involvement in Afghanistan has de-stabilized neighboring Pakistan. What would it take for insurgents in Pakistan to gain control of that country’s nuclear arsenal?
The Ukraine has the potential to be even more serious than Iraq or Afghanistan. But do we really know what is going on there? A year ago the Ukraine was in a bidding war between the European Union and Russia, its major supplier of oil and gas. Only a decade before the Ukraine had been separated from Russia after the downfall of the Soviet Empire. Although initially leaning toward the EU, the Ukrainian President eventually took the Russian offer of billions in aid and a renewed energy promise. His decision sparked a revolution that forced him to flee the country. He was replaced by a new government that renewed the overtures to the West. Russian President Putin reacted by occupying the Crimea and now supporting a separatist movement in the eastern Ukraine.
After the downing of the Malaysian airliner Western politicians and influential news organs like the Wall St, Journal have renewed calls for even harsher economic sanctions against Russia. At the same time as they insist on calling President Putin a dictator, they believe that he will succumb to the pleas of Russian plutocrats, the “new nobility”, when the sanctions hit them in their pocketbooks. Thankfully, no one seems to be calling for an escalation of the arms race in the Ukraine.
I believe that there is a much larger issue involved in the conflict in the Ukraine. American foreign policy must ultimately be based on what is in the best interests of the United States. In both the short and the long run, the real question is whether it is in the best interest of the United States to have a strong or a weak Russia. I would argue that since we cannot police the world by ourselves, a strong Russia is better for us than a weak, strife torn, economically depressed, and fragmented Russia.
The Russian economy today is primarily based on its huge reserves of oil and gas. Energy exports have created the Russian plutocracy who have been forced to send their fortunes out of the country for want of a safe place to keep them in Russia. They are buying Western real estate, sports teams, and masterworks of art. Just the other day Russians were among the major players at Sotheby’s record-breaking sale of Old Master paintings. Russia is one of the leading suppliers of energy to Western Europe including neighboring Ukraine, which has been notoriously bad at paying.
Politically, practically all of Russia’s southern frontier is threatened by Moslem extremists. If we have a problem with terrorism, the threat faced by Russia is much greater. In the east Russia faces the growing economic and military power of China with which it has just concluded a huge energy deal. Is it any wonder that President Putin might be alarmed at the thought of the Ukraine being part of the European Union and even allied with NATO? How far does a country have to be from the North Atlantic not to be part of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance?
For centuries the Ukraine has been within the Russian sphere of influence. The break up of the Soviet Union created a new state where none had ever existed before. Just look at a map of Europe in 1914 on the eve of the First World War and see if you can find the Ukraine. Why should we be surprised if President Putin objects to the presence of NATO forces as close to Russia as Canada is to the USA? If the new Ukrainian revolutionary government has any sense, they will cut a deal with Russia whose energy assistance they so desperately need.
One hundred years ago, in August 1914, a great World War erupted over an assassination in Serbia in central Europe. Over four years millions and millions of combatants and non-combatants lost their lives. The social and economic disorder that followed was even more devastating. If anyone of the leaders who made the decision to go to war in 1914 could have seen the catastrophe that ensued, I’m sure they would not have been so rash. In a modern nuclear war as many millions could be lost in four hours.
A strong Russia would be in the best interests of the United States. Even if there is no war, do we want economic sanctions to collapse the fragile Russian economy and create the kind of political disorder we now witness in the Middle East? The break up of the Turkish Empire after 1914 has led to a century of chaos and devastation that just goes on and on.