The Cuban Missile Crisis has gone down in history as an episode of brinksmanship that nearly resulted in nuclear war. One of the details little discussed, however, is that the crisis did not end on account of some brilliant military move by John F. Kennedy, nor did he follow the counsel of generals who wanted to use nuclear weapons.
Instead, Russia agreed to move its nuclear missiles from Cuba, while America agreed (quietly) to remove its own nuclear missiles from Turkey.
In other words, not abstract principle or ideology, but the rough parity of the two superpowers and reciprocal measures allowed each side to save face and de-escalate. The diplomatic solution prevailed because it matched the two countries’ mutual interest in avoiding an unintentional and unwinnable nuclear war.
Russia’s Return to Power
This solution contrasts with the recent beating of war drums over Ukraine. The history of the United States, Russia, and Ukraine has been a complicated one, but, by objective standards, the United States has been responsible for much of the provocation since the end of the Cold War. This provocation flows from the consensus goal of the “foreign policy community” to maintain a “unipolar” world where America is the “sole superpower.”
This framing of American power makes everything our problem. It only became dominant during the Clinton years. As the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the United States under George H.W. Bush and his brilliant Secretary of State, James Baker, assured Russia that it would not expand NATO “one inch eastward.” A short time later, NATO proceeded to expand all the same, first to the former nations of the Warsaw Pact and then, later, to the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. A weak Russia could do little other than protest.
In the latter part of the George W. Bush Administration, certain figures among American neoconservatives made overtures to expand NATO membership to the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and even far-flung Georgia. This was too much for Russia, now stronger under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.
It helps in foreign policy, as in business, to look at things from an opponent’s perspective. For Russia, its Soviet empire dismembered, weakened by economic shock therapy in the 1990s, and limited in its ability to project power, it seemed the United States, acting through NATO, was surrounding Russia, after having earlier humiliated it.
Russians have a long memory; their politicians freely invoke Russia’s invasion by Napoleon in 1812, wars with Britain and France in the 1853 Crimean War, and then the Nazi menace of 1941, as if these were recent events. Russia has long been fearful of Western invasions fueled by Western ideological fervor.
Thus, under Putin, Russia has exercised its power strategically to set limits on Western influence in its region. In 2008, it shut down an attempt by U.S. ally Georgia to reignite a frozen conflict in the breakaway regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia and its western educated leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, quickly learned that their relationship with the West was one-sided; the United States would not go to war to protect Georgia and save it from its own recklessness in attacking Ossetia. And while Russia’s army then looked worse for wear, it did succeed quickly in decimating the well-dressed, but completely incompetent, Georgians.
In 2015, Russia provided forces to support its long-term ally in Syria. With a limited budget, Russian special forces, air power, and anti-air defense systems did much to shore up the Assad regime and turn the tide against ISIS. This sent a strong message that the “international community’s” regime change attempts were not inevitable, and that Russia also had a limited power projection capability allowing it to play the spoiler, maintain its relevance in the Middle East, and stand by its allies.
In 2014, the West did much to foment and support the Maidan revolution, which resulted in a coup against Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader, Victor Yanukovych. After the coup, the new leaders were fiercely anti-Russian, even though most of the eastern half of the country is ethnic Russian, speaks Russian, is almost entirely united with the Russian Orthodox Church, and many have relatives and commercial connections inside Russia.
The prospect of extreme Ukrainian nationalists stamping out the Russian language and Russian culture of the region, as well as interfering with the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, was too much. Like America with its red and blue states, Ukraine was very divided politically, with the Russophone eastern half of the country almost completely supporting Yanukovych and his pro-Russian policies.
Russia again showed its ability to project power in a unique, limited, and efficient way, with its deployment of the “little green men” into Crimea in 2014. There was no bloodshed at this time. Soon, with Russian support, rebels in Donetsk created a separatist republic in the country’s East. A bloody war ultimately ended inconclusively, and there are still frequent clashes between the Ukrainian forces and the separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Before, during, and after this conflict, Ukraine was mired in corruption, from its thoroughly decrepit banking system to its role as the “Star Wars Cantina” of Europe, where western politicos and defense types made a small fortune. There’s a reason Hunter Biden, Paul Manafort, and Mark Penn all found themselves involved in some way in Ukraine of all places.
There’s also a reason Ukraine’s former leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, was eventually indicted and labeled the “gas princess.”
A Dubious Casus Belli
Suddenly, the Western powers are gearing up again for a fight with Russia. The alleged cause is Russia’s deployment inside its own borders of substantial troops adjacent to Ukraine. Nothing else has happened to suggest an impending invasion or the need for additional U.S. actions, other than the recent change of leadership in the White House.
Trump was a skeptic of conflict with Russia, and the establishment spent a lot of energy manipulating him into retreating from this position. Biden, on the other hand, had personal and financial connections to Ukraine, as the guy in charge of the Ukraine portfolio under Obama, and he is particularly hostile to Russia. His military and diplomatic appointments share the basic neoliberal vision of the establishment, which classifies Russia as a backwards authoritarian state, dangerous to western power and western values, including recently minted ones such as gay rights and transgenderism.
The Ukrainian civil war is an unfortunate and brutal conflict, one of many in the long history of fratricidal violence in the borderlands between East and West. It does, however, have absolutely nothing to do with the people of the United States or their welfare and security. If the powers of Western Europe are not interested in going to war over Ukraine, which is right next door, there is even less reason for the United States to do so.
Those now calling for war include figures on the Left and Right, including the unhinged U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) who said, “I would not rule out American troops on the ground. We don’t rule out first-use nuclear action.” Senator John Kennedy (R-La.), said the United States should threaten to use “full force.” For now, Joe Biden has been more restrained, saying, “there will be severe consequences” if Russia moves on Ukraine—“economic consequences like none he has ever seen.”
What happened to America First?
The Real Risk
Even if standing up for Ukraine were worth the price of war with Russia, advocates always seem to ignore the elephant in the room. Russia is the largest nuclear power on earth. Russia is right next door to Ukraine. And Russia has recently loosened its nuclear doctrine to include the right of using nuclear weapons to prevail in a major regional conflict with a powerful adversary, i.e., NATO and the United States.
It’s not clear that the United States would keep any conflict over Ukraine confined to the borders of Ukraine. After all, Russian logistical depots, strategic reserves, and manpower are located in Russia proper. Avoiding them in conducting warfare would give Russia’s substantial conventional capability even more power than it would otherwise have, shielded by the prospect of nuclear escalation if the war touched Russian soil. For the United States and NATO, it is a “lose-lose” scenario.
It is notable that throughout the Cold War, the United States and Russia avoided direct confrontation because of fears of nuclear escalation. But now, with dimmer lights at the helm, it seems all the correct and cautious restraint of the Cold War has been completely forgotten.
This kind of hubris has some precedent. An overly optimistic assessment of American military power contributed to the decision to invade Iraq, which only weakened our country in the long run. Similarly, it is telling that the same national defense establishment that recently lost in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan is so eager to fight a different, presumably more challenging, campaign—this time against a well-armed, technically advanced enemy with a home field advantage.
They do not learn. And their moral calculations are faulty. World war is not justified so school kids in Donetsk speak Ukrainian instead of Russian.
Americans Will Not Support War With Russia
This delusional assessment of risk is not even the worst failure of intelligence in the recent anti-Russia war fever. While America’s leadership does not understand Russia or the Russians, they also deeply misunderstand their own country and countrymen.
Hostility to the government and its personnel has become a more deeply rooted prejudice, extending now, for the first time in many decades, to the military. While previously exempt from anti-government skepticism, the military’s leadership has unwisely curried favor with the unelected leadership class of the government, even as that government has become more hostile to ordinary Americans and more ideological in its goals.
Twenty years ago, the leadership class and the military could depend on the instinctive patriotism of native-born Americans, who tended to serve in the ranks and trusted rhetoric about “national interests” and “stopping aggression.” That trust has been broken by crusades to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the collapse of the multibillion-dollar Afghan army, “two weeks to flatten the curve,” and hysteria over “white rage.” It won’t be rebuilt by a war of choice with Russia.
Most Americans who remembered the Cold War also remembered the end of the Cold War, and the two decades of deliverance from the specter of nuclear annihilation. We know Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, is not supporting a worldwide communist revolution extending to the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, relative to most of the nations of NATO, it is standing up for Christianity and normality. Its squabbles with its former territories over borders and influence are mostly none of our business, and certainly not enough to justify a war.
Americans may not fully trust Russia, but Russia is mostly irrelevant to our lives.
This leads to a final consideration. For a nation to go to war, that war must be just. That means it must be necessary, a last resort, and have some reasonable chance of success. An American war with Russia over Ukraine has none of these characteristics, just as the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria were each lacking some important element of justice.
The war in Afghanistan took place in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks. Our entry into World War II was preceded by the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. A war with Russia, by contrast, would involve the United States taking a side in an ongoing civil war for a nation to whom we have no treaty obligation and little historic connection.
Since so much of Russia’s actions arise from a perception of encirclement and provocation by the West, perhaps, like the withdrawal of missiles from Turkey in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, we can avoid an escalation of the Ukraine conflict and war itself, by scaling back our demands and our rhetoric, which mischaracterize this and nearly every other conflict as the next Munich.
Of course, such a course would require the kind of intelligence, judgment, and historical sense that has been sorely lacking from the foreign policy establishment for the last 30 years.