History is strewn with “quicksand wars”, violent and perpetual conflicts that lead to more serious consequences than originally anticipated. Misinterpreted enemies and unintended consequences become inextricable quagmires for rosy-scenario groupthink and military optimism. World War I, Vietnam, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the American Civil War are prime examples, and with each new weapon promising a decisive advantage in battle, civilian casualties (c’ i.e. “collateral damage”) increases. If Russia and NATO-backed Ukrainian forces engage in all-out war, it could escalate into the worst European conflict since 1945. Experts estimate there will be at least 50,000 civilian casualties, thousands dead among Russian and Ukrainian fighters and millions of refugees flooding into neighboring countries to survive.
Vladimir Putin is a demagogue. Having previously annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, 150,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border put the impending crisis squarely on its shoulders. Even if its show of force is gesticulating, it has already destabilized world economies. Germany, for example, seems unwilling to promote Nord Stream 2 as a high-stakes poker chip; 1/3 of Russian natural gas exports in 2020 were purchased by Berlin. Hedging against the prospect of war, financial investors have choppy stock markets, ripples that generally boost the profits of the wealthy and drive up oil prices. If sanctions are imposed, Russian responses will have global repercussions on energy, banking and food. The ripple effects could even hamper international cooperation to keep global warming below 1.5°C, mitigate climate change, and protect against SARS-CoV-2 and future pandemics.
The UN and global communities must unite in unequivocal support for Ukrainian sovereignty, convince Vladimir Putin to give in without the usual saber-rattling, drum-beating and over-simplification of the issue. The belligerent rhetoric underscored by the implications of ‘toughening up’ versus ‘appeasement’ should be abandoned and the factors that precipitate aggression should be rationally examined. Most important is Moscow’s understandable concern that the NATO-forged security relationship between Ukraine and the United States could turn its former ally and its buffer zone into a closing wall.
The enormous sacrifices made during the two world wars effectively ended an era when the most powerful nations of Europe dominated the smaller ones. Just as NATO (1949) formed a united front against Soviet geopolitical influence, the Warsaw Pact was a countermeasure against the United States, Britain and France. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, Russian leaders raised concerns that former Soviet states, by joining NATO, could become surrogates for hostile military installations encircling Russia’s borders. At the time, the West, which had once “intervened” in the Russian Civil War, fighting the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky near Vladivostok, recognized the legitimacy of these concerns. In 1994, when Ukraine agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by signing the Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the United States, Britain and other nations agreed to abide by the Ukrainian sovereignty. Just as Finland, a “compassionate capitalist” social democracy that also borders Russia, openly chooses not to join NATO, the Ukrainians could similarly declare their neutrality. Rejecting NATO membership while engaging in trade relations with Russia, as well as the West, could go a long way to defusing the conflict. But it is a Ukrainian decision to take.
Putin may have suffered from little man syndrome (aka a Napoleon complex) years ago, as evidenced by the “dog dissing” remarks he made to George and Laura Bush’s Scottish terrier, Barney. But it is hypocritical for the United States to reject out of hand that Russia should have “spheres of influence” in which neighboring countries are barred from foreign intrusion. For 200 years, our Monroe Doctrine has argued, albeit dubiously, that America’s dominant power in the hemisphere conferred the right to intervene against any alleged threat to American interests. Under this pretext, we have overthrown and undermined dozens of governments, even pushing the planet to the brink of nuclear war over Soviet missile installations in Cuba, Khrushchev’s tit for tat for US missiles in Turkey. Yet few Americans realize that American and other expeditionary forces fought and died in Siberia from 1918 to 1920 trying to restore Tsarist autocracies in Russia.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, environmentalist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.