Friday, April 25, 2014

Ukraine - The Brzezinski Factor

Kerry and Lavrov are still hurling threats.  Which is better than shooting, unless it were at each other.  Lavrov's face affects me much like W's. Nausea.  You can tell when Putin and Lavrov lie about Russian involvement in Ukraine; their lips move.

Ukraine's security apparatus is in an unenviable position.  Thoroughly infiltrated by Russia, after 20 odd years of full cooperation, they find it hard to know whom to trust.  Compounding the difficulty is that the Russian backed terrorist activities in eastern Ukraine have more of a partisan aspect as locals actively participate. Shooting unarmed locals is bad press so they are really trying hard not to do that but it makes it difficult to shoot the armed ones who hide behind them.

Apparently using the military on your own people is OK as long as it is Chechens, Syrians or Ukrainians by a pro-Russian government, but not against imported Russian terrorists and their local accomplices.

All well and good, until I ran into an article a few days back that made me realize just how nasty and cruel realpolitik is. Forget the Spin, Putin Is Holding a Losing Hand compares the current situation in Ukraine with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan(1). The Soviet Union was in the process of turning Afghanistan into a secular nation with a strong central government which raised the ire of the War Lords and Imams who saw their authority diminishing.

Zbigniew Brzezinski (2), President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, saw this as an opportunity to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam.  Consequently America began covertly supporting the Mujaheddin against the Afghan government, hoping to draw the Soviet Union into armed support of its protégé.  If they didn't fall for it, at least America would be rid of a government aligned with the USSR and if they did fall for it, they were doomed.  Win-win.

When the Red Army invaded, the Soviet leadership claimed that they were entering Afghanistan to defend the existing Afghan government against a covert war initiated by the United States. The Carter administration adamantly denied the Soviet claims, and the Soviet complaints were ridiculed in the national media -- like Medvedev's words this week -- as nothing more than self-serving propaganda...  Except, as it turns out, it would appear that the Soviet claims were true.

The people of Afghanistan were simply pawns in the game  as was obvious when America abandoned Afghanistan immediately after the Soviets left in 1989. Something similar happened in Iraq after Desert Storm.  Iraqis were encouraged to revolt against Saddam Hussein but the Shias and Kurds who believed they would get American support were left to their fate as the desired revolt was within Saddam's Party to replace him with another dictator but more amenable to American policy. 

So the author argues that America put relentless pressure on Russia, forcing her to react which brought us to today's crisis: 

The post-Cold War strategy of encirclement was more aggressive in design than simple containment. America's goalin Brzezinski's words, was to "shape a political context that is congenial to Russia's assimilation into a larger framework of European cooperation." That is to say, Russia would be pushed toward the right choice -- democratization and decentralization -- and pay a price if it chose poorly...  On the one hand, steadily tightening a military noose around Russia -- ultimately to include Ukraine and Georgia -- would constrain its imperial ambitions, the integration of democracies along the Russian periphery into the European community would push Russia toward political and economic reform. 
On the other hand, should Russia ultimately push back against the West's broken commitments and military would demonstrate to the world that Russia continued to harbor imperial ambitions and remained a threat to the rest of the world, justifying punitive measures to further isolate Russia economically and politically. It was a win-win strategy: Either outcome would serve America's interests in the region...
 ...Despite the talk of partnership, the fact is that the United States has consistently pursued aggressive and hostile policies designed to contain Russia, and -- if Brzezinski has his way -- ultimately see Russia broken up into a confederation of smaller states. Yet, by and large, the American media has bought into the dominant narrative, and ignored the deeper strategy at play. America's core strategy remains intact, and from the Brzezinski perspective everything is on track. Vladimir Putin has not been the master strategist of the media's imagination, the puppetmaster who has outfoxed American at every turn. Instead, he has long been caught in a trap, his actions manipulated in a game of power and strategy that goes back decades and in which he is playing a role, not writing the script.

Ukraine and the people of Ukraine are merely pawns in the Great Game according to this theory. Perhaps but there are major flaws in the comparison. According to Foreign Policy "NATO Expansion Didn't Set Off the Ukrainian Crisis". Russia hasn't been "encircled" by the West -- Vladimir Putin simply wants to be able to invade his neighbors at will.

First off, it took no pressure at all to draw the former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO.  They had been under Moscow's heel in times past and wanted no more of it.  NATO was their guarantee.  And Russia made it even easier by continuing to bully her former colonies even after the breakup of the USSR before the first round of NATO expansion occurred when the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined in 1999.

In 1992 and 1993 -- after Russia formally recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- Moscow cut off energy supplies to these small, reborn democracies in an attempt to pressure them into keeping Russian military forces and intelligence officers on their sovereign territory. From 1997 to 2000, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Keith C. Smith, Russia cut off oil shipments to the country no less than nine times after it refused to sell refineries to a Russian state company. To this day, the Russian Foreign Ministry maintains that the Baltic republics -- which Russia militarily conquered, occupied, and subjugated for nearly five decades -- "voluntarily joined the Soviet Union in 1940 (3)." The Balts didn't become part of NATO until 2004. Given this history, is it any wonder why these countries -- or any other country victimized by Soviet-imposed tyranny -- would want to join the alliance? Is it NATO's fault for saying OK?

As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt aptly pointed out on Twitter recently, it was the "historic failure of Russia that a quarter of a century after fall of Soviet Union the new generations in its neighbors see it as an enemy," while, "A generation or two after 1945 Germany is surrounded by countries that, after all the horrible pain and suffering, see it as a friend."

(1) For those interested in the history of the CIA in Afghanistan, read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars
(2) For those interested in Russia and Ukraine in the "roaring 90s", read Casino Moscow by Zbigniew's nephew Matthew Brzezinski. 
(3) In the same kind of referendum in which Crimea "volunteered" to rejoin Russia.


  1. Here's another article on why it's not NATO expansion that has forced poor Vladimir Vladimirovich into invading his neighbor.

    You would think that Russia and its rulers would figure out that all their neighbors hate and fear the country. Not the people who are their neighbors, but the government that has been so expansionist for so long and has done so much damage to those neighbors. And then would stop acting that way. Carl Bildt has it exactly right.

    1. Need a clarification: the people who live across the border from each other may not hate and fear each other. It's the Russian government they hate and fear.

    2. Same could be said for another empire but sadly such blinding flashes of the obvious seem to escape foreign policy decision makers.

    3. I like this paragraph from The New Republic article you linked to:
      The principal problem with the argument against NATO enlargement is that it never offers an alternative beyond leaving Europe frozen in time in 1989. Had NATO refused to expand, imagine the fear that would exist today in the Baltics and in Poland concerning Russian intentions. What would the relationship between Hungary and Romania look like if they had remained outside Western institutions, and Hungarian politicians continued to eye formerly Hungarian territory in Romania? Had NATO and the EU not expanded, it's unlikely Central and Eastern European leaders would have developed their countries into stable democracies.

    4. I liked that paragraph too.

      The first sentence put into words something I've felt intuitively since I started visiting Estonia. And it makes a lot of sense: stuff happens, the world goes on, people think about things and make up their minds or change them. So even if there was a promise not to extend NATO (and it looks like there wasn't anything explicit), how long was that supposed to last? Until the end of time?

      The second sentence is a bit circular: NATO is part of Russia's perception of being persecuted, so that goes back to the "it's all NATO's fault" argument. Or would have Russia moved earlier to reabsorb the Baltics without NATO?

      As to the rest, I think it is right on.

    5. I think Russia is in process of retaking the Baltics now, NATO or no NATO. Threatening to blow up the world if anyone tries to stop him is a tough bluff to try to call. Does anyone KNOW exactly who say what to whom regarding NATO expansion? "Much of what we know, just ain't so".

  2. The problem is, is the USA or the EU willing to walk the walk and put boots on the ground to defend the Russian border states? Kennan knew it would come to this, and wanted none of it. Perhaps if the West and especially the USA had responded better to the breakup of the USSR this would not have come to pass. But here we are, and what now? I don't think the US public has much stomach for a war that doesn't come with a strong and simple story of good vs evil, and strong and simple stories are exactly what you don't get in a multipolar world. If the EU or the OSCE has any motivation to fight for the border states I don't see it. And—assuming Putin gets everything he wants—what comes after? I do not think states further west will be sanguine about the effective expansion of the Russian border.

    1. Keenan warned against NATO from Day 1, did he not? Treaties become more and more just scraps of paper. If I were Poland, I would be spending a great deal of money on military and begging for Missiles to be located close by. Where do Romania and Bulgaria fit into this?
      There are no wars of good vs evil. WWII has been mythologized as such but when you read Snyder's "Bloodlands", Beevor's "The Second World War" and Lowe's "Savage Continent" you come to understand how much evil was involved on both sides. Not just Stalin vs Hitler but Allies vs Axis.

    2. War, by its nature is evil. Perhaps sometimes it is a lesser evil.

      Kennan warned against expanding NATO because he didn't want NATO taking on treaty obligations NATO would later find hard to keep and because he felt the expansion of NATO would influence Russian politics towards reactionary nationalism. It seems he was right.

      I think the West could have done a much better job in dealing with the fall of the USSR. Russia did not have to become a corrupt tyrannical empire. But we were beginning one of our own reactionary authoritarian periods, and we did everything wrong. So here we are.

      There is some Western response, but I fear it will not be enough. It is not clear to me what would be enough. A war fought in Ukraine would be terrible. I hope we start working on long-term solutions, but what we must do now is get through the current crisis.

    3. What exactly did the West do or not do to or for Russia post break-up of the USSR. Putin's line has always been that the USA tried to steal everything that wasn't nailed down when in fact it was the corrupt apparatchik and crime bosses of the Brezhnev era who had accumulated sufficient cash to buy everything in the fake auctions of public companies. Countries did try to help. I know as I was involved in Canada with a crusading young reformer from Nizhny Novgorod on a Canadian funded Yeltsin Scholarship. He eventually fled Russia for his life and moved to the USA.

    4. We sent them libertarian capitalism, telling the Russian economists to put the whole country on the auction block. This led to the rise of the oligarchs, just as it did in Western history at the end of the 19th century. We could instead have encouraged the development of a mixed economy in Russia. Then we encouraged (or at least did not protest) the development of an imperial presidency in Russia. The outcome was…perhaps not predictable but at least was unlikely to have been anything good.

    5. Makes sense. Thank you. I see something like that here in Ukraine regarding agriculture extension which their farmers desperately need but the government has refused to implement, choosing instead the support consultants who would be paid by the farmers. With so many small small farms, those who need the information cannot afford it. I keep wondering who gives them their advice. Canada has tried to get them to implement a government extension agency to no avail.

  3. "Oh what tangled webs we weave. . . " Ukraine is obviously a pawn in several peoples' games. Who/what will survive continues to be a mystery. But Russia hasn't invaded yet; that's good.

    1. I need to go back and read Lao Tse and Clausewitz. There is a rule somewhere that the simplest answer is most likely the correct one. But after reading Bill Blum and Noam Chomsky I am not so sure.

    2. Copy that bit on Blum and Chomsky. Simple isn't as simple as it used to be, especially in an era of political prevarication, or prevaricating politicians. And damned, outright liars.

      "A diplomat, if he says yes, means maybe; if he says maybe, means no; if he says no, is no diplomat." Same works for "she" diplomats, too.

      Blessings and Bear hugs, Al!

    3. If a lady says no she means maybe; if she says maybe she means yes and if she says yes, she is no lady.


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