The Russia-Ukraine war in context
Special to Stars and Stripes April 6, 2022
“We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture … than we have put forward in the past.”
This is from the famous “Long Telegram” sent from Moscow to Washington by diplomat George F. Kennan in early 1946. This brutal invasion of western Ukraine by Russia provides undeniable reminder that the world is difficult and dangerous, including old-fashioned military aggression.
The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of war. On the contrary, the Cold War was a source of restraint on the superpowers — the Soviet Union and the United States — and on nations generally, whatever their military and economic strength.
The end of the overriding competition between the communist and anti-communist blocs opened the door for other conflicts and divisions to reemerge, as professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago has insightfully pointed out, now for many years. This includes ethnic and border conflicts crossing the always insecure, often ambiguous national boundaries of Eastern Europe. Deeply rooted Russian anxieties about invasion and subversion emanating from their western borders are of profound importance.
The alliance against Nazi Germany, vital to victory in World War II, collapsed soon thereafter. Soviet leaders’ efforts to force Britain, France and the United States out of Berlin sparked four decades of Cold War. The Korean War made the conflict global.
The Cold War was essentially rooted in different conceptions of society and relations between nations. The Soviet Communist Party was a passing political machine. More significant is enduring Russian insecurity and fear of invasion.
Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Nazi Germany’s vast surprise attack on the Soviet Union — until then a military ally — enormously reinforced this fear.
Earlier, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 had a similar effect. Though the leaders and people ultimately repulsed these invasions, the cost was tremendous in human, material and psychological terms.
As the Soviet Union was collapsing, U.S. President George H.W. Bush and advisers, in particular Secretary of State James Baker and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, proved extremely sensitive to history and sensible in developing policies and responses. Bush was clear and emphatic that we would not celebrate any sort of victory. As he put the matter, there would be no “dancing on the Wall,” referring to the heavily guarded barrier between East and West Berlin.
The Berlin Wall, built on the orders of Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, reflected desperation and fear in Moscow. The population of East Germany was literally flowing to West Germany through the open door provided by Berlin.
Kennan was among the most perceptive of the Cold War U.S. policy analysts. He focused on traditional realist diplomacy, including awareness of conflicting national interests.
He emphasized contrasts between Soviet and U.S. leaders in experiences and outlooks. Direct human experience with brutal total war informed Moscow’s worldview.
Russia President Vladimir Putin reflects this national anxiety regarding possible invasion, something relatively secure Americans can easily overlook. He also reflects the blindness and bad judgment of the dictator who listens only to his own voice. The invasion of Ukraine is proving to be a miscalculation of devastating scale.
Kennan argued a fundamentally unproductive Soviet system would eventually collapse. Alliances with friendly nations were the key.
The European Union and NATO alliance provide frameworks for nations to coordinate counter-pressures on Russia. The U.S. rightly emphasizes these established ties.
In fact, NATO is energized as at no time since the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. At that time, French aircraft patrolled the skies of North America. That freed our advanced long-range military aircraft for strikes in Afghanistan, which had harbored the al-Qaida terrorists who carried out the attacks.
Putin’s Ukraine invasion has energized both organizations.
Learn more: John Mearsheimer, “The Great Delusion.”
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War.”