The Nation and Putin, Revisited


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February 27, 2022

The Nation and Putin, Revisited

  • Putin
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

File:Putin with Vladimir Konstantinov, Sergey Aksyonov and Alexey Chaly 4.jpeg

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I have to admit that I’ve been suffering from fatigue and depression about the state of our polity, and finding it difficult to write.

However, the combination of the terrible prospect that the 1914 Guns of August have now become the bombs and tanks of February 2022, and might yet become the Nuclear Weapons of the 21st Century. This fearful prospect, together with the unfathomable behavior of The Nation, a magazine which purports to represent the American Left; and on which on which I spent forty years as a member of the Editorial Board–before being summarily fired–has momentarily caused me to change course, and to get back to work.

The firing, by a new Editor, was primarily due to my efforts of several years to prevent  The Nation from promoting Vladimir Putin as a prospective partner with Donald Trump in bringing about nuclear disarmament and world peace (together, I believe, with that year’s Miss Congeniality who, as played by Sandra Bullock in the film of the same name, had the identical goal in mind). We also had differences, I must admit, about Hillary Clinton, but Putin was the main source of disagreement, about which I would not shut up.

Now, several years later, The Nation is at it again–at a grotesquely inappropriate moment.  In the issue of February 21/28, which on the cover features stories about a right-wing takeover in a suburb of Seattle, Black migrants and their horrific treatment in the US, and Edith Wharton; while inside there are two unheralded contributions about the impending catastrophe in Europe, plus another in the same week’s on-line Nation Daily. Finally, an Editorial by Editorial Director and Publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel puts an official stamp on the magazine’s position.

The first statement in the print edition, by Michael Klare (a good friend) characterized as an “Editorial,”preceded the invasion by several days,  and is titled “A New March of Folly in Europe.”  In the key paragraph he writes “Certainly Russia is to blame for the current crisis, by deploying such a large force within striking range of Ukraine’s border and by issuing ultimatums to the West.  But the West also shares responsibility by rebuffing Moscow’s repeated warnings that deploying NATO forces in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania while promising Ukraine membership in the alliance posed a significant security threat to Russia.”

And he concludes with the inarguable statement that “Our pleas for a peaceful outcome must be heard in Washington–and to the extent possible in London, Paris, Berlin, Kyiv, and Moscow.”And it is also true that  President  Zelensky himself has begged the U.S., and Biden, “to stop talking constantly only about the possible dates of an invasion.”

Still, that’s a difficult line that Michael Klare is trying to draw: there’s no way that “blame” and “sharing responsibility” are synonymous. But as to the latter, his wording is somewhat  misleading.  I’ll return to that argument later. For now, the fact is that for some time, including this very moment,  Zelensky has been begging NATO to give him a clear answer and date as to whether Ukraine is to be invited into NATO.

A promise, though, is exactly what NATO has not been giving, and in Ukraine the signs are seen as mostly negative.  Whereas public opinion in Ukraine is overwhelmingly in favor of joining NATO.  That is because the underlying issue is not  NATO vs. Russia: it’s’s Europeanization vs. Russification; or, to an extent, West Ukraine vs. East Ukraine.  Sort of like Canada.  In any event, if there were going to be any “diplomacy,” the time to make it happen would have to precede and at least for some time preclude any use of force: who would come to the diplomatic table in the face of violence?

As things stand, the trouble with going to “history” for “responsibility” is that there’s always a “before,” a carpet that the previous history has been swept under.  For Russia, Eastern Europe is supposedly a threat, a cordon sanitaire.  For the nations of Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic States, it’s the other way around: Russia was once the occupying and totalitarian Soviet Union, and Putin seems like an appropriate successor.  And no one (except perhaps Nazi Germany) “shares” any responsibility for that.  They have not been a serious  staging ground for NATO, which until recently has shown more interest in Afghanistan than those States.

I mean, c’mon! Putin does not fear a NATO invasion.  He desires control of Eastern Europe, and considers it Russia’s right; he has called the break-up of the Soviet Union a “disaster.”  And as for Ukraine, the real ground of conflict is not even NATO membership, it’s the possibilities of Europeanization, which is profoundly desired by a large majority of the people of Ukraine’s West.  Whose economy would you rather have  ties with, Germany or Russia?

It’s in the other two articles on the crisis that The Nation’s outlook becomes all too apparent.  To put it bluntly, the editors have never had any interest in the views of the nations on Russia’s border.  It’s as though only possession of nuclear weapons conveys equal rights to self-determination, let alone affects the question of whether democracy or tyranny is a better form of government.

Thus the on-line article is by Andrew Bacevich, who’s been a brilliant critic of American foreign policy for years, often in The Nation.  But his essay on the crisis reminds me of what a colleague, JW, once said after we’d heard a typically vigorous and informative talk by Noam Chomsky.  But it was weak on one of the Planet’s conflict points, I forget which, and JW said, “Noam’s one problem is that he can’t account for anything that isn’t  America’s fault.”

And so Bacevich: “Is the Confrontation Over Ukraine Joe Biden’s “Wag the Dog” Moment?…The people now gunning for a showdown with Putin were gunning for a showdown with Saddam Hussein two decades ago—with the same promises of a happy outcome.”

Thus he goes on and on about U.S. wrongs in the Cold War and thereafter, one-party militarism, the falsity of American exceptionalism, and finally the scapegoating of and insulting behavior toward Putin. You’d never know that he was talking about a government that practices assassination, imprisons dissidents’ and whose leader aspires to lead a world-wide neo-Fascist white supremacist movement, who has instigated the invasion of two border areas, and has now accused Ukraine of practicing “genocide” in East Ukraine (Dombas).  Genocide?  I don’t think anyone’s desire for peace is being heard in Moscow.

What exactly has NATO invaded?  There is not any equivalence here.  If Putin was not  trying to take over the populations of other countries, there’d be no threat of the first ground war in Europe since the end of World War II. That is, of World War III.  And what recourse do the people of Ukraine and the Baltic States have against “Putin’s genuine security interests?”

Then  there is the print contribution of David Bromwich, which I must admit I find repellent.  It poses as a take-down of the New York Times’s reporting on the crisis, much of which is deserved.  As for U.S. policy at this moment  in time, though, in his view it consists simply of denying an equal version of the Monroe Doctrine to Russia. I’m trying to remember the last time one of the U.S. invasions of a Latin American nation, or sponsorship of a coup there, was in order to prevent “foreign” intrusion or domination.  He mentions Mexico and Canada?  Must have been before my time.  The Bay of Pigs?  Hopelessly undertaken by filibusterers after JFK washed his hands of it. Followed, yes, by decades of economic boycott, but neither invasion nor coup.

But the real giveaway is the following: “Russia responded to the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine by annexing Crimea.”  About which, “Vladimir Putin explained that when he next visited Sebastopol, he would prefer not to be greeted by NATO sailors in the Black Sea.”

Do we get that?  Russia “responded.” Putin “explained.”  Didn’t actually do anything wilful, just responded and explained his war-like response.  That’s what in criminal circles they call the “SOD” defense; “some other dude did it.” Interestingly, there’s only one other direct reference to Putin in this piece, in which Putin is said to have “clarified” his demand against the expansion of NATO–specifically,” a promise that Ukraine will not be admitted.”

Notice that Putin doesn’t actually do anything–only the bad guys in Europe and North America do things–thugs like Biden and Merkel: oops! Emulating dictionaries, I’ve tried to create a sentence using those words.  As: “The U.S. responded to 9/11 by invading Iraq.  President Bush explained Saddam Hussein shared responsibility for the attack.  Colin Powell clarified for the U.N. that Iraq possessed hidden Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Does Islam, wherever it resides, not in their view “share responsibility” for 9/11? That’s a dangerous path to set out on.

One more rhetorical question. Do the people of the democratic government in Ukraine have anything to say about this? The official Editorial notes that “Ukrainians in the East are already suffering.”No, they’re being terrorized, fleeing their own country. Treated the way every people in history has been treated when tyrants take up arms. And that mild reminder shares equal space–less, in fact–with the warning to Russia it “may face a [costly]  prolonged guerilla war.” Gee whiz.  Not a word about the humanitarian cataclysm that looms over the innocent people of Ukraine; nor about the thousands of Russians who are courageously protesting against their President’s War.

In fact The Nation has nothing to say about Ukraine that wouldn’t satisfy Putin, who has along the way “explained,” as I noted above, that the break-up of the Soviet Union was a “disaster” that needs to be rectified. Please don’t tell us, as does the Editorial, about the likely rise in the military budget because of American hawks.  There’s only one issue on the table here that has to be “rectified.”

But as though to equalize judgments, Bromwich has  two asides about the U.S.-backed “coup” of 2014/  As it happens, he  is a Professor of English, and his specialty is the use and misuse of words,, as evidenced in the London Review of Books, and now The Nation, as well as—most of all—in his book How Words make Things Happen.

How?  Sometimes by being…shall we politely say, “misused?” There was no coup in Ukraine, in 2014 or any other time. Wikipedia, as it happens, has a long list of coups through the centuries–many of them, interestingly, in the 19th Century USA–but no listing at all for Ukraine.  I’m not going to quote the Wikipedia entry on Ukraine at length, but just note that the events of 2014 included demonstrations against the then-President’s turn to Russia, riots, violence, East-West confrontations, and negotiations that momentarily resulted in peace.

But then the majority in Parliament  turned against the President and fired him–which is the way parliamentary democracies get rid of leaders who’ve “lost their confidence”: cf., Teresa May, or Neville Chamberlain. After which the ex-President decamped to Russia, and a new President was elected in a free and fair election.  When was the last time that happened in Russia?

Yes, Times reporting from and on Ukraine has been very biased, often by the omission of key words, such as “military” as in “NATO’s….presence.” However,

the magazine has still never acknowledged Putin’s intervention in the 2016 election or his white supremacism, or the facts in the Mueller Report.  In one recent article the author managed to find only some complicity by one of Clinton’s outliers.

As a correspondent put if, “what are they drinking over there.”

To return, then, to The Nation’s stance about the war of destruction being visited on Ukraine:

“The Nation condemns the decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon the path of diplomacy by attacking and undertaking “special military operations” in Ukraine. These actions violate international  law and fuel a dangerous escalation of violence…We urge all parties to immediately cease hostilities, de‑escalate, and seek a diplomatic solution to mitigate the risk of full‑scale war.”

Excuse me?  I am restraining myself from obscenities, but have so many euphemisms ever appeared in so few sentences?  “Abandon the path,” “fuel the escalation,” “mitigate the risk,” violate international law.” Putin might well reply, who among us has never “violated international law?” Apparently he’s  merely taken the wrong tack, hasn’t understood the rules of the game or the  stakes; let’s have a do‑over.  And then the big Ask: the  almost explicit plea to Ukraine to “cease hostilities” and “de-escalate,” and “seek.”  The mind reels. In the entire world there’s only one engaging  in hostilities and escalating, and threatening nuclear war if his imperial adventure is thwarted.

Yes, what one commentator called “The low‑hanging fruit of NATO expansion” was provocative, and not carefully thought  out. Still, It’s a common mistake–but a mistake–to confuse philosophical determinism, the logic of cause and effect in that the one always precedes the other, with the actuality of historical determination. Nothing in human affairs  had or has to happen until some actual human being or beings made or make it happen– decided it must happen.  Nothing compelled them to do whatever that  was.

Thus nothing compelled Putin the thug to desire to reconstitute the Soviet Empire: that is his own megalomania at work. An explanation is not an excuse. Once he set out on this path, the required  “promise” to never invite Ukraine into NATO was extortion masquerading as a deal. That’s how extortionists always work: Why waste resources on force if the threat of it will work.  Of course in this case force had already been used twice, and the attempted destabilization of Ukraine had been going on for a decade.

In conclusion, making that invitation to the East European states was in principle the right thing to do; as it turns out; not to do it would have been an invitation to Putin to reconquer that part of the Soviet Union.  When Hitler became Prime Minister of Germany, there was no “right” way to deal with him. Except the one Churchill advocated: rearmament.

That’s hindsight; I’ve no idea what would or would not have worked with Putin, or what will work now. Maybe nothing; perhaps there should have been a psychoanalyst advising NATO.  But we should just put aside the “shared responsibility” response to the invasion.  It’s yesterday’s news: Monday-morning quarter-backing by people who’ve never had to make an actual decision of this nature; myself of course included. But, after all, “which side are you on?”


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