OPINION| History, US and Nato’s push against the ‘East’ drives Ukraine war

The writer Milan Kundera once ventured that “soon everyone will shout so loud to let their own voices be heard, that [eventually] no one would be able to hear each other”. In the fog and dust of war, truth is the first casualty. In the Ukraine conflict it is apparent. 

More ways exist to look at the renewed Ukraine conflict. One is that there is only one piggy, a real crook, in the story. Those that hark back to the recognition of the integrity of sovereignty of a specified territory as later recognised by the United Nations are especially prominent in political discourse on the issue. 

The roots of this are traceable to the Treaty or Peace of Westphalia (1648) when Europe was torn apart by 30 years of religious wars between Christians with murderously clashing political perspectives. The then “consensus” on sovereignty was later reaffirmed by the arguments posed by Woodrow Wilson during the Peace of Versailles after World War I and the League of Nations established thereafter. The notion survived into the UN and contemporary international law. How many sovereignties though? 

Another look at the conflict invokes a reasonable dialogue and a realistic historical bifocal focus on the notion of sovereignty or rather right to “sovereignties” at stake here. In this case, especially when “new states” in contested territories are haphazardly constructed in the aftermath of political events such as the decline and disaggregation of, for example, the Soviet Union at the end of the so-called Cold War. Ukraine is another case in point.

The current conflict should also be seen in the context of developments since 1054 and the 1400s before the Treaty of Westphalia. This conflict or “standoff” and drawing a line in the sand by Russia was not unexpected. I am not surprised that Russia (with or without Vladimir Putin as leader) drew the line looking at geopolitics and the national security interests of post-Cold War Europe, Russia and the consistent eastward drive of Nato, the latter being relentlessly pushed by the United States since at least 2008 with seemingly no European power able or willing to stand up to the pressures from, and direction imposed by the US. 

Nato seems to have become more important than peace in Europe and the voice of the US more important than reasonable politics and the wider world. A prominent international politics theorist, Shrikant Paranjpe, from India mused whether there is a move “back to the status quo in Europe”, a classical regression. He argued this with the Cold War mentality in mind or even earlier to the 1900s with its two world wars or a century earlier when Europe transformed violently into nation states and what they call democracy.

The only surprise around the intensification of the conflict is that it only came to this juggernaut now. One would have expected it in 2008 or 2014 when those populations and parts of the Ukraine that wanted to go back to Russia, or the Slavic habitus, declared themselves independent, thus similarly seeking their sovereignty-in-choice as to where they want to belong (arguably a wish that then also appeals to international law to recognise the sovereignty of other Ukrainians to have a right to self-determination and sovereignty).

No one seems to have the far-sighted recognition of two legitimate sides to the coin of sovereignty in the “new” Ukraine. No surprises here but a harbinger of conflict to come — a very predictable upcoming conflict.

Most people, including journalists, in our immediate environment habitually choose to read only Western media outlets; caught up in the “Forever or Eternal Northwest-bound Gaze”. The easy switch from a Cold War Mentality or Cold War Myopia to fear, even deep-seated hate, for the East in the collective Western psyche, is seemingly eternal, perhaps DNA rooted.

Soon after World War II, Nato was established to counter “the Eastern threat” from the Soviet Union (the origins of all evil in the eyes of the West and especially the US from then through to presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bush one and two, Clinton (both Clintons in various positions), Obama and Biden. 

There was also communist China, another major “threat” from the East and US nuclear weapons in case of a nuclear fallout were aimed at both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Should these communists be “naughty”, they and their entire populations would face doomsday. Reminder again: Nato under US leadership was established before the Warsaw Pact, a mere reaction to Nato, the latter with its eyes steadily turned East.

Negotiators of Nato countries in 1949. Nato was established to counter ‘the Eastern threat’ from the Soviet Union. (AFP)

The East remained the enemy. The US as a World Policeman declared itself as the global good and many believed the seemingly omnipotent US. Inherent conservatism and religiosity (“God Bless America”) the search for undisputable hegemony and capitalism incorporated, played and plays its role too. Few seem to remember that the US was the aggressor in numerous conflicts since the early 1950s, often violently ignoring the sovereignty of numerous nations on the globe. 

Even fewer remember what the losses were for those on the losing side, including those that fought for their sovereignty and choice of regime. Fear, greed, hate and arrogance were intertwined in the US mindset and their “Coalition of the Willing”. Taking a cue from author, Gwynne Dyer, the US has since 2002 been gradually slipping on the spectrum of (megalomaniac) world policeman to a dangerous international rogue and by sheer military size intimidate even its own “friends”. 

This undermines long-term visionary global political foresight since the “end” of the Cold War. This nexus further led to an intellectual deficit in the analysis of international politics and now the case of the Ukraine conflict. Lack of wider exposure carried over from ideologically-driven old guard journalists to younger ones, plays a role too. Social media with clashing and emotive fragments of politics and an immense amount of fake news intertwined in a toxic mix of hyper-imagination, is not bettering the situation. On the contrary. Education or lack thereof and ignorance about history play a role too. 

Humans seem to have the innate ability to veer towards myopia rather than a wider reading of political developments. Eurocentrism and racism play a role. In the midst of the current debate no one is talking about or against the conflict in Yemen or the Kosovo bombings by Nato instigated by the US and the United Kingdom. Or the destruction of a stable and sovereign state, Libya, in 2011.

 Indeed sad … but then these people were not white, North American or European; they were and are Slavs, Berbers, Muslims, black people or “Easterners”. Hitler seems to be alive and well and definitely not, contrary to Western propaganda, only in the “East”.

In this case, most of the Western leaders slavishly inject their view on their followers seeing the Russians and Putin as the only guilty party without any broader historical understanding of world politics or for that matter “European” politics or the complexities of colliding sovereignties. 

A recent interview with former UK prime minister Tony Blair widely distributed is an example. Such mentalities led to a political conflict of magnitude. If the fear for the West lies in the East, the converse is also true.

Under imperialism, China had and since then has the collective memory of how western colonisers with the US as belated straggler intervened in Chinese politics since the 1890s and afterwards and several Chinese rebellions proved that such interventions were not then appreciated and most likely will not be tolerated now. 

For the moment we shall not mention the British invasion of Afghanistan in the 1880s and how they had to withdraw with their tail between their legs. Nor shall we speak about the occupation of Afghanistan since 2002 where the US and the dwindling “Coalition of the Willing” belatedly discovered that they are not welcome, in fact, should not have been there in the first place. The Soviet Union had the same experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s. People become touchy if you impose your concept of a new order on their right to sovereignty.

Using different lenses to view the current conflict may assist in paving the way for finding a solution to the conflict rather than war-drumming and feigned moral outrage. The current historical memory and collective consciousness of the Russians comprises their experience over many years of numerous betrayals from the West. 

These collections of sociohistorical memories rest on brutal intervention/aggression from the West inflicted in history and cannot be ignored in the current loaded context with or without Putin as a leader.

First betrayal, 1812: The French invasion of Russia and its brutal destructive consequences.

Second betrayal, 1914 onwards: After Russia had withdrawn from World War I, having fought on the side of Britain, France, Italy and later the US, these very Western countries, following the October Revolution in 1917, turned against the “new Russia/Soviet Union” by supporting the destructive activities of the “White Russians” (a loose confederation of anti-communist forces) that destabilised the Soviet Union for years until the Red Army halted this.

Third betrayal, 1941: The invasion of Russia (then Soviet Union) by Adolf Hitler’s armies in 1941 (Operation Barbarossa). In this brutal war of naked aggression, Russia lost nearly 20 million people before driving the Nazi army back to Berlin. In these three cases, the danger and the aggressor came consistently and chronically from what can collectively be referred to as the West and left a historical memory baggage with deep emotions. 

It is worthwhile to recall the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, whereby the Soviet Union and all its satellite states committed themselves to respect and observe basic human rights. Likewise, these protocols applied to Western states too. Implicitly this agreement still stands. The Russian argument that there are rogue fascist or Nazi elements involved in the conflict, may arguably demand obliging the Helsinki Act. 

Casualty: A woman rests after crossing a destroyed bridge to flee Irpin, northwest of Kyiv. China and India called for a wider historical perspective and a reduction of armed conflict. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP

But claims of Nazi elements obfuscate matters. On a more mundane, yet serious level: in this conflict, it is not only the Russians shooting and killing. The Ukrainians, their imported mercenaries from a variety of interesting countries and aligned special forces, are shooting back. After years of strengthening the Ukrainian military (no Western European objections), another $800-million in arms support and supplying surrogate forces was announced by Biden. 

Come to think of it, killing is not a one-sided affair as some are suggesting in these hideous times. There are collateral and human losses on both sides. No simplification can argue this away.

The next series of broken promises interpreted by the Russians (not only former president Dmitry Medvedev and Putin) from 1994 (at the latest) onwards, especially 2008 and 2014 are worth mentioning. From the Russian perspective, the Minsk 1 and 2 agreements signed in 2014 and 2015 presumably allowed a consensus on sovereign choices for the Eastern Ukraine, also in favour of “Slavic belonging”. For pro-West leaders in the Ukraine, it was a green light to push eastwards. Dangerous clashing perspectives …

Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state (1973-1977), rightly observed as far back as 2014 that “Far too often the Ukraine issue is posed as a showdown between West and East, but if the Ukraine [or two Ukraines, my insertion] … should survive, it should serve as a bridge (between the West and the East”). He used several examples to make the point that from the Russian perspective, Ukraine (or at least the eastern part thereof) can never be just “a foreign country”, starting as early as the times of Kievan-Rus (1054-1132) and with examples of the Battle of Poltava in 1709. 

Kissinger eloquently pointed out that even dissidents such as the two Russian Nobel prize winners Joseph Brodsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted that Ukraine is an “integral part of Russian history and indeed, of Russia”. Part of the problem, he argued, was the post-1992 Ukrainian leaders in a newly declared independent country, “not surprisingly, did not learn the art of compromise, even less of a historical perspective”. Kissinger predicted that a Ukraine joining Nato would exacerbate tensions and rising myopic military conflict. 

Kissinger also advised that European Union states take a more proactive stance around negotiations. It did not happen. That was in 2014. Few lessons have been learnt, even less advice taken — a deficit in reading security interests and historical evolutions in international politics. 

In the early 1990s president Ronald Reagan of the US announced ecstatically that “This Man (Gorbachev), has broken down the Wall”, with reference to the crumbling Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union to become the Russian Federation. The Reagan administration promised not to expand Nato. In the meantime, the Warsaw Pact as defence against Nato aggression was dismantled. This was but one of many broken promises, or as viewed from the Russian side, a series of betrayals.

Nato strongly supported by the US as hegemonic partner/global policeman, was to start its creep eastward. Note that there was no longer a Warsaw Pact, so the question can rightly be asked: “Against which conceivable threat or enemy? Africa? Russia? The “terrorists and barbarians”? The “Far Eastern” countries? Iran? North Korea, the latter hardly a threat to Europe even if it has a few nuclear bombs”.

Concerning African sovereign states, the US Africa Command and virtually all Nato joined in a rabid frenzy to topple Muammar Gaddafi in what was called an “Arab Spring” in 2011. A misnomer the term was. Obviously, there was no spring and little democratisation followed. 

Libya was reduced to a gutted, failed state. These thoughtless acts resulted in a power vacuum in what was once Libya. It triggered a refugee crisis still ongoing, and instability for years unforeseen in the region and far afield. As Obama later admitted, it was short-sighted.

Nato and their machinations crept eastwards (a creeping self-given mandate or a creepy mission?). It reminds one about the Cold War US policy of “containment” (encirclement) of the Soviet Union. One can indeed refer to a renewed “containment of a special type” — a hangover mentality since the Cold War and the normal knee-jerk reaction against the East, in this case with Russia on the receiving end. No conspiracies here; only mentalities, very deep-seated mentalities.

No real other enemies were in the immediate area and Russian aggression was nowhere. During 2008 the US intervened in Georgia with financial and military support including “specialist” forces. Right on the borders of Russia. The Western creep continued. Poland, Romania and others joined Nato. If anyone was to feel increasingly beleaguered and under siege, it was Russia and the Russian people. 

Putin even offered to become part of Nato for reasons unknown before 2010 and was cold shouldered, another act that proved that Nato was seeing Russia as a threat (or Russians as lesser human beings) rather than a future partner — the lingering hate for the East earlier referred to

and the “we are the West; we are the best” mentality ruled supreme.

War will not bring a solution. Nor will moral outrages. In the long term, a drawn-out war is destructive. Russian isolation may be broken in unforeseen developments as increasing trade with India and China and others are proving. 

Unrest in Europe may follow as fuel prices hike — the comprehensive Russian boycott may in the longer run be for Europe a “cut your nose to spite your face”. Likewise, the war will increasingly become a growing strain, worse than now, on the Russo-European economies. 

And the nettle remains. If sovereignty has two sides, what about Ukrainians who want to belong to the “East”? What should apply to one, should equally apply to the other if we break through this war of words. Realistically spoken, there is only one way out. Negotiations.

The situation will have to be negotiated. There is no single sovereignty in Ukraine at stake here (maybe even three). The right to choose your sovereignty should be consistently applied to a divided Ukrainian people. People as a self-defined group should be given the right to choose their political habitus and their future belonging. The wish for sovereignty has at least two sides and applies to the Eastern Ukraine.

(John McCann/M&G)

During the United Nations General Assembly Resolution and the huge vote against Russian actions, only two voices of reason emerged. Both implied a wider reading of the history of the historical complexities and pointed towards a rational solution. These voices were China and India, calling for a wider historical perspective and reduction of armed conflict. 

Many countries (from the Global South, especially poorer ones), could not dare to vote in favour of Russia, because their earlier colonial rulers and now new colonial beneficiaries (continued profit and exploitation of poorer states and the economy of dependency and the global development of under-development) would push a throttling boot on their necks; think West Africa, think Namibia and South Africa and a host of smaller economically weak countries in the Global South and even north of the equator dependent on their Core States Master’s voice.

The rational way out is negotiations. It will be tough. It may include UN supervised referenda (oversight by the international community, the UN) in a divided Ukraine and perhaps even a commitment from a self-imposed hegemon, the US withdrawing its military presence from Europe to allow an impartial solution. 

And such a negotiated solution under international UN supervision may require that no US, European and Russian troops be part of the UN peacekeeping forces deployed there to oversee the implementation of the resolution. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Ian Liebenberg
Ian Liebenberg is a professor in politics at the faculty of management, commerce and law, University of Namibia, and an extraordinary professor in politics at the faculty of military science at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. The opinions expressed here are in his personal and private capacity.

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