American, EU and NATO alliance expansion onto the frontiers of Russia, from Ukraine’s borders a hop and a skip to Moscow, is not motivated by Washington’s assumedly naïve enthusiasm for democracy promotion, argues Issa Khalaf.
Middle East Online
Forget for a moment the countless cases and examples of Washington’s double moral and legal standards, its self-righteousness regarding Russia. One only needs to consider US-Western policy towards Palestine to conclude that the “West” cannot stake a moral claim. These states have effectively financed, and otherwise supported and protected from prosecution the most prolonged, egregious Israeli criminality against the occupied, captive, tormented Palestinians, including Tel Aviv’s unrelenting colonization and dispossession of Palestine. Illegal annexations, both formal and defacto—60% of the West Bank, including Palestinian East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Lebanon’s Sheb’a farms—and violation of the territorial, sovereign integrity and unity of Arab countries is Israel’s modus operandi. Palestine is the universal litmus test of the yawning moral gap between Western words and action.
The West persists in seeing itself as the final political, economic, and cultural trajectory toward which history converges. Russia cannot and will not get a fair hearing in the West, including a screeching anti-Russian US media, for whom Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are an affront to Western moral, Liberal sensibilities. If one accepts the premise that Western motivations in Ukraine are suspect—much less that these states constitute the “international community” or contain “world” public opinion—how helpful is it to focus on Western self-perception, Russo-phobia, psyche, history, and so forth in explaining Western behavior?
Sure, one can ascertain cultural, psychological, and historical patterns at play, such as Western inability to see Russia except in czarist or communist terms that cause them to misinterpret Moscow’s intentions. However, while such explanations indeed offer deep insights, for any society or nation, they’re unsatisfying because they minimize pragmatism and human agency or rational, if not rational then deliberate behavior in pursuit of goals predicated on the maintenance of power and ascendancy.
In other words, American, EU and NATO alliance expansion onto the frontiers of Russia, from Ukraine’s borders a hop and a skip to Moscow, is not motivated by Washington’s assumedly naïve enthusiasm for democracy promotion. Nor is it due, as Americans attempting objectivity may argue, to US shortsightedness rooted in good intentions, error in judgment, or misguided, unfortunate, excessive reactions caused, of course, by reckless Russian aggression that upended post-Cold war diplomacy and collaboration. Such interpretations do not square with the facts and documented record not only towards Russia, but also in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe.
This record, wherever scrutinized, can be metaphorically described thusly: covertly set the fire (in Ukraine), elicit an aggressive reaction (from Russia), assume the role of firefighter, and cleverly fan the flames while pretending to extinguish them. Fanning the flames means quietly moving intelligence, weaponry, and Special Forces into Ukraine, including its east, and transforming Kiev into a politico-military dependency of Washington. It also means undermining a fair political settlement that meets genuine Russian needs, cornering Russia, and using Russian reaction as pretext to lead and implement escalating sanctions and other aggressive measures in the hope of causing economic hardship, discontent, and mass demonstrations on Moscow’s streets. Another “revolution,” another strategic state, and not just any state, knocked down and divided, removed from the geopolitical chessboard.
Syria is the current example of a violently cynical exercise in advancing Washington’s power, in concert with its authoritarian Muslim allies supporting jihadis. After the removal of all the chemical weapons stockpiles from Syria, the US may well escalate tensions and demands as pretext for a comprehensive bombing campaign of Damascus to cause regime change, Washington’s unwavering goal.
Amazingly, the US and Israeli playbooks are identical. Staging provocations and false flag operations, abetting terrorists and extremists, stoking regional tensions and conflicts, moving the goalpost after signing agreements, willfully ignoring and misrepresenting facts are a common repertoire of their “diplomacy.” It is more a diplomacy of coercion, of getting one’s way, rather than of accommodation and compromise. It is not that powerful states, including Russia, are immune from this behavior, far from it; it is that none but the US is looking for global supremacy. Russia can turn blue in the face appealing to common interests on nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, global warming, outer space, and so on. The US is not interested. Washington’s export of choice is militarization, and this will intensify as the US faces the reality of changing global economic and military power.
Actual policies therefore belie the premise of good intentions. Why did NATO expand into the former Soviet Union, much less limit its geographical extent to Eastern Europe? Why did it not pursue a new, inclusive security arrangement or architecture in Europe? Why keep Ukraine’s membership in NATO on the table? Why effectively reject a politically and militarily neutral Ukraine (while blaming it on Russia)? Why install ballistic missile defense systems at Russia’s borders? Why run US warships in the Black Sea, long before the current crisis? It’s really all about turning Ukraine into a “strategic partner,” first with Washington then NATO, as in Poland and Romania, for example.
Culminating in the February 2014 coup, the EU behaved in the preceding twenty years like a slinking creature, quietly appearing and disappearing into and out of Kiev in its dogged zero-sum game with Russia, unconcerned with Russia’s national and strategic interests and determined to deliver a severe blow to the Russian-led Customs Union, which is not greatly viable without Ukraine. To “tame” that recalcitrant state, the West’s great prize is Russia’s own “democratic revolution” and liberal market orthodoxy, and all values and institutions Western.
It is not that the Ukrainian political and economic elite were a model of governance. Corruption, theft of public resources, limited transparency and accountability certainly were and are real. However, those who kept winning the presidency fairly, by over half of the vote, attempted to balance Ukraine’s economic, cultural and political ties with Russia while extending relations with the West. Regardless, the US, EU, NATO were fixated on transforming Ukraine into a Western outpost through covert destabilization and manipulation of its internal divisions.
Meanwhile, Russia was intent on avoiding the unthinkable, “losing” Ukraine. Russian leaders had warned Kiev in the years leading up to the current Western-precipitated crisis that Russia would no longer guarantee Ukraine’s borders if it violated its strategic partnership agreement with Moscow.
Is Moscow using the specter of Kiev military action against Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions as a pretext for potential intervention? Is the Kremlin exaggerating Ukrainian cultural and political identity divisions (though these do not automatically translate into eastern/southern Ukrainian desire for secession from Ukraine) to counter Western moves? Could Russia be contemplating a future of permanent interference and even breakup of Ukraine to strengthen its strategic position? If Washington does not agree to a neutral and regionalized/decentralized/federalized Ukraine, then possibly so to all these questions; however, Moscow does not evince a desire to send troops into Ukraine. It need not have come to this, including Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
The great danger is American-Russian confrontation; the lesser danger, of no consolation to the people of Ukraine, is that country’s use as proxy for Western-Russian conflict.
Ironically, liberal democratic states are destabilizing the international system and its rules and laws while states such as Russia and China insist on playing by such rules. One is apparently guided by an ideological, messianic worldview, Liberalism, the other by pragmatism, realism, and non-interference. Russia and China do not entertain the fantasy of empire; their strategic interests are local and regional. Washington exports “strategic pivots”; these two states export economic pivots.
So why does Washington, in concert with Western European partners, feel the need to “tame” Russia? One possible answer is that, led by Washington, Western military, intelligence, and national security apparatuses are set on dominating Eurasia and prompting political and social fragmentation in the Russian Federation, including Russia’s loss of territories from the Caucuses to Siberia, to arrest the relative decline of these long time centers of power.
A strategically and geopolitically neutralized and shrunken Russia busy for decades reconstituting itself, its resources and assets dominated by oligarchs and Western corporations, leaves Washington and Western Europe ascendant, arrests decline of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and diverts infusion of investment and cash into the West. It also aligns Moscow with American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, with Israel its centerpiece.
China is also on Washington’s agenda. This includes a campaign to appreciate the renminbi against the dollar to generate economic instability in China, destabilize, with the US strategic pivot (now benignly labeled “rebalancing”), the Asia-Pacific region by disrupting growing Chinese-ASEAN cooperation through free trade, and aggravate historical regional tensions and maritime boundary disputes.
How sensible is it, really, to antagonize Russia, abandon engagement, pursue its military encirclement, and turn it into an outcast? Identifying the source of US strategic decision-making yields conflicting theories. What is clear is that this—the Obama administration’s truculence and apparent determination to isolate Russia and cause a modified version of the Cold War—is not realism, but truly misguided policy that does not safeguard the peace, prosperity, and national security and defense of the United States.
We are likely entering into a particularly dangerous period in international relations.
Issa Khalaf (D. Phil. in Politics and Middle East Studies, Oxford University)