As I write this, people have already been killed in the confrontation between pro-Putin militants of the self-proclaimed “Republic of Donetsk” in Eastern Ukraine and the “anti-terrorist” forces sent by the interim Ukrainian government to suppress the insurgents. (Calling them “rebels”, “separatists”, “militants”, even “provocateurs” may be legitimate – but the use of the label “terrorist” here only further eviscerates any meaning that term once had in referring to people who deliberately kill civilians to make a political or ideological point.) It is not precisely clear what is happening on the ground – who is prevailing, and who is responsible for the initiation of force. What is clear, however, is that a deadly tragedy may be about to occur – unless reason, common sense, and every longing for peace and civilization are marshaled against it.
I have no love for Vladimir Putin or his regime. He is clearly an authoritarian despot, with little respect for the rights of his own people or those of others. He will pursue an agenda of personal power and aggrandizement through nationalistic rhetoric and attempts to rekindle the alleged glory of Imperial and Soviet Russia. Yet, despotic as he may be, one would hope that Putin is not suicidally stupid. It was one matter to seize control of Crimea, with its majority Russian-speaking population and popular support for annexation by Russia. Occupying the rest of Ukraine – in which even many ethnic Russians have no enthusiasm for union with Russia – is another matter entirely. A protracted occupation of Ukraine, amidst an unsympathetic populace – to say the least! – would bog down the Russian military and imperil an already precarious economic situation. It would also risk the lives of many Russian soldiers in a prolonged partisan uprising, much like the one that the Soviet regime had to deal with for decades in Ukraine during the last century. A reasonable person would hope that Putin recognizes this and does not stray from his characteristic modus operandi – which, however ruthless, is nonetheless marked by caution and pragmatic calculation.
Until the uprisings that led to the declaration of the “Republic of Donetsk”, it seemed to me that Putin’s conduct of “military training exercises” on Ukraine’s Eastern border was a strategic bluff. While the cover of military exercises affords Putin plausible deniability, he could also sincerely agree to withdraw the troops in subsequent negotiations, in exchange for the West’s recognition of the legitimacy of the Crimea annexation and a more loosely federated Ukraine. If Putin had pursued this approach, he would have likely gotten away with annexing Crimea after nothing worse than some griping and minor sanctions levied by Western governments.
Yet it is now unclear whether the separatist uprisings in the Donetsk region were orchestrated by provocateurs employed by Putin’s regime (as many in the Ukrainian government and foreign-policy hawks in the West allege), or whether they largely arose from local Russian nationalists who were inspired by the Crimea annexation and sought to repeat it in Eastern Ukraine (as many of the separatists do appear to be ordinary civilians). Nonetheless, Putin’s regime has officially endeavored to maintain plausible deniability – which means that an escalation of military force against the separatists by the Ukrainian government would give Putin exactly the pretext he would need to invade Eastern Ukraine, if that is indeed his goal.
The “anti-terrorist” operation by the Ukrainian government of President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk is – like any attempt by Putin to even consider an invasion of Eastern Ukraine – an act of suicidal folly. Not only do Turchynov and Yatseniuk undermine their own legitimacy in the eyes of Eastern Ukrainians by treating their own citizens as “terrorists” (), they also create the actual war that they accuse Putin of fomenting! Logic suggests only two possibilities: either the separatists are Russian provocateurs, or they are not. If they are indeed Russian provocateurs, then Turchynov and Yatseniuk have effectively initiated hostilities against Russian forces. If the separatists are not Russian provocateurs, then Turchynov and Yatseniuk are deploying military and “counter-terrorist” forces against their own people, instead of dealing with any insurgent or criminal behaviors via the police and the civilian justice system. Either way, the Ukrainian government is not doing itself any favors and is itself engaged in dangerous brinksmanship, which, unless restraint wins the day, could cost the lives of at least thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians.
If this crisis were merely an episode of competing follies between two Eastern European regimes, I might have left the matter at that. Unfortunately, prominent neoconservative war hawks such as John McCain and certain NATO generals, such as Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove, remain unable to transcend the insane era of the Cold War, when the civilized world was never far from nuclear annihilation due to the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. They continue to call for “harsh” and “forceful” measures to be taken against Putin’s regime – whatever that means. Economic sanctions would, of course, be wholly counterproductive and would further impoverish Russian civilians, driving more of them, in desperation, to further embrace Putin’s nationalistic agenda. But military action of any sort by NATO or the United States would be an absolute calamity for human civilization – risking not just another cold war, but World War III between the world’s two major nuclear powers. Such a war would paralyze the progress of humankind for decades and lead to the eradication of much of the infrastructure needed to make comfortable, prosperous lives possible.
The neoconservative and NATO hawks are the Western mirror image of Putin’s nationalistic aggrandizement. They warn of the United States’ weakening image in foreign policy, of a perceived softness of the Obama administration’s response. They fear, in essence, a loss of American “national honor” and “national pride” if the United States were to withdraw from its role as global policeman and global human-rights enforcer. But they overlook the essential question: Why should the United States government be involved in the situation in Ukraine? There is no danger to American citizens, to whom the United States government’s duty of protection is owed, even in the worst-case scenario of Putin’s troops occupying all of Ukraine (which, as explained earlier, will not happen unless Putin is suicidally stupid). There is no compelling “national security” rationale of any sort for military or even extensive policy intervention in an area of the world separated from the United States by an ocean and most of the European continent!
The United States government is drowning in runaway debt, and the country is only beginning to recover from disastrous decade-long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of American troops have been killed in the prior interventions of this millennium; tens of thousands more have come home physically and mentally scarred forever. And the hawks want them to fight in yet another part of the world which most Americans understand nothing about, for no tangible gain, in the name of the geopolitical posturing of regimes whose leaders care not at all about them and will not bear a single physical cost of the massive killings, tortures, property destruction, and other atrocities that war inevitably brings with it? War is always fought at the behest of and for the benefit of corrupt, power-hungry leaders, and all the costs are always borne by innocent civilians and by very young armed men who know not what they fight for and who kill one another senselessly, even though they could have been good friends in other circumstances.
As the Wikileaks revelations about the conduct of some American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the world, the US military is not uniquely righteous or humanitarian; torture, sadism, and perversity in the conduct of war marred the US military record, too.
The description of the horrors of war and the immense beneficence and moral imperative of peace by the great Renaissance humanist thinker Desiderius Erasmus is just as true today as it was in the early 16th century when these words were written:
Peace is at once the mother and the nurse of all that is good for man; war, on a sudden and at one stroke, overwhelms, extinguishes, abolishes, whatever is cheerful, whatever is happy and beautiful, and pours a foul torrent of disasters on the life of mortals. Peace shines upon human affairs like the vernal sun. The fields are cultivated, the gardens bloom, the cattle are fed upon a thousand hills, new buildings arise, riches flow, pleasures smile, humanity and charity increase, arts and manufactures feel the genial warmth of encouragement, and the gains of the poor are more plentiful.
But no sooner does the storm of war begin to lower, than what a deluge of miseries and misfortune seizes, inundates, and overwhelms all things within the sphere of its action! The flocks are scattered, the harvest trampled, the husbandman butchered, villas and villages burnt, cities and states that have been ages rising to their flourishing state subverted by the fury of one tempest, the storm of war. So much easier is the task of doing harm than of doing good — of destroying than of building up!
As with the remarkable surge of grassroots opposition that prevented US intervention in Syria in 2013, it is time for the American public to vociferously denounce any military intervention in Ukraine. It is not surprising, as a recent Washington Post article highlighted, that “The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want to intervene”! Education of Americans, not the inflammation of their zeal, should be the priority. The conflict in Ukraine today is a clash between two extremely ugly nationalisms – and ignorant neoconservative jingoists would add their own third flavor of nationalism to the mix. It is time for civilized individuals everywhere to reject all nationalism and all war. All of us humans – in Ukraine, Russia, the West, and everywhere else – face a choice for the next several decades. If we pursue the path of peace and non-intervention, we can become a spacefaring, cosmopolitan civilization. We are on the verge of major breakthroughs in life extension, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanoscale manufacturing, and ubiquitous, affordable energy. If we pursue the path of war, then humankind will instead become suffocated in the muck of jingoistic tribalism, with a promising future washed away by rivers of blood and consumed by an inferno of bombs. The next few weeks will indicate which of these futures we face.