Can we please learn our lesson before starting World War III?
This may be our last chance...
With Finland on the verge of applying for membership in NATO - and Russia warning about what it sees as an existential threat to its own national security, I am likely going to be a voice in the wilderness of “neoconliberalism” - AKA corporatist war-mongering across our traditional political party boundaries.
Have we not learned? Russia tried to explain something which our own foreign policy experts - from George Kennan of the previous generation to William Burns, currently heading the CIA, have tried to explain to the war-mongering class for over a generation now. Thomas Friedman wrote about this in 1998 and most recently reprised the Kennan interview here. In the latter of these two, however, he did not restate the most salient point made in the former.
Yes, tell your children, and your children's children, that you lived in the age of Bill Clinton and William Cohen, the age of Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, the age of Trent Lott and Joe Lieberman, and you too were present at the creation of the post-cold-war order, when these foreign policy Titans put their heads together and produced ...a mouse.
It would be really nice if this telling ends up a dry history lesson met with young eyes rolling, and not an explanation for World War III, but I digress.
The Austrian State Treaty of 1955
To cut to the chase... a formal request for accession to NATO from Finland offers the world one final chance at a negotiated settlement that is historically fair and honors the very values we claim to be defending.
1) The “give” from the West to Russia is simple: Recognition of a cultural and historical truth as old as the Crimean Peninsula itself: Crimea is and always has been ethnically and linguistically Russian. It was only part of the Ukraine because of the artifices of the Iron Curtain. The manner in which Russia reasserted the Russian identity of the people of the Crimean Peninsula says as much about Western naïveté as it does about Russia’s aggressive tendencies. It need not have been this way: We could have easily peeled Russia away from China if we simply saw the opportunity right in front of us. Instead a foreign policy elite blinded by their own ideological rigidity could not see the opportunity for what it was... And so here we are.
2) The other “give” is the decision of NATO NOT to accede to Finland’s upcoming request. The border shared between Finland and Russia is twice the size as that between Russia and the Ukraine.
3) A third “give” is to have Finland serve as the sponsor in a treaty of neutrality to which it (Finland) and the Ukraine would join. This is a give to Russia because they have already offered the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 as a model they consider consistent with their own security interests.
So, what will be the “asks” from NATO and the West?
1) Finland and the Ukraine will be allowed to obtain NATO/Western weaponry with the exception of communications gear and its crypto modules. If they cannot communicate with NATO units, they cannot pose a unified threat to Russia. Yet with modern weaponry they will be able to defend themselves.
2) Russia retreats from the Ukraine entirely, with the Crimean peninsula remaining part of Russia. The Donbass will remain part of the Ukraine. Further negotiations under the auspices of a neutral Finland can address autonomy for the largely Russian population of the Donbass.
3) Russia signs the treaty of neutrality with Finland and the Ukraine, in which the right of ALL nations to intervene militarily should that neutral status be violated is expressly codified. International law already recognizes this right: Other nations have a pre-recognized right to respond with military force should any nation use military force to violate a formally neutral country’s sovereignty.
A common sentiment is that the Ukraine should be free to choose its own alliances. Frankly, this is false if looked at with a view to the realities of that part of the world. The Mongols invaded Russia in the 13th century, the French in the 19th, and Germany in the 20th - to the greatest of all tragedies of war - 25-27 million Russians died. The vast majority of them were civilians. This is not to discount the millions of Ukrainians starved by Stalin. Their loss only highlights the naïve stupidity of the ideologically rigid “neoconliberals.”
To this half of the U.S. foreign policy elite (they are by no means the only school of thought here... read CIA Director William Burns' recent book “The Back Channel” to learn from the other school), NATO is a “defensive” alliance. The Russian retort is simple: Tell that to Serbia and Libya. We might argue (rightly) for why NATO acted as it did. But what cannot be argued was that NATO’s actions were in defense of a NATO member - they clearly were not. And in any event, to those whose national memories are of 25-27 million fellow country-men and -women who died at the hands of the last capable military at their borders, offensive vice defensive is simply a distinction without a difference. Our history and geography permits us this luxury; the Russians’ does not.
May 9th has come and gone. What should alarm us in the West is the outright avoidance of imagery from the “Immortal Regiment” parades. The only images we see were of the military parades. The fact of the matter is May 9th as a Russian tradition did not start with the Russian state declaring it a holiday. It started organically with ordinary Russians coming together with pictures of lost loved ones from the war. The Russian state only later recognized it as Victory Day. To see what I mean, watch this video and then ask yourself why you did not see this on the evening news.
Back in February I ended an “open letter” to Putin with the following:
There will be a day in the unfortunately not-too-distant future when all of us will only be remembered in photos. When our children gather around them, I pray their tears will be from their laughter - not from a renewed sorrow we were too ignorant of each other to avoid.
Can we please not have our ignorance of history condemn us to a repeat of it?