A Gambit Worth Taking
In “The West’s Dangerous Gambit in Ukraine,” William Smith commits the ancient sophistical trick of equivocation. Equivocating between aggressive Russian action and NATO military maneuvers is a common tactic of the American nationalist right that serves essentially as apologetics for Putin’s usurpation of the international security order. Unfortunately for this position, a simple review of facts in their proper light shows that an equivocal argument is not only wrong, but risks giving carte blanche to military revanchism and the destabilizing territorial acquisitiveness that would threaten to wreck an international order that has prevented major land wars since World War II.
It is tempting to look at the surface of actions when drawing analogies, but when considering political actions, be they national or international, a superficial consideration is insufficient. One must at a minimum consider both the moral and the historical context in which such actions take place. When taking Putin’s aggressions in Ukraine within their total context, it becomes clear that not only is opposition to his aggression essential for maintaining the current order, but it is also a response preventing potential imperial expansion, not an act of imperialism
While there is a long history of interaction between Ukraine and Russia, that relationship is not one of convergence and cultural harmony. The opposite is in fact true. The past decade is not the first time the Ukrainian people have resisted incorporation into the Russian ambit. The Ukrainian people have in fact resisted virtually every Russian incursion on their territory through the last several centuries. While to an outsider, the Ukrainian religion, language and society may seem similar to their Russian neighbors, this is a part of the world where nationalism draws very thin lines.
As an example, despite the fact that Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian are completely mutually intelligible, linguistic nationalists refuse to admit they are the same language. Ukrainian is far more different from Russian than any of these languages are to each other. There are, in fact, letters in the Ukrainian alphabet that do not exist in the Russian. Grammar, words, and pronunciation differ to such a degree that mutual comprehension is not fully possible. Nor is religion compatible. Most Ukrainians do not follow Russian orthodoxy, and the churches, far from being allied, are antagonistic to one another. The Ukrainian Orthodox church originally formed under the supervision of Constantinople in the tenth century. Not until many centuries years later did the Russian church form a rival faction that attempted to subvert the Kyiv Metropolitanate’s authority in the fifteenth century, sparking a conflict that has raged ever since. Given these differences, only an abusive reading of history could possibly argue that there is a natural affinity between the Russian and Ukrainian people.
Modern history has only underscored the differences between Russia and Ukraine. Much of this rupture stems from the infamous Holodomor terror-famine of the 1930s, which the Soviet government engineered from Moscow as a way to subdue the Ukrainian people and was further exacerbated by refusing to accept international aid or admit its existence. Over three million people died in this Soviet atrocity that drove people to cannibalism. Russian mismanagement of incidents like the Chernobyl meltdown and attempts to maintain control of the country after the fall of communism only accelerated the split between the two countries. Far from a natural unity, Russia and Ukraine have a natural disunity.
While some are happy to make hay with the presence of a Russian minority in Ukraine, arguing that this presence moots the unitary and independent nature of the Ukrainian people, such an argument simply does not cohere. By the terms discussed above and by examination of the region, the Ukrainian people undoubtedly form a political body. The ethnically Ukrainian population of the country is 77% or approximately 37 million. The number of ethnic Ukrainians is larger than the population of any other eastern European country with the exception of Poland, which it almost equals (Poland having about 37 million people of all ethnicities). In terms of national identity, the Ukrainian people possess all of the traditional features that classify a nation in Eastern Europe: they have a separate orthodox church, a distinctive language, a tradition of political independence, autochthonous literature and art as well as an uncomfortable, at times hostile, relationship with Russia.
Simply identifying a sizeable minority of Russian inhabitants in Ukraine (about 17 percent of the whole) does not ipso facto indicate that Ukraine has no proper identity separate from Russia. No one, for example, argues that France should assimilate Belgium because its sizable Walloon Francophone population bitterly disagrees with the Flemish-speaking Flemings. Should perfect unity be necessary, Switzerland should be even less capable of political coherence than either Belgium or Ukraine. Despite sharing features of social life with neighbors and internal ethnic coherence far lower than Ukraine’s, no one argues that the independence of Switzerland is illegitimate and that it should assimilate into Germany, France, and Italy. Claims advanced nullifying the independence of Ukraine on ethnic grounds are also absurd when considering the demographics of the Baltic nations. Several Baltic states contain more ethnic Russians by population than Ukraine, but like Ukraine, each has its own distinctive ethnic, linguistic, and religious traditions that make them distinct political and cultural entities.
There is a clear reason why Russia and its domestic and foreign partisans claim that Ukraine as an independent entity is impossible. This narrative plays into a pernicious Russian and Soviet attempt to eliminate local traditions through tyrannical acts of depopulation and political demographic manipulation to realize dreams of imperial domination. The elimination of the native German population from the Kaliningrad exclave (once known as East Prussia) and their replacement with ethnic Russians remains the most perfect and least discussed exemplar of this strategy. To support the argument that Ukraine has no separate identity, or is split to such a degree that an identity cannot be established, is to do nothing less than serve as an apologist for this tradition of political demographic manipulation.
Extended properly, the argument extends Russian hegemony well beyond the borders of Ukraine and places Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Moldova all within Russian sovereignty. There seems little doubt that these states will be Russia’s next target should it succeed in its mission to assimilate Ukraine, allowing it to rebuild the Soviet and Romanov Empire. Eventually, Russian claims could extend as far west as Poland. While this may seem absurd today, historically it is anything but. Russia used similar arguments to those it currently advances to support Ukrainian annexation to reinforce conquest of Poland throughout all of modern history until Poland managed fully to escape Russia’s grasp with the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. Those who refuse to see the maximalist posture in Russia’s current expansionist aggression are either ignorant of or willfully blind to the modern history of the region.
This history merely sets the background for disclosing the serious weaknesses in Dr. Smith’s essay. Examining his inapt analogies closes the argument. While it is facile to draw comparisons between NATO action in and around Ukraine with Russian acts of aggression, these could not be more dissimilar.
Dr. Smith refers to the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovytch in 2013 as if his regime were an expression of popular will that NATO iniquitously squelched. This is factually incorrect. While he is right that the Ukrainian president wished to align himself with Russia, he neglects the fact that the Euromaidan protests that ultimately led to the collapse of President Yanukovytch’s government were part of a popular uprising emerging from the Ukrainian people themselves. It was, in other words, an entirely autochthonous and democratic action. Dr. Smith, in fact, commits the cardinal sin of Putin’s American apologists: he speaks about what tyrants want and begs the question of whether their desires align with what the people want. An inquiry into the democratic aspects of the Ukrainian situation makes it clear that they do not want alignment with Russia. Surveys show that only 17 percent of Ukrainians have a positive view of Russia. Assuming all Ukrainians disapproving or neutral on Russia oppose annexation and at least some of those who view Russia positively do as well, the feeling against Russian annexation is greater than 83%. To say that these facts show a mixed picture of Ukrainians’ desire for independence is to play the game of authoritarians.
One can, of course, point to statements made by NATO diplomats in the country during the protests that show the alliance ranged itself along with the Ukrainian people, but diplomats make many statements in many different situations. Exhortations without supporting action mean little. China and Russia constantly opine far more vehemently about our elections than American diplomats endorsed the Euromaidan. America only objects when such opinions transgress the line of expression into action. Dr. Smith blithely ignores the fact that while the US did not meddle in the Ukrainian protests (and he patently offers no proof to the contrary), the Russians have demonstrably attempted to interfere in American elections. There is in fact a difference between conversation and action. Expression is not interference. Only interference is interference. This confusion is one of the key tools of equivocating sophistry.
Dr. Smith also draws comparisons between lawful NATO operations in Ukraine with hypothetical similarities against the US. He ignores the fact that Russia regularly engages in military operations with great territorial proximity to the United States. Alaska and Siberia are located only a few miles away from each other and Russian naval and air operations routinely occur within close proximity to American territory. The US Air Force routinely intercepts Russian flights that enter American air space, flights undertaken with the express intention to communicate hostile capabilities. The Russian navy patrols with submarine and surface ships areas of territory whose proximity is directly calculated to inflame an American response. Putin, far from an innocent victim of NATO aggression, is easily a great player of aggressive realpolitik himself.
Dr. Smith also ignores the fact that the naval exercises NATO countries have undertaken in the Black Sea are in exact accord with international agreements establishing NATO’s right to do so. Agreements like the Montreux Convention clearly establish what militaries can and cannot do in the Black Sea and the area of the straits entering it. Contrary to Dr. Smith’s implications, it is in fact Russia herself who in recent years has repeatedly and unapologetically violated these conventions. He also ignores the massive military build-up Putin has created along the Ukrainian border under the cover of his own military exercises, forces that unlike the NATO groups have remained long past any reasonable need for training and are actually poised to invade the country. Of course, also unmentioned is the fact that no international treaty or agreement exists that could possibly justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. That annexation did violate agreements, however.
Dr. Smith further ignores the many conciliar postures that NATO and the US have taken in regard to Russia, postures that have always failed to prevent Russian aggression. Were it not for concern and out of respect for Russia, Ukraine would have long ago entered NATO and potentially even the EU along with the Baltic States. The US government long postponed plans to place anti-ballistic missiles in Poland, missiles intended to intercept potential Iranian launches. NATO has in fact repeatedly abstained from and acquiesced to Russian demands in order to preserve peace, yet every time it does so, Putin takes advantage of the alliance’s amicability.
Dr. Smith finally draws a comparison between Ukraine and Canada, asking how we would feel if Russia engaged in operations in Lake Ontario. Aside from the above observation that Russia in fact does the equivalent, his mistake on this point is instructive. For most of American history, US political leaders did consider Canada a major national security threat. Not until the beginning of the twentieth century did the US cease to imagine potential British incursions against it. Until that time, Britain was in fact considered by America’s government as her greatest potential military adversary. In response to these concerns, America engaged in extended and deep diplomatic missions that highlighted the connection and mutual interests of the UK and US, forging one of the tightest alliances in world history. In one hundred years, these countries went from potential adversaries to a position where British soldiers actually occupy positions within the chain of command of American military organizations (e.g. CENTCOM).
Russia, if Putin were truly interested in peace, could take advantage of this precedent. He could make productive alliances that secure his interests and global peace. Instead, not only does he threaten powers he sees as susceptibly weak, he is incapable of even forming mutually beneficial agreements with otherwise friendly neighbors like Belarus, a nation that has repeatedly postponed agreements of extensive cooperation out of mistrust of Russian intentions.
Defending Ukraine is moreover about more than Ukraine itself. In defending Ukraine, NATO defends an international order that has presided over an unprecedented decrease in war and violence. After the miserable crucibles of the twentieth century, the order that emerged from World War II has ushered in the longest period of peace in Europe since the Roman Empire. However, the fact that territorial wars are now unimaginable in Europe is not fixed like a law of physics. Instead, that impossibility has been earned over the past several decades through hard work, the sacrifice of many nations’ avarice to discipline their peoples to peace. It was not inevitable and it is not impossible to overthrow. Putin seeks to do just that. If he is allowed to succeed, if he is allowed to annihilate the independence of a neighbor against that neighbor’s wishes, then the hard gains of NATO vanish like smoke in the wind. If Russia can absorb Ukraine, what stands in the way of China absorbing Taiwan? The revanchism of Hong Kong, Crimea, and South Ossetia pull us to the precipice of a cliff that war in Ukraine will push us precipitously over. It is, in other words, for the sake of global peace that NATO must defend Ukraine, not just for the sake of Ukraine itself.
If Russia finds itself hemmed in by hostility, it is not because Russia is an innocent party threatened by unreasonable, imperialist western aggression (no matter how much it protests this). Instead, it is a direct result of Putin’s authoritarian actions at home and abroad. Putin, not NATO, has invited this conflict through revanchist actions not just in Ukraine, but in Georgia as well. Unfortunately, things didn’t have to be this way. There was a diplomatic thaw between NATO and Russia twenty years ago. It was not, however, NATO that ended that relationship. Putin, no longer seeing the thaw to be in his best interests, destroyed those connections. Unfortunately, now, he finds a number of Americans willing to follow his lead in rewriting history to the autocrats’ advantage. Regardless of his feelings on alliances, I find it hard to imagine George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or any of the Founders siding with such dishonorable, war-mongering tyranny.