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War in Ukraine Feeds a War of Words in the U.S.

As we mark the centenary of the Great War this month, the crisis in eastern Ukraine continues to spiral out of control with no end to the bloodshed in sight. The fourth, and most recent, report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, covering the period between June 5 and July […]
Ukraine soldier Sloviansk

As we mark the centenary of the Great War this month, the crisis in eastern Ukraine continues to spiral out of control with no end to the bloodshed in sight. The fourth, and most recent, report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, covering the period between June 5 and July 15 2014, makes for depressing reading. Among many other findings, the report notes that most of the casualties between the 10th and 15th of July “have been the result of intense shelling of villages, towns and cities, the so-called ‘collateral damage’ to the fighting that is taking place in and around population centers…there has not been sufficient precaution taken to preventing death and injury to civilians.”

The report documents a series of “egregious human rights abuses” committed by the rebels in the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as a growing humanitarian crisis within Ukraine. According to the report, as of July 15, there were nearly 87,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), the majority of whom are women and children. The report documents a burgeoning backlash against the wave of IDP’s flooding western villages and towns “in particular, on social media, further dividing opinions between east and west.”

The report continues, lamenting the fact that “people trapped in areas controlled by the armed groups continue to be killed as the heavy shelling continues from both sides.” Yet, “neither side expressed any public willingness to come together to discuss a negotiated peace” though Ukrainian President Poroshenko has agreed to restore the ceasefire he abandoned on July 1 on conditions that would essentially disarm the rebels and hobble the flow of men and weaponry from Russia.

More worrying still are reports that Russia is in the process of abandoning the landmark 1987 INF Treaty. According to Professor Tom Nichols, “Moscow may be coming back to theater-range nuclear weapons as some sort of imagined equalizer against NATO … This is the Kremlin’s bizarre strategy of ‘nuclear de-escalation’, in which the use of just a few nuclear weapons convinces a putative ‘aggressor’ to back off.” This scenario is not so very far-fetched. Consider the following. What if, using the Responsibility-to-Protect doctrine as international legal cover, Putin decides, following the example NATO set in Libya in 2011, to institute a no-fly zone over Donetsk and Luhansk? Would NATO overtly send troops into Ukraine as a response, and if so what then? It is worth noting that in addition to what Professor Nichols tell us, that Moscow dropped its “no first-use” nuclear weapons policy in 1993. According to one estimate, Russia has roughly 1,800 operational tactical nuclear weapons.

All the while, the latest round of salvos in what Russia scholar Gilbert Doctorow has quite rightly described as an “uncivil war of words” over the crisis in Ukraine have continued to be fired. In June, a conference put together by Moscow State University Professor Ed Lozansky to discuss the current state of U.S.-Russian relations was ridiculed by a neoconservative activist as little more than a “pity party for the Kremlin’s die-hard American apologists” insinuating that the participants were little more than a motley band of anti-Semites and 9/11 “truthers.”

The smears have continued into the summer with a campaign of character assassination against longtime Russian studies professor Stephen F. Cohen continuing without surcease. Last week, a contributing editor to Reason magazine attempted to paint Prof. Cohen as an un-American Putin apologist in the Boston Globe (an argument easily demolished by Columbia University’s Robert Legvold in a letter to the Globe). A Salon film critic got in on the by-now tired act, and similar pieces aimed in Cohen’s direction have appeared in Slate and The Daily Beast. A New Republic writer labeled me an “extremist” for having the temerity to question the efficacy and utility of increased U.S. sanctions against Russia, a position, funnily enough, another one of TNR’s neo-Cold War warriors came around to endorsing less than a week later. TAC founders Pat Buchanan and Scott McConnell have also come in for their fair share of abuse.

The cause of the vehemence of these new Cold Warriors is not hard to divine. Some of them are natives of Russia, or have family and friends in Russia and Ukraine, or are offended by what they see as the regime’s scapegoating of Russia’s LGBT community. All in all it’s pretty understandable why they approach the current crisis in the indignant and self-righteous tone that they do. Their motives simply differ from the writers against which they employ their neo-McCarthyite tactics; their ultimate aim, which they will stop at nothing to effect, is regime change in Moscow. They evince a visceral loathing toward those of us unwilling to go along with their transformative project because they despise Mr. Putin and his brand of politics: a fusion of an all-too-ardent Russian nationalism with a species of religious fundamentalism.

I understand their distaste for that kind of politics, and share it. But their missionary fervor seems to crowd out what are normally pretty basic considerations, such as: Is there any evidence that sanctions are effective in changing the behavior of the regimes against which they are aimed? Does Ukraine represent a core or peripheral US national interest? Are we willing to risk war with Russia over Ukraine? If not, shouldn’t it be incumbent upon the U.S. and the EU to entice Kiev back to the negotiating table all the while encouraging Chancellor Merkel to lobby Mr. Putin to do the same?

Unsurprisingly, people with differing premises come up with different answers.  Meanwhile, a negotiated settlement in Ukraine looks further than ever away.



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