Rising tension between the U.S and Russia should be a cause for concern among all Americans. Although recently the tensions between the nuclear armed powers have slightly eased, due to the Russian pullback of troops along the Ukrainian border, the general trajectory of the relationship points toward eventual conflict. Only “the people” can restrain the movement towards war. To enable this restraint, it is perhaps helpful to view U.S.-Russia relations from the Russian perspective. Let me qualify the following by stating that I am not an expert on U.S.-Russia relations; but from a layperson’s perspective, this is what I see.
Russia has been pushed around by the West since its dissolution in December of 1991. At that time, it’s state dominated command economy was collapsing and there began a movement towards a free market capitalist system, first gradually during the late 1980’s under the Soviet leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, then very rapidly under Russia’s first democratically elected President Boris Yeltsin.
During the economic collapse of the early 1990’s, western nation’s offered aid to Russia, largely through the G7–a group of advanced industrialized nations–and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), contingent on the dismantling of the Russian state dominated economic system. The transformation from the old to the new system, within Russia, was highly controversial with President Boris Yeltsin pushing for reform while Russia’s parliamentary body, consisting largely of communist and ultranationalist, resisted the rapid transformation. This deeply divided the Nation.
It would be hard to overestimate the hardship this transformation imposed on the Russian people. Widespread homelessness, child and adult prostitution, increased rates of alcoholism, decreased life expectancy, all accompanied the transformation to the western style economic model. From 1991-1998, during the western aided transformation, Russia’s GDP fell nearly 40%. During the 1996 presidential election, the G7 and the IMF pumped billions of dollars into the Russian economy in order to salvage a Yeltsin victory from a stiff challenge by a communist opponent: election interference by any measure.
The transformation left deep scars on the Russian people and depending on one’s view of the transformation, generated resentment against the West. Many among the older generation, the intelligentsia, and workers, longed for a return to Soviet times. Conspiracy theories abound which suggest the West deliberately undermined the Russian state. One argument states that current President Putin’s hybrid authoritarian democratic political model, where the U.S. currently seems to be headed, was an effort to establish order out of the chaos of the 1990’s. The U.S. condemns Putin’s trend towards authoritarianism, but little such condemnation existed in 1993 when U.S. President Clinton supported the free market oriented Yeltsin’s unconstitutional dissolution of the Russian parliament which had resisted the transformation to the capitalist model. It is, of course, possible that Russia would have suffered equal economic hardship had Russia persisted on its state dominated path, but this matters little, as people were suffering, and the suffering was due to the then current transformation process.
During West-East negotiations over the reunification of Germany during 1990, Russian concerns about NATO expansion eastward towards the Russian border were allayed when U.S. Secretary of State James Baker assured the Russians that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward” towards the Russian border. By the end of the 1990’s decade, NATO expanded: eastward, to include three former Soviet Republics; since then, it has expanded eastward to include eleven more states, most former Soviet Republics, three of which: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, lie directly on a Russian border. NATO has a working relationship with both Georgia and Ukraine, both former Soviet Republics, which also lie on the Russian border, and both of which are working towards NATO membership. Russians find NATO expansion to its borders as threatening and in breach of Western promises to not expand “one inch eastward” towards the Russian border.
Russia’s 2014 forceful annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, transferred to Ukraine by Russia during 1954 under former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, can be seen as an effort to protect both the Russian border, as well as the Russian Black Sea fleet partially housed on the Crimean peninsula. Further, both Ukraine and Georgia have experienced western friendly coups, both with some level of U.S. support.
Most recently, in response to continued tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the U.S. had threatened to float two naval warships into the Black Sea which would be the equivalent of Russian warships sailing into the Gulf of Mexico. How do you think that might work out?
The former great power undoubtedly feels threatened and humiliated by the above turn of events. Russia views itself as a world power which has been undermined by the neoliberal economic order. Russian bashing among U.S. politicians generally works well across the full political spectrum, although somewhat less so among conservatives since Trump; and the U.S. libertarian movement generally opposes international entanglement and war.
There is no effort here to suggest Russia is holier than its western counterparts. Hierarchy is hierarchy and it knows no other way than domination and submission. If the tables were turned, perhaps the Russians would act in the same manner. This, assuredly, is the view of the hierarchical actors who play this nonsensical game. Just as assuredly, however, there are people in Russia, as in the U.S., who desire peace. It is hard for the peacemakers to rise to power when there is so much turmoil in the world. To even speak of peace is often viewed as naive. If, in the U.S, a significant peace movement were to evolve, this would allow room for the Russians to do the same. If not, we are doomed to “solutions” by war. There seems to be no shortage of those who belong to the war movement.
To protest the U.S. movement towards war is not an unpatriotic act. It is, perhaps, the highest act of patriotism. Young people, who often join the military in an effort to fulfill a deep sense of idealism, should not be subject to the loss of life and limb in order to fulfill the political and ideological ambitions of a cynical ruling elite. To love one’s nation is to embrace the potential of its youth, not to sacrifice its youth to the gods of material and political ambitions. It is time for the insanity to end.