Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen
Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine The Nation Stephen F. Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University. His books include “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War.”
Kiev’s siege of the Donbass, supported by the Obama administration, is escalating an already perilous crisis.
As The Nation has warned repeatedly, the unthinkable may now be rapidly unfolding in Ukraine: not just the new Cold War already under way but an actual war between US-led NATO and Russia. The epicenter is Ukraine’s eastern territory, known as the Donbass, a large industrial region heavily populated by Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens and closely tied to its giant neighbor by decades of economic, political, cultural and family relations.
The shoot-down of Malaysian jetliner MH17 on July 17 should have compelled the US-backed government in Kiev to declare a prolonged cease-fire in its land and air attacks on nearby cities in order to honor the 298 victims, give international investigators safe access to the crash site, and begin peace talks. Instead, Kiev, with Washington’s backing, immediately intensified its attacks on those residential areas, vowing to "liberate” them from pro-Russian "terrorists,” as it brands resisters in eastern Ukraine, killing more innocent people. In response, Moscow is reportedly preparing to send heavy weapons to the "self-defenders” of the Donbass.
Now, according to a story in The New York Times of July 27, the White House may give Kiev sensitive intelligence information enabling it to pinpoint and destroy such Russian equipment, thereby, the Times article also suggests, risking "escalation with Russia.” To promote this major escalation, the Obama administration is alleging, without firm evidence, that Russia is already "firing artillery from its territory into Ukraine.” Virtually unreported, however, is repeated Ukrainian shelling of Russia’s own territory, which killed a resident on July 13.
In fact, Kiev has been Washington’s military proxy against Russia and its "compatriots” in eastern Ukraine for months. Since the political crisis began, Secretary of State John Kerry, CIA Director John Brennan and Vice President Joseph Biden (twice) have been in Kiev, followed by "senior US defense officials,” American military equipment and financial aid. Still more, a top US Defense Department official informed a Senate committee that the department’s "advisers” are now "embedded” in the Ukrainian defense ministry.
Indeed, Kiev cannot wage this war on its own citizens—a UN spokesperson says nearly 5,000 civilians have been killed or wounded, which may constitute war crimes—without the Obama administration’s political, economic and military support. Having also created hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees, Ukraine is bankrupt, its industrial infrastructure damaged, and it is in political disarray, using ultranationalist militias and conscripting men up to 60 years of age.
All of this is unfolding in the context of Washington’s misleading narrative, amplified by the mainstream media, that the Ukrainian crisis has been caused entirely by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s "aggression.” In reality, his role has been mostly reactive:
In November 2013, the European Union, with White House support, triggered the crisis by rejecting Putin’s offer of an EU-Moscow-US financial plan and confronting Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, with an unnecessary choice between "partnership” with Europe or with Russia. The proposal was laden with harsh financial conditions as well as "military and security” obligations. Not surprisingly, Yanukovych opted for a considerably more favorable financial offer from Putin. Imposing such a choice on the president of an already profoundly divided country was needlessly provocative.
By February, street protests against Yanukovych’s decision turned so violent that European foreign ministers brokered a compromise agreement tacitly supported by Putin. Yanukovych would form a coalition government; Kiev street militias would disarm; the next presidential election would be moved up to December; and Europe, Washington and Moscow would cooperate to save Ukraine from financial collapse. The agreement was overthrown by ultranationalist street violence within hours. Yanukovych fled, and a new government was formed. The White House quickly endorsed the coup.
If any professional "intelligence” existed in Washington, Putin’s reaction was foreseeable. Decades of NATO expansion to Russia’s border, and a failed 2008 US proposal to "fast-track” Ukraine into NATO, convinced him that the new US-backed Kiev government intended to seize all of Ukraine, including Russia’s historical province of Crimea, the site of its most important naval base. In March, Putin annexed Crimea.
Also predictably, the Kremlin’s reaction to developments in Kiev further aroused the rebellion in southeastern Ukraine already under way against the February coup. Within weeks, Ukraine was in a civil war that threatened to become international.
Since April, Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have repeatedly called for a cease-fire and negotiations between Kiev and the rebels. Kiev, backed by the Obama administration, has refused to enact any cease-fire long enough to give negotiations a real chance, instead intensifying its war on its fellow citizens as "terrorists.” The White House, according to the Timesarticle, is considering a further escalation, possibly with more dire consequences.
This, too, is a matter of "intelligence,” if any is being heeded in Washington. For historical, domestic and geopolitical reasons, Putin—or any other imaginable Kremlin leader—is unlikely to permit the Donbass to fall to Kiev, and thereby, as is firmly believed in Moscow, to Washington and NATO. If Putin does give the Donbass defenders heavy weapons, it may be because it is his only alternative to direct Russian military intervention, as Moscow’s diplomatic overtures have been rejected. The latter course could be limited to deploying Russian warplanes to protect eastern Ukraine from Kiev’s land and air forces, but perhaps not. Kremlin hawks, counterparts to Washington’s, are telling Putin to fight today in the Donbass or tomorrow in Crimea. Or as the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center summarizes their position, "It is no longer just a struggle for Ukraine, but a battle for Russia.”
If the hawks on both sides prevail, it might well mean full-scale war. Has there been any other occasion in the modern history of American democracy when such a dire possibility loomed without any public protest at high levels or debate in the establishment media? Nonetheless, the way out is obvious to every informed observer: an immediate cease-fire, which must begin in Kiev, enabling negotiations over Ukraine’s future, the general contours of which are well known to all participants in this fateful crisis.