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How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

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By Steve Weissman

If "generals always fight the last war," longtime critics of U.S. foreign policy too often fight past interventions, as many of my progressive colleagues are now doing with the escalating conflict in Ukraine. As one who wrote extensively on American and European promotion of Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 and Georgia's war with Russia in 2008, I suffer from the same syndrome.

(For my earlier symptoms, see "Uncle Santa and Ukraine's Orange-Colored Elves," "How Uncle Santa Diddles Democrats from Ukraine to Venezuela," "Big Bad Russkies and Nasty Neocons," and "Russian Jerks Meet Western Knee-Jerks.")

It's hard to blame us. Incriminating footprints in Ukraine look all too familiar, from Secretary of State John Kerry's complete lack of credibility on international law to phony democrats like the National Endowment of Democracy, conservative warmongers like John McCain, and neocon interventionists like Robert Kagan and his wife Victoria Nuland, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, who recently immortalized herself by declaring "f*ck the E.U."

We have so much to say on how Washington helped create the current mess. But, gotcha gets us nowhere. The question is how do we clean up the mess and defuse the crisis.

The beginning of wisdom is to move beyond the neocons. As toxic as they remain, Washington will only make the situation in the Ukraine worse unless progressives can help inoculate President Obama and his fellow Democrats against any lingering desire to bring Ukraine (and Georgia) into the NATO alliance. Nothing was more certain to bring thousands of Russian ground forces into the Crimea -- and to keep them there -- than the idea that Washington wants to have NATO troops right on the Russian border and in spitting distance of the country's historic Black Sea naval base in the Crimean port of Sebastopol.

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Many neocons know this and have systematically tried to promote a new Cold War. How better to guarantee new procurement contracts for their longtime allies in the military-industrial complex? How more timely to sidetrack Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's proposal to cut back Pentagon spending?

It's unlikely that Obama was playing the same game, not with his dependence on the Russians to curb chemical weapons in Syria and reach a nuclear agreement with Iran. But how could the president and his national security team have failed to realize the provocation of covertly promoting regime change in the Ukraine and helping bring to power a new government that proclaims its desire to join NATO? What the hell were they thinking? Were they thinking at all?

The immediate need is for Obama, Kerry, Hagel, and NATO officials to undo the provocation and reject -- both publicly and privately -- any prospect of Ukraine (or Georgia) ever joining NATO. Period.

Congenital nay-sayers will insist with their inbred certainty that this could never happen. I suggest they look at Zbigniew Brzezinski's recent article in the Financial Times and his March 2nd appearance on Fareed Zakaria's GPS. Formerly National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, the Polish-born Brzezinski is a vintage Cold Warrior who urged arming the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan, even though he expected it to provoke a Russian invasion, which it did. Unreformed, he is now urging NATO to deploy forces in Central Europe, including U.S. airborne units.

But even this bear-baiting hardass understands the need to give Putin "options to avoid conflict," and the top of his list remains what he calls a "Finland Option," which is a guarantee that Ukraine not participate in any military alliance. If Zbig can see the logic, so can Barack.

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The second step is to shush all the talk of punishing the Russians for responding to our provocation. Yes, Putin can be a real thug, but the need is to cut back the confrontation and work with him diplomatically to eliminate an extremely dangerous situation. The more Obama and the Democrats try to look McCain tough, the more likely the situation on the ground will get worse, from the movement of Russian troops into the rest of Eastern Ukraine and an open civil war to a new Cold War that -- as AIPAC and the neocons want -- will sink any hope of cooperation on Syria and Iran.

The Europeans are beginning to understand this and look unlikely to back Obama and Kerry in their call for economic sanctions. "f*ck Who?" This lack of support alone should cool Washington's ardor to look tough.



A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

 

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