Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus
If you want a sleepless night -- or month -- just listen to what Western security officials are saying these days about a possible confrontation with Russia.
"If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States,"warned General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, "I'd have to point to Russia."
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former head of NATO, similarly inveighed about impending regional conflict. "Putin wants to restore Russia to its former position as a great power," Rasmussen insisted. "There is a high probability that he will intervene in the Baltics" as he has in Ukraine.
It's not just defense secretaries and generals employing language that conjures up the ghosts of the past. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton used a "Munich" analogy in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a common New York Times description of Russia is "revanchist." These two terms take the Ukraine crisis back to 1938, when fascist Germany menaced the world.
Yet comparing the civil war in Ukraine to the Cold War -- let alone Europe on the eve of World War II -- has little basis in fact. Yes, Russia is certainly aiding insurgents in eastern Ukraine, but there's no evidence that Moscow is threatening the Baltics, or even the rest of Ukraine. Indeed, it's the West that's been steadily marching east over the past decade, recruiting one former Russian ally or Soviet republic after another into NATO.
Nor did the Russians start the Ukraine crisis.
It began when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned down a debt deal from the European Union that would have required Kiev to institute draconian austerity measures, reduce its ties to Russia, and join NATO through the back door. In return, Ukraine would have received a very modest aid package.
Moscow, worried about the possibility of yet another NATO-allied country on its border, tendered a far more generous package. While the offer was more real politik than altruism, it was a better deal. When Yanukovych took it, demonstrators occupied Kiev's central square.
In an attempt to defuse the tense standoff between the government and demonstrators, France, Germany, and Poland drew up a compromise that would have accelerated elections and established a national unity government. It was then that the demonstrations turned into a full-scale insurrection.
There's a dispute over what set off the bloodshed -- demonstrators claim government snipers fired on them, but some independent investigations have implicated extremist neo-Nazis in initiating the violence. However, instead of supporting the agreement they'd just negotiated, the EU recognized the government that took over when Yanukovych was forced to flee the country.
To the Russians this was a coup, and they're not alone in thinking so. George Friedman, head of the international security organization Stratfor, called it "the most blatant coup in history," and it had Western fingerprints all over it. In a phone call better remembered for an impolitic F-word, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt were recorded talking about how to "midwife" the overthrow of Yanukovych and whom to put in his place.
Besides making Kiev a counter proposal on resolving its debt crisis, no one has implicated the Russians in any of the events that led up to the fall of Yanukovych. In short, Moscow's subsequent annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, while certainly aggressive, were largely reactive to events that Russia sees as deeply affecting its security, both military and economic.
Somehow these events have morphed into Nazi armies poised on the Polish border in 1939, or Soviet armored divisions threatening to overrun Western Europe during the Cold War. Were it not for the fact that nuclear powers are involved, these images would be almost silly: NATO spends 10 times what Moscow does on armaments, and there's not a military analyst on the planet who thinks Russia is a match for the United States.