History is littered with “quicksand wars,” violent, perpetual conflicts exacting heavier tolls than originally forecast. Misread foes and unintended consequences become inextricable quagmires for rosy-scenario groupthink and military optimism. World War I, Vietnam, invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and America’s Civil War are prime examples, and with each new weapon promising decisive advantage during battle, civilian casualties (i.e., “collateral damages”) rise. If Russia and NATO-backed Ukrainian forces engage in total war, it could escalate into the worst European conflict since 1945. Experts estimate 50,000 or more civilian casualties, thousands of dead Russian and Ukrainian combatants, and millions of refugees flooding neighboring countries to survive.
Vladimir Putin’s a demagogue. Having previously annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, 150,000 Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s border squarely puts the looming crisis on his shoulders. Even if his show of strength is posturing, it’s already destabilized global economies. Germany, for instance, seems unwilling to ante-up Nord Stream 2 as a high-stakes poker chip; 1/3 of Russia’s natural gas exports in 2020 were purchased by Berlin. Hedging over prospects of war, financial investors have stock markets aflutter, undulations that usually increase profits for the rich and elevate oil prices. Should sanctions be imposed, Russian responses will trigger worldwide impacts on energy, banking and food. Ripple effects could even hinder international cooperation to keep global warming below 1.5ºC, mitigate climate change, and protect against SARS-CoV-2 and future pandemics.
The UN and global communities need to unite in unequivocal support of Ukrainian sovereignty, convincing Vladimir Putin to relent without the usual saber-rattling, drumbeats and oversimplification of the problem. Bellicose rhetoric underscored by “get tough” versus “appeasement” implications should be dropped and factors precipitating aggression rationally examined. Foremost is Moscow’s understandable concern about NATO-forged security relations between Ukraine and the U.S. which could transform its prior ally and buffer zone into a wall that’s closing-in.
Enormous sacrifices made during both World Wars effectively ended an era when Europe’s mightier nations dominated its smaller ones. Just as NATO (1949) formed a united front against Soviet geopolitical influence, the Warsaw Pact was a countermeasure against the U.S., Great Britain and France. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, Russian leaders emphasized concerns that former Soviet states, by joining NATO, could become surrogates for hostile military installations encircling Russia’s borders. At the time, the West, which once “intervened” in Russia’s Civil War, fighting Lenin and Trotsky Bolsheviks near Vladivostok, recognized the legitimacy of those concerns. In 1994, when Ukraine agreed to join the Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty by signing the Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the U.S., Great Britain and other nations agreed to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. Just as Finland, a “compassionately capitalist” social democracy that also borders Russia, overtly chooses not to join NATO, Ukrainians could similarly declare their neutrality. Rejecting NATO membership while committing to trade relations with Russia, as well as the West, could go a long way to defusing the conflict. But that’s a Ukrainian decision to make.
Putin may suffer Small Man Syndrome (a.k.a. a Napoleon Complex) years ago evidenced by “dog-dissing” remarks he directed at George and Laura Bush’s Scottish terrier, Barney. But it’s hypocritical for the U.S. to dismiss out-of-hand that Russia should have “spheres of influence” within which bordering countries are off-limits to foreign intrusion. For 200 years, our Monroe Doctrine has alleged, however dubiously, that America’s dominant power in the hemisphere conferred rights to intervene against any purported threaten to U.S. interests. On that pretense, we’ve overthrown and undermined scores of governments, even pushing the planet to the brink of nuclear war over Soviet missile installations in Cuba, Khrushchev’s tit for tat for U.S. missiles in Turkey. Yet, few Americans realize U.S. and other expeditionary forces fought and died in Siberia from 1918-1920 trying to restore Tsarist autocracies in Russia.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.