Administrative note: updated and edits to bring this post up to date, given current events in January 2022.
As the situation between the West and Russia continues to deteriorate over Ukraine, I hope everyone will take some time to understand how and why we got here and realize it’s not really about Russian “expansionism” and Putin wanting to “recreate the Soviet Union” or interfere with US internal politics, it is blow-back as a result of over two decades of the US manipulating and exploiting financially former Soviet Republics after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how US domestic politics got entangled with them. I hope you will take a few minutes to read it through, and not jump to a conclusion based on which political team you cheer for. As in so many things, the “news” media have utterly failed to provide jingoistic free context. Although this post is long, it’s still overly simplified, but at least it’s a start.
It’s hard to know where to begin this story, but to avoid writing a book we’ll start it with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and why the shadows of that event are now cast in the heart of US Politics, and have brought the world to the brink of a war that could easily go nuclear. By 1991 the Soviet economy was in shambles, and numerous deals were made to facilitate a peaceful transition between the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and the independent nation-states that resulted from the breakup. There are two key elements of that breakup that are of interest to us here: the disposition of the nuclear arsenal, and reforms of the “communist” economies (they weren’t really communist, and barely deserve the term “socialist,” but that’s the label that stuck). First let’s look at the post-Soviet borders and military situation …
To understand what happened in Ukraine in 2014, with the overthrow of the government, Russian intervention in Crimea, and ensuing civil war in the east, you have to understand the terms of the disposition of Soviet military bases and the Soviet nuclear arsenal. A lot of nuclear weapons were stationed in the Former Soviet Republic of Ukraine. And here we have to go a bit further back in history. The word “Ukraine” traces back to an old slavic word meaning “borderlands.” In fact, in modern Russian, the word “окраина” (pronounced “ah kra E na” means “outskirts.” Exactly which oblasti’ (administrative districts) comprised “Ukraine” had been in flux over the centuries. Culturally, at the risk of a lot of simplification, there are probably three major regions: East Ukraine (Donbass, Crimea) is culturally more Russian. Western Ukraine has strong Polish connections. In the middle is something that is a more “unique” Ukrainian culture. But to an extent these are all just variants within the south Slavic world, and blend together rather than having sharp divisions. Ukrainian nationalists would vehemently dispute this; a Ukrainian almost attacked me in Church as I was giving a talk on Orthodox Church History a few years ago, insisting there was actually no Russian culture, just some perversion of “true” Ukrainian culture! But the bottom line is that the borders of the nation-states resulting from the FSU were set as the boundaries of the former Soviet Republics – even if they made little historical or cultural sense.
In order to ensure control over the Soviet nuclear (and other WMD) arsenal, a deal was struck between the West (US/UK/NATO in particular), Russia, and Ukraine, as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan. Known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, it and other side agreements laid out a process with a few basic principles:
- All of the Soviet nuclear weapons would be turned over to Russia, and Ukraine/Belarus/Kazhakhstan would join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- The West and Russia would not interfere in the internal politics (especially through the use of economic pressure or military means) of the new nations.
- NATO would not expand into countries adjacent to Russia.
- Russia would continue to have unrestricted access and control of the major bases in Crimea, especially the Black Sea Fleet base of Sevastapol.
The west violated this agreement almost immediately; economic pressure and attempts to separate the Former Soviet Republics from Russia were in progress before the ink was dry. Over time NATO expanded right up to the borders of Russia. Russia couldn’t and didn’t respond at first, largely because it was consumed with its own problems. Once Russia got back on its feet (no thanks to the US – see the economics discussion below), it began to more actively attempt to thwart those actions, and by the early 2010’s Ukraine had become a political (and sometimes literal) battleground between pro-Russian and pro-Western elements.
Another bit of this puzzle that would require a post of its own, but is vital to consider, is the Nazi connection to Ukrainian Nationalists. During World War II, the invading Germans were greeted as liberators by some Ukrainians (as well as groups in the Baltic republics) who wanted to be free of the Soviet Union. Already hating the Jewish people, they went “all in” with the Nazis and Nazi ideology, becoming some of the most anti-semetic, violent units in the German allied armies (yes, Germany had allies besides Italy). The SS would sometimes use Ukrainian units in the SS Division “Galizien” to do some of the dirty work even hardened German units were reluctant to undertake. With the communist takeovers after the war, many of these groups went underground and continued to resist the Soviets. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these groups emerged as “heroes” for resisting communism – but have never been held to account, or come to terms with, their Nazi past.
The sad fact is that many Ukrainian paramilitaries, nationalist organizations that the US supports and in recent years has been arming, and even elements of the Government itself, are the direct descendants of these unrepentant Nazi collaborators. Given the deep horrors inflicted on Russia by the invading Nazis, this is another element of Russian antagonism towards the US and the present Ukrainian Government: there is still no deeper insult in Russia than to be classified as a Fascist or Nazi. Yet it is these ultra-nationalist forces that the US has allied itself, especially in the era after the rise of Putin and his anti-corruption efforts (which will be discussed below)
The Euromaiden “revolution” or “coup,” depending on which side you’re on, created a major crisis in that the new, ultra nationalist Ukrainian government (at the urging of its US sponsors/advisers) started seriously threatening to take the bases in Crimea away from Russia. Anyone even remotely familiar with Russia would realize that was a red line that Russia could not possibly allow to be crossed. So Russia seized Crimea, on the (legally correct) grounds that the various accords undertaken during the breakup of the FSU were no longer valid. It is surprising (and internally Putin has come under criticism for this) that Russia did not take Donbass and eastern Ukraine as well, although at that time the military situation was not quite as favorable for Russia as it is today. A lot of bloodshed over the last 7 years could probably have been avoided if it had, but according to those around Putin, he was thinking that a more limited reaction would allow for negotiation, demonstrating that Russia doesn’t understand US politics any better than the US understands Russia.
In any event, two of the eastern regions (Oblasts), Luhansk and Donetsk, declared independence from the new Ukrainian government, and a brutal civil war ensued. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has been smoldering for 7 years now, and the misery inflicted on the civilian population (largely at the hand of the new regime) has been horrible. Culturally and linguistically, these regions are much closer to Russia, and the stated desire of the US government sponsored regime was ultimately to prohibit the teaching and speaking of Russian, and destroy the close cultural ties. In the last few years religion has also entered the equation since the West has even gone so far as to pressure the Patriarch of Constantinople (one of the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church) into creating a canonically questionable parallel church, led by an excommunicated bishop, to try to further split Ukrainians from Russians. Many people in the East (and, with respect to the OCU set up by Constantinople, across the country) want no part of it.
But (again!) that’s a long story and only partly relevant to the question at hand: why are US politicians so wrapped up in the Ukraine-Russia conflict? And the answer to that is simple: money.
This brings us to the second aspect: the post Soviet economy, and the radical, rapid, wholesale privatization that was prescribed/required in order to receive western aid. The FSU became a playground for various economists to experiment with their pet theories. It was a disaster. This article in The Nation from 1998 has some good background.
After seven years of economic “reform” financed by billions of dollars in U.S. and other Western aid, subsidized loans and rescheduled debt, the majority of Russian people find themselves worse off economically. The privatization drive that was supposed to reap the fruits of the free market instead helped to create a system of tycoon capitalism run for the benefit of a corrupt political oligarchy that has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars of Western aid and plundered Russia’s wealth.
— The Harvard Boys Do Russia, The Nation, May 1998
In other words, it was the US who created the “Oligarchs” and crony capitalism system that it now decries! It was common knowledge that Clinton Administration allies rigged the 1996 election, ensuring that Boris Yeltsin would win over the communist candidate Zyuganov. The history of Yeltsin and his evolution from patriot to puppet is a short and sad one. The rise of Vladimir Putin in that environment (and the US role in his ascendance) is worthy of a separate post. But the epic corruption and looting of that time frame, from 1992 to 2001 or so, sets the stage for what has followed. By some recent estimates (such as in Tikhomirov’s “The Political Economy of Post-Soviet Russia”), at least hundreds of Billions, perhaps even trillions of dollars were looted from Russia during that time frame.
It’s hard to overstate the resentment against the West over this. Russians see how the US treated Germany and Japan after World War II, and compare that with “aid” and “reforms” inflicted on them after the US “won” the cold war, see what was done in the looting of their country and the lawlessness that resulted, and are justifiably angry at the west, especially the US. Putin has been, and remains, popular in large part because he has brought order back to the country, and has put a stop to the worst of the looting and corruption. He is extremely intelligent, and a Russian patriot with a keen sense of history. The comic-book depictions in the US media are simply not helpful in trying to understand the situation. That is not to defend him (my thoughts on the Russian President are complex), I’m just trying to point out that from the perspective of the average Russian who survived the 1990’s, Putin rescued them from the chaos. He put a stop to the worst of the looting, and restored order within the country. But in doing so, he also cut off a lot of the massive cash and resource flows out of Russia and into the west, especially into the coffers of US vulture capitalists. And that pissed off a lot of people in the west and their partners in Russia who were making money off of it. Again, this is just a summary; the implicit Putin “deal” with the remaining Oligarchs is complex and has created ongoing corruption problems, but the essence is that it’s ok to make obscene amounts of money as long as you don’t harm Russian National Security, and don’t create a political challenge. One could probably find similar (if more subtle) “deals” in the US, but that’s another post …
By the mid-2000’s, the fact that Russia was more in control of its vast resources, and the rise of oil prices that boosted its economy, was a major financial blow to the well-connected looters. In some ways Ukraine is a key, especially when it comes to energy. This is also a topic worthy of its own post (or book for that matter). In overly simple terms, the bottom line is the gas pipelines from fields in southern Russian and as far away as Kazakhstan are routed through Ukraine. Disrupting Ukrainian-Russian relations has the effect of hurting Russia economically. Russia is working to bypass Ukraine – which directly hurts a number of US interests, such as the Biden family, who are involved with Ukrainian energy companies. So fostering a revolution/coup in Ukraine was seen as a “win/win” by many in the US establishment: reducing Russian power and influence while boosting the profits of associates. It also explains some of the underlying reasons for the recent turmoil in Kazakhstan. In both cases, legitimate underlying popular concerns have been exploited in order to install leaders hostile to Russia and friendly to the US – even if they are not better (and in the case of Ukraine, clearly worse) than those there to begin with. And in both cases, the key are what are often called Oligarchs – those who ended up in control of the immense wealth trapped in the former Soviet Union.
While much is made in the US media about Russian or Ukrainian “Oligarchs,” and their offshore accounts and corruption, the thing left unsaid is that while some in the FSU did become “tycoons,” “oligarchs,” or “legitimate businessmen,” an awful lot of that money ended up in the hands of western financial institutions (who, were they in other countries, would likely be called oligarchs …). And that has distorted our economic and political systems.
The money that ended up in the system quickly found its way into the US political process. Thus, scratch the surface, you will find Russian or Ukrainian money behind many major US politicians. Now, I would be surprised if the vast majority are even dimly aware of that fact, any more than they are of Chinese money and influence within the US. But some, such as Donald Trump, the Clintons, and the Bidens, key congressional leaders such as Adam Schiff, and others, have had direct, active dealings with “legitimate businessmen” (aka Oligarchs, or Mafia, if you are running an attack ad) from the FSU, or via intermediaries like US companies that benefit from those relationships, especially in the influential energy and defense sectors. And it is hard to escape the conclusion that all of the above used their political offices to profit their allies (which is corrupt, but probably legal) or themselves and their families (which is corrupt, but maybe illegal). People like Bill Browder, who is running around singing the martyrdom of Sergi Magnitsky, attacking Putin, pushing sanctions, etc., made billions of dollars from the resources of the FSU – money that ultimately found its way in to various political campaigns. When the Putin administration cracked down on that form of corruption, it reduced a significant flow of funds into the western capital markets.
Now, perhaps, you can see why Putin and Russia is so hated by US leaders of both political stripes, and why Russia and Ukraine have become so central to US Politics. Like most things, it’s all about money and control of resources.
In my not-so-humble-opinion, I agree with Vladimir Putin when he said “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster (catastrophe) of the century. ” This misunderstood comment wasn’t a lament about the fall of communism, but over how the Russian people were treated, and the country looted. It’s sad; Russia should be a natural ally of the US and stabilizing force in the world, far more so than other countries with whom we have aligned (like Saudi Arabia). But instead of acting as we did after WW II with Germany and Japan, and work to build strong economies and democratic institutions in the FSU, the US acted opportunistically and with outright malice.
Those chickens – no, vultures – have now come home to roost in the form of a much more dangerous world, and severely damaged American internal institutions and political discourse in the United States.
The saddest thing to me is that the people of Ukraine have been caught in the middle of a geopolitical struggle. Many Ukrainians hoped they could form a bridge between Russia and Europe, maintaining their deep economic and cultural contacts with Russia while building contacts with Europe and the West. I’m sad to say that rather than take advantage of that unique opportunity, they were forced to choose, with the inevitable result being the civil war and now the Russian invasion. It didn’t have to be that way, and I’m angry over my country’s role in bringing us to this point.
Helpful hint and bit of insider trivia: whenever you hear someone say “The Ukraine” when referring to the country, especially those who smugly seem to make a point of it while defending the current Government of Ukraine, you can safely ignore them and feel free to tell them they are an idiot. I’ll spare you a lesson in Russian Grammar, but the short version is it’s wrong both grammatically and politically. This article discusses it from a somewhat biased point of view, but is still useful. Russian writers when translating to English often do call it “The Ukraine” precisely to be insulting. I happen to agree that the present nation-state of Ukraine is problematic and its present government somewhat illegitimate, and should probably split in to at least two. In the past I would have said that fragmenting Ukraine and redrawing the borders would not be in the top ten things to do, but at this point may be the least bad option given the blood already spilled. That said, with the invasion and aftermath, my thinking on the ultimate boundaries is evolving. While I suspect some won’t like this wording, using UN terminology there has been a form of “ethnic cleansing” going on in Ukraine for some time. The population has been changed due to both coerced migration and intense propagandizing/education depending on your perspective (and both sides are responsible). I’m pretty sure the old “novoroyssia” boundaries no long apply. I do think partition of the east and south within a Federal system would have been for the best in the 2010 time frame (and in fact the Minsk and Minsk 2 accords envisioned this). It might have worked late as 2014, but it may well be that ship has sailed and independence/absorption in Russia for Luhansk/Donetesk, and recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, may be the new stable end point, if there is one any more.