Column

Op-ed: Putin’s viewpoint, more victim than villain

By Glenn Sacks

Yes, Russian president Vladimir Putin would make a good James Bond villain. He’s a former KGB agent, and his attitude towards civil liberties often reflects this. Journalists and politicians who oppose him occasionally turn up dead. But his view that the US is vilifying Russia, inflating the Russian “threat”, and acting aggressively towards his country is essentially correct.

Fueled by ignorance and cheap electoral politics, American politicians on both sides of the aisle are pushing us towards conflict with the country with the world’s 2nd largest nuclear arsenal.

Congressional Republicans and conservative media warn against Putin and the Russia “threat”. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) says Biden needs to draw “red lines” against Russia, which has sought to “remake the map of Europe.” Biden condemns Russia’s “illegal invasion of Ukraine” and pledges to “stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts”.

In fact, it is the US and our Western European allies who have been “aggressive” and have “remade” the map of Europe--and broke our word in so doing.

In the 1989-1991 period the Soviet Union let practically its entire empire go, without a shot being fired—an action almost unprecedented in human history.

It did so partly because of a deluge of American and Western European promises that NATO would not, in the words of then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, “move one inch eastward.” Jack Matlock, the US ambassador to Russia at that time, said Russian leaders were given a "clear commitment." The long list of such assurances is detailed in declassified U.S., Soviet, German, British and French documents released in 2017.

For example, according to the German record of the February 10, 1990 conversation between foreign ministers Hans-Dietrich Genscher of Germany and Eduard Shevardnadze of the USSR, Genscher told Shevardnadze "…one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east…As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general."

Shevardnadze replied that he believed "everything the minister [Genscher] said."

When the prominent German magazine Der Spiegel examined classified documents and interviewed those involved in these talks, they concluded, “there was no doubt that the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia,” members of the Soviets’ Warsaw Pact alliance.

Today, those three former Warsaw Pact countries and two others, in addition to three former Soviet Republics and several formerly neutral countries, are members of NATO.

Putin and his ally, former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, have bitterly—and with ample basis—complained about this Western duplicity. Their complaints have been echoed by former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

This needless provocation has also been criticized by former CIA Director Robert Gates, influential diplomat-historian George Kennan, whose "Long Telegram" from Moscow in 1946 played a major role in launching the US’ Cold War “containment” policy, and numerous others.

Now Ukraine, which since the early 1990s has helped NATO in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean, and is a participant in NATO’s Defender-Europe 2021, is again moving towards joining NATO. This is in response to the Russia “threat,” allegedly evidenced by Russia’s 2014 takeover of the Crimean Peninsula.

In 2014, the US-backed Maidan Revolution overthrew a pro-Russian Ukrainian government and replaced it with a pro-Western one. Russia, already ringed with US military bases in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and the USSR’s former Central Asian republics, as well as NATO bases stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic Republics, anticipated this leading to a NATO naval base at Sevastopol in the Black Sea. Fearing this strategic disaster, Russia seized Crimea and reincorporated it into Russia.

Crimea is a part of Russia and has been since 1783. Russians there outnumber Ukrainians over 4-1.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred the Crimea to the Ukraine administratively in 1954, partially as a sop for Stalin’s horrific mistreatment of Ukraine. It was meaningless, as Ukraine and Russia were both part of the USSR, whose demise nobody could have anticipated. But when the USSR collapsed and Russia was in chaos, Ukraine declared independence and took Crimea with it.

Soon there was a movement in Crimea to reunite with Russia, a movement repressed by the Ukrainian government. Putin is an amoral opportunist who certainly did not go into Crimea to help the Crimean people, however, most Crimeans did support a union with Russia, and voted accordingly in an election held over Crimea's new status.

Nonetheless, the Obama Administration angrily denounced Russia’s action, and imposed sanctions. US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russia’s “incredible act of aggression” and somehow kept a straight face as he said, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”

Kerry apparently forgot that the last time a major power actually did exactly this was the US’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Then-Senator Kerry voted in favor of the Iraq Resolution in 2002, which led to the Iraq War.

One might also compare the casualty counts of the Russian and American actions. Russia’s led to three deaths. America’s led to over 100,000.

Some of Biden’s statements on Russia have a similarly unreal quality. In a press conference after his summit with Putin, Biden actually said, “How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with the elections directly of other countries, and everybody knew it? What would it be like if we engaged in activities that [Putin] is engaged in?

The US, of course, has interfered in numerous elections and sponsored dozens of coup d’états since World War II, at times even overthrowing democratically-elected governments. A common joke in Latin America is “Why haven't there been attempted coups in Washington DC? Because there's no US Embassy there.”

During the surreal “Russia hacked the election” outrage after the 2016 US presidential election, I was amazed that American media and leaders didn’t seem to remember that the US had intervened in Russia’s June 1996 election—and bragged about it. In fact, the headline of the July 15, 1996 issue of TIME magazine read, “Yanks to the Rescue! The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.”

In events somewhat similar to the Crimean situation, after the Maidan Revolution the new Ukrainian government’s anti-Russian rhetoric and de-Russification policies antagonized the largely Russian populations of Donetsk and Luhansk, which together are known as the Donbas. Russian is the main language of 75% of residents in Donetsk and nearly 70% in Luhansk. The Russian separatist movement in the Donbas, which lies along Ukraine’s border with Russia, has been supported by Russia.

Numerous other sketchy claims are trotted out against Putin and Russia. Last summer claims surfaced that Russia had been paying “bounties” to the Taliban for each American soldier killed. Democrats demanded Trump take action against Russia, yet the story, always sketchy, has been largely discredited. The US government acknowledges that the intelligence community—whose credibility when alleging foreign aggression has long been strongly suspect--had only “low to moderate confidence” in the bounty allegations.

Claims that Russian “hacked” the 2016 US presidential election have not held up well either.

Russia has been criticized extensively for the aid it gives to Cuba and Venezuela, with the Voice of America denouncing Russia’s “Malign Influence” in those countries. Why Russia shouldn’t have the right to relationships with those countries is not explained.

One recent accusation concerns “Havana Syndrome”—sonic attacks on American diplomatic personnel. In 2017 Trump declared, “Cuba is responsible” for the attacks. Now it’s Russia that is blamed instead.

And of course, there’s always the pretense that the US is acting against Russia because American leaders care about its “human rights” violations—a concern that curiously rarely applies to friendly regimes, even if they’re far worse than Putin’s.

American media and leaders on both sides of the aisle speak of “Russian aggression” as if it’s a fact. Type in ‘Putin "Russian aggression"’ on Google News and you’ll get nearly 30,000 results, and another 350,000+ on Google. They’re beating the drums for war.

Putin blames the US for “the steps that deteriorated our relations,” explaining, “It was not us who introduced sanctions against us, it was the United States who did that on every occasion and even without grounds…We don't have any issues with the U.S…But it has an issue with us. It wants to contain our development.”

Putin’s right.