The possibility of a major European war that would lead to American involvement and a world-consuming nuclear war is greater now than at any time in history.
It is often said that what became known as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was the near-fatal moment that almost unleashed the rockets and atom bombs. But looking back, the nature of that confrontation and the quality of leadership at that time nearly assured stalemate and peaceful resolution. The present world dilemma, with mobilization of highly armed countries, maximum antagonism, and unstable and volatile leadership on all sides, makes the international situation profoundly worse.
A footnote to the events: at the time of the Cuban crisis, President John F. Kennedy was reading The Guns of August (1962) by American historian, Barbara Tuchman. A study of how World War I began, the book is a record of belligerent states and complex alliances that all tumbled and exploded into conflagration when a relatively small incident — the assassination of an Austrian duke by a Serbian nationalist — set the inexorable events in motion.
In the 1970s a number of scholars predicted that rising nationalist movements would begin to occur in Eastern Europe. With the decline of the socialist states in that region and the collapse of the Soviet Union, nationalist aspirations and identity began to fill an ideological void. In the former Yugoslavia, rival groups engaged in brutal warfare and mass murder. Various other national movements in Eastern Europe have created some independent states with vary mixed results.
Nationalism, everyone should understand, is no virtue in itself The United States was created by a nationalist revolution, but one that had a set of ideological goals. This was rare. Nationalism, more often, is narrow, zealous, and without political sophistication.
Ukranian nationalism is one of the later arriving movements within the orbit of the old Russian empire. It is worth noting that Ukraine has been a part of Russia for longer than the United States has been in existence. This might give us pause in making simple judgements. Ukranian history and culture, moreover, is convoluted, mercurial, and tortured. Just the kind of national situation where the United States excels at misunderstanding, blunder, and making things worse. The John McCain gaff of 2013 when he befriended a Ukranian nationalist who said he wanted to free his country from the “Jew-Bolskeviks in Moscow” is only a small example of the variety of things that can go wrong. Historically, in the short or long term, a lot has gone wrong with Ukranian nationalism and a lot more could go wrong.
So now the United States ballyhoos and broadcasts about the democratic and freedom-loving people of Ukraine. In a lifetime of observing the United States, I have heard all this before. Always defending freedom. And then the United States becomes a supporter of a dictator like Somoza in Nicaragua, or helps to sponsor military coups in Brazil and Chile. The motivation for the United States to support Ukranian independence had nothing to do with Ukraine. It was a way of attacking Russia. Ukraine was merely a pawn, and the Ukrainians, to their great cost, are probably just realizing this.
We are being told that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government are closing news outlets in that country. In the United States nothing needs to be closed. The no-think, no-ask rules are firmly in place. The failure of American media to question the Ukranian situation and American involvement is the worst news coverage I have ever seen.
The University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer is the small light in this news blackout. He has studied and written books on American foreign policy for decades, and some of his lectures are available on YouTube. His lecture on Ukraine and American involvement is a revelation.
He makes clear, in the first place (and despite assertions to the contrary), that Russia is not trying to reinvent the Soviet Union. Putin has repudiated Soviet history, ideology and behavior, countless times. Rather, in the age of expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with at least a half-dozen countries added in the last 25 years, Russia is clearly on the defensive. At one time it could be argued that NATO was an organization meant to counter the Soviet Union. Those days are long gone. NATO, as the present time, has an overwhelming military advantage over Russia. NATO is an aggressive military alliance with a single goal: intimidate Russia.
Putin and the Russians have said for over 15 years that they could not stand for a NATO country on their border; it represented too great a threat. John Mearsheimer has argued that neutral zones and “buffer states” (which he thinks should be the fate of Ukraine) add balance and safety in hostile situations.
Conspicuously, when the United States tried to get the former Soviet republic of Georgia into NATO in 2008, Russia attacked. Ukraine was the next country to be used by the United States, even when the outcome could have been predicted.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times on March 7, Boris Johnson said, “The truth is that Ukraine had no serious prospect of NATO membership in the near future … ” That is the truth? It is belied by the last series of meetings of NATO leadership. Late last year the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, cleared the way for Ukraine membership, saying that as a sovereign country it could do as it pleased. The U.S. advocated for membership, and Andri Yermak, an official of the Volodymyr Zelensky government, said Ukraine was “fully prepared and able to be a member of NATO.” This was in January. The Russians attacked in February. And the American media says in one great chorus that the Russian attack was “unprovoked.”
Which brings us back to the Cuban missile crisis. The American position at that time was that an alliance between the Soviet Union and the Cuba of Fidel Castro, which allowed for long-range missiles in Cuba, would not be tolerated. The United States was prepared to go to war. The sovereignty of Cuba did not matter. And now the Russians, with identical reasoning, have said a heavily armed NATO state with rockets that could hit Moscow in minutes, is not something they can allow.
I strongly recommend looking for the lectures by John Mearsheimer. He speaks with great authority. Also, the work of Barbara Tuchman is always insightful. One of her later books, The March of Folly, (1984) is a study of the destiny of nations and the way they sometimes do things against their own best interest, or get caught up in their own propaganda or delusional thinking with tragic consequences. Which may be the deeper meaning for all the nations involved in the present catastrophe.