Learning the Wrong Lessons from Ukraine

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, April 11, 2022

Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and was attacked. Therefore every country should have nuclear weapons.

NATO didn’t add Ukraine, which was attacked. Therefore every country or at least lots of them should be added to NATO.

Russia has a bad government. Therefore it should be overthrown.

These lessons are popular, logical — even unquestionable truth in many minds — and catastrophically and demonstrably wrong.

The world has had incredibly good luck and a ridiculously high number of near misses with nuclear weapons. The mere passage of time makes nuclear apocalypse extremely likely. The scientists who maintain the Doomsday Clock say the risk is now greater than ever before. Exacerbating it with even more proliferation only adds to the risk. For those who rank the survival of life on Earth above any aspect of what that life looks like (for you can waive no flag and hate no enemy if you don’t exist) eliminating nuclear weapons has to be a top priority, just like eliminating climate-destroying emissions.

But what if every country that gives up nukes gets attacked? That would be a steep price indeed, but it isn’t the case. Kazakhstan also gave up its nukes. So did Belarus. South Africa gave up its nukes. Brazil and Argentina chose not to have nukes. South Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, and Japan have chosen not to have nukes. Now, it is true that Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program and was attacked. And it is true that numerous countries lacking nuclear weapons have been attacked: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, etc. But nuclear weapons don’t completely stop India and Pakistan attacking each other, don’t stop terrorism in the U.S. or Europe, don’t prevent a major proxy war with the U.S. and Europe arming Ukraine against Russia, don’t stop a major push for war with China, don’t prevent Afghans and Iraqis and Syrians fighting against the U.S. military, and have as much to do with starting the war in Ukraine as their absence does with failing to prevent it.

The Cuban missile crisis involved the U.S. objecting to Soviet missiles in Cuba, and the USSR objecting to U.S. missiles in Turkey and Italy. In more recent years, the U.S. has abandoned numerous disarmament agreements, maintained nuclear missiles in Turkey (and Italy, Germany, Netherlands, and Belgium), and placed new missile bases in Poland and Romania. Among Russia’s excuses for invading Ukraine was the positioning of weaponry nearer its border than ever before. Excuses, needless to say, are not justifications, and the lesson learned in Russia that the U.S. and NATO will listen to nothing other than war is as false a lesson as those being learned in the U.S. and Europe. Russia could have supported the rule of law and won over much of the world to its side. It chose not to.

In fact, the United States and Russia are not parties to the International Criminal Court. The United States punishes other governments for supporting the ICC. The United States and Russia defy the rulings of the International Court of Justice. The U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in 2014, the U.S. and Russian efforts to win over Ukraine for years, the mutual arming of conflict in Donbas, and the Russian invasion of 2022 highlight a problem in world leadership.

Of 18 major human rights treaties, Russia is party to only 11, and the United States to only 5, as few as any nation on Earth. Both nations violate treaties at will, including the United Nations Charter, Kellogg Briand Pact, and other laws against war. Both nations refuse to support and openly defy major disarmament and anti-weapons treaties upheld by most of the world. Neither supports the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Neither complies with the disarmament requirement of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the United States actually keeps nuclear weapons in five other nations and considers putting them into more, while Russia has talked of putting nukes in Belarus.

Russia and the United States stand as rogue regimes outside the Landmines Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Arms Trade Treaty, and many others. The United States and Russia are the top two dealers of weaponry to the rest of the world, together accounting for a large majority of weapons sold and shipped. Meanwhile most places experiencing wars manufacture no weapons at all. Weapons are imported to most of the world from a very few places. The United States and Russia are the top two users of the veto power at the UN Security Council, each frequently shutting down democracy with a single vote.

Russia could have prevented the invasion of Ukraine by not invading Ukraine. Europe could have prevented the invasion of Ukraine by telling the U.S. and Russia to mind their own business. The United States could almost certainly have prevented the invasion of Ukraine by any of the following steps, which U.S. experts warned were needed to avoid war with Russia:

  • Abolishing NATO when the Warsaw Pact was abolished.
  • Refraining from expanding NATO.
  • Refraining from supporting color revolutions and coups.
  • Supporting nonviolent action, training in unarmed resistance, and neutrality.
  • Transitioning from fossil fuels.
  • Refraining from arming Ukraine, weaponizing Eastern Europe, and conducting war rehearsals in Eastern Europe.
  • Accepting Russia’s perfectly reasonable demands in December 2021.

In 2014, Russia proposed that Ukraine align with neither the West nor the East but work with both. The U.S. rejected that idea and supported a military coup that installed a pro-West government.

According to Ted Snider:

“In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected on a platform that featured making peace with Russia and signing the Minsk Agreement. The Minsk Agreement offered autonomy to the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of the Donbas that had voted for independence from Ukraine after the coup. It offered the most promising diplomatic solution. Facing domestic pressure, though, Zelensky would need U.S. support. He did not get it and, in the words of Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, he was ‘thwarted by the nationalists.’ Zelensky stepped off the road of diplomacy and refused to talk to the leaders of the Donbas and implement the Minsk Agreements.

“Having failed to support Zelensky on a diplomatic solution with Russia, Washington then failed to pressure him to return to the implementation of the Minsk Agreement. Sakwa told this writer that, ‘as for Minsk, neither the U.S. nor the EU put serious pressure on Kyiv to fulfill its part of the agreement.’ Though the U.S. officially endorsed Minsk, Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told this writer, ‘they did nothing to push Ukraine into actually implementing it.’ The Ukrainians gave Zelensky a mandate for a diplomatic solution. Washington did not support or encourage it.”

While even U.S. President Barack Obama opposed arming Ukraine, Trump and Biden favored it, and now Washington has dramatically increased it. After eight years of assisting the Ukrainian side in a conflict in Donbas, and with branches of the U.S. military like the RAND Corporation producing reports on how to get Russia into a damaging war on Ukraine, the U.S. has refused any steps that might bring about a ceasefire and peace negotiations. As with its eternal belief that the President of Syria has been about to be overthrown any moment, and its repeated rejections of peace settlements for that country, the U.S. government, according to President Biden, favors the overthrow of the Russian government, no matter how many Ukrainians die. And the Ukrainian government seems to largely agree. Ukrainian President Zelensky reportedly rejected a peace offer days before the invasion on terms that will almost certainly ultimately be accepted by those — if any — left alive.

It’s a very well kept secret, but peace is not fragile or difficult. Getting a war started is extremely difficult. It requires a concerted effort to avoid peace. The examples that prove this claim include every past war on Earth. The example most often raised in comparison with Ukraine is the Gulf War of 1990-1991. But that example depends on erasing from our collective/corporate memory the fact that the Iraqi government was willing to negotiate withdrawal from Kuwait without war and ultimately offered to simply withdraw from Kuwait within three weeks without conditions. The King of Jordan, the Pope, the President of France, the President of the Soviet Union, and many others urged such a peaceful settlement, but the White House insisted upon its “last resort” of war. Russia has been listing what it would take to end the war on Ukraine since before the war began — demands that ought to be countered with other demands, not weaponry.

For those who have time to learn the history and understand that peace is perfectly possible, it may become easier to recognize the flaw in the self-fulfilling idea that NATO must be expanded even if it threatens Russia, and even if Russia attacks to prevent it. The belief that the Russian government would attack anywhere it could get away with no matter what, even if admitted into NATO and the EU, or even if NATO were abolished, is unprovable. But we don’t need to consider it wrong. It could very well be right. Certainly the same seems as likely to be true of the U.S. and some other governments. But refraining from expanding NATO would not have prevented Russia attacking Ukraine because the Russian government is a noble philanthropic operation. It would have prevented Russia attacking Ukraine because the Russian government would have had no good excuse to sell to the Russian elites, the Russian public, or the world.

During the 20th Century Cold War there were examples — some of them discussed in Andrew Cockburn’s latest book — of the U.S. and Soviet militaries causing high-profile incidents just when the other side was pursuing additional weapons funding from its government. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has done more for NATO than NATO could ever have done on its own. NATO’s support for militarism in Ukraine and Eastern Europe in recent years has done more for Russian militarism than anyone in Russia could have managed. The idea that what’s needed now is more of what created the current conflict amounts to confirming preconceptions in dire need of being questioned.

The idea that Russia has a bad government and should therefore be overthrown is a horrible thing for U.S. officials to be saying. Everywhere on Earth has a bad government. They should all be overthrown. The U.S. government arms and funds almost all of the worst governments in the world, and the easy first step of ceasing to do that is highly to be encouraged. But overthrowing governments without a massive popular and independent local movement unencumbered by outside and elite forces is an endlessly proven recipe for disaster. I’m still not clear what it is that rehabilitated George W. Bush, but am old enough to remember when even occasional news viewers had learned that overthrowing governments was a disaster even on its own terms, and that the top idea for spreading democracy would be to lead by example through trying it in one’s own country.

2 thoughts on “Learning the Wrong Lessons from Ukraine”

  1. “…For those who have time to learn the history …”

    “…In 2014, Russia proposed that Ukraine align with neither the West nor the East but work with both. The U.S. rejected that idea and supported a military coup that installed a pro-West government.”

    Mr. Swanson,
    One can dispute the Ukrainian characterization of the Maidan events as a ‘revolution of dignity’, but, what it was not, was a “military coup”.
    The Ukrainian military did no participate in any of the events in Kyiv in the winter of 2013-2014.
    In fact, the only military that did participate in 2014 was the Russian ‘little green men’ in Crimea. During the take-over of the peninsula, the Ukrainian military was explicit ordered not to resist for fear that it would spark a larger Russian ‘military operation’.
    Proof that it was the Russian military who took over the Crimean Rada was confirmed when Putin awarded a medal (google “medal For the Return of Crimea”) to the participants.
    An interesting fact about the medal is that on the back is printed the duration of the operation, which started on February 20, 2014, 2 days before Yanukovych fled the country. This indicates that Putin made the decision to annex Crimea while Yanukovych was still in power.
    If you take the time, it is important to get the history right.

    1. You’re using the term “military” rather strictly but perhaps are right I should not have used that term to describe what was nonetheless a U.S. -backed violent coup that led one leader to flee for his life and a new one (picked by the US) to be installed.

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