Ukraine’s defenders bravely oppose Russian aggression and shame the rest of the world and the UN Security Council for its failure to protect them. It is an encouraging sign that the Russians and Ukrainians are make calls in Belarus which could lead to a ceasefire. Every effort must be made to end this war before the Russian war machine kills thousands more of Ukraine’s defenders and civilians, forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee.
But there is a more insidious reality beneath the surface of this classic moral play, and that is the role of the United States and NATO in setting the stage for this crisis.
President Biden has called the Russian invasion “unprovoked“, but that is far from the truth. During the four days leading up to the invasion, the Armistice of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitored documented a dangerous increase in ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine, with 5,667 violations and 4,093 explosions.
Most were within the de facto borders of the People’s Republics of Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR), in line with incoming grenade shelling from Ukrainian government forces. With almost 700 OSCE ceasefire monitors on the ground, it is not credible that these were all “false flag” incidents staged by separatist forces, as US and British officials claimed.
Whether the shelling was just another escalation of the protracted civil war or the start of a new government offensive, it was indeed a provocation. But the Russian invasion has far exceeded all proportionate measures to defend the DPR and LPR from these attacks, making it disproportionate and illegal.
But in the larger context, Ukraine has become an unconscious victim and proxy in the resurgent American Cold War against Russia and China, where the United States has surrounded both countries with military forces and offensive weapons, withdrawn from a series of arms control treaties, and refused to negotiate resolutions on rational security issues raised by Russia.
In December 2021, following a summit between Presidents Biden and Putin, Russia presented one draft proposal for a new mutual security treaty between Russia and NATO, with 9 articles to be negotiated. They provided a reasonable basis for a serious exchange. The most relevant thing for the crisis in Ukraine was simply to agree that NATO would not accept Ukraine as a new member, which in any case is not on the table in the foreseeable future. But the Biden administration brushed aside the whole of Russia’s proposal as a non-starter, not even as a basis for negotiations.
So why was it so unacceptable to negotiate a mutual security agreement that Biden was ready to risk thousands of Ukrainian lives, though not a single American life, rather than trying to find a common ground? What does it say about the relative value that Biden and his colleagues place on American versus Ukrainian life? And what is this strange position that the United States occupies in today’s world that allows an American president to risk so many Ukrainian lives without asking Americans to share their pain and sacrifice?
The collapse of US relations with Russia and the failure of Biden’s inflexible brinkmanship triggered this war, and yet Biden’s policies “externalize” all pain and suffering so that Americans can, like another wartime president once said, “go about your business” and keep shopping. America’s European allies, who now have to house hundreds of thousands of refugees and face spiraling energy prices, should be careful to stay in line behind this type of “leadership” before they also end up on the front lines.
At the end of the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s Eastern European counterpart, and NATO were dissolved. should have been as good since it had achieved the purpose for which it was built to serve. Instead, NATO has lived on as a dangerous, out-of-control military alliance that is primarily dedicated to expanding its sphere of activity and justifying its own existence. It has expanded from 16 countries in 1991 to a total of 30 countries today, and covers most of Eastern Europe, while at the same time committing aggression, bombings of civilians and other war crimes.
1999, NATO launched an illegal war to militarily cut off an independent Kosovo from the remnants of Yugoslavia. NATO airstrikes during Kosovo war kill hundreds of civilians, and its leading ally in the war, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, is now on trial in The Hague for the horrific war crimes he committed under cover of NATO bombings, including cold-blooded killings of hundreds of prisoners to sell his internal organs in the international transplant market.
Far from the North Atlantic, NATO joined the United States in its 20-year war in Afghanistan, and then attacked and destroyed Libya in 2011, leaving behind a failed statea continuing refugee crisis and violence and chaos throughout the region.
In 1991, as part of a Soviet agreement to accept the reunification of East and West Germany, Western leaders assured their Soviet counterparts that they would not expand NATO closer to Russia than the border with a united Germany. US Secretary of State James Baker promised that NATO would not advance “an inch” beyond the German border. The broken promises of the western world are specified for all to see in 30 classified document published on the National Security Archives’ website.
After expanding across Eastern Europe and waging war in Afghanistan and Libya, NATO has predictably come full circle to once again see Russia as its main enemy. US nuclear weapons are now based in five NATO countries in Europe: Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey, while France and the United Kingdom already have their own nuclear arsenals. The US “missile defense” system, which can be converted to launch offensive nuclear missiles, is based in Poland and Romania, including at abase in Poland only 100 km from the Russian border.
Another Russian request in its December proposal was that the United States should simply rejoin 1988 INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), according to which both sides agreed not to deploy short- or medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Trump withdrew from the 2019 treaty on the advice of his national security adviser, John Bolton, who also has the scalp from 1972 ABM Treaty2015 JCPOA with Iran and 1994 Agreed framework with North Korea dangling from his belt of weapons.
None of this can justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the world should take Russia seriously when it says that its preconditions for ending the war and returning to diplomacy are Ukrainian neutrality and disarmament. Although no country can be expected to be completely disarmed in today’s armed-to-the-tooth world, neutrality can be a serious long-term option for Ukraine.
There are many successful precedents, such as Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, Finland and Costa Rica. Or take the Vietnam case. It has a common border and serious maritime conflicts with China, but Vietnam has resisted US efforts to pull it into the Cold War with China, and remains committed to its protracted “Four no” politics: no military alliances; no connection to one country against another; no foreign military bases; and no threats or use of force.
The world must do everything necessary to get a ceasefire in Ukraine and make it hold. Perhaps UN Secretary-General Guterres or a UN special envoy could act as a mediator, possibly with a peacekeeping role for the UN. This will not be easy – one of the as yet unlearned lessons from other wars is that it is easier to prevent war through serious diplomacy and a genuine commitment to peace than to end a war once it has begun.
If and when there is a ceasefire, all parties must be prepared to start over again in order to negotiate lasting diplomatic solutions that will enable all the people of the Donbas, Ukraine, Russia, the United States and other NATO members to live in peace. Security is not a zero-sum game, and no country or group of countries can achieve lasting security by undermining the security of others.
The United States and Russia must also finally take on the responsibilities of storing over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons and agree on a plan to start dismantling them, in accordance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
Finally, when Americans condemn Russia’s aggression, it would be a symbol of hypocrisy to forget or ignore the many recent wars in which the United States and its allies have been aggressors: i Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Palestine, Pakistan, Libya, Syriaand Yemen.
We sincerely hope that Russia will end its illegal, brutal invasion of Ukraine long before committing a fraction of the massive killing and destruction that the United States has committed in its illegal wars.
Medea Benjamin is a co-founder of CODEPINK for peaceand author of several books, including Inside Iran: The True History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Nicolas JS Davies is an independent journalist, researcher with CODEPINK, and the author of Blood on Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.