Eminent US historian Jackson Lears weighs in on Ukraine. This essay first appeared in the London Review of Books.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a catastrophic violation of international law. The US and its Nato allies must do everything possible to bring it to a peaceful end as soon as possible by promoting a ceasefire and a neutral Ukraine. But the obstacles to peace are complex and not simply traceable to Russia. Putin’s war did not begin on 24 February 2022. It was foreshadowed as early as 1996, when the US announced its determination to expand Nato eastwards, despite warnings by seasoned observers from George Kennan to William Burns (now Biden’s director of the CIA) that to do so would aggravate Russian security concerns. The situation escalated in February 2014 with the Washington-backed coup against Viktor Yanukovych, the gradual takeover of the Maidan movement by hard-right nationalists, and the installation of a new government led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk – which included right-wing ideologues in four cabinet posts.
Within weeks, the coup had provoked a separatist rebellion among ethnically Russian Ukrainians in Donbas, who had reason to fear the new government’s anti-Russian cultural agenda. For nearly eight years, the Ukrainian army – with the hard-right Azov brigade in the vanguard – has been trying to suppress the uprising. Fourteen thousand people have died, including more than forty peaceful protesters who were locked into a trade union building and burned alive or jumped out of the windows. Instead of denouncing the atrocities, US politicians swung into full Cold War mode, evoking the period’s weariest cliché. ‘The United States aids Ukraine and her people,’ Congressman Adam Schiff said in January 2020, ‘so that we can fight Russia over there and don’t have to fight them here.’
US military support for the Ukrainian war on the separatists, combined with Nato manoeuvres on Russia’s borders and dogged insistence on Ukraine’s de facto (if not de jure) membership of the alliance, can only be described as sustained and deliberate provocation of a powerful rival. It was no surprise when Putin finally responded by recognising and protecting the breakaway republics in Donbas. Unfortunately, he pressed on, inducing rage in the US, EU and beyond. The atmosphere is now poisoned by militarist rants, including the ignorant and irresponsible demand for a no-fly zone – which would require US/Nato forces to shoot down Russian planes and risk World War Three.
Under what Denis Johnson called the ‘tree of smoke’ created by the national security state and its media stenographers, it’s impossible to know what’s going on in Ukraine. Few journalists are able to report from the east of the country, where most of the fighting is, and there is no acknowledgment of the extensive role of far-right extremists in Ukrainian politics and the military. The irony is that for years American liberals have been obsessed with anything that can be loosely labeled as fascism. Only Ukraine is absolved from scrutiny, perhaps because in current American mythology the world’s leading neofascist is Vladimir Putin. Thanks to this madman, Robert Reich announced, ‘the world is currently and frighteningly locked in a battle to the death between democracy and authoritarianism.’ Rather than face up to the major global realignment that is underway, with the convergence of Russia, China and India, Americans remain attached to visions of Armageddon – the death wish at the heart of imperial hubris.