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Ukraine Crisis

February 24, 2022

Summary: The world is roiling, with a Russian invasion of Ukraine. This appears to be the largest post-Cold War crisis in Europe, with huge risks. This is indeed a health issue, and a justice issue.

Vladimir Pozner: How the United States Created Vladimir Putin
2018 talk at Yale.
October 2, 2018

[no excerpt – video]

Pozner, a prominent French-American-Russian television journalist for many decades, argues that the US and NATO made a major diplomatic error after the Cold War, treating Russia as a small and marginal state, and making promises of NATO expansion restraint that were not honored. This punitive approach, he says, injured Russian pride and raised legitimate security concerns, thus stoking nationalism and creating political dynamics leading to Ukraine tensions and conflict. He’s a not a Putin fan, he says, just providing critical historical context.

Vladimir Putin’s Revisionist History of Russia and Ukraine
The New Yorker
February 23, 2022
By Isaac Chotiner

The historian Serhii Plokhy discusses the Russian President’s “very imperial idea” of his country, and the potential for Ukrainian resistance.

How far back do you trace a type of Ukrainian identity that we would recognize today?

It depends on what element of that identity you are speaking of. If you are talking about language, that would be pretty much primordial. In terms of an identity with religious components, that would be more than a thousand years old. But the first modern Ukrainian political project started in the mid-nineteenth century, as with many other groups. [V]ery early, the Russian Empire recognized the threat posed by a separate and particularly literary Ukrainian language to the unity of the empire. So, starting in the eighteen-sixties, there was a more than forty-year period of prohibition on the publication of Ukrainian, basically arresting the development of the literary language. …

Why was Russia so threatened by Ukrainian identity and, specifically, language? Was it just typical imperial distrust and dislike of minority groups or languages?

The Russians were looking at what was happening in Europe at that time… What is specific and certainly resonates today is the idea that there is this one big Russian or Slavic nation, with maybe different tribes, but, basically, they are the same nation. That is the model, from the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, which Vladimir Putin now subscribes to when he says Ukraine has no legitimacy as a nation.

Letters from an American
Heather Cox Richardson
February 23, 2022

[Putin] promised to provide for the ”denazification” of Ukraine, a harking back to the period after World War II when Nazis and those who had worked with them were purged from society. Putin has repeatedly referred to Ukrainian leaders as Nazis, a charge Zelensky, who is of Jewish heritage, has pleaded with Russians to reject, citing Ukraine’s losses in World War II and his own grandfather’s service in that war. Putin’s chilling word here suggests that he intends to purge from Ukraine all those who worked with the Zelensky government.

He warned: “Anyone who tries to interfere with us, or even more so, to create threats for our country and our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.” This sweeping and vague threat seems to encompass everything from massive cyber attacks to nuclear war, but at this point it seems mostly to be an effort to deter resistance.

Comment by: Jim Kahn

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a global crisis, evoking decades-old Cold War tensions between the USSR and NATO, as well as issues of ethnic identity and national sovereignty. While not a typical HJM topic, these events threaten the health of millions of people – in the region and, with nuclear weapons available in abundance, throughout Europe and even the US.

Who is to blame? In my view, in the short term, Putin is culpable. As the New Yorker article discusses, the history of Ukraine’s treatment by Russia and then the Soviet Union reads like cultural oppression interdigitated with political gamesmanship. This article paints the Russians as power-hungry oppressors, with periods of cultural genocide.

The YouTube video of Vladimir Pozner’s 2018 Yale talk is fascinating, worth the long listen. Pozner presents a compelling argument that the aggressive & dismissive US/NATO post-Cold War stance toward Russia led to today’s problems. This dynamic was anticipated by many when in 1992 the US articulated an aggressive policy toward the new Russia, including by George Kennan, author of the lauded US Cold War containment policy. Pozner’s historical insights don’t negate the fact that the current Russia is abysmally about authoritarianism and kleptocracy, but does suggest a counterfactual history in which those developments could have been staved off with an approach like the Marshall Plan after WWII.

Heather Cox Richardson’s reflections suggest that Ukrainian-Russian history and NATO post-Cold War political blunders aside, Putin has morphed into quite a heinous figure. The Ukraine invasion unequivocally fosters authoritarianism and militarism, and damages democracy. Hitler too was provoked by an unwise and unfair treaty ending WWI, but we don’t excuse his actions on that basis.

Let’s hope that calm minds prevail, Russia and NATO will compromise, and the crisis will dissipate. Then we can return to relatively mundane issues like removing financial barriers to health care in the US.

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