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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Demonizing Putin makes case for war

To say anything that seems to defend Russian Premier Vladimir Putin is as risky today as appearing to defend Saddam Hussein in 2003. The demonization of Saddam was key to the Bush Administration’s case for invading Iraq. The demonization of Putin is key to our current government’s case for confronting Russia over Ukraine. Warnings of another avoidable disaster, instead of being considered on their merits, get dismissed as support for Putin.

That’s what happened to Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton. He pointed to several realities that contradict our leadership’s prevailing narrative about Ukraine.

That narrative is all Putin-centered. To wit: Putin wants to restore the territorial control exercised by the former Soviet Union. Thus, he chose to annex the Crimea and to foment rebellion in eastern Ukraine. If not stopped, he’ll soon make other moves. Such a story is simple enough for public consumption. And it conforms to our mainstream media’s habit of erasing all history from the events they cover.

Here are five factual realities that don’t fit that narrative:

First, Russia didn’t take Crimea. It took it back. The Crimea was part of Russia long before Khrushchev capriciously gave it to Ukraine in 1954. That a key Russian naval base was in Ukrainian territory didn’t matter only as long as Ukraine wasn’t hostile.

Second, instead of disbanding when the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s purported reason for existing, broke up, our military alliance expanded by annexing pieces of it, thus arousing Russian fear of military encirclement. The move to include Ukraine in NATO was as threatening to Russia as adding Mexico to a Russian military alliance would be to us.

Third, we call the February 2014 overthrow of the democratically elected government of Ukraine a revolution, but if we hadn’t approved of it, we’d call it a coup. Whatever it was, the Western powers backed it to rid themselves of a leader who wouldn’t commit to an alliance with the West to the disadvantage of Russia.

Fourth, the interim government that seized power in Kiev represented non-ethnic Russians in western Ukraine, but not ethnic Russians in the east. According to polling in March, 2014 by Germany’s largest market research firm, only 20 percent of the population in the eastern and southern regions supported the overthrow. Why is it OK for the “revolutionaries” to revolt but not for those loyal to the elected government of Viktor Yanukovych to take up arms?

Fifth, the conduct of the war — all in the east — has been marked by brutalities, many by the Kievan forces, some by the other side. In this regard, there is no moral high ground.

If the reason to cite these realities were to apportion blame between Russia/Putin and the U.S./Obama, doing so would be fruitless. Even we good progressives in Ashland will favor Obama over Putin. But that’s not my reason. It’s to indicate that there is ample room on our side as well as Putin’s to reach a diplomatic settlement.

The question is whether we have the will, not the ability. Bush and his neocons wanted a military showdown with Saddam. Congress is pushing Obama to increase U.S. involvement in the fighting and ultimately a military showdown with Russia. They are even more irresponsible than Bush. This time the disaster may come home to us, not in the form of body bags and wounded servicemen, but as nuclear warheads.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.