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Saturday, February 5, 2022

Ukraine, Russia, And Spheres Of Influence–What’s The Fuss? America Has Always Been A Backyard Bully

“We’ve matured”, said the President to naysayers who saw his buildup of troops in Ukraine as an ironic reversal of American historical hegemonism.  Although he did not choose to amplify on his statement, those who knew the mind of the President’s handlers, understood the reference to Vietnam, Cuba, Chile. 

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There was no way that a Communist, Russian-allied Cuban regime could possibly be allowed to remain ninety miles off Americans shores.  President Kennedy authorized the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion designed to overthrow Castro, and played chicken with Khrushchev to force removal of Russian nuclear missiles on the island.  The Caribbean was American, the Pentagon and the State Department agreed.  American sovereignty was at stake.  If nothing was done to counter the infectious spread of Communism in the Caribbean and to thwart Russian imperialistic claims to the region, all of Latin America would be at risk.  Despite the continued erosion of Cuba’s economy, its international isolation, and the diffidence of its once-militant Russian ally, Cuba is still considered a threat to American influence in the region.  Boycotts and diplomatic isolation continue, but Cuba is unrepentant and as committed as ever to the spread of Communism in the region.  It has formed economic and political alliances with socialist regimes in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia; and it has fulfilled its promise to destabilize the behemoth to the North.

Image result for Images Cuban missile crisis. Size: 155 x 106. Source: theintercept.com

Once again, the United States has taken offense.   ‘This is our territory’, repeat American leaders.  How could these insignificant fly-specked, incoherent countries threaten the sovereignty of the United States? Individually they are nothing, but Bolivia and Venezuela control billions in natural resources; Nicaragua is too close for comfort in an era of porous borders; and Cuba, always the darling of socialist regimes everywhere will permanently be a thorn in America’s side.  Other geopolitical issues have put the whole Latin America thing on a back burner; but no one in the foreign policy establishment has forgotten it.  It still is ours.

The Cuban crisis, the perennial niggling and troublemaking of the islanders, and the reaction of successive American governments are nothing new.  America was behind the putsch to remove the socialist Salvador Allende from power in Chile under the well-understood hegemonic policy of the United States.  Unless Chile was stopped, it would spread its political infection elsewhere in the region, threatening American political authority and American business profits.  Both economics and geopolitics have always gone hand in hand in American foreign policy just as they have everywhere else in the world.

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The US was equally ambitious in supporting right wing, authoritarian, military rulers elsewhere in the region, especially in Brazil and Argentina.  These authoritarian regimes were thought to be unequivocal supporters of American interests and bulwarks against the growing socialist movements in the region.

The United States was quite happy to support the Duvalier regimes in Haiti despite their autocracy, brutality, and punishing rule.  There would never be an Communism on that island and no threat to the United States.  After the US-friendly Duvalier family was removed from power, a succession of corrupt, equally brutal, and criminal regimes followed.  Haiti now had to be watched because of its civil disorder, its key role in the drug trade, and the knock-on effect of misrule in the region.

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So, who could ever say that the United States never considered Latin America and the Caribbean its sphere of influence?

The famous ‘domino theory’ was applied to Southeast Asia.  If North Vietnam was not stopped in its tracks, then South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and countries beyond would become Communist.  Vietnam and Southeast Asia although far from the American mainland will still within its geopolitical sphere of influence.  The US would do anything to stay the hand of Ho Chi Minh, to support the South, and to do the world a favor by eliminating the Communist threat in the region.  The US was so determined to do so that it committed thousands of troops to South Vietnam and prosecuted a long, devastating, unpopular, ill-conceived war.

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So what, exactly is new in Eastern Europe? And why are Russia’s familiar and predictable geopolitical moves surprising?  The fall of the Soviet Union and the shameless humiliation of the new Russia are not easily forgotten in Moscow and the countryside.  The US and its Western allies gloated over the fall of the USSR and rushed in to take advantage of its wealth, natural resources, and malleability.  NATO could push right to Russian borders, the West would assure that a progressive democratic government would be put in place and Russia would be forever within the United States sphere of influence. 

There are some, like the British historian Timothy Garten Ash who in a recent (2/5/22) BBC interview claimed that Russia’s interest in Ukraine was nothing less than a resurgent imperialism, a revanchist determination to restore the former glory of Tsarist Russia. Critics who claim that Russia’s re-incorporation of Crimea was no different than Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland and occupation of  Czechoslovakia – overtly to reintegrate ethnic Germans within the fatherland, but clearly the first putsch of a militant Nazi regime.

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Neither theory makes any sense.  While there is no doubt that Putin remembers the glories of the Imperial Age when Russia was respected and admired throughout the world and hopes to create a nation with the same geopolitical influence and authority, where is imperialism?  Without a doubt, Putin hopes to consolidate Russian influence to the east and west.  He has been canny and dutiful in overseeing the emergence of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and others, hopes for an accommodation with Turkey, and is ambitious in his attempts to secure political fidelity from Ukraine.

Putin is no different from Xi in China, a leader who also hearkens back to the greatness of Imperial China but who only wishes to establish modern geopolitical preeminence.  China’s policy of reintegrating Macao, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet; its insistence that the Uighurs pledge allegiance to China and cease separatist activities are clearly establishing the foundation for the defense of their sphere of influence.  Russia was equally adamant that its Caucasian republics, most notably Chechnya, cease and desist their separatism movements and accept Russian sovereignty.  It is no surprise that China has joined Russia in an agreement according to which both nations oppose NATO expansion in Ukraine.

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As far as Nazi-Putin comparisons go, Russia had an understandable historical justification for reunification. Crimea had been a part of Russia from 1783 until 1954 when it was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR.  The reasons for this transfer are complicated and unclear, but had to do with internal Soviet policy disputes, emerging geopolitical reconfigurations, and leadership issues within the Politburo.  The desire to reintegrate its former territory, a region with an overwhelmingly ethnic Russian population were clear; and the majority of the Crimean population was in favor and voted so in a referendum in March 2014.  While only marginally justifiable within the prevailing concept of nation statehood – Ukraine’s sovereignty – it had enough historical antecedent and the overwhelming support of Crimeans to go without major international conflict.

Therefore to preserve peace, to try to restore some modicum of cooperation with a powerful ally, and to save political face, why shouldn’t Biden agree to never place nuclear missiles aimed at Russia on Ukrainian soil?  Isn’t this an exact replay of the Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse? And why, given the West’s bullying of Russia after 1989, can’t the West compromise on NATO advances?  Perhaps propose mutually agreeable defense treaties between Ukraine and Russia, broker strategic economic agreements, and preserve a reasonable and peaceful status quo?

Given the new strategic alliance between Russia and China – America’s real and most formidable adversary – it behooves Biden not to provoke unnecessary armed conflict.  The United States cannot afford to lose any more political, economic, and financial ground with China.  It is a macho thang with Putin.  It is a very serious, practical enterprise with Xi.

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Compromise might well be in the offing because of Russia’s gas stranglehold.  It can quickly and easily turn off the spigot to both Ukraine and a highly dependent Germany and force compromise on its terms.  The Western threat to stop a northern pipeline is too little and too late. Future gas has no value compared to actual gas.

So a seriously unpopular American President with approval ratings in the mid-30 percent range, the lowest of any President in recent history, hopes like many presidents before him, that sabre-rattling will raise his numbers.  Unlikely, because his numbers will go up only if he is successful in backing down Putin, a highly speculative, improbable outcome.

So, we are stuck in the middle, not much encouragement from either side, but that’s par for the course.

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