Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Tensions remain high in the Ukraine region, with the possibility of the situation getting much worse. But the United States can avoid disaster by toning down the rhetoric on Russia.
John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus, says that even if President Putin fulfills some observers’ worst fears, he is not interested in global domination.
“It's a common misunderstanding of both U.S. journalists and policymakers to mistake rather ordinary nationalism for greater ideological ambitions,” he tells The Progressive. “Putin doesn't harbor grand superpower plans. He just sees himself as the leader of all Russians, wherever they happen to be. He doesn't aspire to rule over territory devoid of Russian speakers. This is still problematic. But it's no reason to trot out George Kennan and the containment policy.”
The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and Russia expert Professor Stephen Cohen blame a simplistic narrative for a misunderstanding of the genesis of the crisis, saying that Putin’s role has “been mostly reactive.”
“In November 2013, the European Union, with White House support, triggered the crisis by rejecting Putin’s offer of an EU-Moscow-U.S. financial plan and confronting Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, with an unnecessary choice between ‘partnership’ with Europe or with Russia,” they write in the August 18-25 issue of The Nation. “The proposal was laden with harsh financial conditions as well as ‘military and security’ obligations. Not surprisingly, Yanukovych opted for a considerably more favorable financial offer from Putin.”
Regardless of the apportionment of culpability, Feffer sees a lot of damage being done to U.S.-Russian relations.
“There are many losses: arms-control treaties, scientific cooperation, joint diplomatic efforts to resolve international crises,” he says. “There will be also the spillover effect on arms spending, both for Russia and the United States.”
Feffer recommends a calmer course of action.
“The United States should be very clear about supporting Ukrainian sovereignty as long as the government strictly adheres to the protection of minority rights,” he says. “It should press for an impartial investigation of the airline disaster. And it should avoid escalating tensions in the region by military means.”
There are faint signals that the United States and Russia may be inching away from a confrontation.
“Mr. Obama has signaled his interest in a political solution,” the New York Times reports. “In a call [August 1] to Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama ‘reinforced his preference for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine’ and agreed to keep open ‘the channels of communication,’ the White House said in a statement.”
Feffer urges them to move further along this course.
“During the detente years, Washington and Moscow were able to negotiate agreements in various fields even though they were fighting proxy wars around the world,” he concludes. “There's no reason why even a continued disagreement over Ukraine should prevent the two countries from identifying common interests and pursuing them.”