While the chances of war between the two behemoths seem small — these are, after all, nuclear powers that have avoided war for over 60 years — nothing can be taken for granted. No one wanted the Great War that began in central Europe a century ago this year either, but things can get out of control. Governments are run by human beings who, perhaps more than others, are tainted by arrogance, vainglory, and the fear of humiliation.
What’s most worrisome is not what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Crimea and threatening to do in eastern Ukraine. Not that Putin’s actions are good or justified — they are neither. What’s most worrisome are the actions of the U.S. government, which could aggravate the conflict.
U.S. regimes from George H.W. Bush onward have done their utmost to demean Russia and its rulers. In violation of Bush’s promise to Mikhail Gorbachev, NATO expanded its membership to include states formerly part of the defunct Soviet Union’s empire and publicly talked about admitting both Ukraine and another former Soviet republic, Georgia. The United States has also cut deals with former Soviet republics in central Asia, further putting Russian rulers on edge.
But despite these aggressive U.S. actions, Putin should not have escalated the Ukrainian conflict by sending troops to Crimea or obtaining his parliament’s authorization to invade the rest of Ukraine.
No government is to be trusted, and among the most fearful components of government is the military. Thus Putin’s moves toward mobilization are to be condemned by all who love peace and oppose war. Any war would kill innocents and run a high risk of careening out of control. For that reason, Putin’s responses to events in Ukraine merit the contempt of all decent people.
But Putin alone cannot heighten the risk of a big war. That would also require certain moves by the Obama administration. President Obama talks about imposing sanctions, which is bad enough. The question is whether he has the backbone to withstand the pressure to “get tougher” with Russia.
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