Since the end of the last world war in 1945 the world has seen numerous wars, some of them very destructive but all of them limited to a fairly small area of the globe, even if of long duration: Vietnam and Afghanistan come to mind. During the Cold War, the USA and the USSR fought proxy wars, the earliest of which was the Korean conflict. The American and Russian empires compelled their clients to join military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. These faced off across a line drawn down central Europe. The line defined the capitalist and Communist spheres of influence that the wartime allies: the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States— had agreed upon during World War II at Yalta.
It was in the interests of both superpowers to contain proxy wars fought in the nonaligned third world and to avoid direct conflict in Europe. The American and Soviet leaders understood, especially after the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, that a general war in which the superpowers were in direct conflict, would inevitably escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Each side amassed a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the other many times over. It was widely recognized that nuclear war would destroy human civilization and possibly all planetary life itself. Albert Einstein famously warned that though he did not know how World War III would play out, he was certain that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones. The balance of terror, fittingly called MAD— Mutually Assured Destruction— defined the fragile status quo and ensured an uneasy global peace that has lasted for three generations.
The Cold War as we knew it ended with the collapse of one of the two superpowers. The senile Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982. The two decrepit Party bureaucrats who succeeded him ruled for a year or two apiece before expiring. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in a politically and economically stagnant empire and began a policy of reform: perestroika (“reconstruction”) and glasnost’ (“openness”). The nuclear accident at Chernobyl the next year and the Armenian earthquake two years later exposed the irremediable corruption and fragility of the system, which fell apart. Gorbachev was unseated by a hardline coup. Boris Yeltsin led the popular uprising that defeated the junta, but the USSR was finished, and in 1992 the Soviet Union dissolved exactly seven decades after its formation, and the Communist project disbanded. North Korea and Cuba are isolated and insignificant holdouts; but the only surviving power to embrace the old ideology, China, is capitalist in everything but name.
Victorious Americans hoped for a “peace dividend” in the 1990s. No more Mutually Assured Destruction, no more MAD. For the vanquished Russians and the other nationalities of the former USSR, though, the outcome was not peace and security but destitution and chaos.
In 1992 the fifteen Union republics became independent states: Russia is the largest, followed by the Ukraine. The latter is the largest country that is entirely within Europe. The Russians and Ukrainians are both Greek Orthodox Christians, are culturally close, and speak related East Slavic languages. Half the Ukraine’s population are ethnic Russians, and millions of people of Ukrainian heritage live in the Russian Federation. The city of Kiev, now the capital of the Ukraine, is the historic “Mother of Russian Cities”, the spiritual center of Kievan Rus— Medieval Russia— before the ascent of Moscow to the east. The very word Ukraine itself means “borderland”— Russia’s western edge. Beyond that frontier territory are the Poles (literally, “flatlanders”), who are fellow Slavs but western-oriented Catholics, and the ultimate aliens, the Germans, tellingly called in Slavic languages nemtsy, literally “dumb ones” incapable of human speech. Although a Ukrainian nationalist consciousness developed in the 19th century, the Ukraine first became a political entity as a Soviet republic. In the Stalin period, millions of Ukrainians died as a result of the collectivization of agriculture: the catastrophe is commemorated as the Holodomor, “death by starvation”. During World War II, Ukrainian nationalist groups collaborated with Nazi Germany, taking a proactive role in the execution of the Holocaust. After 1992, these groups revived and took an active role in the politics of the new state.
Elsewhere in the former USSR, simmering ethnic and religious tensions erupted into both internal, civil wars and wars between the small countries that the Union republics had become. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at war continuously; Georgia suffered ruinous civil war and the secession of pro-Russian regions; Turkmenistan became a North Korea-style closed dictatorship run by a maniac; and Islamists and secularists in Central Asian Tajikistan fought a war that left a quarter of a million dead. In the three Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, anti-Russian sentiment bolstered the revival of nationalist parties that openly praise wartime collaborators with Nazi Germany as heroes. In Russia itself, the breakup of the USSR led to social and economic collapse. American economic advisors like Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard fostered a radical program of privatization that was ostensibly intended to jump-start a free enterprise market economy. In fact it reduced tens of millions to penury and created a class of robber barons, the so-called oligarchs. In the mid-90s, life expectancy for Russian men dropped from 71 to 57. Russians joked that privatizatsiya was really prikhvatizatsiya, “plunderization”.
During the 1990s criminal gangs shot at each other in broad daylight in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg (Leningrad having reverted to its Tsarist name). Chechen Islamist terrorists carried out mass murders of Russian schoolchildren and theater-goers. Global networks of human traffickers preyed upon young people— one outfit marketed Russian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian girls wholesale at a brothel across the street from the American embassy in Tel Aviv. Yeltsin, who presided over all this, was once the hero who had stared down the Party coup in 1991. But he died a drunken, senile clown, a pathetic bum. Mikhail Gorbachev starred in ads for Pizza Hut. The politician Chernomyrdin shrugged, Khoteli kak luchshe, a poluchilos’ kak vsegda. “We hoped for the best but things turned out as usual.”
The Good Time Charlie president of the United States, Bill Clinton, promised that NATO would not expand into the countries that had previously been members of the Warsaw Pact. It promptly broke that promise, accepting every Eastern and Central European country into the alliance, from Poland on the Baltic to Bulgaria on the Black Sea. The three Baltic republics joined NATO as well— the border of Estonia is a short drive from the suburbs of St. Petersburg. During the civil war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the US and NATO intervened against Russia’s traditional friends, the Serbs. On National Public Radio, a professor of Eastern European history declared that the ultimate aim of American foreign policy should be to shrink Russia down to the early boundaries of medieval Muscovy— Moscow and its environs. I knew this man: we sat together on the executive board of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. In 2014 a Ukrainian pro-EU popular movement that included neo-Nazi groups forced the overthrow of the pro-Russian president. The US embassy sent its official representatives to mingle with the crowd of protesters on the Maidan (main square) of Kiev and distribute loaves of bread as a gesture of solidarity. The Ukraine was all ready to join the EU and NATO.
Now let’s stop and imagine, if you will, what all this might have been like had the scales been turned. The US loses the Cold War and many of the fifty states break away. The purchasing power of the dollar in your pocket drops to one cent. Industry and civil society collapse and American young people are used by the rest of the world as cheap prostitutes. A Russian academic on the radio gloats that the United States of America will soon consist only of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Canada and Mexico join the Warsaw Pact. Texas and California are about to, when…
When a man who’s had enough comes along and says, Stop.
In Russia that man is Vladimir Putin. Putin repaired the Russian economy, restored the Russians’ sense of dignity, enforced law and order, broke the power of independent oligarchs, crushed Islamist terrorism in Chechnya, and formulated a new foreign policy. He went on to suppress internal dissent and to imprison or poison his political enemies, including oligarchs and turncoats from the intelligence services. The CIA and MI5, who have never done anything like that, are shocked, SHOCKED. So are the various human rights groups in the west. In 2014, he sent Russian forces to occupy Crimea.
What’s Crimea? Russian kings wrested Crimea from the Ottoman Empire and then defended it against the British Empire. The Crimean city of Sevastopol— Russia’s only major southern naval base— resisted the invading Germans with such stubborn desperation that it was named a Hero City after the war. Most of the population were Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, and Jews: Stalin exiled the former and the Nazis and their Ukrainian henchmen exterminated the latter. In the 1950s Nikita Khrushchev assigned it to the Ukrainian SSR, which it had never been a part of hitherto. Putin also invaded and occupied a chunk of the industrial Don basin inhabited largely by ethnic Russians. Tut, tut, said the West. It’s illegal to occupy a place gained by armed force. Tell that to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Tell the Irish in the UK and the Australian Aborigines. I’m scared! Call in NATO! The Reds are on the march!
But wait. There are no Reds, remember? Communism is over. Russia is a Christian country, socially conservative, with a kleptocratic, quasi-capitalist economy much like our own. Wasn’t NATO’s avowed purpose to protect Western Europe from godless Communism? What is its purpose now? The answer is, of course, that NATO has been repurposed as an anti-Russian alliance. Why?
Part of the reason is that the Russian Empire was the colonialist adversary of Great Britain in the 19th century, long before the Bolshevik Revolution. Their rivalry, in that more decorous age, was called the Great Game. The US inherited Britain’s imperial mantle in the 20th century: after World War I, the English and the Americans joined forces in an invasion of Soviet Russia. “This baby must be strangled in its cradle,” Winston Churchill had declared. Russia was an ally in World War II, but we did not make it a beneficiary of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt postwar Europe. Instead, Churchill (again) invented the phrase “Iron Curtain” to describe the border delineating spheres of influence that he himself had helped to draw. Once the Cold War started in earnest, armaments fueled the American economic boom of the 1950s and 60s. General, then President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, no Communist sympathizer, warned in his farewell speech of the tremendous power of the “military-industrial complex”. With no great and powerful enemy, there is no need for rockets, tanks, five-star generals, computer surveillance, the espionage business. So when Putin came to power, the US entertainment industry updated and revived the Russian bugbear, the scapegoat, the implacable threat.
Trump wasn’t part of the old boys’ club of the Ivy League, the New York Times, and the military-industrial complex. That’s why the entrenched establishment impeached Trump, not once but twice, for alleged collusion with the Russians. Allegations are accusations, not necessarily founded on any evidence. “New shit has come to light!” the Big Lebowski used to say about the hunt for the guys who stole the Persian rug that used to pull his room together so tastefully in LA. But no evidence has ever come to light in the matter of collaboration by Trump with the Russians. The allegations have a better name: defamations, libel, barefaced lies. But the Dude need not despair, for there is still plenty of ordure: a big, stinking mountain of horseshit called the American academic, media, and political establishment.
And that brings us to today. A few weeks ago, Putin began a massive military buildup on the Ukrainian border. Why? Because, says he, NATO is expanding eastward. The Ukraine could join it. Mid-range nuclear missiles stationed there would give Moscow only five minutes’ warning. Is that alarmist? Well, the West has responded that the Ukraine can join NATO if it wants to, and that it is not going to withdraw any weaponry from any of the former Warsaw Pact countries that are already in NATO.
Have we seen anything like this before? Yes, we have. One recalls that in 1962 the Russians tried to station medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. That would have given Washington only five minutes’ warning after a launch, too. Invoking the Monroe Doctrine and waving a resolution signed by the Organization of American States, the United States demanded the missiles be removed. The Soviet Union said they weren’t there. The Americans brought photographs to the UN. The Russians privately said, Okay, they are there, but you have medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey that can hit our cities— Yerevan, Tbilisi, Baku— with five minutes’ warning. Fair’s fair.
John F. Kennedy agreed with Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev to a quid-pro-quo: they took their missiles out, and six months later we took ours out, too. The delay was worked into the deal so that it wouldn’t look like a quid-pro-quo, which our hawks saw as appeasement. I lived through those days, so let me tell you about them. I’m an old man and this ought to be written down.
The Cuban missile crisis went public on a Monday, with JFK announcing on TV that we were blockading Cuba to force the Russians to pull out their missiles. I was eight years old. Our family lived in a cozy apartment on the fourth floor of a red brick building on 160th St. and Riverside Drive, with a view of the broad Hudson River and the lights of the George Washington Bridge. Dad was a young lawyer in a midtown firm; Mom, who passed away peacefully earlier this month, taught Chemistry at the City College of New York. Early every morning Dad lathered his face with a brush and shaved in the steam and warm yellow light of the bathroom, while Mom cooked breakfast. But that Tuesday or Wednesday, Dad was going on a business trip to Omaha. We have missile bases there; and Times Square in NYC is ground zero for a missile attack by the Russians. Mom wasn’t in the kitchen that morning. Something was off. I hid behind the door of the bathroom, and listened to my young parents saying goodbye to each other in case they never met again. They expected a nuclear war any day.
As we now know, things indeed almost fell apart, not during the week but that coming Saturday, October 27th. But the public didn’t know it then. It was my ninth birthday and Mom, Dad, Josh, and I went to lunch at La Fonda Del Sol, a Mexican restaurant in midtown Manhattan. As I was eating my birthday cake, a cube of pure Aztec chocolate, with my family— my hardworking, honest father, my gentle mother, and my playful little brother, talks broke down for a time between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, countries ostensibly both dedicated to democracy, human brotherhood, peace, and progress, and the two superpowers were within twenty minutes of launching their ICBMs and destroying themselves and all the earth. The crisis passed. We drove back uptown to Washington Heights in Dad’s Rambler, unaware anything had happened. Later on, the world was to learn how close we’d come to Armageddon.
In October 2002 I ate lunch at Winthrop House, a hall of residence at Harvard University, where I worked, with a number of faculty entertaining an old alumnus. Theodore Sorensen had been JFK’s speech writer. He was the one who had written the President’s announcement of a blockade at the start of the Cuban missile crisis. He confirmed those twenty dangerous minutes, recommended the movie “Thirteen Days” as the most reliable re-enactment of what happened, and talked about the work he and his colleagues had done then to save the peace. He’s passed on since. I told him the story of my parents saying goodbye to each other that early morning forty years before, and thanked him for saving the world.
Later that same fall afternoon twenty years ago, a man named Douglas Okun rang me at my office about an article of mine he’d just read in a New York Jewish paper, The Forward. I mentioned I had just met Sorensen, and Okun told me he himself had been a young official of the US Embassy in Moscow in October 1962, frantically translating teletype messages, not sleeping nights, running back and forth to the Kremlin. He said that some months after the crisis he was invited to the White House, where JFK greeted him from his rocking chair, extended his hand, and said, “Young man, I believe we owe you thanks.” I don’t think I cried when Ambassador Okun told me that story then, but I’m crying as I record it now.
We lost John F. Kennedy, and with him, a quality of public service, a power of hope, a breadth of vision, and a commitment to peace, that we might have recovered again but were prevented from rescuing, with his assassination and the subsequent murders of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, in quick succession, five years later. The Cold War could have ended differently. But this is what we have and where we are.
Will there be an October 2022?
Three wars can possibly break out soon, that may not be containable.
The first two are in the Middle East and East Asia. In the Middle East, the Iranian clerical regime is committed to retaining power at all costs over an unhappy and restive nation, and the support of terrorism and the acquisition of nuclear weapons seem to be essential to its plans. Should diplomacy fail— and it is failing— the Israelis, who perceive an existential threat, will act on their own, with American permission if not participation. The ensuing regional war will be extremely destructive to both sides, and also to Iran’s proxies— Hezbollah and Hamas— and the failed states they control. At a minimum, Iran will blockade the Straits of Hormuz, choking the transport of petroleum and plunging the world into economic chaos. The present president of the US, who seems to be barely functional, lacks credibility abroad because of his ill-planned, precipitate abandonment of Afghanistan. Political polarization and economic failure have undermined even the meager support he enjoys at home. The United States will probably be unable to mediate the crisis, which may spiral outwards, igniting the very unstable Islamic world.
In East Asia, the Chinese dictator Xi has consolidated power, destroying even the semblance of legality and civil society in Hong Kong and promoting cultural genocide unchecked in occupied Tibet and Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang). The Chinese military has become extremely powerful and there is nothing to stop it from attacking and conquering Taiwan. It is unclear what North Korea would perhaps try to do to its southern neighbor in the wake of a Chinese victory. Japan would not be able to defend itself alone, and its independence would be under threat. The United States, which prioritizes its preeminence on the Pacific Rim, would be drawn in sooner or later, particularly were China to attempt to exert control over the Philippines and Indonesia, and to bully Australia. Canada and the UK would definitely fight alongside the US. The conflict would escalate, nuclear war would be likely, and that would be the end. It is a real possibility, but the Chinese people themselves would like to enjoy the prosperity and well-being they have achieved. They might not wish to lose it all to satisfy the ambitions of a megalomaniac. How events play out is really up to the Chinese.
The third possibility is the one I’ve discussed in this essay at length: war in the Ukraine. Would the Russians fight? They don’t want war, but Putin has high domestic approval ratings. My older, more literary friends in Russia tend to be pro-Western. They despise Putin for poisoning and imprisoning Alexei Navalny; for shutting down the organization “Memorial”, which has documented the repressions of the Stalin era; for muzzling the few free media outlets as “foreign agents”; for lending official sanction to reactionary, chauvinist movements; and for many other outrages. Russia under Putin is not a free society, but he is neither Stalin nor Hitler, and other friends of mine, mindful of the historical background I’ve outlined above, would tend to agree with their leader that the West has cynically backed Russia up against the wall.
That’s a powerful sentiment the West underestimates at its peril. The USSR lost over twenty million people in World War II— still known there as the Great Patriotic War— and this month [December] in 1941, which is still living memory for some nonagenarians, German scouts had reached the village of Khimki and could see the Kremlin through their binoculars. They know what being up against the wall means, in a visceral way Americans cannot comprehend. A towering monument in the shape of gigantic antitank barriers marks the spot where the Red Army stopped Hitler. It used to be in a field, and it seared your vision as you came into Moscow from Sheremetyevo airport. Now it’s dwarfed by the tower blocks of the bedroom suburbs of the megalopolis. Russia has been vulnerable before. The Mongols overran it in the 13th century. Moscow burned in 1812 after Napoleon seized it. The Nazis reached its gates. Enough: Never again.
Events in the days to come will outpace this writing, but the day before yesterday the US flew an Air Force reconnaissance plane over the Ukraine. This sends altogether the wrong signal. It is precisely what the Russians have been warning NATO not to do. The US fleet in the Mediterranean has been put on alert. NATO forces are active on the Black Sea. The saber-rattling heightens tension but does not demonstrate commitment: Ukraine is not a NATO member, and if the Russians do move, neither Mr. Biden nor the European powers will intervene directly. But they may provide weapons and on-the-ground military advisors to the Ukraine. The Russians could try to strike convoys bringing such weapons, and launch attacks to take out those foreign advisors. NATO might then put Eastern Europe on a heightened alert. Poland has a nationalist government, and Belarus, on Russia’s side, has a dictator whose behavior is radically dangerous. Both are the Ukraine’s neighbors, and both are unstable. The Russians might also respond with pressure in the form of overflights and border incursions into the three Baltic republics, which are NATO members. The Baltics would definitely call on NATO for treaty-bound assistance. If that assistance were provided, Russian and US/UK/German forces could easily clash. If either side overpowers the other, the side about to be overrun would probably use battlefield low-yield nuclear weapons. Escalation would be inevitable at that point. If, on the other hand, NATO were to do nothing about the Ukraine at all, and/or abandon the Baltics, then the alliance is likely to fall apart with Europe fatally destabilized, making nuclear war down the line probable: Russia presses its claim for demilitarization of Eastern Europe, the latter refuses, and war spreads.
The above scenario, in one or another form, is not new. There is even an alternative history documentary, ostensibly a BBC news program, that you can watch on YouTube. It ends with a nuclear holocaust in which Britain ceases to exist. In a sense, all this is a continuation of the Cold War, with the chess pieces moved from the old flashpoint, the enclave of West Berlin, eastwards across Poland. Some of you may remember the 1983 television movie “The Day After”, in which a skirmish over Berlin leads within a day or two to a nuclear war and we watch the incineration of Kansas City, of quiet farms, the death of a white horse in the open field, the blinding of a little boy.
All the dangers I have described are real, and the dire outcomes I have projected reflect similar sober assessments by others. With the end of the Cold War, people automatically assumed that the nuclear threat was over, too; and that Mutually Assured Destruction was a thing of the past. But nuclear weapons have not disappeared, and in some respects the present world order, which is unipolar in appearance, is more unsafe and less stable than the Manichaean confrontation between the USA and the USSR was. Our sense of security is false, and our attention has been dulled by political polarization and culture wars and distracted by the pandemic. Social media have superficially increased intercultural contact, but there is less authentic mutual understanding, less meaningful conversation, between civilizations than ever.
We are sleepwalking towards a precipice. In the end, this is our world. It is not the property of political elites, of the military-industrial complex. It is our responsibility, yours and mine, to wake up, take responsibility for our destiny, stop our failed leaders, say no to war, and take back our planet. For our sake. For our children’s sake. For the sake of nature itself— and, as the author of the Declaration of Independence called Him, Nature’s God.
Categories: Chronicle of Current Events