The Crisis in Ukraine

Perhaps because I grew up in Canada I look at American foreign policy through a different lens than other Americans, but I am having a hard time accepting the US government’s claims regarding Russian intentions in Ukraine.

We being told by our politicians and our media that the Russians are set to invade Ukraine in order to overthrow the democratically elected government there and thus regain part of the former Soviet empire. At the same time, we are informed that, in contrast to Russian troop buildup, our sending NATO troops to nearby countries and military aid to Ukraine is merely meant as a deterrent to Russian aggression.

But a brief review of recent history shows that Russia has a legitimate complaint, one that is worth heeding before we rush into a second cold (or hot) war.

Our political leaders and media date the current crisis to what we call Russia’s occupation of Crimea. In fact, Soviet leader Khrushchev, himself a Ukrainian, “transferred” Crimea to Ukraine in 1954; Putin simply took it back—and for good reason.

Supporting the pro-western opposition parties in 2014, the US backed popular demonstrations against the democratically elected pro-Russian president, Victor Yanukovych, forcing him and others to flee the country. A pro-western government was installed, which proceeded to align with the European Union and sought eventual membership in NATO.

With part of Ukraine was tilting to the West, Russia decided to act. With ethnic Russians comprising over 65% of the population in Crimea, and with significant pro-Russian sentiment in the Donbass region, Russian forces occupied Crimea while their proxies declared Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic and began a still-ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.

From Russia’s perspective, NATO’s forces are seen as moving ever closer to its actual western border, a process that began with the independence of the Baltic states and continued with the breakdown of the Warsaw Pact. As Russia retreated, NATO advanced to the point that Russia is feeling threatened. Now the Ukrainian government seeks membership in NATO and is being armed and supported militarily by NATO and the USA.

Imagine if Mexico were suddenly to align itself with Russia and Russia began to send military equipment and military advisers to that country, setting them right along the US border. Imagine how America would react. Remember how we reacted to the USSR trying to arm Cuba back in Kennedy’s time. Why do we expect Russia to react any differently than we did then or would again?

We need less disingenuous analysis from our leaders and our media. The current conflict in Ukraine is not just a regional spat between pro-EU and pro-Russian Ukrainians. Nor is it only a conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The conflict we are witnessing, as we skirt the edge of another great war, is the direct result of NATO’s expansion to the east.

Is it really necessary to bring Ukraine into NATO?  There is an alternative to plunging pell-mell into war if only our leaders would listen to what Russia has been saying and address its concerns in a constructive manner.

About the Author
Rabbi Anson Laytner of Seattle is currently president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and longtime editor of its journal Points East. He is the co-editor, with Jordan Paper, of "The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng." Before retiring, he taught at Seattle University and worked with the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. His most recent book is "The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God."