Everyone who lived through the decades of the Cold War was aware that a hot war - a nuclear war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions - could break out at any moment, either by deliberate decision or because of a simple mistake or miscalculation.
That began to change in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen to be the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev set out to reform the Soviet Union itself, a process he called perestroika, and also to improve international relations. In 1986, prior to a summit meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, he proposed a program to abolish nuclear weapons by the end of the 20th century. The United States refused to consider such a plan. Nevertheless, Gorbachev's initiatives bore fruit in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987. The treaty remained in effect until 2019, when the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from it.
Gorbachev also declared an end to the 'Brezhnev Doctrine,' which held that the USSR had the right to intervene in other Soviet-bloc countries if their governments were threatened. Showing he was serious, he withdrew 500,000 Soviet troops from Eastern and Central Europe - leading in 1989 to the election of new, non-Communist governments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. In Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu's Communist government fell as a result of an uprising.
The development with the most far-reaching implications was the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had been prepared to allow the reunification of Germany on condition that it be committed to perpetual neutrality. Having been invaded twice by Germany within 30 years, with the loss of tens of millions of Soviet lives, the Soviet Union had compelling reasons for fearing German rearmament and participation in an anti-Soviet alliance. But the U.S. rejected the idea of a neutral reunited Germany: it preferred West Germany as a client state within NATO with a large American military presence, including nuclear weapons aimed at the USSR.
Gorbachev agreed to permit German reunification in exchange for a pledge from the United States that NATO would not expand into the countries that lay between Germany and Russia. President George H. W. Bush and other American and NATO officials gave Gorbachev a firm commitment that NATO would 'not expand one inch' eastward.
In fact, Bush and the American political-military establishment had no intention of keeping their promises. While praising Gorbachev publicly, privately they regarded him as a gullible rube who could easily be deceived. Had they been serious about wanting peace, they would have disbanded NATO when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991, followed shortly afterwards by the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. The continued expansion of NATO in the following years made it clear that NATO's purpose was not to stand guard against Soviet aggression, but to serve as an instrument of American power.
As the Soviet Union withdrew and countries in Eastern Europe elected capitalist governments, NATO dropped the pretense that it was merely a defensive alliance, and launched a war against Iraq in February 1991. From 1992 through 2004, NATO military forces intervened in the civil conflict in Yugoslavia, enforcing a no-fly zone, shooting down Bosnian Serb aircraft, and bombing Serb positions. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, the military occupation of Iraq after 2003, and the attack on Libya in 2011 were all carried out with NATO participation.
Eastern Germany, the territory of the former German Democratic Republic, was incorporated into NATO after German reunification in 1990. Three former Warsaw Pact countries - Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland - were invited to join NATO in 1997, in direct violation of the West's solemn pledge not to expand NATO towards Russia, and were formally added in 1999. Russia protested, but with its power at a low point, it was unable to prevent it. Seven more countries - Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia - were added in 2004. Albania and Croatia were added in 2009, followed by Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020.
Ukraine declares independence
The 1990s saw a wave of nationalist movements throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. Most of the constituent republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics declared independence.
Ukraine's declaration was the most fraught, because much of the territory that comprised current-day Ukraine had historically been part of Russia itself. Successive administrative transfers within the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the 1950s had added significantly to the territory of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. One of the transfers that was to prove most contentious was Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev's decision in the 1950s to transfer the Crimean Peninsula from the Russian Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Since both were part of the same country, Krushchev regarded the transfer as an administrative adjustment within the Soviet Union. The successive border adjustments during the Soviet period resulted in Ukraine having a large Russian-speaking minority, especially in the eastern region known as Donbas, as well as in Crimea. In the west, in the wake of World War II, a large area of Polish territory was transferred from Poland to Ukraine.
Interventions in Yugoslavia
The 1990s also saw the rise of nationalist movements in Yugoslavia. Long-standing national and ethnic tensions had led to the epithet "Balkan Powder Keg" to describe the region. Yugoslavia brought several ethnic groups in the region together into one political entity after World War I, only to be invaded and conquered by Nazi Germany in World War II. After the war, it re-emerged under the leadership of resistance leader Josip Broz Tito as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Comprising six constituent republics - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia - Yugoslavia also included two autonomous provinces within Serbia: Kosovo and Vojvodina. Tito pursued a strategy of giving different nationalities a degree of autonomy and control over their own institutions while encouraging an overriding Yugoslav identity, buttressed by increasing economic prosperity for all groups.
The system worked for decades. But in the 1990s, a time of economic stagnation in Yugoslavia, ethnic nationalism again became a force, strongly encouraged and subsidized by Germany and the United States, both of which wanted the dissolution of Yugoslavia, which was guilty of the sin of being independent and resisting penetration by Western capital. While advancing their own imperial interests, the U.S. and Germany cynically used the rhetoric of "self-determination," interpreted to mean that each nationality and each ethnic and language group needs, and is entitled to, its own nation-state.
"Self-determination" is a concept that sounds good until you actually think about it. The problem with "self-determination" is that in the real world, it is rarely if ever possible to draw political boundaries that correspond with nationality. Nearly every nation-state and aspiring nation-state contains its own national minorities with conflicting nationalist claims on the same territory. These national groups are often intermingled and intermarried, sharing the same physical territory, the same cities and towns, the same streets, the same bedrooms.
As a result - except in those vanishingly rare instances where a national group constitutes a homogeneous society united in its desire for national independence within uncontested borders - "self-determination" for the majority frequently amounts to denying minorities their "right to self-determination." These minorities are then in turn confronted with the choice of losing their national and linguistic rights, or abandoning their ancestral homes in those human tragedies euphemistically known as "population transfers." Not surprisingly, violence is the rule rather than the exception in these situations. All too often, it turns out that what "self-determination" really means is "ethnic cleansing."
As Yugoslavia disintegrated, violence escalated and all sides committed atrocities. In the Western narrative, however, Serbs were always the villains. As Diana Johnstone writes in Fool's Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions:
"In the course of the civil wars that led to the break-up of Yugoslavia, a complex history came to be presented as a morality play in which the parts were scripted to meet the moral needs of the capitalist West. The identification of Muslims as defenseless victims and Serbs as genocidal monsters inflamed fears and hatreds within Yugoslavia, and prepared the way for power to be shifted from the people of the region to such international agencies as NATO."
Kosovo and its repercussions
The Kosovo crisis was the culmination of the Western campaign to dismantle, first Yugoslavia, and then Serbia, while rewriting the rules governing secession. Kosovo, a province within Serbia, had formed the core of the Serbian national state from the 13th century on, and the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church from the 14th century on. Over the years, the province's population mix, originally mostly Serb, had shifted, with Serbs becoming a minority and Albanian-speaking Muslims the majority.
A nationalist movement emerged, advocating that Kosovo secede from Serbia and join Albania. This would have meant Kosovo's Serbian population would either be expelled or forced to become citizens of Albania. Faced with the Serbian refusal to agree to allow Kosovo to secede, a wing of the nationalist movement turned to violence: an armed group calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) launched a series of attacks on Serbs and on ethnic Albanians who supported the existing government. Other Western countries, including the United States, labelled the KLA a "terrorist organization."
But that designation was promptly dropped when the U.S. decided to support Kosovo's secession from Serbia. The KLA, despite its ties to Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East and involvement in drug trafficking, now became a group of "freedom fighters." Western media, acting in lock-step as always, portrayed Kosovo Albanians as victims of Serbian violence and ignored KLA atrocities. In March 1999, the U.S. and its NATO allies, including Canada, began bombing Serbia. Serbia eventually accepted an imposed 'peace agreement' - which the U.S. promptly violated.
In 2008, Kosovo's Albanians unilaterally declared independence. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's independence, nor do many other countries, many of which have their own national minorities that could use Kosovo's secession as a precedent. The United States, which now maintains a huge military base in Kosovo, recognizes Kosovo's independence.
Kosovo's disputed independence marked an important break in international law. Previous secessions were recognized by the United Nations and international bodies only if they met internationally agreed conditions. Borders in Europe had been considered inviolate since the end of World War II, a sensible agreement since all countries contained regions and ethnic minorities that might want to secede, or attempt to attach themselves to a neighbouring country. NATO's attack on Serbia to forcibly detach its province of Kosovo was a radical departure from these norms, which is why many countries objected, and refuse to recognize Kosovo as an independent country.
Kosovo opened a Pandora's box of interventionism, secessions, and border changes. It became the precedent for Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries after they declared independence from Georgia. It also opened the door to Crimea's secession from Ukraine after a referendum, and its re-incorporation into Russia. Russia's recognition of the independence of the Donbas republics also follows the Kosovo precedent.
Ukraine in the post-Soviet era
Ukraine emerged as the new powder keg of the post-Soviet era. Demographically, the population includes a substantial Russian-speaking minority that has tended to see participation in the Russian-Eurasian economic sphere as offering the best future. But Ukrainians in the West, especially in regions that were previously part of Poland, have tended to look to membership in the European Union. In addition to the major Ukrainian and Russian ethnic groups, Ukraine is home to about 100 different nationalities, including Romanians, Poles, Belorussians, Hungarians, Bulgarians and Armenians, who often have strong cultural affiliations with their counterparts across the border.
Post-independence Ukraine has been marked by a high degree of corruption and instability in political and economic life. Political leaders alternately looked to Russia and Western Europe for economic partnerships, but corruption has continued regardless of who has been in government.
2014 brought a decisive turning point. Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich had been engaged in economic negotiations with both the European Union and Russia. The European Union demanded that Ukraine accept a stringent neo-liberal austerity package as a pre-condition for being considered for membership in the EU. Russia, while stating that it had no objection to Ukraine joining both the EU and the Russian-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union, offered Ukraine more generous terms. Yanukovich then announced that Ukraine would accept the package Russia was offering. The decision angered many Ukrainians - and the U.S. government. The U.S. was already working to overthrow Yanukovich, and when popular protests erupted in Kyiv, it massively upped the ante, pouring in billions of dollars in a massive regime-change operation.
What followed was a coup spearheaded by Ukraine's powerful neo-fascist organizations. Yanukovich was forced to flee the country, and a new government headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk - personally chosen for the job by Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs - took over.
The new government was extremely anti-Russian. It ended discussions about economic co-operation with Russia, and immediately legislated to remove the status of Russian, the mother tongue of about 30% of the population, as an official language. In the wake the coup, and the anti-Russian measures and violence that followed, the people of Donbas rose up in rebellion, and subsequently declared independence. Crimea held a referendum that resulted in it rejoining Russia.
The new Ukraine government sent troops to the east to attack the Donbas republics. Many of its troops were neo-Nazi militias incorporated into the Ukraine armed forces. The attacks have continued to the present day, and have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Russian-speaking residents in the Donbas.
Russia looked for a diplomatic solution. Its efforts resulted in the 2015 'Minsk 2' ceasefire agreement, agreed upon after negotiations that involved Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), representatives of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR), as well as representatives of France and Germany. The Minsk agreement was then endorsed by the UN Security Council.
Despite the agreement, Ukraine continued military action against the Donbas republics, and refused to implement some of its key provisions. In late 2021, Ukraine began to deploy a large military force, estimated at 150,000 men, on the Donbas border. Though the mobilization was largely unreported in Western media, the DPR, LPR and Russia saw this as preparation for a massive attack to destroy the independent republics. The OSCE reported increased Ukrainian bombardment of the Donbas defenders; an estimated 14,000 have reportedly been killed since 2014.
At the same time, Ukraine, backed by the U.S., repeatedly declared its intention to join NATO, a possibility that Russia had declared for years was a "red line" that it would not accept under any circumstances. NATO's expansion into Ukraine could mean NATO missiles on the Russian border, a few minutes' flight away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, thus creating the nightmare possibility of a first-strike nuclear attack to destroy Russia. Ukraine's president Zelensky then upped the ante again, saying on February 19, 2022, that Ukraine was considering acquiring nuclear weapons, a step which Russia could only see as an existential threat.
On February 24 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.
June 10, 2022.
This essay appears in the fourth (2022) edition of War, Peace, and the Media.
The main enemy is at home
Is This How It All Ends?
Massacres and Morality
Lurching to War
Other Voices, February 26, 2015
Russia - Ukraine Resources: History, context and analysis of the crisis.
Keywords: Militarism – NATO – Russia – Soviet Union – Ukraine – U.S. Imperialism War – Yugoslavia