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Has NATO become a threat to world peace?

The alliance has taken on decidedly imperialist hues of late, says Ramesh Thakur. But poking the Russian bear amounts to strategic idiocy.

By: /
11 September, 2014
By: Ramesh Thakur
Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

Did NATO leaders created a crisis to justify its continued existence and expansion in membership, mission, and reach?

Former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, TheNation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, academic John Mearsheimer, former long-time International Herald Tribune columnist William Pfaff, and Jan Oberg of Sweden’s Transnational Foundation hold NATO mostly responsible for the crisis in Ukraine to the point of risking war. Seumas Milne of The Guardianconcurs: the EU “sparked this crisis” and NATO, far from “keeping the peace… has been the cause of escalating tension and war.”

An alliance forged against the existential Soviet threat successfully deterred the enemy without firing a shot. But then, contemptuously dismissive of a defeated, diminished, and impotent Russia, NATO waged war on Serbia, which had not attacked any member state. Kosovo’s forcible detachment from Serbia in 1999 was the prelude to taking on a more diffuse peace-maintenance role that saw NATO’s geographical reach expand to Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, and Libya. If now it is taking on decidedly imperialist hues, are Canadians happy to endorse the transmutation?

One does not know whether to admire the chutzpah or marvel at the strategic stupidity of today’s Western leaders, including pushing Russia into the arms of China to reverse the great geopolitical gain of the 1970s. The facts are easily ascertainable from public sources, the double standards obvious, the hypocrisy brazen, and the Russian response was entirely predictable. If, despite this, Westerners back their governments in the slide into confrontation with Russia, or the governments stay on that path against domestic opposition as in the 2003 Iraq war, the world may rush headlong into a catastrophic war with the risk, as President Vladimir Putin reminded us recently, of nuclear escalation.

On chutzpah, the countries that attacked geographically distant Iraq in 2003 with no national security justification exclaim that attacking another country without pretext is just not done in the 21st century. Leaders and countries never held to domestic or international criminal account for that insist that Russia and Putin must be punished. The West may bankroll and support destabilization of an elected pro-Russian government in Kiev, but Russia must not destabilize a pro-west government installed by coup on its doorstep. Circumstantial evidence points strongly but not conclusively to MH17 being shot mistakenly by pro-Russian fighters with a Russian-origin missile. In 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes, killing 290 people. The ship’s captain was neither rebuked nor punished but awarded a medal. Yet the West demands consequences for Russia for the MH17 plane brought down, not by Russians, but most likely by pro-Russian separatists with a Russian missile.

In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia into submission on Kosovo’s secession. Today NATO demands Crimea be handed back to Ukraine. Part of Russia since the 18th century, Crimea was “gifted” to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 without consulting its people. The Russians annexed it this year after a referendum of dubious legality and accuracy. Calls for a genuinely democratic referendum to determine and respect the people’s choice would be understandable. But those who used military force to dismember Serbia have no moral authority to insist Crimea must be returned to Ukraine regardless of its people’s wishes. The divine right of Europe’s kings to rule has not morphed into the divine right of Westerners to determine the world’s territorial borders.

In 1962, Cuba was a sovereign state that decided to station Soviet missiles on its territory. This was interpreted, correctly, as a hostile act by the United States. The resulting crisis, which risked a nuclear war, was resolved with the withdrawal of the missiles. But the Eastern European countries must be conceded the sovereign right to enter into a defence alliance with the U.S. and to station NATO troops and missiles on their territory?

On strategic idiocy, the distance from Kiev to Moscow and Ottawa to Washington are both about 750km. Imagine a pro-U.S. government is in power in Ottawa despite a massive vote against it in Quebec. China’s economic and strategic interests in Canada are under threat, so Chinese money funds a Quebec-based opposition campaign on the streets of Montreal and Ottawa, Chinese officials show up in solidarity, the prime minister flees to safety in Washington, a pro-China government is installed in Ottawa and immediately enacts measures to take away core civic rights of non-Quebeckers. No U.S. government would accept this outcome or be criticized for trying to reverse it using any means necessary.

NATO includes France and Germany. Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine, has been the geographical gateway for some horrific invasions of Russia in European history, including by Napoleon and Hitler. NATO has crept steadily closer to Russia’s borders in violation of the understandings on which post-Soviet Russia had agreed to the peaceful reunification of Germany and to united Germany’s membership of NATO. Undertaken without strategic hindsight or foresight, NATO’s numerical, territorial, and mission creep progressively alienated Russia, encouraged recklessness by some East European states, and put NATO credibility on the line – without making it stronger. Sevastopol in Crimea is the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet whose loss would cut off naval access to the Mediterranean and squeeze Russia out of the Caucasus. It is better for Russia to fight NATO before further impoverishment with Ukraine cut off economically and the military balance worsened. Even if Russia is defeated, the costs of victory for the West will be substantially higher.

For Ukraine, for reasons of geography, history, language, economics, and ethnicity, a choice between Russia and Europe is painfully impossible. This is why realists like Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt have been recommending an acknowledgement of Russia’s core strategic interests with a united but neutral Ukraine as a buffer, and a federal system that guarantees regional autonomy and minority rights. Last November Putin was willing to accept Ukraine in economic association with both Russia and the EU but the latter insisted Kiev had to choose one or the other. President Viktor Yanukovych chose Russia, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, the price of the continuing rise in global tensions and any resulting war will be paid not just by the West but the rest of the world as well.

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