October 18th, 2022
I first came across Benjamin Abelow’s analysis of the Ukraine war as a lengthy article published on Medium in May. I found the depth and thoroughness of his article impressive and complimented him on it. When he told me that he’d expanded it into a short book, I was intrigued and offered to review it. I was not disappointed.
Abelow’s overall argument as expressed in the overview of the book is that in the world in which we live, countries that are able, will use the means they have available to defend what they perceive to be their national security interests, including force. This includes deterring or repelling hostile countries from encroaching on their border and near abroad. The prime defender of this concept for itself is the U.S. as reflected in the Monroe Doctrine and its defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Monroe Doctrine, as stated by U.S. officials in recent years, is still considered to be in full force. But U.S. officials refuse to recognize that other countries with the means will react similarly.
In the introduction, Abelow lays out the narrative of the war in the U.S.-led west, how that narrative is distorted and why that is so consequential. He argues that there have been many double standards and provocations by the U.S./NATO (the west) and that this has been omitted or obscured by the mainstream media and politicians, which leads average news consumers in the west to a misunderstanding of how the conflict started and evolved. More importantly, this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to end the conflict.
In the following chapters, Abelow describes many of the provocations that led up to February 24th, including those that I’ve enumerated elsewhere, like the provision of offensive weapons to Ukraine, various military exercises that Ukraine and NATO participated in near Russia’s borders, and the installation of missile sites in Romania and Poland with nuclear offensive capability. However, there are a couple of actions listed by Abelow that even many people who have followed events closely may have missed. An example is two important agreements signed by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Defense Department with their counterparts in Ukraine in the summer/autumn of 2021:
[I]n August of 2021, the U.S. Secretary of Defense and the Ukrainian Minister of Defense signed the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Defense Framework. This framework translates the NATO pronouncement [in Brussels in June of 2021 that reiterated Ukraine would join NATO] into a bilateral (U.S.-Ukraine) policy decision to change the military facts on the ground starting immediately, regardless whether Ukraine is a NATO member or not. And nine weeks after that signing, the U.S. Secretary of State and the Ukrainian foreign minister signed a similar document, the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership. This document, like the one signed by the Defense Department, referenced NATO’s declarations of 2008 and 2021, and it operationalized those statements bilaterally, starting immediately, regardless what happened with NATO (p.22).
The author also points out how the justification for U.S. involvement in the conflict since 2/24/22 has shifted from helping Ukraine defend itself (“a limited humanitarian effort’) to weakening Russia (p. 3). There is a contradiction between a “limited humanitarian effort” which implies a goal of limiting death and destruction and weakening Russia which requires prolonging the war. My thought as I read this is that if one is familiar with the Wolfowitz Doctrine, promulgated by Neoconservative Republicans and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard strategy which was influential among Democrats, this shouldn’t be surprising as both state a goal of preventing Russia (or any other country in Eurasia) from even aspiring to potentially be a competitor to U.S. unipolar power.
Abelow asks the important question of whether U.S. politicians have thought through their strategy of weakening Russia – if indeed it were successful – to its logical conclusions? One threat from this strategy is the potential use of nuclear weapons if the Russian state were existentially threatened as perceived by its leadership. Another is the likelihood of regime change – clearly desired in Washington – resulting in a pliable pro-western leader. The chances of the latter are practically nil. The U.S .political class doesn’t seem to accept that Yeltsin and the 1990’s was an historical anomaly unlikely to ever occur again. It reflects the extent of magical thinking in Washington along with the sense of being in a time warp, assuming that circumstances are the same as they were in the 90’s. I have read and heard enough of what many U.S. advisors on Russia and national security issues think and many seem to be mentally stuck in the immediate aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union.
Another problematic aspect of the narrative on this conflict is that Putin is an irrational imperialist. This assertion omits any historical context and conveniently renders the U.S./NATO as innocent and obviating any need to look at their actions for any cause-and-effect relationship. This makes diplomacy and negotiation the equivalent of appeasement.
Abelow outlines how this distorted narrative underpins a dangerous and irresponsible set of policy decisions and reactions to the events of February 24th, arguing that it is necessary to understand Putin and the Russian government’s decisions and what led to them, though understanding does not necessarily equate to agreement.
If you’re looking for a concise little book to point people to who might be open to a more balanced view of this war, Abelow’s book – with arguments soundly made in 62 pages – is it.
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Natylie Baldwin is the author of “The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations”. In October of 2015, she travelled to 6 cities in the Russian Federation and has written several articles based on her conversations and interviews with a cross-section of Russians. She travelled to Moscow and St. Petersburg in May of 2017 to view the Victory Day celebrations and to do research on the Russian Revolution and how Russians commemorated the centennial. Her writing has appeared in various publications including The Grayzone, Consortium News, RT, OpEd News, The Globe Post, Antiwar.com, The New York Journal of Books, and Dissident Voice. She lives in Portland, Oregon.