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Commentary: Ukraine

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Often these commentaries are not time-sensitive and are recorded well in advance of broadcast. This one, on Ukraine, is not one of those. Because the situation is so fluid I am recording this within hours of broadcast, and am still running the risk of being overtaken by events.

Several years ago I had a student from Ukraine. Yulia was fabulous – a 4.0 student, very active on campus, destined for wonderful things. Her freshman year she gave me a small Ukrainian flag. I now display it on the bulletin board in the hallway outside my office to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people. Their history and current situation are complicated to say the least.

Let me stipulate that Vladimir Putin is the worst person in the world right now, and the competition for that dubious distinction is fierce. He is a tyrant. He is a killer. He is a war criminal. He may be the biggest thief in world history. The list goes on.

Putin gave many reasons for his invasion of Ukraine. Most are ridiculous, if not lunacy. But his argument about NATO expansion is not ridiculous.

Twenty-five years ago, after the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended, there were multiple realistic paths that the West could have taken in eastern Europe. In triumphalist mode the West chose to expand NATO east, right up to the Russian border.

I wrote in my personal journal on April 30, 1997:

  •   The U.S. will RUE THE DAY when the Senate ratified NATO expansion.  Several of the 19 who voted against it did so because it will be expensive.  That is the LEAST of the problems.  Russia will make us pay for this, the worst foreign policy screw-up of the post-Cold War era.  This is INSANITY.  Where is the vision here?  Churchill said: “In victory, magnaminity.”  The Clinton administration and GOP Senate say:

“In victory, rub their nose in it.”
George Kennan, America’s most astute student of Russia, at the time said it much better and more dispassionately than I ever could:

  • I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.
  • It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.

Yep, definitely a bad reaction from Russia. It took Putin 25 years to full-on invade Ukraine, but he gave us previews in the 1990s in Chechnya and 2008 in Georgia and in 2014 in Crimea, and he showed us by bombing children’s hospitals and attacking nuclear power plants in Ukraine the depths of barbarity he is capable of.
Russia joins Germany and China as recent examples of the truism that it’s never a good idea to humiliate another country.

Dr. Terry Smith a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.