How the U.S. Could Stumble into War in Ukraine

By Jean Mackenzie

The skeptics were right.

Just one week ago, as top diplomats in Geneva heralded an agreement on Ukraine that was supposed to defuse the crisis, many warned that tensions were too high to be easily resolved.

Now the situation has deteriorated even further, with clashes in eastern Ukraine that have left at least five people dead.

Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin mutter darkly, if vaguely, of "consequences" if their opponents do not back down, while Ukraine's acting prime minister warns that Europe may be on the brink of World War III.

A worldwide conflagration is still not very likely, the experts say, but as the war of words deepens there is increased danger that Washington and its allies could stumble into a situation that no one intended.


"I don't want to make too much of the centennial of World War I," said Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University, and a managing director at Kissinger Associates. "But, just as in 1914, the parties could be trapped by politics and rhetoric, and by their misreading of the other side. It is not highly likely, but I don't rule it out."

Graham, who served as President George W. Bush's special assistant and National Security Council's senior director for Russia from 2004 to 2007, is concerned by what he sees as the US failure to get Russia right.

"It is our problem as a policymaking establishment that we cannot understand how the other side looks at the world," Graham said. "We think, ‘how can Russia be opposed to prosperous, democratic societies on its borders?' We do not understand why they consider such moves to be against them."

The US miscalculated the degree of extreme anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine's Maidan demonstrations, Graham says, and therefore did not understand or prepare for the Russian response. But Moscow's anger at Ukraine's rapprochement with the West was less about expansionism and more about security.

"Putin does not want responsibility for the socio-economic development [of Ukraine]," Graham said. "He just wants some assurances that it will not become part of an organization that is overtly hostile to Russia."

Guaranteeing that Ukraine will not be absorbed into NATO should be a no-brainer, according to Anatol Lieven, a war studies professor at King's College London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

"Such a promise is politically difficult for the West, but in moral and practical terms should be extremely welcome," he wrote last month in an essay that circulated among Russia specialists. "The USA and its allies have now demonstrated ... that there are no circumstances in which they will go to war in the lands of the former Soviet Union. To offer NATO membership to Ukraine is therefore the worst kind of strategic and moral irresponsibility."

But mistrust of Russia runs deep in the foreign policy establishment, where many of the players grew up during the Cold War. This has led to missteps and lost opportunities.

After 9/11, Putin was one of the first world leaders to call the White House and offer assistance. When the war in Afghanistan began, Russia made supply routes available to NATO through its territory, and was prepared to go even farther. According to Graham, they proposed strategic airlift services to transport wounded soldiers out of the country.

"The US said no, because it would have meant having some Russian military personnel on Bagram [the US base in Kabul]," he said. "Time and again, Russia came to us with reasonable proposals that we rejected out of hand. If our goal was to build a more positive relationship, we could have done that."

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Originally published on Global Post.

(AP Photo)

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