Ukraine – From Wise Veterans

A sense of deja vu pervaded the world this week. It felt as if we were reliving the 1970-1980 Cold War. The serene calm of 21st century Europe was suddenly invaded by old realpolitik. No one should be surprised.

The reality is that humans have not changed since our species was born and most probably will not change until our species is extinguished. And the central reality of humans is that history, culture is paramount to how we behave and react. Ignorance of history, a hands off understanding of culture is the greatest risk in geopolitical diplomacy and war. This is why America failed in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

We know that many wise Americans have forgotten far more about Europe than we will ever know. So this week we restricted ourselves to listening to people who have spent successful lifetimes studying and practicing diplomacy in Eastern Europe. Below is what we learned from them. Hopefully, it will help readers understand today’s Ukraine crisis.  

For readers who think Ukraine is not relevant or important to them, we offer the chilling assessment  delivered by Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus of European History at NYU & Princeton, on CNN Outfront on Friday, March 7:

  • “however dangerous the cold war is, this is five times more dangerous; this is the worst international crisis since the Cuban missile crisis


1. Mood of the moment

Henry Kissinger on Bloomberg’s Charlie Rose Show on Thursday, March 6

  • “that is not the mood at the moment, every thing I read is confrontational”


2. How Russians feel about Ukraine? Red lines for Putin?

Henry Kissinger to BTV’s Charlie Rose

  • No Russian I have ever met finds it easy or even possible to consider Ukraine a totally separate country; It was a part of Russia for 300 years, history of Russia & Ukraine have been intertwined for several hundred years before that; so the evolution of Ukraine is a matter that moves all Russians, even people like Solzhenitsyn or Brodsky, dissidents from that system who were firm on the view that Ukraine belongs to Russia…  in their hearts they think it should be a part of the same country but at a minimum, they want it to be in the Russian sphere of influence .. I also believe it would be desirable for Ukraine to be in Europe so that I make my own views clear.
  • western part of Ukraine actually belonged to Poland until 1939 so this is not a long history of a unified country – Kiev is in the middle”

Stephen Cohen with CNN’s Anderson Cooper

  • “Russia
    has 2 red lines – Putin knows where his red lines are.. red lines in
    terms of Russian national defense are the former soviet republics of
    Georgia – we trespassed there & we ended up with a war in 2008 –
    and Ukraine even more important; he thinks we have trespassed there.
    That is what we should be discussing. Did we trespass or not?”


3. What started this conflict?

Stephen Cohen to CNN’s Wold Blitzer

  • extremism didn’t come from Russia; it was coming from western Ukraine; .. there is a small but resolute & determined right wing nationalist movement in Ukraine, it is crazy fascist, & it is dictating terms to this parliament in Kiev which is not legitimate in law, national or constitutional.. … this parliament which is a rump parliament, they banned the two majority parties that represented the east, has been passing anti-Russian legislation; they banned the use of Russian, an official language, it isn’t Russia that has been spewing this ideological destabilizing  message; it has been coming from the west & the worst part is that hatred has been supported by Washington & Brussels in embracing this western movement & that must stop”


Stephen Cohen to CNN’s Anderson Cooper

  • “We are witnessing a new cold war divide not in Berlin but on Russia’s borders; this is a result of the expansion of NATO towards Russia which began in the 1990s.. its most recent chapter was to bring to Ukraine into the western fold; it was that & some incidental factors to which Putin has reacted ..  He had little choice I think.”.


4. Opinion of U.S. Generals & Military Officers

Colonel David Hunt with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly

  • “On Monday’s program Fox News military analyst Col. David Hunt implied that the United States should not interfere with Vladimir Putin’s ambitions. He returned to clarify his position. “Let’s start out with the Crimea,” Hunt said, “which is 80% Russian. They’re not too upset in the Crimea that the Russians are there. I’m not defending what Putin did, he crossed international borders with troops. My point is that we have no dog in this fight and there is no simple solution that will do anything to affect this.”


General Barry McCaffrey with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow

  • “I am positive the Russians will never end military control of Crimea. the black sea fleet is there, this is primarily a Russian speaking area since Stalin murdered all the Tatars who actually were the native population. only question may be whether or not there will be active intervention in east Ukraine;  I was in and out of the Ukraine when the break-up of the Soviet Union took place. That’s a Russian area. that’s where the industry is. they’re under the direct strategic threat of the Russians.

General McCaffrey added that Ukraine is strategic for Russia while it is not that of the USA suggesting that America should be wary of extensive involvement in this Ukrainian conflict – a sort of echo of the succinct “we have no dog in this fight” statement of David Hunt above.

The most candid comments came from General Kimmitt in his conversation with CNN’s Piers Morgan. As we recall, General Kimmitt essentially argued that America behaved in the same manner in 1989 in Panama. The Panama canal was deeply strategic to the USA and President George H.W. Bush sent US military into sovereign Panama territory to safeguard US strategic interests. Readers might recall that President (General) Noriega of Panama was captured & arrested by US military in that intervention.

Frankly, we were stunned to hear this “equivalence” expressed so candidly & firmly on national TV. And we are not surprised to see CNN purge these comments and retain only the diatribes of Fareed Zakaria expressed in the same segment.

We recall Defense Secretary Robert Gates writing in his book and saying on TV that the “biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms” – meaning that US Generals are far more cautious about military actions and interventions than US politicians & journalists. The above sampling suggests that they feel the same about getting deeply involved in Ukraine.

5. Hour long conversation between Obama & Putin

Henry Kissinger on Charlie Rose show

  • “I have done my utmost to prevent the Presidents for whom I was working from talking on the phone in the middle of a crisis with the head of state of a country even more an adversarial country. Because to become president of any country, you must have a highly developed ego; when you put 2 egos in confrontation with each other & there is no agreement, to whom can you appeal; I really think as a general rule of diplomacy, heads of Governments should not talk to each other unless they have defined ahead of time  what the parameters are;”
  • “danger with heads of state having direct dialog with each other unprepared is when they misunderstand each other, there is no one you can appeal to rectify it … if you do it through an interpreter, you don’t even know what they understand,” . 


Stephen Cohen with CNN’s Erin Burnett

  • “they are talking past each other, the White House & the Kremlin…talking right past”


6. Who should be talking to whom?

Henry Kissinger with BTV’s Charlie Rose

  • “Lavrov is a superb policy executor not a policy maker; one has to reach Ivanov & then the two heads can talk – you need someone whom Obama trusts – John Kerry can do it but trouble with Kerry is the protocol; he has to talk to Lavrov”.

Stephen Cohen with CNN’s Erin Burnett

  • “here is where Merkel becomes significant – Merkel & Putin because he is a fluent German speaker; they speak in German – to be able to speak to somebody in a crisis situation in their own language is very important; there is a certain if not empathy at least you are on the same page..secondly, she has vested interests in Russia which are being endangered now & thirdly remember one thing  George Bush II tried to bring Ukraine into NATO,… she vetoed it, she vetoed it, she has sided with Putin in many crisis – she is not
    siding with him now but Putin doesn’t trust Obama, he trusts Merkel – so they should talk ..


7. Where could this crisis go?

Henry Kissinger with BTV’s Charlie Rose

  • “his view Russia has disintegrated  because of the incompetence of its leaders and it gave up 300 years of its history & they are right back to where they started; so he wants to restore … he wants a Eurasian plank & that will give him an option of playing with China & Europe..” 
  • “if this is done in a very confrontational way, then he may dig in, my estimate is if we treat him with respect and not as another version of European dictator and not with a point of view of teaching him a lesson, but with a point of view of insisting on limits on his actions I think we can slide into the sort of agreement”


Stephen Cohen with CNN’s Erin Burnett

  • “what used to be the divide of the cold war in Berlin is now at Russia’s border in Ukraine; however dangerous the cold war is, this is 5 times more dangerous; this is the worst international crisis since the Cuban missile crisis … let me tell you what the next step might be ..they are talking past each other, the White House & the Kremlin…talking right past .. people are planning in Washington & in Europe to move NATO troops, our military alliance, to the Polish-Ukrainian border in response to what is going on – this is being discussed . If we, our governments do this, Putin will send 150,000 troops from inside Russia into Southern & Eastern Ukraine and then it so much worse than the Cuban missile crisis that we are eye ball to eye ball. Now will they take that step? I don’t know.”

  • “There is politics in Russia; Putin is getting conflicting advise –
    • Crimea belongs to us as it has for hundreds of years, bring it in..
    • other people say don’t do that, just let them have home rule or something..2 reasons – we don’t want to provoke the situation and we keep Crimea as a bargaining card when Obama finally gets his head screwed on and sits down; don’t play the Crimean card so fully,”
  • “let me tell you now, we are witnesses to the most fateful and possibly worst turning point in modern history – these leaders better get their act together and blaming Putin is not a way to get your act together”

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