I had just finished an interview with Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon when I saw a clip of last night’s Tucker Carlson show. The segment was about Ukraine at the center of tensions between the US, NATO and Russia.
What is NATO and what is the purpose of NATO since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago that NATO was designed to be a bulwark against. Well, no one can answer that question. Not one person. And yet the same people who cooked up the Iraq War are now insisting that Ukraine must join NATO anyway. That would mean putting American military hardware right on Russia’s border. Russia doesn’t want that anymore than we would want Russian missiles in Tijuana.
MSNBC talking head Malcolm Nance said it was a master class in “How to openly Broadcast for America’s enemies.” He said Carlson is playing the part of a Fifth Column – or as Merriam-Webster says, “a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders.”
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“It is really bizarre, but unsurprising to hear Tucker Carlson repeating Russian state talking points that are over a decade old, St. Julian-Varnon said after I asked for a response to the Carlson clip.
“I've written about the connections between the alt-right and Russia. There is an echo chamber between the two that is terrifying,” she said.
She added: “The 180 degree turn from Republican views during the Cold War to accommodating Russian views on NATO is something to behold.”
St. Julian-Varnon is a PhD student and presidential fellow in the Department of History at Penn. Among other things, she studies African and African Diasporic racial identity in the former Soviet Union. I wanted to know more about the stakes of Ukrainian tensions.
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She said the US and NATO allies could have responded more strongly after Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, took the Crimean peninsula.
They didn’t. And here we are now.
What's the status now with US-Russian relations over Ukraine?
Right now, the status is probably as tense as it has been since the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea. Russia is seeking promises that the United States and NATO cannot and do not intend on making. Particularly, NATO not expanding to include Ukraine.
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This has been a Russian point of contention throughout Putin's multiple presidencies. He sees NATO as an anti-Russian military alliance, and its expansion into Ukraine is, for him, a threat.
Why does Putin see it as a threat?
NATO was created as an anti-Soviet military alliance. Arguably, since Russia was not allowed to join NATO following the collapse of the USSR, it appears to Putin that it is an anti-Russian alliance.
The level of "threat" that NATO expansion means to Russia depends on Russia's goals. If the goal is to force Ukraine to remain in Russia's political, military and economic orbit, then it is a threat.
However, NATO expansion is not an existential nor military threat to Russia. Putin is using it to rationalize his behavior.
What would he have to gain by invading?
This is the question I've been thinking about the most.
Putin, if the Russian military can take and hold it, gains probably most of Eastern Ukraine, i.e., the Ukrainian territory east of Kyiv. He has stated multiple times that this is Novorossiya or Malorossiya, the names for Ukrainian territory during Imperial Russian history.
So, if we take Putin at his word, he seeks to recreate the greater Russian imperial territory on the western border of Russia by adding the Ukrainian east.
Putin does not recognize Ukraine as a sovereign state nor Ukrainians as non-Russian people. That’s clear from his public statements.
I also think Putin would see invasion, depending on the NATO and American responses, as a clear illustration of Russia's position as a global power (rather than a regional power, as western media and policy officials like to describe it).
More worrisome is if the west fails to support Ukraine in case of an invasion, there is a devastating lesson to be learned by smaller post-Soviet states. It is better to work with Russia than suffer like Ukraine.
Let's assume there is an invasion and there is a response from the US and its allies. What would that response look like?
I'm not sure, and it seems like American and western European leaders are not sure either.
Biden's "minor incursions" gaffe in his most recent speech about the tension in Ukraine showed no consensus on what to do, but it appears there are or will be levels of response based on Russia's actions.
I don't see American or NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine.
Most likely severe sanctions on Russia yet again. More targeted sanctions like those against four Ukrainian MPs with ties to Russia. Perhaps material and weapons support and aid. Maybe support for the Ukrainian domestic fighters against the invading Russian forces.
But I remember watching the crises in Crimea and Donetsk in real-time in 2014, and my hopes for a strong US response were dashed.
So a stronger response would be better?
I think so. The 2014 response did not prevent what we’re seeing now.
But I do not think Russia anticipates nor wants a full-on war, especially with any western forces. It doesn't make sense.
Constant destabilization of Ukraine makes it less likely Ukraine will be a viable candidate to join the EU or NATO.
Can you help us understand Russian politics?
I think it depends on what you see as defining Russian politics.
I'd argue that very little that Putin does is reflective of regular Russians who are still reeling from sanctions and rampant covid infections.
Putin has consolidated power such that the Duma wields little influence on major policy. Influence and money go hand-in-hand in Russian politics, but what is more damaging is the tight hold that Putin has on the media.
Russian state-controlled media serves as a microphone for the Kremlin, and it is incredibly difficult for any Russian independent media sources to remain open.
Meduza (though based in Latvia) has been deemed a foreign agent, Memorial has been shut down (it was an incredibly important archive that preserved the life histories of Soviet people, among other things).
Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church works as an instrument of the Kremlin. So you don't necessarily have an independent religious impulse in the largest church in the country.
And finally, elections, especially national elections, are a sham.
Opposition figures are constantly harassed and imprisoned, their offices raided. There is no open, functioning democracy in Russia.
Can you explain Putin's vision?
I think Putin's vision is to make Russia a world power again, in similar strength and influence to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
The issues with his vision of Ukraine stems from an imperialist view on Ukraine as forever a part of and linked to Russia. This predates the Soviet Union and ties back to Imperial Russia.
But the vision isn't neo-Soviet per se. We don't see Putin trying to destabilize the Baltic states, but he has maintained close ties and influence with former Soviet states in Central Asia (Russian 'peacekeepers' in Kazakhstan during the protests for example).
Putin also wants to maintain absolute control over Russia. I think the portrayal of Putin as some omniscient, mastermind of evil is overblown. What Putin does understand and has understood for a long time, is realpolitik. Money, influence, hard power. Those influence his thinking and his behavior.
In a way, Putin's behavior in Ukraine is forcing the US, European Union, and NATO to publicly show how they think about and what they will do for the states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc that want to become part of Europe.
Will the west allow Ukraine to join the EU or NATO? Will it use military support, if necessary in an invasion?
I think these are key issues for Putin because they have real meaning on the ground.
I do want Americans and western Europeans to understand that there are millions of lives at stake here in Ukraine. No invasion will be a minor incursion, it will cost lives and destroy communities.
For the sake of Ukraine, I hope the west understands this.