In the 1980s, Fred Coleman, Moscow correspondent for Newsweek, walked into the Soviet embassy in Washington to ask if Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin was ready to meet with the new American president. Dobrynin had already served through several Presidencies. Dobrynin’s secretary’s reply: “The Ambassador is looking forward to working with the new president the way a kindergarten teacher looks forward to the first day of school.”

Forget arrogance. The episode illustrates a glaring constant in America’s relations with Moscow: our inability to extrapolate lessons from our own experience. We’re a nation that’s hardwired for instant gratification, with a low frustration threshold that doesn’t even begin to compare with the patience of our enemies.

With a time horizon, both forward and backward, that’s limited to an election cycle, we’re unable to extrapolate necessary lessons from the past and consequently are unable to anticipate and plan for the future.

“The willingness to allow Russia to become the sole nuclear and economic power to emerge from the Soviet Union is a dangerous prospect for Western security.” – a US Navy Officer, 1991.

Simply put, we lack a strategic instinct. Couple that with a pauperized knowledge of history, generally, and scarcely a grip on geography, and we have the wreckage of our global security posture as we’re being slashed from all quarters.

Consider the lessons never learned. After WW I, Ukraine was denied a seat at the Paris Peace Conference but in a letter to its President, Georges Clemenceau, the Ukrainian delegation warned of the existential threat that Moscow would soon represent to the West.

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The Western allies sniffed their indifference, Washington reneged on contracted aid to Ukraine, and Moscow soon overran the country. Its destruction of Ukraine’s national ethos by the elimination of Ukraine’s religious, cultural, political and intellectual strata was massive. 

Simultaneously, as he was retooling the Tsarist Empire into a “Soviet Union,” Stalin desperately sought outside economic support and diplomatic approbation. We obliged, and on November 16, 1933, extended diplomatic recognition to the USSR.

Ours was the ultimate imprimatur of legitimacy for a monstrous regime, and also the acme of strategic witlessness. The pre-eminent capitalist power that the Kremlin had sworn to destroy rewarded its planned executioner.

Worse still, our invitation of the Great Sun to the diplomatic soiree coincided with Moscow’s starvation of Ukraine in 1932-33. The Holodomor. 

In a report to the Royal Embassy of Italy in Moscow, its counsel in Ukraine quoted a top officer of the GPU secret police that the starvation was engineered to “change the ethnographic materials” of Ukraine by massively resettling Russians into a “cleansed” Ukraine to “make Ukraine a part of Russia.”

Raphael Lemkin, father of the UN Genocide Convention and originator of that term, described it as classic genocide. Our recognition not only masked the genocide, in effect it rewarded the perpetrator. It also cut directly against our own security interests.

We stripped Ukraine of its nuclear arsenal and required its transfer to Russia, lectured Ukraine, not Russia, about nationalism, and pronounced that democracy would flourish sooner in Russia than in Ukraine.

We continued with our obliviousness to the reality that we had been warned of a decade before: Russian control of Ukraine was critical to the creation and ongoing viability of the USSR.

The global consequences were near calamitous. Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington expanded to accept 100,000 of our finest, and we burned through $13 trillion in the ensuing Cold War.

But it was worse. Stalin wasn’t the supplicant. America was. Recognition opened the floodgates to even further American capital and technology that had begun even before 1933. We established not only the foundation for the Soviet economy and military, but in various degrees maintained them on life-support for almost their duration.

Among other capitulations in our recognition, we all but erased a $60 billion debt (that’s principal only, in today’s dollars) that Moscow owed to the American taxpayers and investors.

What did we get in exchange? Moscow agreed “to refrain from… any act overt or covert liable in any way whatsoever to injure the tranquility, prosperity, order or security of the whole or any part of the United States, in particular any agitation or propaganda.” Need more be said?

Days afterward, Soviet Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinov, who had negotiated the recognition with a thoroughly credulous President Roosevelt, visited the headquarters of the Communist Party of the USA where he boasted about his own duplicity.

The menu in Ukraine had less panache. A grief-stricken little girl cried, “Mommy told us to eat her when she died.”

And only days after that, on November 26, 1933, Republicans and Democrats joined to honor the same Litvinov at a banquet at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

It was surreal, as the titans of American finance and industry sprang to their feet and rendered a lusty rendition of the Communist International, the sing-along of the world communist movement dedicated to their own demise.

The menu was Beluga Caviar Canapes, Bortschok, Celery, Olives, Coulibiac of Lake Trout, Filet de Boeuf Stroganoff, with New Green Peas and Potatoes Noisette, Autumn Salad, Rissole of Cheese, and Café Filtre. Dessert was a decidedly non-proletarian Bombe Glace Chocolate Praline Wladimire Gourmandises.

The menu in Ukraine had less panache. A grief-stricken little girl cried, “Mommy told us to eat her when she died.”

In 1979 we displayed a similar strategic failure by withdrawing our recognition of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and kowtowing to the communist regime in Beijing. We fantasized of using communist China as a counterweight to the USSR, precisely the enemy that we had, in the same manner, elevated in 1933.

And, as with Moscow, our technology, know-how and capital put Beijing on its economic feet. And we’re coming to our senses only now?

The irony, and tragedy, is that it was a trillion (today’s value) of American taxpayer dollars in Lend Lease assistance to Moscow that continued after WW II and that Moscow used to help establish communist dystopias in China – and North Korea – in the very first place. 

After 1979, our myopia continued as we reversed victim and perpetrator. President Bush in his 1991 “Chicken Kiev” speech hectored Ukraine to remain Moscow’s vassal. But the USSR nonetheless imploded precisely because Ukraine left the party and capped the $13 trillion gusher.

America was “great again,” recouping its primacy in the world. Even then, we still didn’t connect the dots. We stripped Ukraine of its nuclear arsenal and required its transfer to Russia, lectured Ukraine, not Russia, about nationalism, and pronounced that democracy would flourish sooner in Russia than in Ukraine.

A young US Navy lieutenant in 1993 was prescient: “Regenerating Russia as the superpower successor to the Soviet Union will be a threat to the security of Ukraine and Europe… The willingness to allow Russia to become the sole nuclear and economic power to emerge from the Soviet Union is a dangerous prospect for Western security…

“The United States will have assisted in creating a regime that is a serious threat to the democratic community of states. Were Russia to embark on a campaign to reconstitute, what options would the West have?”

So, what is the latest iteration of our strategic acumen? Thomas Graham, seemingly a Russia expert, recently declared in Foreign Affairs that we should embrace Russia in dealing with China.  We originally failed with Russia before, then again spectacularly with China, then with Russia again. And now just do it over again? It’s vertiginous.

From the Ukrainians’ warning to at the Paris Peace Conference:

“[T]he bolshevik Government of Russia has sent its troops against Ukraine and broken the Ukrainian front near the frontier of the Ukrainian Republic.

“Now they are advancing into the heart of our country and the bolshevik Government has not only no intention of fulfilling the conditions laid down by the Peace Conference at Paris to establish a truce, to retire its forces and to cease all military action; on the contrary, it has just developed its military offensive to destroy the independence of the Ukrainian Republic.

“One knows that the traditional history of Russia was always, and through the present, an imperial policy, and now she wishes to pass over the body of independent Ukraine to put one hand on the Dardanelles and Suez and the other on the Persian Gulf.”

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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Comments ( 1)

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Steve R.
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Thank you for this, Mr. Rud. It is refreshing to see someone with an actual grasp of history and understanding of Ukraine published here.

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