Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Points that Putin Apologists Miss

Who do you think is to blame for the war in Ukraine?

For the Blame-America-International the answer is simple: the culprit is the United States.

At one end of the Blame-America International (BAI) we find usual suspects such as the Khomeinist mullahs, the Sudanese and Burmese jackboots, the retarded Maoists of Eritrea, the Assad clan in Damascus and the bad boys of Belarus. These one could dismiss if only because their mercenary status is clear.

It is at the other end of the spectrum that one finds a potentially more dangerous narrative at a time that what is euphemistically referred to as the world order is facing its biggest challenge since World War II. For here we find individuals and groups that try to use, or rather abuse, such labels as “public intellectuals” and/ or “elder statesmen” to legitimize Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

That narrative is peddled by people like former British Foreign Secretary David Lord Owen, professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, French presidential candidates Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour and Jean-Luc Melenchon, British columnist Peter Hitchens, and a string of lesser known figures in Europe and the United States.

They all build their narrative around three charges.

The first is that Putin and his Russia must be seen as victims of the United States insatiable quest for global hegemony by constantly trying to downgrade Russia’s status.

The second is that, by trying to include Ukraine in its ranks, the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) posed a direct threat to Russia’s national security, a threat that no Russian leader could ignore.

The third is that Ukrainian leaders, prompted by Washington, refused to recognize Russia’s right to “reintegrate” the Crimean Peninsula, a part of Russian homeland that Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian chauvinist disguised as a Bolshevik, snatched away from Mother Russia.
As for the first charge, the opposite may be nearer to the truth.

For successive US administrations starting with George WH Bush’s went out of their way not only to soften the shock caused by the collapse of the Soviet Empire but also to recognize Russia as its legitimate successor with “superpower” status.

Although post-Soviet Russia was diminished in terms of demographic, economic, diplomatic and military power, all treaties and procedural agreements concluded with the USSR remained in force. The US worked closely with Moscow to smooth the difficult transition that Europe faced as the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and the European Union enlarged.

Anxious to keep Russia “on board” the US campaigned for Russia’s membership of the G-7, which became G-,and the World Trade Organization (WTO), helped open global capital markets to Russia, and encouraged American businesses to heavily invest in developing the post-Soviet economy.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the American stamp of approval played a key role in encouraging other foreign, especially European, investment followed by the biggest transfer of technology witnessed in Russian history.

The second charge related to NATO’s alleged rush to included Ukraine, or what Professor Mearsheimer calls “reckless expansion”, provoked Putin is equally absurd.

To start with NATO never invites any state to join. It is up to other states to apply for membership and, to this day, Ukraine has not done so and, if it did, it is clear that its application would be unacceptable under NATO’s rules that exclude any country with unresolved irredentist and/or other territorial disputes with any other nation.

For almost two decades Russia made no objection to NATO enlargement that included former members of the Warsaw Pact. Under Putin, Russia even concluded a deal for cooperation with NATO on issues of mutual security with the Helsinki Accords as historic reference. In 2002, Putin met NATO Secretary-General George (Lord) Robinson and quipped that “may be it is time NATO invited Russia to become a member.”

Robinson wasn’t sure whether that was a serious approach or Russian black humor but reminded Putin that NATO never issues invitation but would consider applications.

In the 2008 Bucharest summit of NATO both Georgia and Ukraine expressed the desire to apply for membership but were quietly told not to submit formal applications. The undeclared reason was the persistence of irredentist problems both had with Russia. Putin interpreted that as a rebuff to Kiev and Tbilisi by NATO and invaded Georgia, snatching South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The “provocation” charge is equally nonsensical.

However, even if there was provocation shouldn‘t one apportion blame between the provoker and the provoked? Isn’t the rapist who claims he was provoked because his victim wore provocative dress at least as much to blame as the victim?

Without saying so the pro-Putin chorus is advocating a new concept, that of limited sovereignty for countries that were once part of the Tsarist and/or Soviet empires. That concept would apply not only to Ukraine and Georgia but also to the Baltic republics and the Eastern European members of the defunct Warsaw Pact. In his latest rhetoric, Putin has extended that concept to Central Asian republics, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania in the Balkans.

More importantly, perhaps, should the “threat to national security” be regarded as an excuse exclusive to Vladimir Putin?

The Montevideo Convention of 1933-34, in its Article 8, stipulated that “no state has the right to intervene in the internal and external affairs of another.” That principle was designed to deal with the lacunae in the League of Nations that contributed to World War. Later, it became a fundamental principle of the United Nations and the world order that has shaped the global system for seven decades.

Mercifully, not even Eric Zemmour repeats Putin’s absurd claim that Ukraine is governed by neo-Nazis, implying that the current war is a sequel to World War II.

However, the claim that Ukraine’s refusal to accept the loss of Crimea and, presumably also of Donbas, left Putin with no choice but to invade is equally questionable. What would Putin do if China invaded Russia to regain control of territory that was once Chinese?
If we accept that what once belonged to one state can never belong to another, Crimea must be handed over to Turkey as successor to the Ottoman caliphate, or, even better, the Tatar khans who ruled it before the Ottomans. As for Donbas and chunks of southern Russia returning to “original owners”, this means the revival of the Cossack state that once controlled both.

It is a pity, not to say a shame, that hatred for America has led so many otherwise sane people to endorse Putin’s authorship of a great tragedy.