Amidst rising justice concerns in America and a return to Cold War tactics by policymakers, Carter Page considers the evolving nuclear relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
In recent months, renewed calls for equal justice have brought social tension across the United States after the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers in Missouri and New York respectively. Although commonly overlooked, the impact of other fatal mistakes by government officials in the foreign policy arena might vastly outweigh these tragic deaths in potentially catastrophic proportions.
With the continued escalation and threat of further sanctions on Russia, the West has focused on the so-called annexation of Crimea. But just as injustice for minorities might be largely forgotten until documented on video, the annexation of the entirety of Ukraine by a few officials in Washington which started that region’s current disorder in the first place has received far less attention. While the loss of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has received intense media coverage and perfunctory federal government investigations, the economic injustice unleashed upon the millions of people residing in Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union by misguided Western policies has met limited recognition.
The deaths triggered by U.S. government officials in both the former Soviet Union and the streets of America in 2014 share a range of close similarities.
First, Eric Garner was the weaker power in his interaction with the more heavily armed New York Police Department (NYPD) officers. From the Crimean Peninsula to Staten Island, no lenience for minor offenses represented a complete lack of justice. While Eric Garner was brutally accosted for the petty crime of selling cigarettes, Russia’s actions were relatively minor in comparison to the revolutionary forces that the U.S. helped instigate in the preceding months. Just as five police officers ganged up on Garner, over a half-dozen new NATO members have expanded to Russia’s border and near abroad over recent decades.
Second, each instance displayed a government representative making decisions that are disproportionate to the situation at hand. In Ukraine, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland played the role of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Third, the broader nationwide clash prompted by Nuland and Pantaleo in Ukraine and the U.S. respectively were the product of an injustice created by overzealous individuals who were never held accountable for their actions.
Fourth, the decisions by such fervent and entrepreneurial bureaucrats offer an unrepresentative view of the broader cast of government employees from the organizations they represent, namely the U.S. Department of State and municipal police departments.
Fifth, the fact that a majority of Americans found unfairness in the grand jury decision surrounding the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, parallels the voice of most Crimean citizens in the status referendum of 2014.
Finally, a lack of foresight led to these officials displaying a narrow-minded disregard for the repercussions of their actions. The increased nuclear tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship which will be considered later in this article stand as a principal and perhaps the most ominous example.
A primary difference between America’s actions at home and in Ukraine is the reluctant acceptance of protests in a domestic context while actively instigating them overseas. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s calls for a temporary halt to protests in New York City during December stands in stark contrast to senior U.S. official Victoria Nuland, who participated in anti-government protests herself last December. In addition to handing out sandwiches and inspiring revolutionaries, she admitted that same month to spending significant U.S. government funds over the course of the past few decades on redesigning the government of Ukraine. Secrecy shrouds the exact amount and characteristics of these state-sponsored investments, but the impact of Nuland’s tactics remains material as the current chaos envelopes Ukraine.
In line with some of the origins of today’s racial tensions in the U.S., the great irony of the tactics displayed by Victoria Nuland in her work on the 2014 Ukrainian revolution is that they stand in direct contradiction to a central tenet of the American Revolution: “All men are created equal”. By helping to draw a biased dividing line between European- and Russian-leaning segments of Ukrainian society, she established a pathway for the destruction that has since resulted including thousands of deaths in this year’s ongoing conflict.
In a recent interview, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul was asked, ”Might [Putin] do something to play what has been described as the ‘nationalist card’, to rally public support in his country and to distract Russians from a deteriorating economic situation?”
In keeping with his long-standing anti-Putin rhetoric such as the 2002 book on Russia's Unfinished Revolution, McFaul agreed: “Yes, and that’s what he did earlier this spring. That jumped him up from 40% approval rating to 80% approval rating. That’s what the war in Ukraine was in part about…”
Recognition has grown overseas that distraction techniques have helped to rally public support in the U.S. by redirecting attention to conflicts abroad. As a recent Chinese media opinion piece noted, “After examining America's staggering racial disparity, one cannot help wondering whether the US accusation of the Chinese government this time was another political tactic of shunning criticism at itself.”
McFaul continued his assessment of Putin by suggesting, “I actually think he may think about changing his government. I think that may be the surprise move you might see in the coming days or weeks.” Once again, the relevance of McFaul’s comments were most vividly seen in a U.S. context. On November 24, 2014, Obama announced that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will be stepping down from office – one of the highest posts in the U.S. executive branch of government according to the presidential line of succession. Based on insider accounts, Hagel’s greatest fault in the eyes of the White House may have been his willingness to question central authority figures’ fixation on and continued adherence to conventional wisdom even while key regions and policies were “falling apart”.
Stuck in the past
One of the enduring mantras of the current protest movement across the U.S. which has continued in recent days has been, “No justice, no peace”. The meaning and origins of this slogan extend back over half a century. At long last and in line with this motto, a growing recognition has begun to arise that the Cold War tactics recently reinitiated by the U.S. and its NATO allies are now having a detrimental impact on the nuclear arms control progress that has occurred since the end of that earlier confrontation in the 1990’s.
Although one-sided in its analysis, a recent article in the New Republic highlights fundamental risks. While the author points out incidents in which nuclear weapons were mishandled in Russia, limited attention is given to similar problems in the United States. As a June 2014 Review of the Department of Defense Nuclear Enterprise concluded about the Minot Air Force Base, “If… the current trend of complacency continues based on the assumption that the troops will continue to meet the mission by ‘making do’ with insufficient support and resources, the path can only lead to eventual mission failure—which could be sudden, and with major consequences.”
Amidst an escalating record of mistrust between Russia and the U.S., these trends are particularly troubling especially in light of the recent track record at Minot.
Obama’s surprise move
Related to the “surprise move” that McFaul predicted in a Russian context, one possible hope for a positive redirection of U.S. policy in the former Soviet Union is that Chuck Hagel’s replacement as Secretary of Defense might create a new attention to these nuclear issues. For his first role in the Pentagon, Ashton Carter was once nominated as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Security and Counterproliferation during the early Clinton Administration in 1993. Given his enduring focus on these critical security matters, he might offer a new perspective that helps balance the impact of short sighted rabble-rousers and their misguided bellicosity.
Carter W. Page is Founder and Managing Partner of Global Energy Capital LLC, an Adjunct Associate Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Energy Fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington.