At a Security Forum sponsored by the wealthy, Madison Avenue-based “Aspen Institute” General Joseph Votel, Head of the US Special Operations Command went on an anti-Russia tirade. His widely circulated comments declared “Russia is looking to challenge us wherever they can…the intent is to create a situation where NATO can’t continue to thrive…” Votel went on to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin, “…as a threat to him and I think what they (Moscow) are attempting to do is create these frozen conflicts and create situations that are very, very difficult to resolve along their border.” Votel further described Russian foreign policy as “coercion and pressure on neighbors along their periphery to meet their particular objectives.”
In PressTV’s report of Votel’s comments, it was pointed out that earlier in July, Votel had told the Armed Services Committee of the US Senate, “Russia is the only country on earth that contains a nuclear capability that could destroy the United States.”
Votel’s comments are in line with a common theme in US punditry over the last few years. A lot of effort has been put into depicting Russia as “expansionist,” “imperialist” and otherwise threatening. Demagogic left-wing US Senator and Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders articulated these sentiments in an interview with Bill O’Reilly, saying, “The world has got to stand up to Putin.”
All of these words ignore the historical and broader context of Russia and the conflicts involving its allies. An examination of the facts easily reveals that, in reality, Russian foreign policy is neither aggressive nor hostile. Rather, Russia is being reluctantly forced into a confrontation by entities within the United States.
Why Does Russia Have Nuclear Weapons?
Votel’s concern about Russia having nuclear weapons, and enough of them to wipe out the United States, should be obvious in its hypocrisy. The United States has more nuclear weapons than any other country on earth, and is the only country in the world to have ever used such weapons.
Why does Russia have nuclear weapons to begin with?
When the United States was developing the atomic bomb back in 1943, famed physicist Niels Bohr met with US President Roosevelt and urged him to share the endeavor with all the anti-fascist allies including the Soviet Union. Roosevelt, who generally favored cooperation with the Soviet Union, liked Bohr’s proposal. However, the British would not give their approval. Winston Churchill met with Bohr, but flatly refused to allow the Soviet Union to be part of the “Manhattan Project.” On September 19th, 1944, at an official meeting at Hyde Park, Churchill and Roosevelt officially agreed that the Soviet Union would not be allowed to participate in developing the atomic bomb.
As World War II was ending, Roosevelt died and the US Presidency was assumed by Harry S. Truman. Truman was a staunch anti-Communist, and even had briefly been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Missouri. Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people within a few seconds. At the war’s conclusion, Truman’s administration rapidly transitioned US foreign policy from the global anti-fascist alliance to Kind of the anti-Communist militarism that came to define the Cold War period.
With the atomic bomb in its arsenal, the United States held the threat of nuclear destruction over it opponents and rapidly moved to squash anyone who appeared to be pro-Communist or sympathetic to the Soviet Union. US intelligence agencies prevented the Italian public from electing a pro-Soviet government with “Operation Gladio.” The United States propped up an autocratic monarchy against a widespread democratic uprising in Greece, because the provisional democratic government was sympathetic to the Soviet Union. US-backed forces prevented a countrywide constitutional referendum from taking place on the Korean peninsula, even though this had been agreed on at the end of the World War II. In 1948, US troops and their Korean allies slaughtered tens of thousands Koreans at Jeju Island and other parts of the country because they demonstrated in support of the Workers Party of Korea.
In China, the US-supported Nationalist Party leader Chiang Ki-Chek when he barred the widely popular Communist Party from participating in the post-war elections. The Chinese Nationalists Party was assisted by the CIA as it proceeded to assassinate pro-Soviet political figures in China, forcing the Chinese Communist Party to take up arms.
Throughout the late 1940s and 50s, many governments that took moderately pro-Soviet positions were forcibly toppled, while the newly formed CIA instructed US- aligned governments around the world in how to outlaw, repress, round-up, and torture pro-Soviet political forces in their respective countries.
The elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, which favored a better relationship with the Soviet Union, was deposed in a violent CIA directed coup in Guatemala. The elected government of Iran led by Mohammed Mossadegh was forcibly deposed by the United States as well. The US established a friendly relationship with Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who tortured and executed thousands of political dissidents, and had previously been aligned with the Nazis.
Domestically, the US government prosecuted the Communist Party and imprisoned over 200 of its members. Alger Hiss, a figure within the Democratic Party that had favored better relations with the Soviet Union, was accused of being a spy and eventually imprisoned for perjury. The 1948 Presidential Campaign of former Vice President Henry Wallace was banned from the ballot in many US states, because it called for re-establishing friendly relations with the USSR.
In 1950, President Truman threatened to drop atomic bombs on Soviet-aligned forces in Korea and China. In 1951, Truman took another dangerous step, and handed control of four nuclear bombs to the US Army, who transported them to Asia. Eventually, US Army General Douglas MacArthur unveiled a plan to drop 30 atomic bombs on China and Korea in order to destroy the fighting ability of Soviet allies in the region.
The Birth of the So-Called “Arms Race”
The Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb during the 1950s period in the context of aggression from the nuclear-armed United States. During this period, governments around the world that wished to establish better relations with the Soviet Union were being forcibly overthrown by the United States. US-aligned regimes in Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere were rounding up and executing Soviet sympathizers. Meanwhile, the United States was rapidly increasing its military presence in Europe and Asia, and openly threatening to use atomic weapons in conflicts with Soviet-aligned forces.
In response to US aggression, the Soviet Union pursued its own nuclear program, and was eventually successful. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1954, had nothing to do with the Soviet Union’s nuclear program. The Soviet Union, which became the first country in history to enter outer space during the same period, did not need spies to steal “nuclear secrets” from the United States. The hundreds of world renowned scientists in the Soviet Union developed atomic weapons on their own, with the hope that this would deter the US from further isolating and threatening them.
The following period in which the US and the Soviet Union both escalated the development of nuclear weapons is often referred to as an “arms race.” Widely respected political scientist Michael Parenti observed, “there wasn’t really an arms race, but an arms catch-up.” From the 1950s to the early 1990s, the US continued to acquire a bigger nuclear arsenal, forcing the Soviet Union to “catch up” in order to maintain the ability to equally respond, and thus deter US nuclear attack. The leaders of the Soviet Union repeatedly called for an end to nuclear proliferation and a mutual agreement not to deliver a “first strike.” US leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, repeatedly refused this proposal. During the late 1970s, US President Jimmy Carter briefly talked of signing a SALT treaty to limit nuclear proliferation, but he backed down after he was met with a very hostile response from the Pentagon and the US media.
For decades the Soviet Union was forced, out of military necessity, to spend billions of dollars on the development of nuclear weapons. Despite this, the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal was always far smaller than that of the United States. As explained by well-respected academic Sean Gervasi, the so-called “arms race” was an intentional strategy by the United States designed to cause economic problems within the Soviet society. As the much heralded social programs of the socialist- planned economy were cut in order to fund military projects, fertile ground was established for CIA-funded “dissidents” to recruit, and for the Communist Party to become less popular and more thoroughly distrusted. Eventually in 1991, even though the overwhelming majority of Soviet citizens voted against it, the USSR was dismantled. The Russian Federation acquired the Soviet nuclear arsenal as part of the many treaties and agreements established when the Soviet Union was officially terminated.
The nuclear weapons that are now in the hands of the Russian Federation were not acquired with the intention of threatening the United States. They were inherited from the Soviet Union which acquired them out of necessity, in response to the aggressiveness of the United States in the direct aftermath of World War II. Russia does not possess these weapons because of any hostile intentions in the past or in the present. These weapons that ended up in the hands of Russian leaders were developed in response to international pressure. It is widely forgotten that US strategists intentionally provoked the Soviet Union to spend billions of dollars on nuclear proliferation.
Religious Extremism and Terrorism in Syria
It is unclear exactly what General Votel means with his reference to “frozen conflicts.” Currently, there are two civil wars taking place in which Russian- aligned forces are battling against US-aligned forces. However, these conflicts cannot accurately be described as “proxy wars,” as the origin of both conflicts does not involve Russia, whose role in these conflicts is reluctant and limited.
Russia had nothing to do with instigating the Syrian civil war which began in 2011. In the context of widespread peaceful protests across the Middle East during the “Arab Spring,” the Muslim Brotherhood and various Takfiri extremist groups launched a campaign of terrorist violence against the Syrian government. The peaceful protests against the Syrian government were aborted, as the country rapidly polarized and degenerated into a full on state of armed civil war.
Many who had peacefully protested against the Syrian government in 2011, currently take up arms in supports of President Assad against the Takfiri extremist groups. Whatever talk of “democracy” and “reform” may have defined the peaceful demonstrations of 2011 has been long forgotten. The Syrian civil war is currently defined by the existing secular government with religious diversity and tolerance, standing in opposition to armed Sunni extremists who seek to establish a repressive theocratic dictatorship.
The Syrian government led by the Baath Arab Socialist Party is actively defending itself from a campaign of violence by forces that seek to establish a Sunni caliphate. The Syrian Arab Army is in an alliance with Christian and Communist militias who are battling against a slew of religious extremist groups. The Al-Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army, and a number of other factions are armed, funded, and trained by the United States as they conduct bombings, kidnapping, and other atrocities. The CIA has already spent $1 billion on training camps for anti-government fighters in Jordan.
The forces that call themselves ISIS, who are now the object of universal hatred and condemnation, originated as part of the US-backed terrorist campaign against the Syrian Arab Republic. As the war continues, over 200,000 people are already dead, with three million are living in refugee camps. An additional million remain in Syria, internally displaced as a result of the continued fighting.
In the context of a continuous US-funded insurgency, Russia has kept its political and economic relationship with the Syrian Arab Republic. Russia sells weapons to the Syrian Arab Republic, and continues to recognize it as the legitimate government of the country. Russia has refused to join the international efforts to destabilize the country, and maintains that its longtime ally, like any other country, has the right to defend itself against terrorism. Russia is standing beside a longtime ally, and cannot be blamed from the Syrian conflict in any logical way.
The conflict in Syria continues because US-aligned regimes such as Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are facilitating a campaign of terrorist violence. The majority of anti-government militants are not from Syria. Terrorists from as far away as Malaysia have been arrested by Syrian authorities.
Anti-Russian Bigotry in Ukraine
The elected government of Victor Yanukovich in Ukraine was violently overthrown in the early months of 2014. The Euro-Maiden movement, funded by billions of dollars from US non-governmental organizations, deposed Yanukovich and replaced him with a highly polarizing regime supported only in the western parts of the country. The new government in Kiev is virulently hostile to Russia, basing its views on pro-Hitler historical narrative about “Nazi Liberators” who fought against the “Soviet Empire.” The new Kiev government has a very close relationship with “Right Sector” and other rightist vigilante groups. These forces have burned buildings, kidnapped people, and waged a campaign of terrorism against leftists and others who favor better relations with Russia.
When the new regime took power in Kiev, it outlawed the Party of Regions and the Communist Party, the two most popular political parties in Ukraine’s Eastern regions. The new government has also suppressed the teaching of the Russian language, which 30% of Ukrainians declare as their native tongue, and 46% speak in their homes. The new government cut the old-age pension in half, and doubled the price of heating gas in accordance with directions from the International Monetary Fund. “Victory Day” celebrations commemorating the Soviet Union’s defeat of the Nazis were suppressed. Stephan Banderra, a Nazi collaborator who fought against the Soviet Union has been declared a national hero.
The actions of the new government in Ukraine have been highly offensive to the people residing in the eastern regions of the country. As a result, many ethnically Russian and Russian-speaking peoples have refused to recognize it. Novorrusya has been established, made up of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, the People’s Republic of Luhansk, and other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine that have voted in referendums to declare independence. People in these regions have taken up arms to defend their independence from the anti-Russian stance of the Kiev government. These “rebels” call for a decentralized federal system in Ukraine in order to ensure that their local language, customs, and political parties cannot be further infringed upon.
In response to resistance in the East, the new Ukrainian regime is waging an “Anti-Terrorist Operation.” US military advisors are directing and training the Ukrainian National Guard in fighting against the resistance forces. The armed resistance in East Ukraine is a broad coalition including the Orthodox Russian Christians, Slavic Nationalists, and Communists.
Russia is highly threatened by the presence of a virulently anti-Russian government so nearby, and has intensified the military presence on its borders with Ukraine. In response, the United States has increased its military presence in Poland, Romania, Estonia, Bulgaria, and Lithuania. NATO troops and weapons have been dispatched throughout Eastern Europe as the situation intensifies.
Not “Russian Proxies” but Human Beings
Neither of these conflicts fit General Votel’s description as “frozen.” Both of these conflicts are very alive and intense, with casualties and violence taking place on a daily basis. Furthermore, neither of these conflicts were created by Russia. The campaign of violence against the Syrian government, and the toppling of the elected Ukrainian government, was instigated by political fanatics who were directed, and supported by, the United States.
Neither the Russian-speaking people in Eastern Ukraine, nor the Syrian Arab Republic, can accurately be described as “Russian proxies” or “Russian agents.” The Syrian Arab Republic is not defending itself from being violently overthrown because of orders from Moscow. The people of East Ukraine are not hostile to a pro-Hitler regime that has outlawed their language and political parties because of orders from Vladimir Putin. The Syrians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians are responding to hostile situations imposed on them. They are responding in the manner that anyone would expect. They are defending themselves from very real acts of aggression that have been directed against them. By seeking to defend their communities and heritage, the Syrians and Ethnic Russians are not proving to be “Russian Agents.” They are demonstrating the fact that they are human beings.
No one would expect the Syrian government to passively accept being overthrown by Sunni religious extremists. Likewise, no one would expect the Ethnic Russians to sit back and allow their culture, language, along with their political and ethnic identity to be forcibly suppressed. The response of the Syrian government and the people of East Ukraine is predictable and understandable.
The actions of Russia in relation to the unfolding conflicts in Syria and Ukraine have also been quite logical. In both wars, Russia has merely stood beside longtime friends, offering them support in the context of extreme attacks. If Russia were to stop supporting Syria, or the people of East Ukraine, its credibility on the international stage would be ruined. No country or people seeks an ally who will abandon them in a time of desperate need.
Russia’s actions in the world are not aggressive or hostile. If anything, they are rather restrained and passive in the face of so much aggression toward longtime allies. Russia’s military strength is vast, and the presence of Russian troops in Syria or Ukraine could easily turn the tide of both conflicts. The reason Russia has not dispatched troops to Syria or East Ukraine is because such an intervention would likely draw in direct military intervention from the United States.
At no point in Russia’s history has the country ever desired a military confrontation with the United States. The United States, with the biggest military on earth, a central role in the world economy, is not a country that any rationale leader would seek out a confrontation with. The government of United States continues to meddle in the affairs of other nations, provoking an often predicted and expected response.
Just as it happened during the post-World War II period, Russian allies are being destabilized and targeted by the United States. In Europe, the United States is requiring that its allies become more and more hostile to Russia, and cooperate with intensification of the conflict on the global stage.
Figures like Joseph Votel create a false narrative about these events in order to justify further US intervention and aggression, the source of the conflict to begin with. If it were not for the meddling of the United States, Syria and Ukraine would not be embroiled in a civil war. The more involved the United States becomes in these conflicts, the more intense they become. Russia is very passively and reluctantly defending itself as violence against its allies intensifies.
People in the United States should be very concerned about the dangerous escalation of tensions currently taking place. The fighting words of Joseph Votel pave the road to a possible full-on confrontation between the United States and Russia. If this takes place, it will be disastrous. Everyone should be opposed to such a thing taking place. In order to prevent such a disastrous conflagration, the United States must cease its meddling and provocations in Russian-aligned countries.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.