BRATTLEBORO — As a longtime admirer of Russian culture and as someone whose ancestors came to this country from Ukraine, I have found myself putting in a lot of time watching, reading, and thinking about the war now raging there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may have deeply held beliefs that Ukraine should be his, but his supposed rationale to the world, and perhaps an underlying goad to his actions, has been his beef about NATO.
Thomas Friedman had a column in The New York Times at the beginning of this debacle that cited actions by the USA and Europe to bring NATO to Russia's door, despite strong protests from Russia, as a probable spur to its invasion of Ukraine all these years later. A thorn in his side.
Friedman and other Kremlin watchers have testified that this decision to allow previous Soviet bloc nations to join NATO, during a time of deep trouble within Russia during the downfall of the Soviet Union, probably had the consequence of embedding deeply felt humiliation. While we in the west celebrated, Russia seethed.
The anger caused by NATO being on Russia's doorstep has an even more complicated history, it turns out.
The Guardian recently featured a commentary that was as revealing as it was shocking. Soon after Putin became president, he asked for Russia to be let into NATO. Perhaps he saw this as a way to protect Russia - if you can't fight 'em, join 'em.
Russia's desire for a fast track into NATO was rebuffed, while at the same time, smaller Baltic nations were becoming a part of the international alliance. Putin was not willing to get in line behind what he considered “inferior countries.”
So Putin has a deep, ongoing issue with NATO. He fears, it is said, its power right next door. So why would NATO, which is defensive, not put to rest these fears and sign a non-aggression pact?
If it is bull from Putin, it would be a way to call his bluff. At the very least, it would show Putin and the world that Ukraine President Vlodymyr Zelenskyy and the West acknowledge his concerns and give them some validity. After all, our fear of Communism next door (Cuba) caused the U.S. government to almost destroy that nation.
* * *
While Russia is clearly the aggressor in Ukraine and committing the most heinous acts of war, leaders of both sides must get past their dug-in positions.
Zelenskyy is being incredibly brave to stand up to the bully on the eastern border of his country, and clearly, admirably, has great love for his country and its people, but both countries' leaders must do whatever it takes to end this war.
Putin's behavior seems sociopathic and paranoid, and perhaps he is among those with a lockbox-tight worldview who see the irrational as rational and the actions that stem from these perceptions as not just right but necessary.
A friend of mine (whose husband is a therapist) suggests that psychiatrists, not generals, should be calling the shots. The therapists I know would acknowledge that a patient's unreality is real for them and would go from there. Yes, let us have some of the insight, the perception of psychiatrists in on the decisions being made to counter Putin. In fact, Let us call for the wisdom of such wise people as the Dalai Lama or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the past president of Liberia who has won the Nobel Peace Prize.
There is horrible loss of life - soldiers and civilians alike - on both sides. Ukraine is suffering extraordinarily. Yet also this is not a war against the Russian people. It is hard to cheer the Russian tanks being blown up when we know they are operated by young Russian conscripts who don't even know why they are in Ukraine fighting their brothers.
The U.S. doesn't have much say in this, but also Ukraine must be allowed into the European Union. Among all the losses of citizens and infrastructure, including letting go the dream of belonging to NATO, there should be some gain for this brave nation.
* * *
A postscript: Things have shifted and clarified in the several weeks since I wrote this. I believe there is still something to be gained by undercutting Putin's claim of starting the war because of NATO on his doorstep, an advantage to the West's declaring a willingness to sign a non-aggression pact with Russia.
However, according to multiple sources, Putin also has an overriding desire to reclaim Ukraine as part of Russia, in which case such a pact would matter little.
The most we can hope for is to support the people of Ukraine and hope for some kind of internal takedown of Putin's reign and regime.