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On February 21, after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), he sent troops into those regions to carry out what he called “peacekeeping functions.” This was undertaken in response to actions that Russia characterized as a Ukranian government offensive.
During the previous weekend, Ukraine had significantly increased fire against residential sections of DPR and LPR, reportedly launching 1,600 projectiles and killing civilians. Nikolai Pankov, deputy Russian defense minister, said that Ukraine has 60,000 troops prepared to attack DPR and LPR, an intention Ukraine has denied.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres characterized “the decision of the Russian Federation to be a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Claiming that Russia had begun an “invasion of Ukraine,” U.S. President Joe Biden has imposed a “first tranche” of sanctions to effectively “cut off Russia’s government from Western finance.”
When Putin announced Russia’s recognition of the DPR and LPR in the Donbas region, he stated that if Ukraine was to join NATO, it would be a “direct threat” to Russia. The situation is “like having a knife against our throat,” Putin said, adding that Russia has “a right to take countermeasures to enhance our own security.”
This uptick in tensions is taking place in the context of a structural escalation from the U.S. that deserves more than a passing mention by the media: On February 16, The New York Times reported that the United States is building “a highly sensitive U.S. military installation” in Poland, just 100 miles from Russia’s border. The base, which is scheduled to begin operation this year, is a site from which the U.S. could deploy nuclear-armed missiles.
“The advanced and potentially nuclear armed missile deployments in Poland, Romania, and on the Black Sea constituted a clear threat to Russia,” Jack Rasmus, professor of politics and economics at St. Mary’s College, wrote.
Russia is seeking a legally binding agreement from the United States that Ukraine will not be invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a historically anti-Russia military alliance, as well as other security guarantees. “A NATO Ukraine could mean moving Romanian and Black Sea US missiles still further north into Ukraine right up to Russia’s border,” Rasmus noted. “With similar NATO forces in the Baltics on its border, Russia would be surrounded with NATO missiles just a few minutes from Moscow.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on February 14 that Russia wants “radical changes in the sphere of European security,” a pullback of NATO troops in Eastern Europe, and limitations on offensive weapons as well as restrictions on intermediate-range missiles. These proposals are enshrined in two treaties that Russia proposed on December 22, 2021, to make the region more secure and less vulnerable to war. The parties to one treaty would be NATO and the Russian Federation. The United States and the Russian Federation would be parties to the other treaty.
The Proposed NATO-Russia Federation Treaty
The proposed NATO-Russia treaty provides in Article 5 that the parties “shall not deploy land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in areas allowing them to reach the territory of the other Parties.”
In Article 6 of the proposed treaty, the parties “commit themselves to refrain from any further enlargement of NATO, including the accession of Ukraine as well as other States.”
Article 7 states that “member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization shall not conduct any military activity on the territory of Ukraine as well as other States in the Eastern Europe, in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia.”
The Proposed U.S.-Russia Federation Treaty
In the proposed U.S.-Russia treaty, the parties would agree “to avoid any military confrontation and armed conflict between the Parties and realiz[e] that direct military clash between them could result in the use of nuclear weapons that would have far-reaching consequences.”
Article 3 of the proposed treaty provides: “The Parties shall not use the territories of other States with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other Party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other Party.”
Article 4 reads: “The United States of America shall undertake to prevent further eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and deny accession to the Alliance to the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”
Article 4 also says that the United States “shall not establish military bases in the territory of the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”
Article 7 states, “The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories. The Parties shall eliminate all existing infrastructure for deployment of nuclear weapons outside their national territories.”
The United States and NATO have refused to respond positively to Russia’s treaty proposals and have continued to fan the flames of the Ukraine conflict with anti-Russia propaganda, aided and abetted by the corporate media. But the volatile situation in Ukraine can be traced to U.S. meddling in the region.
The U.S. Facilitated the 2014 Coup That Overthrew Ukraine’s Elected President
Absent from the corporate media’s Ukraine coverage are discussions of the U.S. role in the 2014 coup in Ukraine, when the United States helped to overthrow Ukraine’s elected president. In 2013, President Viktor Yanukovych had resisted economic reforms sought by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to make Ukraine more enticing to investors. Those reforms included lowering wages and reducing the education and health sectors (which comprised most of Ukrainian employment), as well as cutting natural gas subsidies that facilitated affordable energy for Ukrainians. After the coup, the new U.S.-backed government cut heating subsidies in half, and in return, secured a $27 billion commitment from the IMF.
In the run-up to the coup, the United States promoted anti-government opinion through the use of USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). “The NED is a key organization in the network of American soft power that pours $170 million a year into organizations dedicated to defending or installing US-friendly regimes,” according to Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). “The NED targets governments who oppose US military or economic policy, stirring up anti-government opposition.” In 2013, NED President Carl Gershman wrote in The Washington Post that Ukraine was the “biggest prize” in the rivalry between the East and West.
Then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland was instrumental in engineering the coup, which drew momentum from neo-Nazi groups within Ukraine. As FAIR explains, “The Washington-backed opposition that toppled the government was fueled by far-right and openly Nazi elements.” Following the coup, those neo-Nazi elements were incorporated into the Ukrainian military, to which the United States has funneled $2.5 billion.
Regime change advocate Nuland is now serving as under secretary for political affairs in the Biden administration’s State Department. Only the United States and Ukraine voted against a December 2021 United Nations General Assembly resolution on “combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fueling contemporary forms of racism.”
Russia Considered the U.S.-Backed Coup a Threat to Its Security
Russia saw the installation of a U.S.-backed government in Ukraine as a threat to its security. The Crimean Peninsula, historically part of Russia, was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. It is the site of one of Russia’s two naval bases that access the Mediterranean and Black seas. “A Crimea controlled by a US-backed Ukrainian government was a major threat to Russian naval access,” Bryce Greene wrote at FAIR.
Moreover, 82 percent of households in Crimea speak Russian and just 2 percent speak primarily Ukrainian. In a plebiscite held right after the 2014 coup, 95 percent of voters chose to join Russia instead of remaining under the new Ukrainian government. Russia then annexed Crimea.
In 2014, the mainly Russian areas of Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk — on the Russian border also chose to secede from Ukraine. Since then, those regions have functioned separately from Ukraine with support from Russia and have seen ongoing intermittent fighting.
Russia Fears That Ukraine Will Join NATO
As the USSR was breaking up in 1990-1991, the U.S. government promised the Soviet Union it would not expand NATO eastward in return for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s agreement not to oppose the reunification of Germany.
By 1999, however, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic had all joined NATO. Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia joined in 2004, followed by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, notwithstanding George Kennan’s admonition, “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post-Cold War era.”
Although there is skepticism from some well-informed quarters that Ukraine will actually become a NATO member, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reaffirmed NATO’s 2008 pledge to offer membership in the alliance to Ukraine and Georgia. “We stand by that decision,” Stoltenberg declared on December 16, 2021.
A week after Stoltenberg’s declaration, Putin said, “We have made it clear that NATO’s move to the east is unacceptable,” adding that, “the United States is standing with missiles on our doorstep.” Putin queried, “How would the Americans react if missiles were placed at the border with Canada or Mexico?”
Putin was incensed by the George W. Bush administration’s 2001 withdrawal from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which had worked for almost 30 years.
Likewise, Lavrov denounced the U.S.’s 2019 withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, in which the parties had agreed not to deploy nuclear-armed missiles in Eastern Europe or on the western border of Russia.
From Russia’s point of view, NATO’s “eastward expansion has created an unacceptable national security risk,” Scott Ritter wrote at Energy Intelligence. “Any accession to Nato by the former Soviet Republics of Ukraine or Georgia is viewed [by Russia] as an existential threat that would require a ‘military-technical’ response.”
“We don’t have a border with Ukraine — we have a border with America, because they are the masters in that country,” Viktor Zolotny, head of Russia’s National Guard, declared before Putin’s February 21 announcement. “Of course we must recognize the republics, but I want to say that we must go farther in order to defend our country.”
Enforce the Minsk Agreements
As the Beijing Winter Olympics began in early February, Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping signed a joint statement opposing the expansion of NATO. China and Russia stated they “oppose the further expansion of Nato, call on the North Atlantic alliance to abandon the ideologised approaches of the cold war, respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries, the diversity of their civilisational and cultural-historical patterns, and treat the peaceful development of other states objectively and fairly.”
Minsk II, a package of measures aimed at ending the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine, was agreed to in 2015 by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. The talks that resulted in the agreement were overseen by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). A UN Security Council resolution of February 17, 2015 — labeled as S/RES/2202 — endorsed the “Package of measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements” signed on February 12, 2015.
The 13 points contained in the Minsk Agreement set forth military and political steps that include a ceasefire, withdrawal of weapons, dialogue about interim self-government of Donetsk and Luhansk, constitutional reform and elections. But the majority of the steps in the Minsk Agreement have not been implemented, and Ukraine’s government has clearly indicated that it does not intend to implement the agreement.
In a meeting between Putin and Biden in spring 2021, Russia demanded that the West pressure Ukraine to fulfill its obligation under the 2015 Minsk Agreement. After Russia recognized the independence of DPR and LPR, UN Secretary-General Guterres called for “the peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, in accordance with the Minsk Agreements, as endorsed by the Security Council in resolution 2202 (2015).”
UN Expert Says Russians in Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea Have a Right to Self-Determination
The United Nations Charter, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, enshrine the right of peoples to self-determination. According to professor Alfred de Zayas, who served as UN Independent Expert on International Order from 2012-2018, the Russians in Ukraine constitute a “people,” and therefore “the Russians in Donetsk, [Luhansk] and Crimea possess the right to self-determination.”
On February 18, the U.K.-based Stop the War Coalition issued a statement saying, “The crisis should be settled on a basis which recognizes the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination and addresses Russia’s security concerns.”
The thousands of signatories to the statement declared, “We refute the idea that NATO is a defensive alliance, and believe its record in Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Libya over the last generation, not to mention the U.S.-British attack on Iraq, clearly proves otherwise.”
Russia and Ukraine should reach a diplomatic settlement on the basis of the Minsk II agreement already signed by both states, the statement says.
Signatories to the Stop the War statement include former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a dozen members of Parliament, and the heads of several U.K. unions.
Copyright Truthout. Reprinted with permission.
Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and a member of the national advisory board of Veterans For Peace and the bureau of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her books include Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues. She is co-host of “Law and Disorder” radio.