Jim Malarkey contextualizes conflict in Ukraine
- Published: March 26, 2022
On Feb. 24, under the helm of its leader, Vladimir Putin, Russia invaded Ukraine, a democratic republic formed in 1991 after the country split from the former Soviet Union. Many politicians and scholars are calling the invasion “the greatest crisis facing Europe since the Cold War.” The war has global economic and security implications that impact millions of people.
Ukraine’s relationship with the United States came to more prominent attention in the United States in 2019, when a phone call between Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and former U.S. president Donald Trump — in which Trump appeared to extort Zelenskyy for concessions to Russia in exchange for foreign aid — was used as evidence in one of Trump’s two impeachment trials.
The attack on Ukraine occurred after several months of Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border with Russia, in the contested Russian-held territory of Crimea and the country Belarus — a key Russian ally.
On Feb. 17, Antioch University humanities professor emeritus Jim Malarkey wrote a commentary that was published in the News called, “Don’t let Ukraine become a proxy war.” Malarkey directed readers’ attention to the evolution of Ukraine — just after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, writing that NATO’s willingness to admit Ukraine as a member is a key source of Russia’s ire.
“It shouldn’t surprise that Russia was shocked by the prospect of U.S. missiles and military bases soon being stationed right across their border in Ukraine,” he wrote.
Before the war began, Malarkey called for the de-escalation of inflammatory rhetoric, writing: “Stop the browbeating, stop the escalation, and start a genuine dialogue about what is best for Ukraine and the region where it is located.”
He also cited international relations University of Chicago scholar John Mearsheimer’s 2015 proposal as a possible solution: “Recognize the legitimate security needs of Russia as well as Europe, establish Ukraine as an independent, non-aligned buffer state between NATO and Russia.” Malarkey offered the countries of Finland and Switzerland as examples of neutral buffers.
The News followed up with Malarkey to get his views on the latest developments, and to discuss key factors that Malarkey believes contributed to the war. The following are excerpts from that conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
“I come to this from a background where I’ve been from an early age warranted to really look at more than one side to an argument, and to not accept everything I’m told, whether it’s coming from my government, or someone else, my [political] party, etc. … I’m not a specialist on Ukraine. I should say that flat out, I’ve not lived in that country, I’ve not been to Russia. … I was in the Middle East and North Africa and spent many years studying that world.”
Demographics of Ukraine
“People who live in that area have various languages and cultures that have been invaded left and right over the centuries … there’s a kind of a melting pot effect culturally. … There was a largely Christian Orthodox community with different strands, there were some Greek Catholics, and a large Jewish population in Ukraine leading up to World War II, and there’s even many Jews remaining who are now being warmly invited by Israel to come and reside there.
“What it shakes down to is a country with borders that have been manipulated over time as the results of various wars … comprising approximately 80% of Ukrainian Ukrainians — meaning that they speak Ukrainian, which is a distinctive language — and about 20% who speak Russian. And there’s quite a large percentage of the population that knows both languages, partly because of the long presence of Ukraine within the Soviet orbit as a part of the USSR.”
Background: Ukraine, Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and white nationalism
“The Nazis invaded Ukraine in 1941 and they killed thousands of people, millions. It wasn’t until 1944 that the Russians created a counteroffensive strong enough to penetrate Ukraine and then expel the Nazis, … however there were a certain number of Ukrainian Ukrainians who had joined up with the Nazi party. … The Soviet Union already had Ukraine within its orbit after the Russian Revolution, worse than before Nazi Germany.
“Stalin squeezed the Ukrainians to death. … Ukraine was known as the breadbasket of central Europe — like North Africa was for the Romans. … Millions of people died because the quotas [for food production] were set way beyond what was possible. This was in the 1930s, in between the wars [WWI and WWII]. When the Nazis came in, they were, for some Ukrainians, liberators from the totalitarian exploitative Russians.
“It’s important to point out that part of the Ukrainian Ukrainian population has retained alt-right principles and policies from their heroes, some of whom were Nazis, some … were white nationalists.”
In a separate email sent to the News, Malarkey clarified that “not all Ukrainian Ukrainians are on board with the militant ethnonationalist agenda. Some are pluralists, who want to live in a diverse state with respect for minorities, and where Russian is included as a second national language. He also said that he wasn’t certain “of the actual percentages of enthnationalist activists and sympathizers (as in the US),” but it is an “influential number.”
United States-sponsored coup and Crimea
In 2014, Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, was removed from office in what many consider to be a coup sponsored by the United States. Following Yanukovych’s ousting, Crimea, then an autonomous republic of Ukraine, was annexed by Russia. The legitimacy of the annexation continues to be disputed by Ukraine, the European Union and the U.S.
“In 2014, there was a buildup of a portion of the population that had white nationalist identity leanings. That population was growing prior to 2014 although it was still like a microcosm. These traces [of white nationalism] are what I call the ghosts of World War II. Americans cannot fully grasp what it must have been like living in that part of the world during this period, absolutely horrifying … You don’t have to just look at the Nazi concentration camps, you also have to look at the massacres, the assassinations, the persecutions.
“I think Yanukovych was forced out trying to build bridges. … The other part of this was the Russian population of Ukraine who became victims of the ultranationalists in Ukraine who had demoted Russian from an official language. [After that there was] only one official language of Ukraine — that’s Ukrainian. The ultra-nationalists came to power again through a coup in 2014 that the United States helped support partly because these were guys we could feel confident would embrace the Western way.
“Yanukovych, I think, had lots of pressure to join the EU, and the EU actually had a favorable answer to that — we will allow you in, but you have to do structural adjustments … neoconservative military security and neoliberal economic stuff. Yanukovych is looking at this thinking, ‘This is murder. I mean, I can’t put my people through this.’ So he went to Russia: “Can you offer a better deal to help us out of the economic mess we’re in here?” And they were able to come through with something better. Ultimately the coup … led to his demise because it felt like it played into the narrative that Russia wanted to reconquer Ukraine.
“Once they overthrew Yanukovych, that’s when Putin moved into Crimea.”
Lack of Marshall Plan for Russia after the Collapse of Soviet Union
After World War II, Europe and Japan were in shambles from the destruction of the war. The Marshall Plan was created to rebuild the infrastructure and economies of Europe and Japan.
“The Marshall Plan for Europe unbelievably decided to pull Germany up from the rubble that had been bombed by the Allied powers and pulled Japan out from under the nuclear bombs that had been dropped on them [by the United States]. The United States — I can’t tell you who the people were to figure this out and get it through Congress — but it’s an incredible feat. Germany and Japan have become perhaps two of the most responsible global citizens on the planet. … They are demilitarized; they specialize in other things. It’s absolutely not like what happened after the end of the Cold War. It proved to us in the West that our system was the best, because the Soviet Union crumbled, it couldn’t sustain the body of nations under its control … its economy was in shambles, etc., so capitalism wins, communism loses. Game over. … We don’t have any more ideological wars, it’s clear capitalism is the system — and so in a sense, I’m speaking informally here — we then let capitalism run riot. … The point is that communism was dead and there was a triumphalist attitude. … As a result, there was no effort to some extent to rehabilitate Russia into the orbit of the community of nations.”
1991 Ukraine, European Union and NATO: A sense of dignity and national security for Russia
In 1991, Ukraine and Belarus gained their official legal independence from the former Soviet Union and formed republics based on democratic principles. Some of the newly formed countries joined the EU, and later through a different process the military alliance that includes the United States — NATO.
“Russia sent signals that it was feeling insecure by the buildup of all these countries who were obtaining, little by little, military bases and armaments oriented against the former Soviet Union. … So ultimately what happened is a breaking point over Ukraine because, you see, Ukraine has a large border with the Soviet Union.
“Anytime someone feels their security is threatened they’ll do anything; they’ll give up anything — you know sanctions won’t work. … But it is more than security, I think it’s also dignity. … We’re not supposed to do this as Americans, but if you look at the world from the Russian perspective, you have to realize it was pretty humiliating to lose your entire empire in a moment … and then be in complete disarray.
“Any country that becomes part of NATO that’s on Russia’s border … will be able to station missiles of significant proportions — let’s add the fact that Trump disbanded some of those treaties. … The analogy could be the Cuban missile crisis, I mean there were Russian missiles 90 miles … from the North Shore and we went bananas. We almost went into a nuclear war … and only through stealth negotiations on this side was a deal made.
Russia, United States response, sanctions, diplomatic solution
“The United States is running in the opposite direction, they’re saying, “No way are we going to NOT allow Ukraine to become part of NATO because they’re free to choose.” It’s insane to do that, you can’t put someone in the position where they’re back to the wall with no exit, they’re going to come out shooting, no matter what.”
Malarkey suggested a type of split decision agreement in which Ukraine is admitted into the EU, but not NATO, Ukraine becomes a buffer zone, a neutral zone like Switzerland, Finland, and Austria.
“Nobody can assure anything forever obviously. … It just seems to me incontestable that a neutral Ukraine would be an attractive outcome for Ukrainians. You don’t have to worry about superpowers coming in on top of your back … fighting a war.
“It would have gone a long way to placate [Putin]. We also have to keep in mind that since 2014, there’s been a constant increase of weapons migrating to Eastern Europe, we’ve been busy stocking the region.
“What the sanctions are doing to people globally is considerable, and we haven’t even tallied up the effect it will have on us. We increased more sanctions — which by the way has never proved to change anybody’s mind. If anything it’s economic warfare.
“Ukrainian president Zelenskyy still wants to talk. … I think there is still at this moment in time a chance for there to be dialogue between them … The hope at this moment in time is that those two leaders agree to come in together. They will not come together alone. … They will probably bring with them some mediators that are French and German.
“What Putin did is pretty predictable. He’s not insane, he’s just realized he’s screwed and so the world is not going to support or listen to the security conditions that Russia has raised. They’re not being allowed to do that and so he’s angry and I think it is as much a matter of emotion as anything, and that’s extremely dangerous.”