THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | The war between Russia and Ukraine has brought important insights. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. has become a bull in a China shop. Rather than be moderated, humbled and tamed by its victory in the Cold War, America has grown arrogant, belligerent and bellicose. Today, it stands as the biggest threat to world peace. What America’s post-Cold War behavior teaches us are the lessons enshrined in its’s own founding philosophy – the danger of unrestrained power.
The founding fathers of the USA were afraid of power concentrated in one person. They designed a constitutional mechanism that threw many obstacles in the way of any leader. These checks and balances did not stop the U.S. from enslaving its black population or exterminating Native Americans. On the contrary it facilitated these evils. The critical point, however, is that these evils were embedded in society, the state only reflecting existing societal realities. However, they did stop any single president from exercising the kind of tyrannical power a Stalin or Hitler did.
I have spent a lot of my time on this planet reading international politics; especially great power politics. My dad introduced me to this intellectually stimulating area of study when I was only 16 years old. He gave me a book written by Robert Kennedy titled The 13 Days about the Cuban Missile Crisis and asked me to read it. Like every book he asked me to read when I was young, he would then ask me what it was about and the lesson I drew from it. The book rivaled some of the best thrillers by Robert Ludlum, Fredrick Forsyth and Jack Higgins that I had read in terms of intensity. It led me to a life-long interest in world peace.
Over the years, I have read, viewed and listened to everything on the Cuba Missile Crisis that I ever got my eyes and hands onto. This crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Had either U.S. President John Kennedy or Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev not exercised a high degree of restraint, America, the USSR and Europe would have been destroyed. The lessons drawn from this crisis are critical for world peace.
One such lesson, common with the realist school, is that nations have core or vital interests – and they will go to great length to defend them. Kennedy learnt that neither super power should challenge the other in its area of core or vital interest. Every subsequent U.S. president till Bill Clinton took this lesson to heart. That is why the U.S. and the USSR fought wars in peripheral parts of the world, not in those theatres where either had a core/vital interest. The reason for this is simple: war is cloudy; any small mis-judgement, miscalculation, miscommunication or mistake can be catastrophic.
One needs to read Barbara Tuchman’s majestic book, The Guns of August, and Christopher Clark’s classic, Sleepwalkers; How Europe Went to War in 1914 to see my point. Both books demonstrate with incredible insight how a series of miscommunications, miscalculations and mistakes drove European powers into World War One. And the danger of war is that it is rare to predict the outcome. None of the powers that began this war won. The German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires collapsed as a result of this war. Britain and France emerged from the war ravaged, weakened, exhausted and bankrupt, too timid later to stop the raise of Hitler.
From the news (largely from Western sources), the Russian army has encountered stiff and unexpected resistance from the Ukrainians. One reason for this is obviously the continuous and massive supply of arms and other sophisticated military equipment from the West. Some (again Western) intelligence sources say that one reason Russia has lost many generals is because of the drones supplied to Ukraine by the USA. The same applies to the sinking of the Russian warship in the black sea.
Reading the celebratory tones in Western media about these Russian losses is both depressing and scaring. Any serious person should know that Russia cannot afford to lose in Ukraine. If anyone expects Moscow to accept a humiliating retreat from Ukraine, they must be deluded. Ukraine is too close to Russia for Moscow to withdraw in defeat. It has to win in Ukraine. Ukraine is of vital interest to Russia, not USA. So Western powers should not escalate the war to achieve an impossible Ukrainian victory but use their influence to make Kiev negotiate a peace with Moscow.
Again, whatever terms of that peace, Ukraine, as the legendary Henry Kissinger has argued, has to accept some loss of territory, which is sad and depressing, but which is the best solution. Continuing to supply arms to Ukraine to prolong this war in the hope of a Russian defeat is a dangerous idea. Even if it worked, proving that I was wrong in my predictions, I would still argue that it is too dangerous a risk for Europe and the world to take.
President Joe Biden, his advisors and the leaders of America’s satellite states in Western Europe should be able to see this. If Russia feels it was losing, it may be forced to escalate the war. One way would be to deploy low yield tactical nuclear weapons – exactly what America did to Japan when its expected casualty rate was going to be high. If Russia is forced onto such a desperate measure, Kiev’s allies must think deeply about its implications on the Ukrainian people. Entire cities and populations would be incinerated.
So, if Moscow employed nuclear weapons to retrieve a lost war, what would be the response of the U.S. and her allies? Would they retaliate with nuclear attack on Russia? If they did, what would be Moscow’s response? Russia would respond with the full might of its nuclear capabilities and raze down America and Europe. Of course, Russia itself would be destroyed by the USA, UK and France. Some countries would realise that the security they seek in NATO is a delusion. NATO would have only saved them from an unlikely Russian occupation (and keeping their populations alive) only to draw them into inevitable nuclear annihilation.
We go back to the lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a speech at the American University in 1963, Kennedy reflected on the lessons he learnt from that crisis. He said, I paraphrase: we must avoid those confrontations that force our adversaries into a binary choice to either accept a humiliating defeat or nuclear war.