Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University professor, has joined the voices within the US who denounce Washington’s foreign policy on Ukraine. On February 21, he addressed the United Nations Security Council to comment on Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s report, which accuses the US of having exploded the German-Russian Nord Stream pipelines in a covert act of sabotage. In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Sachs shared his views on the Ukrainian conflict.
The economist might very well be described as a member of the American Establishment, as New Yorker’s journalist Issac Chotiner, who interviewed Sachs, notes, remarking that thirty years ago Times magazine described him as probably “the most important economist in the world”. Sachs, however, has been the target of intense criticism within the US for urging the American authorities to engage in diplomacy with Russia so as to seek a peace plan and thus avoid a nuclear war. This reasonable stance appears to be politically marginalized in the United States.
Echoing some points also made by University of Chicago political science professor John Mearsheimer and other political realists, Sachs talks about the rising Russian-American tensions over the last twenty-five years, going back to the post-1991 unipolar moment, which gave Washington the dangerous illusion of being able to, in his words, “do pretty much whatever it wants, and that includes basing the military where it wants and when it wants, entering and exiting treaties when it wants and where it wants, without serious consequence.”
Already in the mid-nineties, there were concerned voices within the US Establishment, such as former Defense Secretary Bill Perry, who opposed the first phase of NATO expansion. Interestingly, even in the aftermath of NATO’s bombing of Serbia, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his support to the US after the (2001) September 11 terrorist attacks, and Sachs argues this indicates the good will the Kremlin still had towards the political West.
During the early two-thousands, Putin was also “pro-European” and was, in Sach’s words, “dealing closely with many European leaders”. In fact, German-Russia cooperation extended way longer than that, as embodied in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 projects (now all gone). If George Robertson, former NATO secretary general (1999-2003) is to be believed, Moscow even considered joining the Atlantic alliance. In any case, even if this line of thought never went that far, in his 2000 interview to BBC’s journalist David Frost, Putin said: “I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe”, adding that “it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy.”
However, despite Russian willingness to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the West, the aggressive expansion of NATO went on and on, with seven extra enlargements. By 2008, former US President George W. Bush was pushing for it to enlarge all the way to Georgia. The ensuing 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict was a clear response to that.
In this context of tension escalation building up for years, Sachs sees the real beginning of the current conflict, which was marked by Russia’s February 2022 ongoing military campaign, not in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, but rather in an event which took place sometime earlier in that same year, namely, the “U.S. participation in the overthrow of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych, in February, 2014”, exemplified by National Endowment for Democracy and US NGOs funding for the more violent protesters. Yanukovych had vowed to seek neutrality, which enraged Washington.
According to Sachs, at the end of 2021, the current crisis could have been avoided, as Moscow had placed three demands, involving Crimea, the implementation of the Minsk II agreements, and a stop to NATO’s expansion - all of which were refused by the US.
Amid today’s narrative wars, the West often tries to portray the Russian political system as a kind of autocracy, describing the current military campaign in Ukraine as Vladimir Putin’s sole personal decision. In his 2018 associated professorship habilitation thesis, Sao Paulo University History Professor Angelo de Oliveira Segrillo even intellectually describes Putin as a moderate (albeit ambiguously) Westernist, rather than an Eurasianist, citing as evidence for it the Russian President’s well know admiration for Peter the Great.
In Segrillo’s view, Putin was never a radical Westernist such as Boris Yeltsin, but a pragmatic and moderate one, while also a gosudarstvennik, that is, someone who advocates for a strong State, in line with Russia’s political tradition. The Brazilian professor thus compares Putin to the French leader Charles de Gaulle, who often opposed the US and NATO not simply out of an “anti-Western stance” but out of being in the position of someone who is defending the national interests of one’s own country.
Whether the aforementioned thesis is fully accurate or not, that being something which interests mostly biographers and historians anyway, one can in any case argue that far from being staunchly “anti-Western” due to the supposed personal inclinations of the President (as Western propaganda would have it), the Kremlin in fact has had to take a defensive and counter-offensive approach towards the US-led West over the latter’s many provocations and many incidents which constituted crossing red lines, from a Russian perspective.
Giving how blatantly overburdened and overstretched Washington makes itself by trying to simultaneously contain two Great Powers at once, one can only wonder what role, if any, private and shady businesses involving American political elites may play in the decision-making process pertaining to such a policy, thus shaping, to some degree, the energy and geoeconomic goals that accompany Washington’s geopolitical ones.
Regardless of one agreeing or not with Sachs, Mearsheimer and many other assessments of the current Ukrainian conflict’s real causes, it is difficult to understand why calls for a peace proposal would be so ill-received by today’s American Establishment.
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