Americans seem to have no idea of the degree to which fear of attack by the West motivates Russian behavior toward Ukraine.
Some relevant history: Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. World War II had been under way for nearly two years, during which Germany and Mussolini's Italy occupied most of Europe. Hitler started the war by invading Poland and then signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union to avoid fighting on two fronts. But by 1940 Hitler, who had always dreamed of acquiring "Lebensraum" (living room) by expanding into Russia, began planning his conquest of the Soviet Union.
This Nazi offensive was probably the bloodiest military operation of all time. The heroism and self-sacrifice of the Soviet people were crucial in eventually turning the tide. By war's end, 24 million Soviet citizens, mostly civilians, lay dead. For comparison, U.S. military and civilian deaths totaled about 400,000. U.S. soil was hardly touched. Russians did most of the fighting and dying, inflicting 80 percent of Germany's casualties, and the Russian homeland was devastated. Without them, Hitler would have won.
There is much more. France's Napoleon invaded Russia and was defeated in the "Patriotic War of 1812."
In the 1853-1856 Crimean War, France, Britain and Turkey invaded Russia.
During World War I, Germany invaded and occupied much of European Russia.
In 1918, Poland launched a three-year invasion of the new Soviet Union that reached as far as Kiev.
There's more: Hoping to strangle the Bolshevik revolution before it could spread to the rest of Europe, America and an alliance of 14 other Western powers intervened during the 1917-1922 Russian Civil War. Contributing to this endeavor were 250,000 troops, including 11,000 Americans, of whom 424 died.
Thus it was fully predictable that Vladimir Putin would react vehemently to the possibility of Ukraine's membership in an opposing military alliance that had been expanding toward his doorstep since 1990.
Walk a mile in Russia's shoes. Imagine that an anti-American military alliance led by Russia and China has incorporated Central America, Mexico and Cuba, and that Canada now wants to join this alliance. In fact something like this occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and America was, to say the least, outraged.
We seem to feel free to intimidate the other two superpowers at will, stationing warships and military bases just outside their borders. Yet neither Russia nor China makes corresponding military moves against the U.S. homeland.
What's the goal of U.S. policy? Is it for America to elbow the world into following our economic and political norms? If so, I suggest that our own example is not that great given last year's insurrection and other disasters. Nevertheless, we plow ahead with annual military investments ($778 billion plus "off-budget" items such as nuclear weapons) that outstrip the next nine nations combined. As a thought experiment, consider what could be accomplished if 50 percent of this were instead invested in global human needs.
Humankind's leading international problem is war itself. It's outrageous that humans organize, and spend trillions, in order to kill their own species. Surely we can do better. War seems to attract us as a kind of macho zero-sum game, a game that is highly profitable for the rich and powerful, especially those who own military industries. But war is not a zero-sum game: Everybody loses.
Our goal should surely be human happiness, rather than "winning." Instead of expanding military alliances, all nations should work toward demilitarization, i.e., neutrality in military affairs. Finland, for example, declared neutrality throughout the 1950-1990 Cold War, signing a Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union. This is basically what Putin is asking Ukraine to do.
What's wrong with neutrality for Ukraine? I visited Finland for a week in 1985 in connection with a sabbatical at Sweden's Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Finland was and is a free, democratic, rich, happy nation. Neutrality has also worked for nations such as Sweden, Switzerland and Austria.
What has been the point of NATO expansion since 1990? After all, NATO's presumed enemy, the Warsaw Pact, disbanded. Why should NATO have continued? In 1951 we were warned by NATO Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower that NATO will have failed if in 10 years all American troops stationed in Europe have not been returned to the United States.
U.S. militarism, and U.S. moral advice to the entire world, foster resentment and feed humankind's worst instincts. We need to back off, reduce our military budgets and support neutrality instead of "victory."