Ukraine: Why We Need to Stop and Think

Pictures of Ukrainians – some dead, some alive, with blood all over them – them tugs at our heart strings. And well it should. But, before we let our emotions get the better of us, we need to stop and think: What do we really know? Unless we do that, we risk spilling far more blood.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take bloody bodies to get us to make mistakes with horrible consequences. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incidents didn’t result in any American casualties, yet led to a war which claimed 58,000 American lives and at least a million Vietnamese. As detailed in part one and part two of my series on avoiding needless wars, we now know that the second incident never happened and the first one was far from the unprovoked aggression by a rogue nation that the Johnson Administration claimed it to be. But, at the time, caught up in the emotion of the moment, TIME magazine asked:

Even more widespread than support for the U.S. action [devastating air attacks on North Vietnam] was bafflement about the basic question: Why did Hanoi mount attacks on the U.S. might in the first place? Why, after failing in the first attack and being warned of reprisal, did the North Vietnamese try again with somewhat more of their tiny force? In answer, Washington experts could only offer theories. 

TIME went on to offer four theories, all of which we now know were wrong. The reality was revealed by LBJ in a now declassified phone call, but kept secret from the American public:

… there have been some covert operations in that area that we have been carrying on –  blowing up some bridges and things of that kind, roads, and so forth. So I imagine they wanted to put a stop to it. So they come out there and fire and we respond immediately with five-inch guns from the destroyer and with planes overhead. And we cripple them up – knock one of them out and cripple the other two. [Press the play button below to hear a 64 second audio clip which includes this.]

 

Part 9 of that same series shows how public support for the Iraq War was similarly created on false pretenses by appealing to our baser emotions – again with horrendous consequences.

Thus, I paid close attention this morning when I discovered a report claiming strong evidence that the sniper fire which killed a number of Ukrainian protesters came not from the police, but from supporters of the protest – presumably a “false flag” operation designed to whip up support for the protesters. The evidence was a recorded phone call between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, who had just returned from Kiev, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Here’s what the report claimed Paet said (emphasis added):

And, in fact, what was quite disturbing, the same Olga [Dr. Olga Bogomolets, sometimes called Ukraine’s Mother Teresa Of The Maidan] told that all the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers, from both sides, among policemen and then people from the streets, that they were the same snipers, killing people from both sides

Then she also showed me some photos. She said that as [a] medical doctor she can, you know, say that it is the same handwriting, the same type of bullets, and it’s really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don’t want to investigate what exactly happened. So that there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind [the] snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition.  [Go to 8:20-9:10 in the YouTube video of the entire conversation, or press the play button below to hear this 48 second audio clip.]

 

But, in keeping with my rule not to jump to conclusions, especially where matters of war and peace are concerned, I recognized that there were several open questions. The most pressing was whether the phone call was authentic. Some further research turned up a CNN article which said: “Paet’s office released a statement Wednesday that confirmed the authenticity of the recording.” CNN also gave the date of the conversation as February 26, something I had been wondering about.

Even more disturbing than this new information is the lack of coverage in the American press. A web search at 1:50 PM PST today turned up absolutely nothing on the web sites of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. [NOTE added 14 APR 2014: See my newer blog post on this issue for additional evidence that Yanukovych may have been framed, found by an investigative team sent to Kiev by Germany’s public television.]

A search not limited to any particular site found mostly alternative news sites, with only CNN (the above referenced CNN article) and The Guardian in Britain having any major media coverage.

It might even turn out that Russian President Vladimir Putin was correct when he claimed that Russian troops were needed to ensure the safety of the Ukrainian population. In that same phone call Estonian Foreign Minister Paet told Ashton:

Some journalists who were with me, they saw during the day that one member of Parliament was just beaten in front of the Parliament Building by these guys with the guns on the streets. [4:00-4:10 in the YouTube video]

I don’t know which, if either, of those two extreme possibilities (Russia seizing Ukraine or Putin saving Ukrainian lives) is valid. Nor can anyone else at this point in time. What is clear, however, is that before we again demonize some seemingly rogue nation, we ought to remember the past mistakes we’ve made and how much needless blood we’ve spilled as a result. Letting our emotions run wild during the Gulf of Tonkin incidents cost 58,000 American lives. Making the same mistake with Russia could end civilization.

Martin Hellman

Note added March 7, 2014: Today, the Washington Post did cover the accusation that both the dead police and the dead demonstrators were killed by the same sniper fire but gave the strong impression that Putin was at fault, not violent elements within the demonstrators as stated by Paet above:

One of the biggest mysteries hanging over the protest mayhem that drove Ukraine’s president from power: Who was behind the snipers who sowed death and terror in Kiev? … Ukrainian authorities … have shifted their focus from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s government to Vladimir Putin’s Russia — pursuing the theory that the Kremlin was intent on sowing mayhem as a pretext for military incursion. Russia suggests that the snipers were organized by opposition leaders trying to whip up local and international outrage against the government.

Note added March 9, 2014: The New York Times redeemed itself somewhat today, when its front page had an article in the lower right which notes the inconsistency of US positions on regions breaking away from nations. After talking about Kosovo, where Russia warned that our actions set a dangerous precedent, it gives the following summary:

Consider the different American views of recent bids for independence.

Chechnya? No.

East Timor? Yes.

Abkhazia? No.

South Sudan? Yes.

Palestine? It’s complicated.

It is an acutely delicate subject in the West, where Britain wants to keep Scotland and Spain wants to keep Catalonia. The United States, after all, was born in revolution, breaking away from London without consent of the national government — something that the Obama administration insists Crimea must have. The young American union later fought a civil war to keep the South from breaking away. Even today, there is occasional fringe talk of secession in Texas.

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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2 Responses to Ukraine: Why We Need to Stop and Think

  1. peteybee says:

    It appears they may be coming to their senses, as Obama and Putin are in contact… Hopefully they will negotiate, now that the propaganda wings of both US and Russia had their warm-up exercises. Thanks for your articles!

  2. kiloRomeoAlpha says:

    Good bit. But we all need to get out of the habit of calling Vietnam or Iraq or any other of the miriad military misadventures “mistakes.” They were not mistakes. They were deliberate and specifically intended. And pretexts are deliberately used to ensure that “emotions run wild.” This is not a bug. It is a feature.

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