Graph: WWII casualites as percentage of population for Russia and the US

What is happening in Ukraine doesn’t look good. It seems to me that events in Ukraine have much more direct impact on the United States than the current turmoil in the Middle East. Fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed rebels and the Ukrainian army has intensified. Russian-backed rebels have been seizing larger areas of eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government in Kiev is calling for arms.

As I write this on Monday February 9, 2015 Angela Merkel is in Washington to meet with President Obama regarding the “crisis”. It is a serious situation and German Chancellor Angel Merkel is working very hard to achieve a diplomatic solution. In the meantime, Vice President Joe Biden had some tough words directed to Vladimir Putin. The US has been signaling willingness to arm the Kiev government. The idea is gaining support in this country but is vehemently rejected by Merkel. See New York Times columnist Roger Cohen’s column from Monday February 9. Arming the Kiev government would surely escalate hostilities and exacerbate problems.

CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria featured a panel discussion on Sunday the 8th about the situation in Ukraine and whether we have entered a new cold war with Russia or not. Three of the four panel members identified and demonized Vladimir Putin as the primary culprit—essentially as a kleptocrat in pursuit of personal aggrandizement and power. One of the panel members, Stephen F. Cohen, offered a different assessment. By the way, Cohen is an American scholar and historian of Russian studies who taught at Princeton for many years and still teaches at NYU (read his bio here). Cohen sees historical roots to the crisis that predate Putin and said that we are “headed toward a Cuban missile crisis like confrontation”. This sounds quite serious to me. Cohen clearly has misgivings about arming Kiev. You can view a snippet of the panel conversation here but prepare yourself for a commercial first.

These misgivings are shared by another Russian scholar, Dr. Robert Barylski of South Florida University in Sarasota. I heard him speak a week ago on the subject. He opened by pointing out that the Russian weltanschauung differs from that in the US. He reminded the audience that the 70th anniversary of the capture of Berlin on April 24, 1945 by the Soviet army is approaching. For us WWII has receded far into the past and does not figure much in our world view.

For Russians, the memory remains. Looking at the casualty figures shows why. One of the best written articles I have read on Wikipedia covers World War II casualties. Accurate assessments are notoriously difficult, but estimates range from 22 million to 28 million for Soviet military and civilian dead. The graph above uses the figure 26,600,000 from one of the tables as a single point estimate. Compare this to 420,000 American dead. And the war was fought on Soviet soil. Much hardship and pain affected even larger numbers of people. I’m not sure the war is really over for the Russian public.

Barylski informed the audience that there is substance to the Russian view of Ukrainians as Nazi supporters. Apparently today there is also a virulent strain of hardline Ukrainian nationalists pushing for war with Russia that threatens to overwhelm the present Ukrainian government in Kiev.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Putin has extremely solid domestic support. Russian nationalism remains very strong and provides legitimacy to Putin’s government. He is not likely to capitulate. Arming Ukraine can only intensify the fighting and give cause to a Russian invasion of the entire country. It is not clear to me that the Ukrainian army can stand up to the Russian army. A recent article in The Economist says: “Opponents of military aid, including Germany, warn of a proxy war with Russia that the West cannot win. No NATO country is ready to send in troops, and Ukraine’s forces are underequipped, undertrained and poorly led.” The most likely outcome would be that Russia takes control of the entirety of Ukraine. Then what?

I speak for myself, but we Americans really have no clue about the true situation. We may be (and probably are) idealizing the Ukrainian government and demonizing Russia to the detriment of our own interests. Our view should be better informed by historical perspective and a realistic assessment of the potential consequences of our actions. Do I need to point to Vietnam, arming the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan or the invasion of Iraq?