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Ukraine is Putin's Iraq
Anyone else experiencing déjà vu? Watching Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is bringing back bad memories of the run up to and invasion of Iraq in 2003.
At the time, I was a producer for the NPR talk show The Connection. Like most media outlets and programs, we covered the months-long public relations campaign by the Bush administration to justify the invasion.
Unlike much of the media, which failed to remain objective and to ask tough questions, we weren’t sold. I remember our live coverage of Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations. Those of us in the control room where shocked. We could not believe how thin the evidence was. We were stunned to see one of the most respected public servants in the United States selling a sham.
Powell crossed the Rubicon that the administration’s messaging campaign had been marching toward for months.
“There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us,” said Dick Cheney on August 26, 2002.
“We agree that the Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons," said President Bush in a speech on October 7, 2002.
Putin vehemently opposed the invasion. He said the U.S. intelligence and justifications were wrong. On the eve of the invasion, the Washington Post quoted Putin calling for restraint:
"’We stand for resolving the problem exclusively through peaceful means,’ Putin said at a meeting with Muslim religious leaders at the Kremlin. ‘Any other option would be a mistake. It would be fraught with the gravest consequences. It will result in casualties and destabilize the international situation in general.’"
Today, the poles have reversed. The United States has been making similar comments as Putin used rhetoric reminiscent of the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003.
In a speech justifying the invasion, Putin argued that Ukraine presented an existential threat to Russia, saying his country “cannot feel safe and develop and exist with the constant threat coming from the modern territory of Ukraine.”
He added, “We simply weren’t given any other option to defend Russia and our people other than that which we will use today.”
Would Putin have invaded Ukraine today had the United States not invaded Iraq? Impossible to answer, but there is no question that Putin put that precedent in his pocket.
In 2013, Russian expert Fyodor Lukyanov wrote:
In the 10 years since the Iraq war, Putin's worldview has only strengthened and expanded. Now he believes that the strong not only do what they want, but also fail to understand what they do. From Russian leadership's point of view, the Iraq War now looks like the beginning of the accelerated destruction of regional and global stability, undermining the last principles of sustainable world order.
Clearly, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, done without UN support and over the objections of France, China, and Russia, shaped Putin’s views on power politics and how “might makes right.” That view was further cemented in 2007 and 2008 when Kosovo was preparing to declare independence. Putin opposed it, claiming that it violated Serbian sovereignty. He said anything other than a negotiated agreement between Serbia and Kosovo would be invalid. Russia warned then that unilateral independence could establish a precedent that Russia would cash in on down the road.
The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network reported in 2014 that Putin used the Kosovo example as part of his justification for annexing Crimea:
“’In a situation absolutely the same as the one in Crimea they [the West] recognized Kosovo’s secession from Serbia as legitimate, arguing that no permission from a country’s central authority for a unilateral declaration of independence is necessary,’ Putin said.”
In addition, the article quoted him as saying:
“In the practical application of policies, our Western partners – the United States first and foremost – prefer to be guided not by international law, but by the right of strength.
“They believe in their exceptionalism, that they are allowed to decide on the fate of the world, that they are always right,” Putin said.
So, here we are with Putin using similar language and arguments made by the United States over the last 20 years to justify the invasion of Iraq and support the independence of Kosovo to validate his flagrantly illegal, unjustified, and reckless invasion of Ukraine.
The hope for Ukraine is that it fares better than Iraq did. The hope for Russia is that it fares worse than the United States did.
Today, the United States is worse off in almost every regard because of the Iraq invasion. Thousands of American service members, contractors, and civilians died. It spawned new terrorist groups—there are now far more terrorists in the region seeking to do harm to the United States than in 2003. The invasion created a power vacuum that Iran filled, and today Iran has more malign influence in the region than before the invasion. Then, there’s the trillions spent on the invasion and ongoing fight against ISIS and care for veterans—all money that could have been invested in building U.S. infrastructure and economy.
Time will tell whether Russia will suffer as grievously. However, there is no question that Putin is worse off already. He used the threat of an invasion to blackmail the United States and Europe to reduce the NATO footprint and move U.S. forces and military hardware out of Europe. The invasion will only increase NATO resolve and increase the U.S. military presence in central and eastern Europe.
Putin should have paid more attention to the precedent set by invading a sovereign nation under false pretenses: getting in is the easy part, but the consequences can haunt you for decades.