By Wesley K. Clark
Last week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson made the surprising claim that Russian leader Vladimir Putin was justified in mobilizing military forces to threaten Ukraine.
Carlson’s comments betrayed a growing fault line in the Republican Party and American democracy itself.
The host went on to say that the buildup on the Russian-Ukrainian border was really NATO’s fault for “tormenting” Putin.
Carlson is not only wrong in his analysis, but his claims have no basis in fact or history.
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, newly independent Ukraine found itself with a nuclear arsenal on its territory.
In 1994, Ukraine gave up those weapons in return for legal assurances from Russia it would never threaten its territorial integrity or independence.
Ukrainian independence was quite an achievement. For hundreds of years, it has struggled with difficult neighbors and invaders, such as the Tatar hordes, an expansionist Russia under Empress Catherine the Great, and later the Soviet Union.
The Poles, Austrians, and Turks also were contending in the region and borders often shifted due to wars and dynastic successions.
Through it all, Ukraine maintained its distinct language and culture, eventually breaking up with czarist Russia to become a legally independent nation.
In 1922, under internal duress, it joined the USSR and went on to suffer under Stalin’s induced famine of the 1930s.
During World War II, the Ukraine witnessed a horrific loss of 17% of its population, the worst suffered by any nation.
In 1945, Ukraine was a founding member of the United Nations, and in 1991, was pleased when it finally regained legal and de facto independence.
The facts here are quite clear: Ukraine is not part of Russia and NATO has never threatened Russia.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, NATO was enlarged to provide stability in Eastern Europe.
The alliance sought to quiet the fears of nations formerly under the thumb of the Soviet Union who feared a resurgent Russia.
Those fears have been justified because Russia, especially under Putin, has been a near constant thorn for the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Slovenes, Croats, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Ukraine.
As early as 2000, on my first visit to Ukraine as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Ukrainian ministers asked for my support for membership in the alliance.
The offer of membership never came. During the next decade, Ukrainians watched in dismay as next-door-neighbor Poland prospered inside the European Union and NATO.
Instead, Ukraine was racked by economic stagnation, political turmoil, and the emigration of its best and brightest.
There is no doubt NATO membership would have been Ukraine’s ticket to economic growth and political stability.
Putin, on the other hand, fears a democratic, stable, and prosperous Ukraine.
Such a neighbor would supercharge the Russian public’s resentment of Putin’s autocratic kleptocracy.
And it is precisely for this reason that in 2014 Putin sent his special forces to shoot and kill protesters in Kiev.
He later illegally seized Crimea from Ukraine, sent in intelligence agents, and organized crime groups and undercover forces to foment a rebellion in Ukraine’s east.
Using the uprising as a pretext, Putin then supported them with an invasion of Russian military forces.
Perhaps he thought Ukraine would be a pushover, but it has not proven to be the case.
For almost eight years, he has waged a war of cyberattacks, disinformation, subversion, and financial torment against Ukraine, all to no avail.
And today, he is buttressing his new threats with more than 100,000 Russian forces perched on the border.
While Ukraine struggles against these threats, it has persisted in a pro-Western orientation, democracy, and in seeking NATO membership.
One would think a Fox News host would applaud and champion the pro-American Ukrainians.
But Carlson has praised Putin before, and said that “for all his faults, [he] does not hate America” like liberals do.
Carlson’s pro-Putin remarks reflect the decades-long effort of Russian intelligence services to penetrate the West, its media and institutions. Moscow has also developed a sophisticated propaganda machine, using traditional methods and the internet, to create the myth they are the “victim” in the international disputes while they have “shared values” with Western conservatives.
The success of these efforts is evident in Carlson’s false assertions about Russia and Ukraine, and they seem to reflect a split in the Republican Party itself.
There are many in the GOP who still see Putin, rightly, as a danger to America and our interests.
But there are a growing number, like Carlson, who are embracing Putin, despite his near dictatorial control of Russia and his brutish menacing of his neighbors.
America needs to reignite our long-held bipartisan approach of strengthening democracy globally, while rejecting nonsensical advocacy for authoritarian strongmen like Vladimir Putin.
Gen. Wesley Clark, U.S. Army ret., served as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO (1997-2000) and was a Democratic presidential candidate. He currently serves as chairman and CEO of Wesley K. Clark & Associates, a strategic consulting firm.
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