In what President Obama called “the most significant reinforcement of our collective defense any time since the Cold War,” members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) solidified plans last month to deploy four rotating battalions to Eastern Europe in response to what they see as increasing Russian aggression in the region. The military alliance met in Warsaw, Poland July 8-9, with a pledge to “ensure the safety of our citizens for years to come.”
The same day the NATO summit concluded in Warsaw, a small group of concerned citizens gathered at the corner of Canyon and Broadway in Boulder. With signs that read, “Peace with Russia” and “NATO provokes nuclear war,” members and supporters of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center (RMPJC) stood in protest. The next day, July 10, roughly 30 people gathered for a teach-in at the First Methodist Church to learn about the increasing tensions between Russia, the U.S. and its allies.
“Our position [is], given that the United States has nuclear weapons, NATO has weapons, and Russia has nuclear weapons, we really need to deescalate the situation,” says Carolyn Bninski from RMPJC. “We’re really playing a dangerous game with nuclear-armed states. And given that, ‘nobody wins a nuclear war,’ as they used to say, it’s important that NATO stop threatening Russia’s security.”
At the Warsaw Summit, the United States pledged to send 1,000 troops to Poland, with other battalions led by Canada, Germany and the U.K. in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Bninski questions NATO’s increasing troop activity on Russia’s borders as well as the installation of an anti-ballistic missile system in the region, citing that this is also the position of the American Committee for East West Accord, professors at Princeton and New York University and progressive intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky.
“It really ups the tension and the unnecessary risk of a nuclear war and that’s what we’re really worried about,” she says. “There really is no reason for us to be threatening Russia. … Russia has not shown any signs of military aggression in Europe.”
But this is a major point of contention. NATO advocates argue Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 threatened the security of Europe and necessitates the current policy. As does Russia’s rearmament of a military base that borders the Baltic states. Bninski and fellow RMPJC member Tom Mayer, on the other hand, say NATO is violating agreements made in the 1990s as the Russian Federation and NATO member states sought to normalize relations after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The NATO expansion into Eastern Europe is a violation of the agreement which was made when they agreed for Germany to reunite,” says Mayer, retired University of Colorado Boulder professor in sociology. “NATO has conducted big time war games right on the border of Russia, the biggest military operations there since World War II. And I feel that has antagonized Russia. It has strengthened the militarists in Russia.”
While at CU, Mayer studied the sociology of revolutions, including those throughout Eastern Europe and Russia, as well as political economy. Born in Nazi Germany in 1937, he has a long history with anti-war movements, openly protesting both the Vietnam War and the nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats.
Given Russia’s long history of devastating invasion from the West, from Napoleon to Hitler, Mayer says it isn’t surprising the current troop build-up around its borders makes Russia insecure. And despite recent agreements between the U.S. and Russia to reduce their nuclear weapons, Mayer fears the situation now is much worse than during the Cold War.
“The situation is in many ways more dangerous than during the Cold War,” Mayer warns. “Because during the Cold War an established routine got going between the West and the Soviet block. People knew what they could do and what they couldn’t do. And the Soviet Union had a belt of protection from Berlin eastward. That’s not the case right now. It’s much more open-ended.”
For now, RMPJC is focusing its efforts on bringing awareness to the issue both to elected representatives such as Jared Polis and Michael Bennet, but also to a wider citizenship in Boulder County and beyond.
While advocating for pulling back support of NATO and negotiating with Russia, Bninski, Mayer and others find an unlikely ally — the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
The candidate has said he would consider pulling out of the NATO alliance, or at least decrease U.S. funding. Trump has said he’d like to “get along” with Russia and he’s open to negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s also criticized the Obama Administration’s position on Ukraine and the Crimea, which he says has destabilized the region.
It’s a position Trump has been widely criticized for. For example, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, among others, has suggested he’s a Manchurian Candidate, suggesting Trump, if elected, will be used by Russia to control the U.S. government.
But opponents of this NATO expansion find validity in Trump’s proposed policies towards Russia, even if they are umwilling to endorse the candidate himself.
“I’m not a supporter of Trump by no means, but I have to say on this issue he has a far more rational approach than Hillary Clinton does in terms of mutual security for all sides,” Bninski says.
And Mayer is equally concerned.
“Hillary Clinton has a long history of being pro-military,” he says. “She’s said awful things about Putin, she’s going to back NATO to the hilt. She wants to get involved more in Syria.
“She’s intelligent and not a kook the way Trump is, but she’s a real warmonger so I feel very conflicted about that.”
Although Mayer is also quick to say this position doesn’t imply the RMPJC supports Russia.
“Though we are critical of U.S. policy towards Russia we are not uncritical of Russia also,” he says. “The Russian leaders have all been pretty authoritarian guys and so is Putin.”
More than anything, Mayer criticizes the U.S. for self-identifying as both the world’s savior and ruler.
“There’s a kind of an unconscious arrogance which is part of the American culture these days, that we have a right to intervene anywhere in the world. We’re always the good guy and everyone else is the bad guy,” he says. “We’re acting as if we have the right to dominate the world. And I think that’s a very unjust and a very dangerous position.”
On the Bill: RMPJC’s demonstration against US/NATO expansion to Russia’s borders. 11a.m. Saturday, Aug. 6, the corner of Canyon and Broadway, Boulder.