ACEWA Founding Board Member John E. Pepper on the US, Russia and Ukraine: The Danger Escalates

As we all know, it is hard for an individual or nation to view the world or a particular situation through the eyes of another person or nation. I have never seen this more true than what is transpiring now over the Ukrainian crisis as it is viewed by the United States and Russia.

This is a subject of deep concern because the security of our world is threatened and we risk losing the need for collaboration on such transcendent issues as nuclear proliferation and terrorism in Iran and Syria.

I could only look with irony at the statement of Defense Secretary Ash Carter as reported in the Wall Street Journal last week that the Pentagon is committing military gear to a NATO task force designed to deter Russian aggression because Moscow is, in Carter’s words, trying to “reestablish a Soviet-era sphere of influence.”

How precisely that echoes Russia’s concerns—that the West, and particularly the United States, has, over the past 20 years, extended its “sphere of influence” by extending NATO well beyond what was expected in the early 1990s, even to the point of considering expansion to Ukraine and Georgia.

There is a great danger in the affairs of humans and also of nations in self-fulfilling expectations.  These self-fulfilling expectations can be for the better and they can be for the worse.  The expectations held by Russia toward the United States and the United States toward Russia today are all “for the worse.”

We hear veiled and sometimes bald assertions that Russia intends to enter countries previously part of the Soviet empire–the Baltics, Poland and all of Ukraine.  Putin described such a notion as “insane.”   He is right.  Can you imagine the sheer idiocy of Russia undertaking to move into those countries?  Why would they do this?  There is no driving ideology as there might have been in the case of Soviet Communism.  Surely, Russia has no need for more land.

Russia, quite understandably, looks for long-term economic and social ties with Ukraine.  But to try to take over a country where the majority of people would be repelled by being part of Russia makes no sense.  It would make Russia the pariah of the world and give them nothing in return but trouble.

We are failing to seriously examine what is the true strategic intent of Russia.  I am not suggesting that they haven’t supported the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine; I feel quite sure they have, probably to help ensure that a constitutional settlement is finally reached that gives appropriate rights to the ethnic Russians living there.

The interests of the United States and Russia should be very simple and the same.  We should support what has been so long coming–the creation of a unified Ukraine, with federalization much as it exists in other countries.  Pulling Ukraine together is a huge challenge.  The fissure between Eastern Ukraine and the rest of the country is large, ethnically based and now deepened by a civil war.

Russia, the United States, all of us, should do everything we can to support this constitutional settlement.  We should not allow anything in our control to get in the way of that settlement, for nothing other than that will bring peace to the Ukrainian people.  And that’s what they want.  That’s what the people in every country want.

I fear that most people are so far removed from the horror of war today that we have forgotten what it’s like.  It might serve everyone to go back and look at the movie “Platoon” or “Saving Private Ryan” again to be reminded what the cost of war is to human life.

I believe we are at a historical precipice.  I am extremely worried by the unfettered “propaganda,” and that’s what it is, on both sides of the issue.  This has had the insidious effect of bringing the people of Russia and of the United States to view the “other” as “evil.”  And in fact they are not.  They are committed to their own national interests.

There are some who dismiss Russia as a declining economic power faced with negative demographics.  Such dismissal is ill advised and blind to history.  In fact, some of the most important demographic measures (e.g., lifespan) are improving in Russia.  Russia will be one of the handful of most important, influential nations for generations to come, just as it has been in the past.  It has the natural resources, the landmass and the educated and committed people that will make that happen.  Russia will be a bridge between Europe and Asia.  The tragedy of the Ukrainian crisis is that it has, at least for a time, thwarted its natural positive relationship with Europe.

Ironically, I believe the imposed economic sanctions may accelerate the economic and industrial development and greater self-sufficiency of Russia which it has failed to develop over the past quarter-century despite numerous pronouncements of the need.  Now, in many ways, they have no choice.  While the sanctions have led to greater capital flight and reduced foreign direct investment, their long-term impact may be more beneficial than detrimental to the Russian economy and its competitive position with other nations.


Every nation, every person, wants to be treated with respect.  There is no way that will happen if we are not able to view the current situation through each other’s eyes.  That doesn’t mean we will compromise and tolerate people taking away the freedom of another nation or people.  We need to draw a bright line on the support we will provide to countries to which we pledge support, but we should not make the mistake of attributing motivations and nefarious intent to other people which, in fact, they declaim and which, in fact, as we examine the reality of the situation and our “natural” relationships, we see no reason to assume.

We also need to stop carrying out diplomacy and negotiations through the media seeking sharp headlines that show we “mean business” and are tough.  We need to establish what the bright lines are, but we should do so privately, even if vehemently, through credible spokespeople.  We have them in the President of the United States and the President of Russia and their foreign secretaries.

Let’s deal with this situation, recognizing the seriousness that it represents to the future of our nation, of Russia, and the people of Ukraine and the world.


I write as a concerned citizen and retired business leader who has been involved in Russia for a quarter of a century.  I have seen first-hand how common the interests are of the Russian and American people and how much we can accomplish together.  I hope business leaders with similar experience will express their own point of view on what I regard as the perilous state of our nations’ relationship.

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