I just got back from my third scuba diving “live-aboard” with 22 people from Russia. The Russians call these “safaris,” and I much prefer that term for traveling on a boat for a week or two in remote places to scuba dive. We’ve gone diving together in the Sea of Cortez (2018), the Galapagos (2021) and now, the Maldives. There is no question that I adore these people, and they have accepted me. That is why I look with horror on the prospect of war in Ukraine, which, like all wars, is unpredictable and has the potential to spill over into even a confrontation with the U.S.
My interest in all-things Russian began in St. Louis Public Schools in 3rd grade — the region has a large Russian immigrant population — and has continued throughout my life. I took a long break from the Russian people when I accepted a job at the National Security Agency, where I worked for most of my career. But in retirement, I went right back to where I left off, only this time, we had social media networks, which made connecting with Russians much easier.
During those long scuba diving trips, I tried to drag some political views out of them, but Russians rarely discuss politics. Most say something along the lines of, “well, this is way over my head, and I can’t do anything about it, so what is there to discuss?” Others may be wary of me, a former spy on a pension, because as most Russians seem to believe, there is no such thing as a “former” spy.
If war breaks out, it would be particularly painful for me after spending years developing relationships with Russians. When I first made acquaintances with them on social media, I was argumentative and bombastic and quickly lost them as friends, but I’ve tempered my “America-first” approach to simply try to understand them better.
My own feeling is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not attack Ukraine. Yes, the Russians took the Crimea, but they had a strategic naval base there, which they could not live without. Controlling the entire country will be much more costly than the ongoing war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. At some point, even Mr. Putin has to consider the impact of such an attack on the body politic at home. On the safaris, some told me that they had a mother or father who was Ukrainian. There are deep family ties between the two countries. Some also said that nobody knew about the attack in Crimea until well after it occurred. Today, most know about the situation on the border with Ukraine, making it more likely, they reasoned, that this is a political stunt and not the real thing. In the back of Mr. Putin’s mind, however, he must think about Nikita Khrushchev, who’s ill-fated foray into Cuba eventually cost him his job.
But try as I will, I cannot completely understand their positions, though I am comfortable debating our own. Mr. Putin wants us to forswear making Ukraine a member of NATO, and to that, I would ask: Why the heck not? Years ago, when talking to Ukrainian friends about the future, I told them that they had to find their own way, that Ukraine was not in the strategic interests of the United States and that we would never confront Russia over Ukraine. That seems to be holding, for now. But I remember how we got dragged into the Serbia/Kosovo war in 1999, and it’s hard to imagine that we would sit on the sidelines if we start to see brutalities every evening on TV.
Since the end of the Cold War, the 72-year-old curmudgeon, NATO, has sought to justify its being by expanding into former Warsaw-pact territories and promising to take care of them. Only Donald Trump, like him or not, called NATO’s mission into question, but in the end, even he backed down on change in NATO as long as member countries paid their bills. We talk in this country about a “deep state,” but there is also an international deep state, which keeps the war machine going, expands territory and keeps East-West tensions high. You can bet that eventually NATO would extend an invitation to Ukraine. And then what, Belarus and Kazakhstan?
As I write this, I cannot believe how far this problem has gone without a diplomatic solution in sight. How hard is it to say that we will not allow Ukraine to join NATO in exchange for Russia staying out of that country’s affairs? Let me sit down with a few of my dive buddies from Russia and diplomats from each side. We’ll knock back a few vodkas, eat salo (cured pig fat) and shproti (smoked sardines) on brown bread. Within a few hours, we’ll come to an agreement and put an end to this deadly nonsense.
Jerome W. Israel is a former senior executive at NSA and the FBI. His email is email@example.com.