Last week, I wrote that Russia was “on the offensive and impatient” and would “act very soon.” It did, but in a way that far exceeded my expectations. I thought Russia would make a direct military intervention to secure the Lugansk and Donetsk Republics (LDPR) it had newly recognized, and maybe help them to capture the large portion of their claimed territory still controlled by Ukrainian forces—a more offensive and riskier move that, I warned, would make it easier to create a political narrative detrimental to Russia. Unlikely, I thought, that Russia would engage in a military offensive west of Donbass, let alone aimed at Kiev.
Well, as I was writing that, Russia moved in a way that blew through all my—and just about everyone’s—oh-so-shrewd calculations of how oh-so-shrewd Russia’s strategic thinking would be. Russia mounted a broad, full-scale offensive—destroying military facilities throughout Ukraine, seeking to encircle and capture major cities, and moving on the capital itself. This is nothing less than an attempt to achieve major policy changes in Ukraine by military force.
Russia is insisting that Ukraine recognize Crimea as Russian territory,
abide by the Minsk agreement (oops, too late) recognize the LDPR, officially renounce joining NATO and remove any extant NATO infrastructure, adopt a neutral stance, and eliminate the fascist political influence (“de-Nazify”).
It is the Battle of Ukraine. This is a demand for a definitive redefinition of the Ukrainian polity that has emerged since 2014. “Regime change,” if you wish, in a substantive sense. The Kiev government and its patron, the US, will not agree, and never would have agreed, to any of it, except by force.
Russia knows this. (It took them eight years to finally accept it.) Kiev knows this. The United States knows this. The only people who are being fooled and fooling themselves about it are consumers of Western media.
Russia has also, it is imperative to understand, gone all-in on this battle. Everyone has to get over how surprising that might be and confront how important it is. It means Russia will not agree to give up on its demands, except by overwhelming force.
That is because Russia considers this battle of Ukraine part of a larger war, a war for the future of the world: Will the world continue to be subject to the unipolar military, economic, financial, and ideological hegemony of the United States, or will we re-construct a multi-polar world in which the United States accepts a place within reciprocally respectful economic, political, and security relations?
For Russia, even before this battle of Ukraine, that world of unipolar US hegemony was fatal. It has meant the contemptuous and self-righteous disregard, the military encirclement, and the inexorable drive to weaken and dismember Russia. For fifteen years, Putin has been saying there is a limit to Russia’s tolerance of this, and pleading with Western media to realize and report the danger in ignoring that.
Those who posit Russia’s action as the result of some national or personal lust for war are jingoist fools. Russia understands, as Andrei Bezrukov, a former Russian spy in America, and now a member of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy says, that “the West succeeded in dragging us into this war…this is their tactical victory.”
Russia has finally and reluctantly realized—correctly, I think—that the change can only come by force. It has entered the Battle of Ukraine as the first operation in a campaign to end the world of US unipolar hegemony.
Having entered that battle, Russia must win it. Winning it would eliminate the US/NATO threat from Ukraine itself, weaken NATO and US hegemony in Europe generally (despite any short-term intensification of rhetorical unity), and demonstrate the power of non-compliant countries (China and Iran are watching) to resist US power and reverse its encroachments. Losing it would mean that US imperialism, including its NATO arm, would be greatly strengthened, and would go to work fatally demolishing and dismembering Russia.
Russia just cannot afford to lose this battle. Any retreat from Ukraine without achieving its main objectives would effectively be a final surrender to the United States and its hegemony. Sanctions will not force its retreat.
The U.S. hopes that “sanctions from hell” will damage the capital and personal interests of Russian oligarchs and the Western-oriented elite so much that they will force Putin to back off (or, better, overthrow him). Not impossible, since Russia is an oligarch capitalist polity (crafted as such by the American-led shock-therapy capitalist restoration), but highly unlikely. Putin’s strength and popularity was built on disciplining the oligarchy within a patriotic paradigm, and there is widespread support for standing up to the West—it was the Communist Party, Putin’s largest opposition, that introduced the motion to recognize the LPR and DPR, and even Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s more Western-friendly predecessor, “brushed off sanctions imposed on Russia over the country’s invasion of Ukraine. ‘We are being driven out of everywhere, punished and threatened, but we don’t feel scared.’”
As John Helmer points out, sanctions can become an incentive for beneficial restructuring of the Russian economy that eliminates constraints imposed by Western-influenced Central Bankers. Similarly, Andrei Bezrukov remarks that “We’ve been through this before. The young Soviet Republic was encircled and even worse off,” and sees that sanctions provide an opportunity, if not necessity, for reforming the Russian economy as a whole: “now we have been practically forced, especially after the latest packet of sanctions, into a position where we have no other choice but to totally restructure our economy, financial system, and in essence our domestic policy.”
But, most importantly, sanctions just demonstrate to Russia precisely why this fight is necessary—to end the U.S.’s control of the world order that enables it to punish and blackmail countries at will. In fact, these sanctions demonstrate to every country in the world—and even to the oligarchs!—that they are all under Washington’s thumb, and every single dollar of theirs can be stolen in an instant, unless and until the world order changes, as Russia is seeking to do.
These sanctions demonstrate that what’s happening in Ukraine is a battle in a larger war that’s about whether the US will continue to control the whole world in every way, with impunity. If you doubt that, here’s Juan Gonzalez, Special Assistant to Biden and Senior Advisor for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council, telling you so:
If Russia loses, so does Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Those countries and China (even though it is very reluctant to support separatism) understand that, which is why they support Russia in this fight. Not because they share a global ideology with Russia, but because they understand the material consequences for their own societies.
Ukraine has been nothing but a pawn in the US game. The US (along with internal fascists) chose to make Ukraine the front line of a war against Russia. Russia has chosen to fight back, starting on that front. The result will either extend or weaken U.S. unipolar control of the world. That’s the central stake. That’s what the U.S. rulers want you to be willing to go to war—including WWIII—for. They know and say it. Everyone should.
No Way Out
WWIII is not a remote possibility. We are already in it. The only question is: How much worse will it get?
First of all, the hellish economic, diplomatic, and cultural sanctions now being imposed on Russia, designed to enforce its complete isolation from the US-defined “international community,” go beyond anything we’ve seen since the Second Word War—including the Japanese oil embargo that preceded the Pearl Harbor attack.
This is a form of economic warfare that will seriously disrupt economic life everywhere, at least as much in the sanctioning countries as in Russia. You cannot exile the largest nation on earth. Russia will mount its own retaliatory and effective economic siege measures. That situation must be resolved. Can U.S. and Western leaders be delusional enough to think that will happen via Russia withdrawing from Ukraine, abandoning the LDPR and Crimea, agreeing to infinite NATO expansion, etc., without being militarily defeated?
We are in midst of a ubiquitous, unconstrained, and orchestrated campaign of destroying the possibility of non-conflictual, state-to-state relations. For its part, Russia has gotten the message, and considers that relations with the West have reached “the point of no return.” It’s hard to see where this can go that doesn’t involve military conflict.
Second, this is just beginning. The war we are all in now is not about, and won’t stop with, Ukraine. If Russia prevails in Ukraine (and perhaps even if it fails), it will go on to insist on the drawdown of threatening NATO forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. It will not accept the already emplaced first-strike-enabling missile systems in Poland and Romania, or new projects like the $152 million US-funded transformation of a Romanian airbase into a “NATO Black Sea hub.” If these undeniably threatening encroachments are not negotiated away quickly, Russia will neutralize them with “military-technical” means, which may include cyber-attacks, counterpart placement of threatening systems near Europe or the United States, or direct missile attacks that will take them out, as Russia deems necessary. Listen to what the man says and believe it. Russia is not bluffing.
The Battle of Ukraine only leads into the larger campaign to constrain NATO in a way that effectively destroys it, because it negates its actual raison d’être: to attack Russia. As Noam Chomsky said, the reason why there is still a NATO after 1991 (and why NATO wouldn’t accept Putin’s offer to join in 2000) is because NATO is, and always was, an offensive alliance aimed at destroying, dismembering, or subjugating Russia, whether Soviet or capitalist.
The war we are in could be ended if the US/NATO agreed to abjure the prerogative of unlimited expansion—and that is what everyone should call for. Of course, the US/NATO, therefore, is not going to accept any constraint, except by force or the unanswerable threat of force.
So this war will be settled by force and the threat of force. Russia introduced a large dose of military force in Ukraine, and the US responded with enormous economic and financial force, with some military force in the background ($100s of millions in weaponry, intelligence and probably special ops). But both sides will use all the levers of force at their disposal, as they think necessary.
It’s important for Americans to recognize the new balance of force: Russia is not shrinking from, and is in fact taking control of, the game of escalation dominance that the U.S. always owned, and, most dangerously, probably thinks it still owns. Russia is no longer intimidated by: “Back off, or I’ll ratchet up the aggression,” and, in fact is saying “Go ahead. Two can play.” It cannot be overstated how dangerous this new confrontational paradigm is, and how quickly it can lead to nuclear war—in order to preserve NATO’s unlimited expansion—largely because the Americans just don’t believe it.
Best Laid Plans
Nothing is inevitable, once people start smacking each other in the face. I’ve argued that Russia’s assertiveness in recognizing and coming to the defense of the LPR and DPR created a new world situation that will eventually undermine the US/NATO position, and I still think that’s true.
But Russia’s broad and ambitious offensive across Ukraine carries new risks for it as well. A military victory is often the path to new problems. Every ambitious offensive risks being an example of the Talleyrand quip: “It’s worse than a crime. It’s an error.”
Even ardent Russian supporters like The Saker acknowledge that Russia is losing the information war “by a huge margin,” thanks to its tight-lipped attitude about its operations as well as the West’s effective control of most of the ideological apparatus of the world—including legacy media and the internet. Russia may be confident that its unpublicized methodical advances will create unavoidable facts and dispel fantastical stories (ghost fighter pilots, heroic island defenders-to-the-death, ruthless car-crushing tanks, etc.) but it’s a mistake to cede the potent political ground of narrative management.
On the operational level, Russia has abjured any desire to occupy Ukraine, and I believe that. They’re not stupid. I am sure they would like to take care of business, get out, and leave what’s left of Ukraine to stew in its own juices. But they have given themselves a lot of business, and their intent threatens to be overrun by the consequences of their operations in the capital and other cities, and by the devilish details of any “de-Nazification” program.
Russia is being careful about minimizing major combat in the cities, but there is likely to be fighting and destruction, especially in Kiev, and the Russians are going to have to a establish new, cooperative Ukrainian authority that they are comfortable leaving behind. This means some measure of control of civil life for some time. All undefined, and full of potential traps.
Then there’s the unfortunate fact that fascistic ideology is entwined in western Ukrainian nationalism. It has deep historical roots and has been even more widely propagated since 2014. Father-of-the-country Bandera, “Glory to the Heroes,” and all. We’re talking swastikas in the mall.
So, any “de-Nazification” is going to have to go wide and deep into society. It’s not just a matter of knocking off a few bad apples, and it won’t be done in a few weeks. For Russia to take upon itself the task of a thoroughgoing policing and ideological re-education of Ukrainian culture would be supremely foolish. To make the irresistible comparison, it would be like trying to extirpate Islamic fundamentalism from, oh, Afghanistan. Much better to eliminate the worst Nazi militias, get out of western Ukraine as soon as possible, secure the LDPR, and let whatever regime arises in Kiev deal with whatever residual internal fascism is on display for the world to see.
To be sure, Ukrainian fascism is a real and integral part of the problem that Russia is right to target. It’s a problem for everybody, especially Europe, that has been nurtured and is being used by the United States, precisely as the U.S. uses ISIS and al-Qaeda elsewhere (to extend the comparison).
Here’s the proud fascist leader of C!4, a fascist group active in Ukraine since before Maidan, with a name inspired by the 14 words coined by an American neo-Nazi: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” He doesn’t shrink from being identified as “Nazi” and describes exactly what the program is: “We perform the tasks set by the West” because “we have fun killing.” He correctly notes that fascist groups were the fighting vanguard of the Maidan insurrection. He also makes clear his contempt for ostensible “values” of Maidan and of the European West that thinks it is using him, as well as his intention to “create problems for the whole world.” Yup, just like ISIS. These are the fascist forces the US is arming in Ukraine, against whom the Russians offensive is aimed:
So I’m going to guess that my oh-so-shrewd warnings about the risks of such an ambitious offensive are nothing the Russians have not considered all on their own, and planned for as well as they can within the action they are determined to take.
The fight is fully engaged. There is no turning back for Russia. It will end one of three ways:
1) With a retreat by (effectively a defeat of) Russia, which is unlikely to happen in Ukraine, except in a long-term, bit-off-more-than-chewable sense above. The net result of such a defeat would be the strengthening of US/NATO imperialism, at least until a further challenge from the East; 2) With a concession by (effectively a defeat of) NATO, which is unlikely to happen without military conflict. The net result of that defeat would be the end of US unipolar hegemony; or, 3) With everyone in ashes, which is not all that unlikely.
I know which I prefer.
Under any circumstance, we all better realize: There will be no return to the status quo ante-bellum. That world has is gone. We have no idea what the new one will look like.
I guess its time for a comment on why I’m not overly interested in what for many is the elephantine question in the room: Is Russia’s offensive in Ukraine illegal invasion? Is it justified under international law?
First of all, I regret to inform you that there is no “law” governing the actions of nations. There was a very imperfect architecture of international law based on the United Nations. It has been utterly destroyed over the past decades, by the United States and its allies. Its institutions have demonstrated their capture by, and impotence in the face of, imperialist power. It only exists now as a memory (and a wish).
Russia is now acting in exasperated and frank recognition of that, and forcing everyone else to recognize it. Russia is not going to be the only one still obeying the ghost of international law past that will never disturb the rest of the imperial master. It is certainly not going to accept the ruling issued by the United States, under the Bill Clinton administration during the war on Yugoslavia, that NATO was now the “international community,” and would henceforth determine which invasions are “justified.”
Two can play now at the games the U.S. insisted on—the reconfiguration of post-Soviet Europe game, and the “responsibility to protect” offensive attack game—and there is no referee.
Russia’s implicit position is: “You cannot bring these questions to the table because there is no table. If you want to build one, that will have to be done with us, China, Iran, etc. And it will be round. If you want, with your typical self-righteous hypocrisy, to keep pretending you’re in the seat of judgement, we’ll ignore you and keep fighting.”
The sudden and frantic Western political and media concern about international law, invasion, and occupation in relation to Ukraine is truly nauseating.
What “justified” the overthrow of the democratically-elected leader of Ukraine—chosen, according to European and NATO observers, in “a good and competitive election and very promising for the future of Ukraine’s democracy”—by an insurrection sponsored by the U.S. and led by fascist militias? What justified that to the people of Eastern Ukraine who voted overwhelmingly for that leader and wanted no part of a coup regime infested with fascists? What justified the Odessa massacre and the deadly eight-year offensive against those Eastern Ukrainians, which has 14,000 killed so far—with 253 casualties last week? Do Western politicians and media ask these questions? Do they even know it happened?
In fact, the United States put Ukraine in danger to, by cynically and deliberately using it as a pawn to provoke a Russian attack, groomed to be sacrificed. Ukraine is now paying the price for that. Numerous American foreign policy specialists—from George Kennan, to US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, to the current CIA director William Burns—repeatedly said things like “eastward expansion” of NATO was a “potential military threat” to Russia and involving Ukraine would “split the country in two, … which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene.” As Matlock says, this crisis was not only “predicted” but “willfully precipitated” by the United States. A tactical victory for the U.S.
Walt Mearsheimer explains 90% of what you need to know about the Ukraine situation, and how the U.S. has been “leading Ukraine down a primrose path, and the end result is Ukraine is going to get wrecked,” in this 90-second clip.
So, my explicit position on “legality” is: Bring all alleged perpetrators and crimes to the table of justice when it’s built—in order, with Putin behind Bush, Obama, et. al, and Ukraine behind Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc. Until then, shut up with your hypocrisy.
Furthermore, beyond the question of legality, any answer to the question of ethico-political legitimacy depends on the frame of reference in which it is posed. Does it address the Ukraine operation as an isolated action, or as a battle within the larger war of which it is a part?
It makes a difference. The Allies relentlessly attacked occupied France (and “independent” Vichy) during WWII. They bombed 1,570 French towns, killing more than 68,000 civilians—men, women and children, including 2,700 in one raid on one town—and injured more than 100,000.
Was it justified?
Depends on what “it” is, doesn’t it?
That’s not a snarky point. It’s a real, constant conundrum. In any war, terrible, “unjustified” things, which break rightfully valued laws and principles and that everyone should, and I do, abhor, will be done by both sides. No one gets out with clean hands.
I see what’s happening in Ukraine now as part of a war that didn’t start last week and is not about Ukraine. It’s about whether the US will continue to control the world—including the Western Hemisphere, in every way, with impunity. It’s a war that goes back at least to the 1990s and Yugoslavia. Ukraine was recruited into it in 2014, as a pawn for the U.S. to open a new front against Russia.
The aggressor in that war is the United States, which has not hesitated to use military force however it deems fit, and remains “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” The prime targets of that aggression are countries like Russia and China, who are threatening to break that absolute American hegemony, and are insisting on being treated as respected partners, not rebellious children to be preached to and disciplined. Russia—because it’s threatened by NATO encirclement and because its attempts at diplomatic “partnership” were ignored for decades—has made the unprecedented and risky decision to challenge that immediate threat and, ipso facto, that wider hegemony, with military force.
It’s a war, and it will be settled by force and the threat of force, in ways that already have and will continue to break laws and kill innocent people. No one’s getting out of this with clean hands.
I understand the Russian operation in Ukraine in that governing framework, where the principal issue is the difference between weakened vs. strengthened U.S. unipolar hegemony. If you understand it in some other primary frame, where the principal issue is something else—Ukrainian independence, defense of democracy, Putin’s madness—so be it. There’s no referee. And no clean hands.
As a marxist and socialist, I have no brief for either of the principal actors in this conflict, but I can’t escape the principal contradiction they are fighting about.
The Russian military is not the Red Army, but the forces opposing it are inclusive of a revanchist army of Hitlerian fascism. The principal actors in this conflict are, on the one side, a rising oligarchic capitalist state trying to create a multipolar world in which it and other rising, (including self-identified socialist) countries can act and grow unconstrained by the hegemon, and, on the other, an oligarchic capitalist and hegemonic imperialist state, plus Nazis. I’m not a fan of either of them, but I know whom I don’t want to win.
And so does China. And Venezuela. And Nicaragua. And Cuba.
If there’s a way out, it’s with them