The Politics of the Russo-Ukrainian War Part, Revisited: Q&A with Lawrence Davidson and Stephen Zunes

Putin taking the presidential oath beside Boris Yeltsin, May 2000. Photograph Source: – CC BY 4.0

This is a transcript of a live discussion (a continuation of an earlier interview found in Counterpunch). We revisit the historical context of the war and discuss Putin’s likely motivation for the invasion: the threat of EU expansion. Also, we talked about how race plays a role in analyzing the priorities of activism and news coverage and the importance of expanding our understandings of foreign policy perspectives around identity. Further, Davidson and Zunes commented on Biden’s doctrines, policies, presidency, and his place in the conflict.[1] 

Daniel Falcone:  How far back historically does one go to contextualize what is happening right now with the war? Do you go back to1991 or 2014? Do you go back close to the Interwar Period or WWII?

Lawrence Davidson: You can go back to Napoleon if you want. Russia’s view of the West has been shaped by a series of invasions.

And what those invasions have done, the most recent being in World War II, is essentially sensitize the Russian leadership and people to fear the West, and to expect that these invasions will be ongoing, that they’ll come again and again and again. So, what you need then is a buffer zone around your borders. You need to just be able to hold these Western powers at a distance.

That’s what I think Putin was trying to do in a nonviolent way when he offered or demanded these security guarantees in the form of written treaties.  And the West just shrugged their shoulders and walked away.  You got unthinking and unrealistic responses like that from, I believe, the head of the NATO— “Oh, no!  A sovereign country has the right to make a choice about who they ally with.” and that sort of thing.  Well, in some ideal time and place, but not on the Russian border.[2]

Stephen Zunes: Certainly, the invasions throughout the centuries, not just Napoleon, World War I, World War II, but the Allied invasion right after the revolution on the side of the monarchists. I was one of those people who argued that we shouldn’t have moved NATO eastward, that it would be provocative.  Frankly, I thought NATO should have been disbanded altogether at the end of the Cold War.  But at the same time, what’s interesting is that as you look at military spending in the eastern European countries, it actually went down when they joined NATO.

And the Eastern European countries asked to be part of NATO. It wasn’t simply the United States pushing for it. Yes, it was quite profitable for U.S. arms manufacturers that these former Warsaw Pact countries had to convert to NATO-compatible equipment, but I don’t think it was about imperial design. Russian president Yeltsin was considered quite friendly, and the U.S. supported him.  And when you hear Putin’s rhetoric about questioning the whole existence of Ukraine and that kind of thing, taking a more Stalin’s Russian nationalist view than Lenin’s support for national self-determination, I think he probably invaded Ukraine regardless. I think NATO expansion is more the excuse than the reason, though it is one that resonate with many Russians as a result of the history of Western invasions, just like the Israelis use the Holocaust or whatever to justify all sorts of terrible things. We shouldn’t use NATO expansion to be used as an excuse for Russian aggression, to buy into Mearsheimer’s claim that “It’s the West’s fault.  Putin is an imperialist. A lot of people in the Western left don’t realize that if you’re an Eastern European, Western imperialism is not the big threat as Russian imperialism. Western imperialism has done horrific things around the world, but it is not primarily what has oppressed you.

If I lived in Eastern Europe, I would still have opposed the expansion of NATO, but I would definitely be in the minority.

Lawrence Davidson:  Yeah.  I mean, opposed to that analysis is the fact that Putin made an effort, a considerable effort up until about 2007 or something like that, to be non-provocative and to try to talk to Western leaders, even talk to the Western press—he invited them to Moscow—to explain the Russian position.  And it was only after the problems in Georgia that he started to be more aggressive.

Daniel Falcone: In your mind is Putin using NATO expansion as an excuse to hide what might be his true concern and reason for invasion, the expansion of the EU?

Stephen Zunes: Yes, I think there might be something to it.  I think it goes back to Chomsky’s idea of the threat of a good example.  Just as the US couldn’t tolerate any kind of independent socialist experiment in their hemisphere, and were willing to engage in coups, invasions, and whatever to stop it, Putin couldn’t tolerate a functioning prosperous liberal democracy on its borders among a people of a similar cultural and historical linguistic background as Russians . Ukraine, in fits and starts, was actually starting to get its act together, both politically and economically. While I certainly don’t idolize Zelenskyy—he has plenty of contradictions and he was unable or unwilling to enact many of the reforms he promised—he was outsider independent from both the corrupt pro-Russian and pro-Western blocs. Ukraine had joined the EU and prospered as a result, many Russians might want to emulate it, and that is very contrary to Putin’s way of running things.

Daniel Falcone: Didn’t he once ask NATO if Russia could in fact come into NATO and the EU?

Lawrence Davidson: Yeah.  I think he actually did so.  I’m not sure if he was serious about it, but he said, “Okay.  You want to expand NATO?  Fine.  Russia will join NATO.”  And, he was put off.  They told him, “No, no.  You’re too big to join NATO,” something like that.  And I wouldn’t put it past the Russians to want to join the EU.  I mean, why not?  They’re selling a lot of stuff to them.  They’re interacting economically.  I don’t think Putin saw democracy as a real threat until, again, about 2007 when everything changed, when we or somebody tried to pull off a pro-West coup in Georgia. That was too much for Putin. He gave his speech in Munich which said enough is enough, and where are the guarantees that you promised us and all of that stuff.  And after that, things got hot.

Daniel Falcone: Something that is really intriguing in all this discussion is the question of identity.[3] I have been reading a wide range of foreign policy perspectives on this matter. Margaret Kimberley, Khury Petersen-Smith, Eric Draister, and Mohammed Idris Ahmed all come to mind.[4] How do we discuss identity, race, and these moving political parts (from the left to a more moderate perspective) without losing sight that we are supposed to care about civilians and be against imperialism?

Stephen Zunes: Yeah.  I’ve actually been talking, corresponding with Rebecca Solnit about this a bit.  How do we use this as an opportunity. The timing was great for the rerelease of my expanded, revised, updated Western Sahara book.  I’ve gotten interviews and a foot in the door on a lot because I can say, well, this is—the United States is the only country that formally recognizes Morocco’s annexation.  And we’re talking about you can’t expand your borders by force, and international boundaries should be respected and that kind of thing. It’s important to point out the hypocrisy and double standards. At the same time, we want to avoid a kind of whataboutism that would appear to downplay the horror that’s going on right now or even sort of the “yes, but” kind of thing.[5]

I try to be more of a kind of a “yes, and,” that to in no way minimizes what’s going on, to be delighted that there is all this solidarity in the blue and yellow and the support for refugees and all these kind of things.  This is great.  This is really good, and we should have the same attitudes towards these other places.  Because I know there’s a tendency on the left, and I have this pull all the time, I feel like screaming, “But what about…”

Lawrence Davidson: One of the things that obviously isn’t talked about or explored in the Western press is that fact that there are many different Ukrainians. Okay? And there’s a whole lot of them who are pro-Russian.  Stalin did his population shifting during his time, and lots of Russians ended up in Ukraine, and they ended up in Crimeaparticularly.  So, if the Ukraine thinks they’re going to negotiate back to get Crimea, I don’t think that’s going to happen.  But in any case, in the Ukraine, we have to remember that the rebellion in the Donbas?

I guess that’s it—began, what is it?  ’14, maybe when the Ukrainian government decided the Russian language would no longer be recognized as an official language in the Ukraine.  And so, you couldn’t file forms in Russian anymore.  If you went into a government building, they wanted you to speak Ukraine, not Russian.  I mean, this is the kind of thing that essentially triggered that rebellion in Donbas. Now, obviously, it’s not the only reason, but that’s the trigger, so it seems to me that there is not a racial split here, but there is a split in terms of consciousness as to who I am. Am I a Ukrainian-Ukrainian or a Russian-Ukrainian?  This sort of thing, and that’s probably not going to go away. Just look at how paranoid the present government is about spies among their own people. This struggle may evolve along linguistic lines.

Stephen Zunes: Yeah, except that, at this point, I am not confident that even the majority of Russian speakers want to be a part of Russia, especially since the Ukrainian government llhad already backed off on the language stuff and Russian forces have been killing thousands of Ukrainian civilians regardless of language. The fact that the president of Ukraine, who was elected by 74 percent of the vote, is a Russian speaker himself, and the Russian militia which have controlled areas for the past eight years, are basically mobsters . They’ve assassinated some popular local leaders who didn’t go along with their corruption.  And when they briefly seized Mariupol several years ago, you had 5,000 steelworkers, miners and other ordinary citizens who just marched in, unarmed, into the government buildings that the militia had seized, threw away the barricades, and drove them out of town.  And, again, these are mostly Russian speakers.

Lawrence Davidson: Right, right.  Those are, I assume, Russians fighting Russians over corruption.  I’ve heard it said that a lot of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians don’t support the Russians, but I don’t know.  That might be true, or it might not be true.  Lots of Russian speakers who have family or some connections to Russia have emigrated north just to escape the war, just like others have gone west.  So, it is hard to tell.  I think, certainly, if Zelensky is able to cut a deal and restore some order and sovereignty to at least a part of the Ukraine, this whole language business is going to have to be treated with kid gloves.

Daniel Falcone: Putin is saying that he’s doing this to protect ethnic Russians, and I’m assuming that much of the world doesn’t believe that to be true about his operations.

Stephen Zunes: Certainly you have some ethnic Ukrainian chauvinists and even neo-Nazis among the Azov Battalionand elsewhere. However, in the last election, the far right got only around two and a half percent of the vote, which is less than a lot of other European countries, actually, much less than France, Greece, and other countries.  I don’t think that’s the issue.  Of course, the problem is that the Russian actions not only enhances the case for NATO, it increases the strength of the fascists.

Lawrence Davidson: I don’t really know enough about what’s going on the ground to know if this is true or if it’s just propaganda.  The whole Nazi thing has some factual base to it. And there are many right-wingers just like that in Ukraine.  They’re in Russia too. So you’re right, however, there was a report that the war itself has provided a sort of recruiting ground for the fascist right wing.

Stephen Zunes: That’s certainly true.  There are also some pretty fascist elements in the Russian military as well. That’s why I don’t get somebody on the left supporting Putin.  My God, there’s nothing leftist about him.  Seriously.

Lawrence Davidson: Correct.

Stephen Zunes: I mean, look who his allies are: the far right parties in Western Europe, Trump, the Islamophobes, the racists.

Lawrence Davidson: For sure he has become a nasty piece of work. But I don’t think he was always this way.

Daniel Falcone:  Based on what we know, and what’s on the ground, it looks like Putin thought this was going to be a cake walk and that has not been the case.

Lawrence Davidson:  It’s hard to believe that they didn’t have the proper intelligence about the Ukrainian army and backup militias willingness to resist. That’s the kind of thing that Bush II claimed:  “Oh, well, we got the wrong intelligence,” It’s hard to believe that that’s the case.

Daniel Falcone: Eliot A. Cohen recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Why Can’t the West Admit that Ukraine is winning?”

Larwence Davidson: Well, obviously that is wrong. it’s not winning.  It’s not. Its cities are being flattened.  It’s not winning.

Stephen Zunes: Yeah.  I have issues with that term as well. I think of Jeannette Rankin’s line, “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake.”

Lawrence Davidson: That’s right.

Stephen Zunes: But the fact is the Russians are getting their butts kicked.  They’ve lost like, what, three times as many soldiers as the United States lost in Iraq and Afghanistan in 20 years?  Their generals are getting killed. How often are generals in modern warfare killed nowadays?[6]

Daniel Falcone: They’ve lost 7-10 (or more) generals according to the report.

Stephen Zunes: And the supply lines, they relied on rail, and you have the Belarusian Railway workers union tearing up the tracks.  And they had to drive their trucks on these cheap Chinese tires that blow out really easily.  They don’t have the fuel.  And there are a fair number of soldiers are deliberately puncturing their fuel tanks because they don’t want to go deeper into Ukraine. I keep thinking about how both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions started among the soldiers.

Lawrence Davidson: That would be interesting.  That would certainly be interesting.  I’m not sure it’s going to happen.

Stephen Zunes: Yeah, but I was just thinking about that the other day: low morale, abuse, inadequate supplies.

Lawrence Davidson: Well, they’re trying—I’m sure they’re trying to re-group. That’s why they stopped, at least in terms of their infantry advancements.  They cut their losses in the north.

Daniel Falcone: Yeah. I think Putin has killed more civilians than he has Ukrainian troops.

Lawrence Davidson: I don’t think that’s the case.  There are—you get different information, different numbers on that sort of thing.  Nobody really knows, but I don’t believe that’s true.  Both sides obviously have tried to create a propaganda bubble around this whole thing.  And Ukrainians—in terms of our television and our radio and all that, Ukrainians have created a propaganda bubble, and we’re in it.  So, I don’t know.  I just don’t know what’s real in terms of numbers and stuff.

Daniel Falcone: Where does Biden come in with all of this in terms of presidential history, political history?

Stephen Zunes: He supported the invasion of Iraq.  That is a flagrant violation of the UN Charter.  He recognizes Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan violating a series of UN Security Council resolutions, he recognizes Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara violating a series of UN Security Council resolutions.  He’s trashed the International Court of Justice. He has defended and provided direct support for Israeli and Saudi war crimes.  He may be an institutionalist when it comes to the United States.  He’s not when it comes to international law.  He’s in the Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, “Scoop” Jackson wing of the Democratic Party.

Lawrence Davidson: I agree.  More generically, I think it’s interesting that almost all of the leaders in the West—with but a few younger examples—are products of the Cold War.  And in Russia, all the leadership—including Putin—are products of the Soviet era, of the Soviet Union.  So we’re essentially,  just reproducing this kind of dynamic. And Biden is a Cold Warrior in this sense.

Daniel Falcone: He’s throwing around terms like war criminal, and his rhetoric is extraordinarily strong for when he has a—he’s built his career on these same types of maneuvers, just—

Stephen Zunes: Well, Winston Churchill had all sorts of inspiring rhetoric about freedom, democracy, and rule of law, and look at his record. Biden may even believe his own rhetoric.  It’s just that it doesn’t apply to Brown people or to countries that aren’t US allies or whatever.  On certain levels, I’ve been impressed with him.  Halting the MiG transfer I think was a smart idea, though he knew he’d get pushback on that.  That he’s not taking seriously proposals for establishing a no-fly zone, which would be really risky.  And pushing defensive weapons only. If we look not at what any of us would do but instead look in terms of realistic expectations of what a US president would do in this situation, I think Biden has actually done a fairly good job, not that different than what a President Warren or a President Sanders would have done—and I’m saying this as one of Biden’s most strident critics on foreign policy.

Lawrence Davidson: Sometimes, Biden strikes me as being a very simple-minded person, and I don’t know whether that’s a misinterpretation.  But, obviously, he’s got a lot of emotional drive, and you let him off script and that emotional drive will come out in his rhetoric.  This is very characteristic of this man.

Stephen Zunes: Yeah, but the other thing on Biden is that, while all politicians to some degree are malleable, takins positions depending on where the winds blow, Biden is even more so.  He ran as a McGovern antiwar Democrat in ’72.  He was a pretty hawkish Democrat later.  He’s gone back and forth.  He was a big promoter of the invasion of Iraq, not just voting for it but stacking the committee hearings when he had chaired the Foreign Relations Committee; he was a really terrible Iraq war hawk. However, but he also voted against the Gulf War twelve years earlier, which is really odd.  I opposed both wars.  There are obviously people who supported both wars, and there were plenty of people who supported the Gulf War but opposed the Iraq War, for obvious reason.  All three of these positions make some logical sense.  What doesn’t make sense is to have opposed the Gulf War and then supporting the Iraq War, yet that was Biden’s position, presumably due to political calculations.

Daniel Falcone: In the beginning of this some of the projections coming forth were this would be a four-year catastrophe with another Aleppo where overall you would have 40,000 people dead. What can we expect as a reasonable timeframe?

Stephen Zune: I’m hoping that the worst will be over within a few weeks, and the fighting will be mostly over within a few months.  I don’t think it’ll go much longer than that, but it’s hard to say. It may end up like Georgia and the Russian-backed breakaway republics. No active war, but no peace either.

Daniel Falcone: Is there a diplomatic solution, a political solution?

Lawrence Davidson: It’s going to drag. You will get a period of low-level warfare because, as you say, Putin has got morale problems and things like that, and so he’s not going to risk, a next big offensive unless he solves that problem.  But I think that it’s going to grind down to a certain level, and then it’ll continue at that low level because the peace negotiations are going to be very, very difficult. They’re going to be about the reduction of Ukraine’s size.  It’s going to lose territory if the Russians get their way, and Zelensky’s going to be very hard-nosed about that kind of lose.  So, as they argue back and forth, back and forth, you’re going to have a low-level Russian military presence or activity to try to keep the pressure on Zelensky, I guess.  I don’t know how long it’ll take.  Not four years.  I don’t think it’ll take four years.

The Ukrainian civilians are victims. They’re victims of other people’s ambitions and other people’s mistakes, diplomatic mistakes, and they’re paying the price.  It’s not fair.  It’s not just, but this is the way it usually happens.


[1] International Relations scholar, Richard Falk was not able to attend this talk, but he was a contributor for Part I.

[2] Jeffrey St. Clair in Counterpunch, indicated that “Putin may have been tempted, lured, baited or even duped into invading Ukraine. He may have been lied to by his own generals and spymasters. He may not be the grand strategists so many thought. But he alone pulled the trigger. His tanks crossed the border. His bombs destroyed city blocks, hospitals, train depots. His army is occupying foreign ground. Excuses can be made. But they only mitigate his crimes, they don’t exculpate them.”

[3] Nicole Aandahl, senior vice president for people and culture at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. states thathistory teaches us that Putin’s aspirations are folly. This is a resilient people who, despite barbarism and violence, will never lose their sense of self—their identity. Ukraine will endure.”

[4] These authors write for: The Black Agenda Report, Foreign Policy in Focus, Counterpunch, and Foreign Policy.

[5] Richard Falk writes in Counterpunch, that “the question ‘why Ukraine?’ calls for answers. The standard answer of reverse racism, moral hypocrisy, and Western narrative control is not wrong but significantly incomplete if it does not include the geopolitical war that while not now directly responsible for Ukrainian suffering is from other perspective more dangerous and destructive than that awful traditional war.”

[6] Despite this, support for Putin has actually risen John Feffer writes in Counterpunch, “A failed military intervention; the genocidal killing of citizens; economic isolation by the international community; the arrests of anti-war protestors at home and the shuttering of independent media.. Any one of these factors could mark the end of an ordinary political leader.”

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.