This piece first appeared on CP+, our subscriber area, on March 6, 2022.
A dashcam in Belgorod, on the Russian side of the Ukraine-Russia border purportedly shows a large, new column of Russian forces ready to enter Ukraine. Another escalation is taking shape.
Chaotic scenes at the Dnipro train station as young families and elderly women alike jump off the platform and cross the tracks by foot, desperate to escape the approaching onslaught. Another city emptied of its people.
A blinding flash of fiery lightning illuminates the night sky outside Kyiv, the shockwave following a few seconds later like wake lines from a ravenous shark. Another pound of Ukrainian flesh.
And in the midst of this ghastly, criminal war waged by Putin and his Great Russian War Machine on their Ukrainian neighbor, suddenly the world is faced with the prospect of global destruction, nuclear annihilation. And, comforting though the thought may be for the more deranged Cold War nostalgists among us, it is utterly terrifying to contemplate.
And so, instead, we sit and debate Putin’s thoughts, his isolation and mental state, his irrationality and the possibility of his insanity. For here is our King Lear, as mad as the vexed sea, his finger on the nuclear button, muttering launch codes to himself.
We in the heart of the Empire take solace in this portrait of a mad king. It comforts us to know that the enemy is “pure evil.”
But if we step back and look at Putin carefully, even for a moment, something catches our eye, a horrifying vision. Terror takes hold.
For the deeper we look, and the longer we stare, the evil begins to fade away, the war criminal recedes into the background. And we are left with the painful truth: Putin is US.
WMD and the Construction of Reality
In examining how we got to this Strangelove scenario, it’s worth considering whether Putin and his coterie of oligarchs and Eurasianist ideologues are really embarking on new imperial territory here. To hear the mainstream press bleat endlessly about the “first war in Europe in nearly 80 years” one would think that an unprecedented series of events has culminated in a shocking and barbaric display that hasn’t been seen on this planet since, well, um… America vaporized two major Japanese cities. But I digress.
Instead of retracing Putin’s steps, perhaps it’s better to consider the roadmap he’s chosen. It’s one we know very well, for it is the United States that charted the course.
In fact, a sober analysis of the situation reveals that Putin is, in fact, carrying out a mirror image of Bush and Cheney’s monstrous crime against humanity in Iraq. If anything, rather than being a demonic ghoul whose shadows creep along the Kremlin walls like Moscow’s Nosferatu, Putin was a careful student of modern imperial power who, like so many Russian leaders before him, merely copied the attitudes and tactics of the empires of the West.
Take, for instance, Putin’s justifications for his criminal aggression. Here’s the Russian president describing the “existential threat” (sound familiar?) posed by Ukraine:
“If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction, the situation in the world and in Europe will drastically change, especially for us, for Russia. We cannot but react to this real danger, all the more so since, let me repeat, Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.”
In reading the transcript of Putin’s speech, one wonders if David Frum has grounds to sue for plagiarism as it repeats, almost verbatim, the noxious talking points used by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the other neocon criminals about an imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction from a country that has neither a nuclear weapons program, nor the requisite uranium enrichment program necessary to make a weapon.
Who cares? Putin knows facts don’t matter. Words like “yellowcake” and “terrorists,” phrases like “the smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud,” have taught him a valuable lesson in the disposability of truth in the service of imperial power. For the neocons taught the Kremlin what it means to manufacture a war based on mere words and assertions of moral righteousness. Exchange terrorists for Nazis, and 9-11 for the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and you got yourself a nice little Russian chauvinist war of conquest.
You can almost hear Putin’s words in that degenerate Texas twang. Here he is describing the threat of Ukraine reconsidering the Munich memorandum under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from the US, UK, and Russia:
“We believe the Ukrainian words are directed at us…And we heard them. They have wide nuclear competency from Soviet times, developed nuclear industry; they have schools, everything they need to move quickly…They don’t have one thing — a uranium enrichment program. But that’s a technical question. For Ukraine it’s not an unsolvable problem; it’s easy to solve it.”
And then, of course, the pièce de resistance: “It’s only a matter of time!”
Putin here makes it abundantly clear that he internalized the lesson that facts are irrelevant, and that only power matters. But even beyond that, he lays bare the true essence of the neoconservative worldview: Great power is not the ability to destroy reality, but to manufacture new realities.
As Karl Rove (probably) said:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Does anyone honestly doubt that Putin is following this Machiavellian nihilism to the letter? It is not international law, or treaty obligations, or logistics, or economics that determines the righteousness of a given action, it is power. And with that power, one can act to construct a reality that comports with what power desires.
This is Empire. And Putin is playing on the imperial chessboard according to the rules established by our own criminal regime. It doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it any less of a war crime. But then again, no neocon faced a tribunal at The Hague. Maybe Putin expects to retire to his dacha and paint pretty pictures while giving TV interviews about how he loves bird watching.
Whataboutism? No, It’s a New Imperial Order.
In establishing the neocon playbook as Putin’s blueprint, the goal is not to absolve his criminal regime of guilt by childishly pointing to other crimes against humanity carried out by the US. It is instead intended to establish Putin’s move into Ukraine as being rooted in a precedent established by the US and its imperial junior partners.
But beyond the precedent, Putin has decided to dismember Ukraine as a message to the rest of the world that the rules of the game have changed, that the single global imperial hegemon must adjust to *his* decisions, where Russia acts and creates its own reality, and then acts again creating other new realities.
And so, you see an alternate reality where Ukraine is a Nazi state, where Russian speakers face a genocide, where aggressive war is a preemptive, defensive, “special operation.” But moreover, you see a reality where power reigns supreme over international law. And here, Putin is existing within the neocon-constructed reality, and is now reshaping it in his image.
But is this new? Haven’t we seen this sort of power used by empires for centuries? Of course, but in an era of disinformation and ubiquitous social media the power to construct new realities is the power to act like an empire. And the manipulation of information – historical narratives, cultural and ethnic identities, fake news, etc. – is the most potent weapon on the current battlefield.
But no matter how the Kremlin tries to manipulate narratives and distort historical reality to serve its political goals, it will never wash itself of the blood on its hands, just as its “western partners” will never do.
And despite Putin’s cynical weaponization of history to present Russia in 2022 as an antifascist crusader, the truth is that his constructed reality is built on the bloodlands of Ukraine where a new generation of victims are, at this very moment, being buried in graves in the fertile, black dirt.
Perhaps these new war dead can say hello to my great-grandfather Uri Draitser, stabbed to death by Nazi troops in Minsk in 1941. Maybe they can sit and have tea with my great-grandfather Wolf who perished in the Odessa ghetto in 1942. Or better yet, they can ask my great-aunt Judith who, along with her sons Mikhail, Yakov, and Yefim (aged 16, 2, and 2), met their ends in the Minsk ghetto in 1941.
On second thought, perhaps not.
It’s not true that the dead tell no tales. It’s just a matter of listening and tuning out all the noise.