500,000 Dead and Maimed in Ukraine, Enough Already

Image by Jade Koroliuk.

As we approach the second anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s worth reflecting on who bears the main responsibility for the subsequent “inter-imperialist US-Russia proxy war,” an epic slaughter that produced 500,000 deaths and injuries so far and more than 300,000 fatalities (exact figures are hard to come by).

It’s not Russia.

Don’t get me wrong. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was an unmitigated humanitarian disaster marred by unspeakable atrocities.

Putin said a bunch of Russian imperial, anti-Lenin, and Peter the Great shit in the speech he gave announcing the invasion.

I do not doubt that the post-Soviet capitalist Russian oligarchy had and has imperialist designs on Ukrainian resources. Or that a fully successful Russian invasion would have involved the systemic exploitation of Ukrainian resources by Russian state and capitalist interests.

I have nothing but contempt for the authoritarianism and corruption of Russia’s fascistic strongman  Putin, a hero and agent of the fascist right across the world. (He just granted an interview to the leading United States neofascist propagandist Tucker Carlson.)

He’s a blood-soaked war criminal responsible for mass slaughter in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Africa, and for brutal repression in his heavily policed home country.

He’s a loathsome tyrant running a crooked and revanchist oligarchy atop a savagely oppressive classist, racist and patriarchal sociopolitical order that ought to be overthrown in a new Russian socialist revolution.

The Russian coffins that have come back from Ukraine have been disproportionately filled by oppressed ethnic minorities, especially Mongol Buryats (from southeastern Siberia) and Tuvans (Turkic ethnic group indigenous to Siberia ) and soldiers from economically disadvantaged regions in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Soldiers from favored Moscow and St. Petersburg have been largely spared the role of cannon fodder in Putin’s invasion.

All of which is quite terrible.

Geopolitical “leftists” who think that there’s something radical and noble about post-Soviet Russia are despicable buffoons.

Still, Russia really doesn’t bear anything remotely close to primary responsibility for the immense butchery in Ukraine over the last two years – carnage that has helped push the world closer to nuclear than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Ukraine War could have been averted if Ukraine’s Western tool of a president Volodymyr Zelensky had said just five words after being elected in 2019:  “Ukraine will not join NATO.”

Five words versus 500,000 casualties.

Think about that.

As Benjamin Abelow pointed out in his short, expertly crafted, and Noam Chomsky-endorsed 2022 book How the West Brought War to Ukraine, the standard Western narrative claiming that Putin is “an insatiable, Hitler-like expansionist who invaded Ukraine in an unprovoked land grab” is complete nonsense. The real cause of the February 2022 invasion that led to the war was the misguided and reckless policy direction taken by Washington and its imperial tool NATO over the last three decades.

Without making excuses for Putin’s butchery or claiming to know Putin’s inner mind, Abelow rightly fixes leading blame where it belongs – on Washington and its European NATO allies.  Here is his apt summary of the top US led Western provocations:

During the past three decades, the United States, sometimes alone, sometimes with its European allies, has done the following:

+   Expanded NATO over a thousand miles eastward, pressing it toward Russia’s borders, in disregard of assurances previously given to Moscow

+  Withdrawn unilaterally from the antiballistic missile (ABM) treaty and placed antiballistic launch systems in newly joined NATO countries. These launchers can also accommodate and fire offensive nuclear weapons at Russia, such as nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles

+  Helped lay the groundwork for, and may have directly instigated, an armed, far-right coup in Ukraine. This coup replaced a democratically elected pro-Russian government with an unelected pro-Western one

+  Conducted countless NATO military exercises near Russia’s border. These have included, for example, live-fire rocket exercises whose goal was to simulate attacks on air-defense systems inside Russia

+  Asserted, without pressing strategic need, and in disregard of the great threat such a move would pose for Russia, that Ukraine would become a NATO member. NATO then refused to renounce this open-door policy even when doing so might have averted war

+   Withdrawn unilaterally from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, increasing Russian vulnerability to a U.S. first strike

+ Armed and trained the Ukrainian military through bilateral agreements and held regular joint military training exercises inside Ukraine. The goal has been to produce NATO-level military interoperability even before formally admitting Ukraine into NATO

+ Led the Ukrainian leadership to adopt an uncompromising stance toward Russia, further exacerbating the threat to Russia and putting Ukraine in the path of Russian military blowback.

Once the invasion occurred, Abelow might have added in a follow up to his book (which appears to have been completed in April of 2022), the United States quickly saw Putin’s action as an opportunity to “weaken Russia” (the actual language of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after a trip to Kyiv in late April of 2022) and poured massive financial and military resources into the monumental bloodbath. Along the way the US and its Western allies, the United Kingdom especially, worked to undermine any chances of a ceasefire and settlement.

But for all these US-led provocations, the deaths and maiming of half a million human beings in Ukraine over the last two years would not have occurred.

Abelow rightly conducted the venerable Chomsky practice of “putting the shoe on the other foot,” asking how Washington would have reacted “if Russia or China carried out equivalent steps near U.S. territory?… how would the United States respond if Russia established a military alliance with Canada and then set up rocket installations 70 miles from the U.S. border? What would happen if Russia then used those rocket installations to conduct live-fire training exercises to practice destroying air-defense targets inside America? Would U.S. leaders accept verbal assurances from Russia that its intentions were benign?”

Good questions! The answer, of course, is that the US would make a forceful response quite possibly leading to “a general war and the possibility of a nuclear exchange,” consistent with the US Monroe Doctrine (which forbids potentially threatening foreign powers from installing military forces in the Western Hemisphere) and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles in the Caribbean brought Washington and Moscow to the very edge of World War III.  Washington would certainly order a massive pre-emptive military assault that it would sell as a necessary act of self-defense.

As Abelow showed, the last generation of lethal and reckless Russian bear-poking took place in defiance of the advice of senior US foreign policy experts and practitioners, including numerous Russia hawks, who argued that aggressive eastward NATO expansion would needlessly antagonize post-Soviet Moscow and provoke a new Cold War that could bring about a nuclear catastrophe.  In 2008, the current CIA director William Burns, then the US ambassador to Russia, cabled Washington that Ukraine was “the reddest of red lines” – advice that was ignored as the Bush43 administration openly declared NATO’’s interest in recruiting Ukraine.

Nine years ago, in the wake of the US-backed anti-Russian right-wing coup in Kyiv, the esteemed University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer warned that Russian security concerns might well lead Moscow to “wreck Ukraine” if the US didn’t stop trying to economically, politically, and militarily integrate the country into the West.  How borne-out was that warning?!

The US-led provocation has been heedless of Russia’s long and painful history of mass casualty Western invasions across its long Ukraine border.  The Western imperial “elite” has demonstrated little concern for how Russia’s rather understandable historical fear of imperial encirclement and war fuels Russia militarism and authoritarianism.

Thanks to US-led Western madness,  Abelow warned in How the West Brought War to Ukraine, the world stands closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time in recent memory.

Leftish sorts who got behind US fueling of this human meat-grinder need to take a long hard look in the mirror.

I strongly recommend Abelow’s little early 2022 volume as the “Genocide Joe” Biden administration and Zelensky try to preserve a bloodbath that has become an ugly stalemate that top Russian and Ukrainian generals are trying to freeze in territorial place before more lives are ruined.

Abelow’s book is not without blind spots beyond its April 2022 time stamp. His strange comment that “Ukraine is irrelevant to America” (p. 60) shows that he has no understanding of the driving capitalist-imperialist basis for Washington’s interest in integrating Ukraine with the United States and its European allies and in trying to weaken Russia. Ukraine might be irrelevant to most everyday Americans but it’s not irrelevant to the US capitalist-imperialist ruling class.

Lacking a basic historical-materialist understanding of imperialism (a word that never appears in his discussion of US policy),  Abelow is left with no deeper explanation of American conduct than the mysterious infection of US  policymakers’ brains by some strange and stupid Russophobia.

Abelow’s volume never engaged with the core ideological justification that the US and the West have used to sell the bringing of imperialist war to Ukraine – the preposterous claim that the West is defending “democracy” against “autocracy.”

Abelow’s book failed to call for the overthrow of the imperialist rulers of the world, who have brought the planet to the brink of destruction (ecologically as well as militarily).

Abel was right of course to conclude that “policy makers in Washington and the European capitals” were placing humanity at grave risk.

Well, yes, that’s what capitalist-imperialist rulers do, Dr. Abelow!

Revolution anyone?

This essay originally appeared on The Paul Street Report.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).