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Ukraine War Reflection
One Year In
On CounterPunch yesterday. (For reasons of political urgency, I am breaking from my usual protocol of holding off from putting my CPunch pieces up here)
Here we are one year after Russia’s blood-drenched invasion of Ukraine, the country that has always been the leading tripwire for a global nuclear war in the post-Soviet era. The subsequent United States (US)-Russia proxy war that has unfolded and escalated there is a rolling slaughterhouse with a body count in the tens if not the hundreds of thousands. It feels increasingly like a chapter in a dystopian novel depicting the march to World War III.
And, of course, the fog of propagandistic stupefaction surrounding this deadly conflict has been extremely thick on all sides, including what’s left of the shattered and lame US “left.” The intra-portside polarization over Ukraine is darkly comedic at this point. If you stake out a consistent communist anti-imperialist position on the Ukraine War, as I try to do in this essay, one group of white male lefties calls you a NATO fan and another group of white male lefties calls you a Putinist. Both charges are absurd and idiotic.
Let’s try to see and steer through the lethal fog of war propaganda by going through and taking down nine false narratives on the Ukraine War, which longtime imperialist Joe Biden has almost cavalierly said could lead to (his word) “Armageddon.”
+1. US/Western Falsehood: “Russia’s criminal invasion was unjustified and unprovoked.” Criminal and unjustified? Yes. Unprovoked? No. The invasion is an epic violation of international law and has been unjustly conducted with the wanton murder, torture, and rape of innocent civilians. Putin and his commanders belong in jail cells for this and previous crimes, of course. But their invasion was not unprovoked by the West/US/NATO. As the former CIA Russia analyst and Director of Grand Strategy for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft George Beebe – no Putin apologist – noted last November:
“To some degree, this [war] is the result of the lack of agreement about a new European security architecture to replace the bipolar architecture that existed during the Cold War—when you had the United States and NATO arrayed against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. The Soviet Union went away, the Warsaw Pact went away, but NATO did not. Instead, very much against the will of a series of Soviet and Russian leaders, NATO expanded to include many of the former Warsaw Pact states and also some of the former Soviet Republics. It reached the point where Ukraine and Georgia—two states of great geostrategic but also of political and emotional resonance for Russia – were declared to be future NATO members, back in 2008. That has been a great source of instability and it’s one of the big reasons we’re in the situation that we are in Ukraine.
None of these things are things that can be addressed easily…But…this was an avoidable war—both sides made mistakes. A different Russian leader could have well pursued a different set of policies to deal with these challenges rather than resort to an invasion of Ukraine. Responsibility for that decision falls squarely on Putin’s shoulders. The United States and Europe could have handled this differently as well. One of the things the Russians said repeatedly was their top priority was getting assurances that Ukraine would not be part of the NATO alliance. The Russians wanted not only that Ukraine not be in NATO, but that NATO not be in Ukraine. Russia saw that the United States and NATO were fairly robustly increasing their military presence in Ukraine over time. I think the Russians worried that if that were to continue their ability to preclude it some months or years down the road would be much less. The United States and NATO refused to discuss that issue at all, and the Russians were quite counterproductive in how they attempted to force our hand. They engaged to a great degree in coercive diplomacy, putting a gun to our head and saying ‘Let’s make a deal or else.’ Obviously, that’s not conducive to constructive, diplomatic discourse.
That being said, the United States had many opportunities to simply acknowledge reality in a way that would have reduced the likelihood of this war quite significantly. We knew that Ukraine was not going to be a part of NATO anytime soon. We knew that prior to this invasion. We could have simply said officially and formally, “Ukraine’s not going to be in NATO.” We wouldn’t even have had to say ‘never.’ We wouldn’t have to close the door forever. But we could have certainly offered some middle ground where we told the Russians something like—the next 25 or 30 years, Ukraine will not be in NATO, and we can assure you of that. It wouldn’t have been much of a concession, but it may well have been enough to prevent this invasion. It’s something the US should have considered and I’m not sure we did. We’re now in a war that is extremely dangerous, but was also avoidable.”
Here we might add some specificity. In early September of 2021, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky visited the White House, where the aggressive neo-Cold Warrior and Iraq invasion leader Joe Biden said that the US “firmly committed” to “Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” Two months later, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, signed the “US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership,” which “underscore[d] … a commitment to Ukraine’s implementation of the deep and comprehensive reforms necessary for full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.” That reaffirmed Washington’s dedication to the “2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration,” which declared the goal of Ukraine joining NATO. In the year preceding Putin’s move, Ukraine was proceeding rapidly toward NATO integration. It conducted military exercises with NATO countries on land and sea and in the air.
No love for the rabid fascist dog Putin, but the bear was poked, and quite egregiously, by Uncle Sam and his European allies.
Ukraine is located directly on the southwestern border of Russia. Western forces have invaded Russia through Ukraine, killing millions, twice in modern history.
Would the US invade Mexico or Canada if either of those countries directly adjacent to the US were aligning with Russian- and/or Chinese-led military confederations and holding military exercises with them? It’s a good time to brush the dust off our history texts and look up two things for starters: “The Monroe Doctrine” and “The Cuban Missile Crisis.”
History matters – or at least it ought to.
2. Implicit US/Western Falsehood: The United States has any business posing as the friend of international law and decency.
And the historical record includes monumentally murderous serial and egregious violations of international law by the world’s leading imperialist aggressor state, the United States. Those violations should not be taken to signify “what about-ist” defense of Putin’s epic transgression in Ukraine, but they have set a terrible example and precedent for other imperial nations (Russia is one) and they cancel Uncle Sam’s claim to legitimacy as a world policeman defending international rules. In the eyes of much if not most of the historically attentive planet, it’s transparently absurd for Joe Biden (who helped lead the Democratic Party charge for the monumentally criminal and mass-murderous invasion of Iraq as a US Senator) to pose as a defender of human rights and the global rule of law in Ukraine. Biden aside, America’s imperial and manifestly anti-democratic role across the world in this and the previous two centuries invalidates Washington’s “good guy” posture in the eyes of the Global South.
3. A Racialized US/Western Falsehood: Civilization Itself is Most and Critically at Stake in the Struggle to Defeat Russia in Ukraine. This repeated US and Western assertion and indeed article of faith has recently been brilliantly torn to shreds by the historian Andrew Bacevich, who rightly finds it to contain no small measure of Euro-centric whiteness:
‘How is it that this particular conflict puts civilization itself at risk? Why should rescuing Ukraine take priority over rescuing Haiti or Sudan? Why should fears of genocide in Ukraine matter more than the ongoing genocide targeting the Rohingya in Myanmar? Why should supplying Ukraine with modern arms qualify as a national priority, while equipping El Paso, Tex., to deal with a flood of undocumented migrants figures as an afterthought?…Of the various possible answers to such questions, three stand out and merit reflection. The first is that “civilization,” as the term is commonly employed in American political discourse, doesn’t encompass places like Haiti or Sudan. Civilization derives from Europe and remains centered in Europe. Civilization implies Western culture and values. …What makes Russian aggression so heinous, therefore, is that it victimizes Europeans, whose lives are deemed to possess greater value than the lives of those who reside in implicitly less important regions of the world. That there is a racialist dimension to such a valuation goes without saying, however much US officials may deny that fact. Bluntly, the lives of white Ukrainians matter more than the lives of the non-whites who populate Africa, Asia, or Latin America.
The second answer is that casting the Ukraine war as a struggle to defend civilization creates a perfect opportunity for the United States to reclaim its place at the forefront of that very civilization. After years wasted wandering in the desert, the United States can now ostensibly return to its true calling….“America is back,” Joe Biden declared on multiple occasions during the first weeks of his presidency, and the Ukrainian president has been only too happy to repeatedly validate that claim as long as the flow of arms and munitions to sustain his forces continues. This country’s disastrous post-9/11 wars may have raised doubts about whether the United States had kept its proper place on the right side of history.
One final factor may contribute to this eagerness to see civilization itself under deadly siege in Ukraine. Demonizing Russia provides a convenient excuse for postponing or avoiding altogether a critical reckoning with the present American version of that civilization. Classifying Russia as a de facto enemy of the civilized world has effectively diminished the urgency of examining our own culture and values.
Think of it as an inverse conception of whataboutism. Shocking Russian brutality and callous disregard for Ukrainian lives divert attention from similar qualities not exactly uncommon on our very own streets.’
Note that Biden just engaged in the giant undertaking of a secret presidential trip to Ukraine (more on that reckless adventure below) but couldn’t give more than a measly 30 seconds – half a minute – of his 2023 State of the Union Address to the ongoing and escalating right-wing neofascist assault on women’s reproductive rights in his own country.
4. Russian Falsehood: “Ukraine is a Nazi State Hellbent on Crushing Virtuous Mother Russia.” This is Orwellian nonsense. Ukraine is a corrupt, oligarchic and neoliberal bourgeois democracy with a popularly elected Jewish president. There are a nasty bunch of Ukrainian Nazis, of course, and there is a terrible Ukrainian history of genocidal collaboration with the Third Reich. But there plenty of Russian Nazis and if either of the two adjacent nations qualifies as fascist the title definitely goes to Russia, whose anti-feminist and LGBT-bashing strongman President is a far-right white nationalist hero, agent, and leader across the West. The authoritarian Putin has recently taken to absurdly linking Ukraine’s supposed Nazism to its purported effort to attack Russia with “LGBT ideology.” That is darkly hilarious given fascism’s visceral hatred and targeting of gay and transgender rights.
5. US/Western falsehood: “Russia wants to wipe Ukraine off the map and completely re-integrate it into the Russian empire.” Not so much. Yes, the fascist pig Putin voiced some Great Russian hyperbole along those lines in his speech announcing the invasion one year ago, and Russia certainly has capitalist-imperialist reasons to want to increase its power over resource-rich Ukraine. But Putin lacks the military capacity to “eliminate Ukraine.” He has never seriously pursued the military strategy and political measures –preparation of a puppet government – required for such a fantastic objective. He has repeatedly voiced (yes, qualified and contingent) recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty and a lack of interest in occupying Ukraine. He has repeatedly stated his main reason for (yes, criminally) invading: Ukraine’s accelerating movement towards the expansionist Western military and economic alliance on the southwestern doorstep of Russia, which has been repeatedly invaded through Ukraine with disastrous consequences.
6. US/Western falsehood: “We’re just defending Ukraine’s right to self-determination, that’s all.” That’s a lie. That’s not “all.” Last April, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said this at a press conference in Poland following a secretive trip to Ukraine with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” As the pro-NATO New York Times reported at the time, Austin’s assertion “signals a transformation of the conflict, pitting the United States more directly against Russia. It also reflects an increasingly emboldened approach from the Biden administration.” The Times rightly warned that “the new U.S. stance could also play into President Vladimir Putin’s narrative that the war in Ukraine is really about the West’s desire to choke off Russian power and destabilize his government.” The “new US stance” did precisely that for a good reason: it was explicitly about degrading Russia’s overall military and geopolitical capacity to act as a regional hegemon, not just helping Ukraine expel its invaders. In a similar vein, the US sponsorship of the Mujahideen (thanks, Jimmy Carter) in the Soviet War in Afghanistan during the 1980s was hardly about love for Islamic statehood and terrorism; it was about weakening the then nominally socialist Russian state and empire and this, as in Ukraine, right on Russia’s borders. The previous month, Biden went to Poland to make this regime-changey comment about Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Gosh you’d like to think that US-Americans could understand Russia’s regional concerns if they knew not only the relevant Eurasian history but also their own national and regional history. That history was shaped by the early 19th Century Monroe Doctrine. As John Mearsheimer wrote last summer: “Putin’s logic should make perfect sense to Americans, who have long been committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which stipulates that no distant great power is allowed to place any of its military forces in the Western Hemisphere.” Again, imagine the geopolitics inverted and ask yourself how Washington would respond to Putin or Xi Jinping going to Cuba to suggest that Biden should not remain in power as he orders troops across the Rio Grande to block Mexico (from which the Southwestern US and California were stolen by the US military in 1846-48) from joining a Russian and/or Chinese military alliance – this followed by one of Putin or Xi’s top generals expressing a desire “to see the United States weakened.”
7. US/Western Falsehood: “This is a struggle between democracy, represented by Ukraine and backed by the US-led West, and autocracy, represented by Russia.” Please. It is indisputable that Russia is an authoritarian state: look at, among other things, Putin’s draconian arrest and imprisonment of thousands of Russians for daring to speak out against his criminal war, including some who have been punished just for calling it a war. But the Ukrainian state is a corrupt neoliberal oligarchy atop a weak bourgeois democracy. The United States is a crooked corporate and imperial plutocracy with fading bourgeois democratic institutions captured by an unelected dictatorship of capital and heading down its own distinctive path of Christian white nationalist neofascism.
The United States a friend and agent of democracy in the world? Perhaps the best book ever written about US foreign policy in the 20th Century is titled Deterring Democracy (by Noam Chomsky) for some very good reasons. The USA, sponsor of the vicious Saudi Arabian dictatorship and the judeo-fascist occupation and apartheid regime of Israel, has been the mass murderous patron, supplier, trainer, friend, agent and cover-provided of arch-authoritarian and Third World fascist regimes around the world for nearly eight decades.
It seems likely that the “democratic” United States is responsible (along with Norway) for blowing up two Nord Stream pipelines carrying natural gas from Russia to Germany last September. The goal behind this covert act of imperial state sabotage was to lock in European support for the inter-imperialist war in a time when some allies seemed to be wavering in their commitment to the dangerous carnage in Ukraine.
All that supposedly irrelevant history aside, moreover, “democracy v. autocracy” is not what the conflict is about. As the Revolutionary Communist Party (which says that Russian “illegally invaded Ukraine,” by the way) notes:
“This War is an Imperialist Showdown, NOT ‘Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. Ukraine is not a battleground between democracy and autocracy, it is a conflict zone of imperialist rivalry between Russian imperialism and U.S. and Western imperialism. Both are driven by the fundamental logic of capitalism—expand or die. Both are fighting to impose their will on the other, and to advance the interests of their empire at the expense of the other—at a cost of tens of thousands of lives lost, with the looming threat of crushing and incinerating millions more… The fighting in Ukraine very quickly became a proxy war between rival imperialist powers—Russia on one side, and the U.S. and NATO on the other.”
The future the US, the EU, and NATO want for Ukraine has little to do with popular sovereignty and everything to do with the nightmarish class rule society of Western capitalism-imperialism. There’s no genuine democracy on any side of this conflict and that includes the “democratic” Ukrainian state, whose ruling party last summer passed Law 2434-IX, which impacts workers in companies and organizations with fewer than 250 employees, effecting more than two thirds of the Ukrainian working class. As the Global Union Federation’s Educational International noted last August:
“Under the new law, the main instrument regulating labor relations between employer and employees in small and medium-size companies will be individual contracts. In fact, collective agreements negotiated by unions will no longer apply and unions have also lost the legal authority to veto workplace dismissals. This change opens the door to arbitrary dismissals and will create fear to engage in trade union or other independent activities… The law is part of a broader agenda of deregulation and stripping back of workers’ rights. In July, Parliament passed a law that allows employers to stop paying those who have been called to fight and another piece of legislation that legalizes zero-hour contracts. Trade unions warn that many other pieces of legislation curtailing workers’ rights are being pushed through Parliament. All are vigorously opposed by the trade union movement in Ukraine.”
The bill was opposed by left Ukrainian parties that have been banned since the invasion.
8. A strange falsehood from Western “All Out for Full Ukrainian Victory Whatever It Takes” leftists: “The US isn’t really spending significant resources on the Ukraine War and is thus not supporting the Ukrainian working class.” Say what? “Almost immediately after the invasion,” the revcoms note, “the U.S. and its NATO allies greatly expanded and elevated the lethality of the massive amounts of military equipment they had already been sending to Ukraine…At this point, the U.S./NATO forces have provided or promised the Ukrainian army with over $50 billion worth of military equipment and provided them with extensive intelligence and high-level strategic planning ‘advice.’”
Observant followers of the war have noted a depressing dance whereby Zelensky asks for yet more lethal military hardware. At first, the US/NATO, fearing domestic political backlash and provocation of Putin, says no. Then it gives in and sends at least some of the missiles, the drones, and now the tanks the Zelensky begs for. With Biden’s recent surprise visit to Kyiv, it seems likely that US F-16s will soon find their way to Ukraine, raising the mortal specter of a NATO No Fly Zone (a deeply provocative Zelensky started clamoring for from day one of the invasion) over the country – a recipe for true disaster.
As for “the Ukrainian working class,” please see Point # 7, above.
9. Here is an especially creepy claim I have heard from numerous gung-ho US-Ukrianoid lefties: “There’s no serious threat of nuclear war related to the US and NATO backing Ukraine against Russia.” Well, gosh, that’s nice to know – something to keep in mind every time Putin and his spokesmen say that Russia will use nuclear weapons if “existentially” necessary to keep Ukraine out of the Western military alliance. It’s all good: nothing to see or hear there; they don’t mean it; they’re bluffing. Cool!
People saying this might want to reflect less on how Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine reminds them of Indonesia’s (U.S.-greenlighted) horrific invasion of East Timor and more on how it is darkly reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which came within a wisp of World War III in a crisis involving one nuclear superpower (Russia) threatening the regional hegemony of another nuclear superpower (the USA). But hey, worry not: It Can’t Happen Here – not on this planet, note to this species.
It is stunning to watch certain left-identified folks laugh off the menace even after the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has recently been sparked by this insane war to ominously move its Doomsday Clock closer to Midnight than it’s ever been.
“No worries, Putin’s just talking shit.” And Biden’s just trying to get a rise out of people when he says we could be looking at “Armageddon.”
A Ukrainiod lefty recently derided my concerns about escalation to nuclear war by saying that such an outcome was “unlikely.” I asked him what measure of likelihood he was willing to tolerate (5%? 20%? 49%? – no answer) and asked him to read this reflection from the former CIA Russia analyst Beebe, obviously no Russian apologist:
“The biggest risk [in the 2022-20??] Ukraine War is a direct military confrontation with Russia. We’re obviously the world’s two largest nuclear powers, and any time you’re talking about a direct military conflict the chances that it might go nuclear are real. I wouldn’t say they are large—chances are probably less than even. But the consequences of something like that are so enormously bad that even if you’re talking about a 10 to 20 percent chance of nuclear war, the risk is not at all worth the potential reward.”
Yeah, no shit: Nuclear Winter can really F’up your day and the fight for social justice and democracy.
The “Neither Side Willing or Able to Back Down” Problem
Again the RCP makes an important point, reminding us that this war, like many others, is taking on an escalatory life of its own in whereby neither side can afford to be seen as backing down:
“Russia is determined to solidify and extend its grip on southern and eastern portions of Ukraine that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, and Russia’s leadership generally consider rightfully theirs. Ukraine—again, backed and at this point acting as a proxy for the U.S.-NATO imperialists—is determined to prevent that, and to retake all of those territories from Russia. Neither side thinks it can afford to lose. Both are armed to the teeth. As Bob Avakian wrote in his article ‘World War 3 and Dangerous Idiocy,’ if either side faces strategic defeat, or if the U.S./NATO is drawn into open combat with Russia, ‘… the *dynamics* of direct war between the U.S./NATO and Russia would very likely lead to a process of continuing escalation, with neither side willing—or really able—to back down when faced with the prospect of some kind of defeat in this war.”
Correct. The aforementioned All Out for Ukraine lefties are engaged in “dangerous idiocy.”
Literally just days after the revcoms published the essay from which I just quoted, Biden upped the ante dangerously with his made for television and Hollywood trip to Kyiv, where the former US Iraq invasion enthusiast announced half a billion dollars in new US military assistance and said that the USA was “here to stay.” Putin responded by suspending participation in the New START treaty, just “the last major remaining nuclear arms control agreement between Moscow and Washington.” Yahoo News commentator Phillip Short rightly calls Putin’s action “a not so subtle reminder that the nuclear card is still on the table.”
Imagine how gleefully Putin will jump on Biden’s visit to Kyiv in his big one-year anniversary speech today. Talk about helping the Kremlin push the question of Ukrainian self-determination further to the margins – and helping Putin recruit more conscripts to serve as cannon fodder in the killing fields!
Note the deadly mano-a-mano energy being ramped-up between two old imperialist white heads of state in the media coverage now. Wow, just what we need. That energy almost blew up the world in October of 1962, when people called each other up to say goodbye while John F. Kennedy played global chicken with Nikita Khrushchev over Soviet missiles in Cuba, the US president desperate to shed the yoke of his supposed softness during the failed US Bay of Pigs invasion. Then as now, both of the Superpower chiefs are highly sensitive to domestic political pressure not to look “wobbly” and “weak.” What could go wrong?
Let’s Skip Straight to the (Actually Not-so) “Bad” End
This war is insane. A bunch of people – including no small number of left and liberal Ukrainoids and a nice group neo-campist left Putinists on opposite sides of this lethal conflict – are starting to remind me of Slim Pickens playing Major Kong at the end of Dr. Strangelove.
Spare me the claims of noble humanitarian goals in Ukraine. “This war,” the revcoms note, “is a meat grinder into which human beings are being fed. Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have died, many more have been made refugees, and still more have been maimed, raped, made homeless, and traumatized in other ways. And through it all, the danger of nuclear war has grown.” A major escalation on both sides is widely expected this Spring.
“Unlike in World War II, which ended with the allies capturing Berlin,” Phillip Short writes:
“no one imagines the Ukrainian flag one day flying over the Kremlin. If a comprehensive Russian defeat is ruled out, there will eventually have to be a political solution. The likeliest outcome is some sort of bastard compromise—an armistice or an informal line of separation—under which Russia will hold enough occupied Ukrainian territory for Putin to claim a modicum of success, while the U.S. will be able to argue that its support was decisive in enabling Ukraine to resist Russia’s attempts at subjugation. Such an outcome is not predetermined but it is the most probable. If it happens, Ukrainians will see it, not without reason, as betrayal, but in the end Kyiv may have little choice but to accept. The West will sweeten the pill by providing massive reconstruction aid.”
“This is not a happy prospect,” Short says, adding that “most wars end badly.”
Actually, what he describes would be a decent outcome. It would mean that the nuclear-tipped Empires didn’t blow up the world, leaving a planet still to be turned upside down and taken over by and for the workers of the world one day. How about the imperial masters skip straight to this conclusion right away instead of only after 50,000, 100,000, or a million more deaths, or before this madness goes nuclear?
Don’t pick imperial sides. Be a communist anti-imperialist. Choose revolution against the reckless anarchy of (the imperialist world) capital(ist system), starting with taking up the struggle against fascism and capitalism-imperialism in your own country.