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The Ukraine War, America's Past Misdeeds, and the Future
No event in recent memory has unified Europe and the US as Putin’s attack on Ukraine has done. Across the spectrum, everyone (outside of Russian hardliners) agrees that Russia is the main aggressor and villain in this conflict. Yet a number of commentators and experts continue to blame America and its NATO allies for letting it reach this point. They argue that the NATO countries bear responsibility for this catastrophe, due their actions (and inactions) over the last decades. These critics make some good — and some irrefutable — points. But their arguments also reveal ideological blinders and gaps in logic.
1. Who Do We Blame?
Inveterate grump Chris Hedges recalls the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s: “There was a near universal understanding among diplomats and political leaders at the time that any attempt to expand NATO was foolish, an unwarranted provocation against Russia that would obliterate the ties and bonds that happily emerged at the end of the Cold War.” Hedges seems to think that this current war was created by the US to benefit weapons makers like Raytheon and Boeing and power-up the military industrial complex. “The expansion of NATO swiftly became a multi-billion-dollar bonanza for the corporations that had profited from the Cold War,” he notes.
Mike Davis, another Left Wing curmudgeon, writes:
“All the think tanks and genius minds that supposedly guide the Clinton-Obama wing of the Democratic Party are in their own way as lizard-brained as the soothsayers in the Kremlin. They can’t imagine any other intellectual framework for declining American power than nuclear-tipped competition with Russia and China.” Davis offers no ideas for what should be done now, yet excoriates the Left for its imaginative failures: “Almost none of the energies generated by Occupy, BLM and the Sanders campaigns were channelled into rethinking global issues and framing a renewed politics of solidarity. Equally there has been no generational replenishment of the radical mindpower … that was once focused laser-like on US foreign policy.”
I agree that the Left needs a reframing. Currently, it is neither pragmatic enough, in one sense, nor visionary enough, in another. I explore how I envision this reframing in the second part of this piece.
Critics argue that America and Europe moved too quickly to incorporate formerly Eastern Bloc countries into NATO, after making promises to former Russian leaders that NATO would not extend into Russia’s “sphere of influence.” Russia has an enduring suspicion of NATO, which makes sense. After all, NATO was formed as a response to the Soviet Union, to prevent the USSR — and now its successor — from engaging in future territorial wars.
Yet, on the other hand, the expansion of NATO now appears prescient: Russia is, indeed, once again, seeking to expand its borders, although the justification for military expansion has changed. Today, Russia no longer tries to export Communist revolution. Instead, Putin seeks to restore Russia’s previous imperial grandeur based on the racist, nationalist fantasy of Russian purity concocted by Fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin and repackaged as “Eurasianism” by Alexandr Dugin. According to Angela Stent, author of Putin’s World: Russia against the West and with the Rest, due to the historically fluid boundaries of Russia, its leaders always end up seeking expansion. Putin’s role models include Catherine the Great, who justified her territorial wars: “That which stops growing begins to rot. I have to expand my borders in order to keep my country secure.”
Another frequently-made argument is that America, in particular, often rides roughshod over international agreements or refuses to ratify them, choosing to act unilaterally. The US and its NATO allies are also responsible for war crimes (cluster bombing, civilian casualties, and the like) and ruinous invasions. Therefore, NATO’s campaign against Russia is hypocritical. But there are still some meaningful distinctions.
As Americans, we were at least able to protest the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and eventually vote the perpetrating regime out of office. Russians have no such recourse.
I understand that the two party system in the US is deeply, probably fatally flawed, and I agree with many critiques of it. Yet it is still better than a dictatorship with no lawful means of succession, no freedom of speech, nor means of dissent.
Critics note that the West has no right to claim the moral high ground. Jeremy Scahill writes in The Intercept: “to this day there has been no accountability for the crimes committed by the U.S. in its invasion and occupation of Iraq, its 20-year war in Afghanistan, the post-9/11 CIA torture and kidnapping program, or the killing of civilians in drone and other airstrikes in numerous countries. The U.S. has systematized a self-exoneration machine. And Russia and every nation on Earth knows it.” In all of these wars and misadventures, the US sought to advance its own interests, often supporting dictators and Right Wing despots (as in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Chile, and so on) while professing a commitment to Democracy. While we didn’t seek to integrate foreign countries into the US (by giving them statehood for example), we fought to turn them into compliant, vassal states.
After the Apocalypse author Andrew Bacevich writes: “The frequently heard charge that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine violates ostensibly sacred international “norms” holds no water. No such norms exist — at least none that a great power will recognize as inhibiting its own freedom of action. For proof, we need look no further than the recent behavior of the United States which has routinely demonstrated a willingness to write its own norms while employing violence on a scale far exceeding anything that Russia has done or is likely to do.”
Bacevich is, of course, referring to wars such as the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. During the Iraq War, for example, launched under President George Bush, somewhere between 150,000 and one million Iraqi civilians died along with tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and over 4,000 US troops, for murky objectives based on a false pretense. For some commentators, America’s past crimes are so heinous that it makes no sense for us to participate in foreign conflicts anymore. Trump — Putin’s Manchurian President — pursued a non-interventionist path and talked openly about leaving NATO.
Robert Kagan — a diehard believer in American Empire — puts forth the opposing view in The Jungle Grows Back. An interventionist, Kagan started the Project for a New American Century, the neoconservative think tank with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and worked in Reagan’s State Department. He argues that, despite numerous regional conflicts, the seventy years after the Second World War were a more peaceful period than anything previously known, only because the US first architected and then maintained the liberal world order: “The American role in the world reassured weaker powers and deterred rising economic powerhouses from contemplating a challenge to the system. As a result, all could take part in the global economic competition, alternately pulling ahead and falling behind, without fear of the strategic consequences.”
Kagan downplays America’s dirty tricks, malevolent actions, and hypocrisy. Even so, there is a sense that American global hegemony was beneficial for many countries in various ways. Europe was able to demilitarize. The countries of Eastern Europe democratized. China was able to transform itself into an industrial powerhouse.
As the US became less inclined to intervene over the last decade, the fragile “peace dividend” left over from 1989 quickly eroded. While he admits we made major mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere, Kagan believes the US still needs to act as a “Great Power:” We should support democracies and countries transitioning toward democracy, such as Ukraine (except, I guess, where it remains in our interest to support dictators and despots?). As a result of the post-war liberal order, Kagan also notes that nations such as Britain, Japan, and France gave up their claim on spheres of influence:
The whole tenor of the new liberal order ran against spheres of influence, even for the victorious powers. The exception was the peculiar role of the United States, which as guarantor of the order essentially claimed the whole world as its sphere of interest, and especially once the Cold War emerged…As one State Department memorandum put it in July 1945, a return to spheres of interest would be a return to “power politics pure and simple.” America’s objective should be “to remove the causes which make nations feel that such spheres are necessary to build their security.
This worked in many cases, but obviously not with Russia. Whether it was largely beneficial for the world or not, the “unipolar” model no longer seems viable.
The many commentators who argue that America and Europe were wrong in violating Russia’s expressed wishes to keep Ukraine out of NATO ignore some important points. First of all, Ukraine was not yet part of NATO. Russia could have negotiated an agreement to keep it neutral, if Putin had wanted to negotiate (he didn’t). Secondly, the vast majority of the 44 million Ukrainian people clearly choose Western-style Democracy — with its protection of basic rights like freedom of speech and an orderly path for succession through elections — for themselves, over repressive, kleptocratic Putinism. Just as Americans fought in the American Revolution, the Ukrainians are willing to fight and die for their freedom. Their desire to choose their own destiny — their demand for liberation from oppression — actually matters.
As one young Ukrainian told the NY Times: “Putin’s Russia is a relic of the past. All this imperialism in the wrapper of a Soviet military power state has long been incapable of anything other than chaotically waving its fists and destroying everything around.” Instead of investing Russia’s fossil fuel proceeds into building up a massive war machine over the last decades while suppressing dissent, Putin could have made Russia into a desirable society that other countries would seek to emulate or align with voluntarily. Instead, the only tool he has is brute force, backed up by the nuclear threat.
There are many different ways to frame a narrative. Russell Brand, for example, has been parroting the views of Bryce Greene, a journalist for FAIR, who argues that the US pushed for Ukraine to enter NATO while supplying the country with weapons, anticipating this would lead to a conflict. There is no doubt that, for certain US military hawks, a Russian invasion of Ukraine was to be hoped for because it would force Europe and America to align their interests (and give those hawks renewed relevance).
There are many perspectives one can have. I tend to agree with Fiona Hill, a Russia expert who worked in the State Department. In an interview with Ezra Klein for The NY Times, Hill gives her views on America’s long-term influence in Ukraine:
EZRA KLEIN: Putting aside the question of malevolence, is [Putin] on some level right that the U.S. and the West are in the business of regime change, not just in Russia, but in Ukraine, in some of the other places you mentioned and didn’t mention. I’ve been thinking a bit about this narrative by the political scientist, Samuel Charap, who has been arguing that you can’t understand Russia’s actions in the region without understanding this is a two way contest for influence in Ukraine.
We’ve done a lot over the past 15, 20 years to try to bring them closer to us, not just opening NATO, but supporting Western leaders, training a generation of military officers, actually arming them, integrating them into E.U. licensing and trade and regulatory regimes. And so he sees that there’s being a genuine, constant expansionary pressure from us that he’s now trying to beat back. Is there a validity to that view?
FIONA HILL: Well, sure. I mean, that’s the way that Putin definitely sees things. And, you know, for many people in the United States, elsewhere, see that too, as that kind of competition. There is still a lot of holdover. But what that does is totally deny any agency on the part of Ukraine, or any other country for that matter. So we’re always framing it like this — with all due respect to all my colleagues who do this from the IR perspective.
If you think around the world as well, many countries have fought for their independence precisely because people themselves want to. What about the United States, for example? We look back in U.S. history, this is like 1812. And the US has had the French, we’ve had the Spanish. We’ve had the British Empire, obviously. We’ve had all kinds of manifestations, and we have our own version of our own history. We might look very different, you know, from a different vantage point.
Think about all of the other countries of Europe that have got their independence from the dissolution of empires, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic, Finland. You know, Sweden was once an empire, and had kind of basically dominion over many of these lands as well. The United Kingdom — you know, Ireland is an independent country now as well. A lot of what’s happening now is a kind of a post-colonial, post-imperial impulse on the part of Russia, this kind of feeling that it can’t possibly be lands and peoples want to go their own way.
But there must be some other malevolent force there. And when a country makes an appeal to another country for association, or to different international franchise — let’s put it that way — and wants to be part of that, that’s seen as that other entity, be it NATO or the European Union, or bilateral relations with the U.S. or anything else, that the other— those countries are acting with malevolent force to pull them away.
So what Putin can’t make sense of — in fact, most people are looking at it seem to not be able to make sense of — the people of Ukraine actually kind of want to live like people of Ukraine, in their own state, and make their own decisions. If they want to associate with the European Union and NATO offers their security, then a lot of that is their decision as well. So when we frame it that way, we completely and utterly negate the opinions and the beliefs and the aspirations of the people on the ground.
That’s what Putin is trying to do all the time. So he’s really doing a great job in propaganda, internationally. And we feed into it all the time.
I agree with Hill that many Western commentators, particularly on the Left (which has a knee-jerk tendency to blame the US for most of the world’s ills), make the mistake of repeating Putin’s propagandist framing of the war, because it accords with their predetermined biases.
Since NATO is a defensive rather than an aggressive pact, why should Ukraine or any country joining NATO be a problem for Russia, unless it harbors hopes of invading their territory at some future point? I do not find it credible to believe that any NATO countries had the slightest interest in launching an unprovoked invasion or attack on nuclear-missile-armed-to-the-teeth Russia. The goal of NATO is to establish stable security and peace so that countries within the pact can focus on their economies, social services, and so on (human progress, in other words), according to a system of agreed-upon laws and conventions. In this sense, NATO has actually worked well. We don’t see Poland and Germany, France and Spain attacking each other anymore.
2. Leftist Reframe
As I mentioned before, I want to at least take a stab at defining an alternative Left Wing perspective toward Russia, this war, and our future. Perhaps “Left” isn’t the right term anymore. We need to overcome obsolete ideologies so that we can confront the systemic challenges facing us as a species.
The focus on the Ukraine war drowns out the larger context of the ecological emergency, which is on a par with nuclear war as an imminent existential threat. Russia is exacerbating both of the existential dangers we confront as a species. Putin has no interest in addressing global warming or reversing biodiversity loss. Trapped in an archaic mindset, he seeks to recapture the lost Russian empire, and wants vengeance against America and Europe for what he perceives as past humiliations.
Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein sees in Putin’s invasion and other populist manifestations such as Trumpism, “a violent clinging to a toxic past and a refusal to face a more entangled and interrelational future, one bounded by the limits of what people and planet can take.” Not only is Russia a destructive force geopolitically, it is also an ecological disaster as the revenue to fund its war machine comes from mining fossil fuels, which should be left in the ground.
To be blunt: For humanity to avert approaching catastrophe we need a number of things to happen, and among them is regime change in Russia. Under Putinism, Russia is like a weight dragging the rest of the world down into the abyss. It has often occurred to me that Russia, with its huge land mass and forboding winters, is the only major country that probably welcomes climate change. Russia will go from being a frigid wasteland for most of the year to having a more balmy, conducive climate. The countries of the Global South, on the other hand, will become uninhabitable as the heat rises.
Major European countries, particularly Germany, became lazily dependent on imports of Russian oil and gas. In fact, even as the war proceeds, the West is still importing something like $700 million worth of fossil fuels from Russia each day. One positive result of the war must be that the US and Europe accelerate their transition to renewable energy sources. I think we have to accept that more nuclear energy, with all of its problems, is probably inevitable in the short term. France is not dependent on Russia because it generates its electricity through nuclear power, which produces no CO2. There are some hopeful developments in fusion power, which is safer than nuclear. If it can be worked out, fusion could solve all of our energy constraints within a few decades, while disempowering fossil-fuel-based despotisms like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The systemic changes we need to make quickly, if we want our descendants to survive, go beyond any kind of reformed “green capitalism” or ESG goals. For a quick refresher on what the challenges are, read the latest IPCC Report or “Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against”, from Nature Magazine, which catalogues the major threats including the destabilizing of the Amazon rainforest, rapid Arctic warming, methane eruption from Arctic permafrost, and mass insect die-off:
As well as undermining our life-support system, biosphere tipping points can trigger abrupt carbon release back to the atmosphere. This can amplify climate change and reduce remaining emission budgets…
The world’s remaining emissions budget for a 50:50 chance of staying within 1.5 °C of warming is only about 500 gigatons (Gt) of CO2. Permafrost emissions could take an estimated 20% (100 Gt CO2) off this budget, and that’s without including methane from deep permafrost or undersea hydrates. If forests are close to tipping points, Amazon dieback could release another 90 Gt CO2 and boreal forests a further 110 Gt CO2. With global total CO2 emissions still at more than 40 Gt per year, the remaining budget could be all but erased already.
Concern about the ecological crisis continues to be seen as a luxury of the privileged, the purview of some alarmist scientists, rather than a stark geophysical reality supported by mountains of evidence. Even before Putin’s senseless war, we were nowhere near making the types of changes we would need to make to confront the enormity of the challenge.
The war is yet another example — a particularly brutal one — of our lack of consciousness as a species. We are wasting the precious time available to us before biospheric collapse. The vast majority of people still struggle to survive. They don’t have time or excess mental energy to make the ecological emergency a primary focus.
As a threat, the ecological emergency is too large, too abstract. It is omnipresent yet ambient.
During the pandemic and now, with the sanctions on Russia, we see that governments, financial institutions and corporations have the ability to work together seamlessly and pivot rapidly under an emergency. I understand that this is also problematic, even nightmarish — that individual sovereignty, privacy, gets easily sacrificed to what increasingly seems to be an Orwellian Panopticon. Increasing integration between governments and corporations innately tends to accelerate the type of top/down control systems that the World Economic Forum seeks with its sinister Great Reset.
But it is more clear than ever that in an advanced post-industrial society such as our own, the functions of governments, financial institutions, and corporations increasingly weave together to form something like a “super state.” Each crisis, each system shock, meshes them closer together.
Whether we live in the US, Europe, China, or elsewhere, what we already experience is, innately, a kind of totalized system, inherently “socialist,” in that the boundaries between the commercial and political spheres have dissolved. The question is whether this hybrid system primarily benefits the wealthy elites or if it distributes resources more equitably. When almost every American and European company withdraws from Russia within a week, it becomes clear that those companies are, in some sense, national assets, a branding campaign that represents not just American and European ideals but somehow this nexus of nations as one unified project.
What I think — and I am always open to changing my perspective — is that the Left should pragmatically embrace the new circumstances of this tightly integrated world as a great opportunity, rather than pretending it is not the case. At the same time, we need visionary idealism to envision how we make use of the tools — navigate the new reality — of this hyper-linked technological society in order to bring about a systemic transformation that leads to a regenerative, socially just, relatively equitable outcome that supports collective human freedom and flourishing as well as local autonomy, rather than authoritarian surveillance and control.
The meaning and values crisis can be resolved by defining a new set of universal values and rights, for which we could establish broad agreement across the human community — not, to be sure, among the tiny cabals running dictatorial regimes or the financial elites controlling legacy systems for their own benefit, at least at first. Today anyway, I believe this is possible.
Republished in collaboration. Originally published on Daniel Pinchbeck’s Substack. Paid subscriptions are the support that allows Daniel to continue this work. If you find this valuable, please subscribe to his Substack here.