“Ukrainians,” in the words of Ben Wallace, the British Defense Secretary, “are fighting for their very lives and they are fighting for our freedoms.” “Ukraine’s success,” the White House stated, “is central to the global struggle between democracy and autocracy.” The Russian invasion of Ukraine was “unprovoked” and proves that Putin is intent on brutally reconstructing the Russian empire. That is what the western media, politicians, and the subservient intellectuals who serve them, tell us. What this simplistic binary narrative of a good western-backed democratic Ukraine against an evil Putin-led autocratic Russia obscures are the imperial interests of the US, the US role in creating the conditions without which the Russian invasion of Ukraine could not have happened, and the US role in prolonging the war at the expense of Ukrainians first and foremost, but not only them. Anyone daring to utter a contrary narrative is dismissed as Putin’s apologist and a useful idiot at best or banned at worse. The western propaganda narrative uses the term “unprovoked” every time it mentions Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is to prevent opening a Pandora’s box of critical appraisals of how the world works. It is an example of narrative management by the chattering classes aimed at reducing or removing the cost of democracy for empire. So, was the Russian invasion of Ukraine ‘unprovoked’ as the western media and intellectuals repeat ad nauseum? To answer this question, we need to keep in mind several key historical events that are kept out of the official account of the war in Ukraine, events that are dismissed as irrelevant or Russian talking points.
The US adopts a winner-take-all policy after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the bipolar world order that had characterized it. This in spite of extensive security assurances against NATO’s expansion eastward to the USSR by the highest-ranking western officials. They promised NATO would not move an inch east- ward in exchange for the USSR agreeing to a unified Germany joining NATO. But not expanding NATO was not an option even after the demise of the Warsaw Pact and a chance for a durable US-Russia strategic partnership was lost. The arrogant triumphalism of the period had led intellectuals to declare “the end of history” and the final victory of liberal capitalism over all its historical challengers. The imperial US managers understood well the opportunity that this “unipolar moment” had presented them but needed a new rationale to continue expanding US global dominance. The neoconservative policy advisers to Dick Cheney, Bush Sr.’s defense secretary, did just that. They wrote the Pentagon’s new “Defense Planning Guidance” for the com- ing period. The New York Times reported it, and though it was dismissed at first for its brazenness, it reflected the imperial mindset of the US planners.
The document asserts that the new world order is ultimately backed by the US who must never allow any other power or combination of powers in any region of the world to even consider challenging its military predominance. The leaders of this lone superpower “must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” This required a vastly increased military spending, bolstering regional alliances, and an expanding commitment to ex-Warsaw Pact states in Eastern Europe, among other requirements.
The first wave of NATO’s expansion eastward followed in 1997, the next in 2004, and then came its (read the US’s) announcement in 2008, notwithstanding the German and French objection, that it would bring Georgia and Ukraine into its fold in the future thereby indicating the intention to take NATO’s expansion right up to Russia’s borders. Russia made it clear that Georgia and Ukraine were its red lines.
Pressure to make Ukraine the epicenter of the new Cold War had been growing. “I used to say that if Ukraine is suborned by Russia, which I now think is less likely, Russia again becomes an empire,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US National Security Advisor to President Carter, in 2011. “But now I think even further, that if Ukraine is not suborned, Russia is much more likely to become European.”
An opportunity to make Ukraine a de facto member of NATO presented itself in 2014. In that year, demonstrations that had erupted in Ukraine late in 2013 ended up toppling the government that had favored a pro-neutrality stance between the EU and Russia. The US backed this coup, which included a role played by neo-Nazi forces. The coup led to the rise of ultra nationalist, pro-west/NATO, and anti-Rus- sian politics with Kyiv embarking on harsh policies against the Russian-speaking Ukrainians living in the eastern provinces of Donbas. Russia subsequently annexed Crimea and backed the two regions of Donbas proclaiming themselves as separate republics. An eight-year long civil war ensued between the government in Kyiv and the two Russia-backed separatist republics. It took the lives of some 14,000 people, 80% of whom were Russian-speaking people from the Donbas region, and displaced perhaps two million people. The US supported Kyiv militarily, especially since 2017, pouring in arms and training, including the neo-Nazis who had been integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces. In 2015, Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine signed the Minsk II agreement to resolve the civil war by giving the separatist republics in the east significant autonomy in a federated constitutional arrangement. President Zelensky was elected in 2019 promising to implement this and visited the region but faced death threats from the ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis. The US failed to sup- port him on this and Minsk II continued to be ignored.
In June 2020, the North Atlantic Council recognized Ukraine as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner, a part of NATO’s Partnership Interoperability Initiative, “which aims to maintain and deepen cooperation between Allies and partners that have made significant contributions to NATO-led operations and missions. As a NATO partner, Ukraine has provided troops to Allied operations, including in Afghanistan and Kosovo, as well as to the NATO Response Force and NATO exercises.” This makes Ukraine one of six such partners. Others are Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden.
In September 2021, President Biden’s White House released a Joint Statement on US-Ukraine Strategic Partnership. In a section titled “Deepening Strategic Defense Cooperation”, it states: “The United States and Ukraine have finalized a Strategic Defense Framework that creates a foundation for the enhancement of U.S.- Ukraine strategic defense and security cooperation and the advancement of shared priorities, including implementing defense and defense industry reforms, deepening cooperation in areas such as Black Sea security, cyber defense, and intelligence sharing, and countering Russian aggression.” It continues: “We intend to continue our robust training and exercise program in keeping with Ukraine’s status as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Ukraine plans to continue taking steps to… modernize its defense acquisition process to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”
The US had also twice rejected Russia’s suggestions in the 1990s to join NATO, which raises the following questions? Can an offensive and violent military alliance, not a defensive alliance as NATO describes itself, exist with Russia as a partner or member? Clearly the answer is no. And: Can the US maintain its hegemony over Europe without a NATO? Here too, the answer is no. A key aim of the US is to pre- vent the rise of an independent Europe. NATO is critical to this project. Its function, as some observers suggest, is to keep Germany down, Russia out, and US dominant. (I would also add: to prevent the rise of an independent Eurasia, i.e. independent of US influence.) Since the invasion, western media dismiss NATO’s expansion as irrelevant at best and Russian state propaganda at worse. Forgotten are statements by several top US diplomats warning against the process of expanding NATO east- ward to include Ukraine and Georgia with clear understanding that including them in the offensive military alliance targeting Russia will have dangerous ramifications. Among these officials were President Biden (a Senator during the late 1990s), Director of CIA William Burns (then US ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008), Henry Kissinger, George Kennan the architect of the Cold War, and Jack F. Matlock Jr. the US ambassador to the USSR from 1987 to 1991.
In an article published in mid-February, a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Matlock described the current crisis as “predictable, willfully precipitated,” and one that could easily have been “resolved by the application of common sense,” since Putin was seeking assurances that NATO not expand to include Ukraine and Georgia and the Donbas provinces be incorporated into Ukraine with a large degree of autonomy and full citizenship rights for their inhabitants. He argued that “obviously there would have been no basis for the present crisis if there had been no expansion of the alliance following the end of the Cold War, or if the expansion had occurred in harmony with building a security structure in Europe that included Russia.”
Matlock came to this view long before Russia invaded Ukraine. As someone who had participated in the negotiations that ended the Cold War, he testified in a 1997 Senate Foreign Relations Committee against the recommendation to inaugurate a process of NATO expansion eastward. He called it “misguided’ and said that “it may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War. Far from improving the security of the United States, its Allies, and the nations that wish to enter the Alliance, it could well encourage a chain of events that could produce the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed.” He added, in his recent article, that “Indeed, our nuclear arsenals were capable of ending the possibility of civilization on Earth.”
It’s clear that the US no longer respects red lines as it did during the Cold War with the USSR. Now only the US can have red lines that no power can cross. The US can expand a violent and offensive military alliance right up to Russia’s borders, exclude it from the post-Cold War European security order, interfere in the internal affairs of Ukraine, turn it into a de facto NATO member, enter into strategic defense cooperation with it, send billions of dollars of military aid and train its armed forces, and dismiss any claim that Russia may have legitimate national security concerns at all.
In sum, the western claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was “unpro- voked” is laughable and hypocritical. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq was an unprovoked invasion, to take but one example. And no one to date has been punished for that atrocity, except those few who had exposed its criminality, like Julian Assange.
Another neglected aspect of the current crisis in Ukraine is the global crisis of cost of living stemming from the western sanctions imposed on Russia and the normal operations of capitalist markets globally. Millions of the most vulnerable people in the world will suffer hardships caused by disruptions of supplies of basic foods and fuel and the heightened inflationary pressures. Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of cereal grains, cooking oils, fuel and fertilizers. Many countries, including those in the low-income-and-food-deficit category, depend on importing such goods.
The World Bank warns that the war is set to cause the “largest commodity shock” in 50 years, with price hikes impacting goods ranging from fuels to basic foods. The most disruptive impact will be on the poorest nations, communities, and households. It estimates that energy prices will go up by more than 50% in spite of the fact that from April 2020 to March 2022 we had witnessed “the largest 23-month increase in energy prices since the 1973 oil price hike.” The UN too has warned that food prices are “at their highest since records began 60 years ago” with “nearly 13%” jump in March alone, “following February’s record high.” It estimated that if the war persists “the global number of undernourished people could increase by 8 to 13 million people in 2022/23, with the most pronounced increases taking place in Asia-Pacific, followed by sub-Saharan Africa, and the Near East and North Africa.” The current crisis in Ukraine adds to the food insecurity crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and environmental disruptions. Up to 811 million people had faced hunger in 2020 and millions more had been added since due to the pandemic. The most vulnerable will suffer in other ways too. For example, the UN also points out that “the World Bank has estimated that in Central Asian countries which are highly dependent on remittances from workers in Russia (such as 31% of GDP in Kyrgyz Republic and 27% of GDP in Tajikistan), remittances could decline 25% on average.”
The oligarchs in the US and Ukraine however will vastly enrich themselves. The disruption of supplies, the price hikes, and the massive increases in military sales, transfers, and spending present them with opportunities to do just that – especially well placed are the giant multinational corporations in the energy, military, and agricultural sectors. The CEO’s of these corporations are giddy with joy and popping open bottles of Champaign in anticipation of coming super profits. One example from the agricultural sector shall suffice here: Archer Daniels Midland, a US firm and one of the four big food commodity traders in the world, reports that its net earnings for the 1st quarter of 2022 has increased by 53% (to $1.05bn). Its CEO anticipates further price hikes and even higher earnings in the months to come. As for the Ukrainian oligarchs, it’s safe to assume that they’re enriching themselves with the US taxpayer’s money that’s flowing to their country. It’s likely that reports of the vast increase in their wealth holdings will surface once the fog of war subsides.
It’s in the nature of the capitalist organization of global order that as tens of mil- lions of the most vulnerable among us suffer hardship and hunger due to natural or human-made disasters a handful of ultra-rich individuals and corporations will reap super profits. A rational or humane organization of society would distribute scarce resources on the basis of need not greed or money.
What about the risk of nuclear war? Is it a hyperbole to think of the unthinkable at this moment? The US has stated that its policy is to weaken Russia, not to end the war or save Ukraine from further destruction. It’s also clear that Washington prefers a sober Boris Yeltsin figure over Putin, though it denies that regime change is its objective. But how will the US implement a policy aimed at reducing the power of Russia to a level that would prevent it from claiming a regional power status, not to say of removing Putin from power? Will the US count on waging a long-term proxy war against Russia at the expense of the last Ukrainian? Aren’t we dealing with two sides that cannot accept defeat? The US and its allies have announced Ukraine will win; and Russia is very unlikely to give up the eastern Donbas provinces and cease its military operations no matter how much US and NATO military aid pours into Ukraine. (The Biden administration has asked Congress to approve $33bn in aid for Ukraine, $20.5bn of which is for the military, in addition to $13.6bn it had approved earlier, $3.7bn of which was military aid.)
Consider also that the US has managed in the past two decades to dismantle the architecture of the nuclear arms control. It withdrew from the ABM and the INF treaties in 2002 and 2019, respectively. By doing so, it signaled to Russia that it was not averse to placing advanced nuclear weaponry ever closer to its borders. That’s insanity on par with ignoring the looming ecological catastrophe.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently warned the west to take the risk of nuclear war seriously. “This is our key position on which we base everything,” he stated referring to Russia striving to prevent nuclear war at all costs. “The risks now are considerable,” he said. “I would not want to elevate those risks artificially. Many would like that. The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.” The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s response to Lavrov was not reassuring either. He stated that such “saber rattling” rhetoric was “very dangerous and unhelpful” and that “Nobody wants to see a nuclear war happen. It’s a war where all sides lose.” On the other hand, he was talking “after hosting defense talks at Ramstein Air Base involving more than 40 countries seeking to speed and synchronize supply of weapons to Kyiv.” When asked about his recent comments that the US seeks to “weaken” Russia, he did not back down: “We do want to make it harder for Russia to threaten its neighbors and leave them less able to do that.” The Pentagon chief also said “Ukraine clearly believes that it can win, and so does everyone here,” and this: “we’re going to keep on moving heaven and earth to meet” Ukraine’s near-term security requirements. He had also stated that the US is “ready for anything.”
It’s possible to imagine scenarios that lead to more perilous outcomes. For instance, how would Putin respond to attacks targeting sites inside Russia? How would he react if he feels that he is threatened or has no exit or that Russia is threatened? What if, as others have suggested, the US were to place hypersonic non-nuclear missiles with decapitation strike capabilities in Poland and Romania. Such weapons can strike leadership targets in Moscow within 5–7 minutes. Will Putin not respond? Even if he does not react, Russian nuclear doctrine emphasizes launch on warning as soon as they get an indication of such a strike. Is five minutes sufficient for Russia to determine whether a decapitation strike is under way when it may be a false indication, a human or technological error?
A policy of weakening Russia has other complications. It may push Russia in the arms of China creating an “antihegemonic bloc” opposed to the United States, perhaps with other countries joining them, like Iran. How would this scenario serve the US interests? It doesn’t, unless we assume that the US grand strategy is to encircle China after weakening Russia. Isn’t that the intent of the policy of ‘pivot to Asia’ involving shifting imperial resources to east Asia, increasing pressure on China using Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Korean Peninsula, and building an expanded alliance with Japan and Australia?
In short, unless Washington is confident that a weakened Putin accepts defeat or is somehow removed from power soon, or that talking about weakening Russia is just hubris, then winning the war at all cost, escalating, and blocking diplomacy are recipes for disastrous outcomes.
There is no oppositional political formation anywhere in the US that can challenge the post-Cold War US imperial policies. The US left too is inconsequential in US politics to demand anything. This is a depressing fact at a time when US planners and their western allies are welcoming a return to “a period of systemic competition,” in the words of the British Armed Forces Minister Heappey. The left should nevertheless make its positions clear. It should demand an immediate ceasefire, an end to the flow of weapons to Ukraine, a negotiated settlement on the basis of Ukraine’s neutrality, and, if possible, the incorporation of the eastern Donbas provinces into Ukraine with full rights for all within a federated system.
Beyond these immediate and necessary demands, the left ought to combat the perception that the end of the USSR meant the end of the danger of nuclear threat and insist that the US return to nuclear arms control treaties. It should also demand that the US establish a common European security arrangement that includes Russia as an equal partner and call for dismantling NATO altogether. Clearly, NATO does not increase security; as a violent and offensive military alliance it does the opposite, and has now led to a war.
Lastly, the left should continue to oppose the weaponization of human rights discourses and the rank hypocrisy of treating only the victims of adversarial states as worthy of attention while ignoring the vastly larger number of victims of western imperial policies; condemn the systematic racism in the treatment of non-European refugees from wars waged by western powers compared to the European refugees from Ukraine; oppose the hyper military spending stemming from the crisis in Ukraine; and fight the emerging McCarthyism 2.0 aimed at censoring and banishing dissident voices and sources that counter the official narrative of the state.
Faramarz Farbod, a native of Iran, teaches politics at Moravian University. He is the founder of the Beyond Capitalism working group of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley and the editor of its publication Left Turn. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article first appeared on countercurrents.org on 11 May 2022.