How Are We to Understand the Russia-Ukraine War?

Biden, Putin, and Zelensky.

W.J. Astore and M. Davout

My esteemed colleague Davout and I have different ways of looking at the Russia-Ukraine War.  We thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to share our differing perspectives here, allowing our readers to think over the merits of our approaches and the validity of our conclusions.  Davout has framed the questions and made the initial response; I get the last word, so to speak, for each question.  Our mutual intent is not to “win” a pseudo-debate but to pose questions and provide answers that inform and stimulate.  To that end, here we go.

What caused the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Davout: Putin’s desire to reestablish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe and ensure the stability of his autocratic regime has been the main driver of the invasion. In 2005, Putin declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” What was catastrophic about it for Putin? The eastern flank of the former Soviet Union, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, and Ukraine shifted from being an appendage of an authoritarian Soviet regime to being a collection of independent democracies or democracies-in-process. Membership in the European Union and in NATO has either been achieved (the Baltic states) or been pursued (Ukraine pursuing both, Moldova pursuing European Union membership only). None of these countries (not to mention the formerly occupied countries of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia) singly or together have the capacity or will to invade Russia or otherwise project military power across Russian borders. The real threat to which Putin is responding is the example set by the people of former Soviet territories opting for more democratic, less corrupt regimes and societies. That example endangers his own hold on power and pushes his own society toward historical irrelevance.

Astore: Putin was obviously the prime mover of the invasion.  He chose the military option, and he surely believed it would strengthen his authority over a former Soviet republic that was tracking toward joining NATO.

When we speak of causes, however, it’s often wise to take a broad view over a breadth of time.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO’s reason for being ended with it.  Nevertheless, NATO persisted, expanding to the very borders of Russia despite assurances to Russian leaders that the alliance would not expand eastwards beyond a newly unified Germany.  Russian leaders, including Putin, had issued clear warnings that NATO expansion into Ukraine would constitute a “red line,” the crossing of which would likely lead to a military response.  Putin’s decision to invade, therefore, was eminently predictable, thus it was also potentially preventable. The United States, which leads NATO, could have sent a clear signal to Russia that Ukraine should and would remain a neutral buffer state.  The US chose not to do so.

One may question the premise of Ukraine as a “more democratic, less corrupt regime.”  In Ukraine, corruption is endemic, exacerbated by extensive U.S. meddling, as in the notorious coup of 2014 orchestrated in part by Victoria Nuland, citing the support of then-Vice President Joe Biden.  And while it’s important to recognize Russian regional hegemonic ambitions, one should never forget the global hegemonic ambitions of the U.S. empire.  In sum, the US has not been an innocent bystander here.  

US proxy war or Ukrainian war of independence?

Davout: A proxy war is a conflict instigated by a state in which it does not directly engage in hostilities. This war was a war of choice on the part of Putin. It has had the unintended result of inspiring patriotic resistance (even amongst Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were formerly pro-Russian like the mayor of Odessa). In the lead up to the invasion, the US and its NATO allies attempted to dissuade Putin from invading. In the invasion’s aftermath, they have provided critical arms and support to Ukraine and have sought economically to undermine Russia’s war-making capacities. While current official US policy may be the crippling of Russia’s capacity to engage in another such invasion in the near future, the US did not instigate this war in pursuit of this aim. While US and NATO armaments are a necessary factor in Ukraine’s continued defense against the Russian invasion, it is Ukrainian solidarity and resolve and Russian refusal to end its invasion that keep this war going.

Astore: Clearly, most Ukrainians believe they are fighting for their independence.  Ukraine has no desire to become a Putin puppet state.  Nor, however, do they wish to become a puppet state to the USA.

Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, spoke clearly that weakening Russia was a key goal of this conflict.  To that end, the US government, in a rare show of bipartisan unity, provided $54 billion in largely military aid to a Ukrainian military with a yearly budget of $6 billion.  Such profligacy is not an example of generosity driven by disinterested ideals.  Clearly, the US sees this war as the latest front in a new cold war, a way to stress Russia to the breaking point.  As President Biden openly stated, that man (Putin) must go.

So, it’s worse than a proxy war: it’s yet another US regime-change war.  The stated goal is to topple Putin and turn Russia into a divided and dysfunctional state, much like it was in the 1990s when Western corporations and financial institutions invaded Russia and exploited it in the name of capitalism and reform.   

Are there any legitimate parallels to draw between Putin and Hitler?

Davout: Yes, though the parallels with Hitler are not the same parallels so often drawn to delegitimize non-interventionists as appeasers. Historian John Lukacs’s various histories of Hitler’s strategizing in that crucial period after the invasion of France to the start of the Battle of Britain paint a picture of Hitler less as the hubristic dictator irrationally striving for world conquest than as a canny but flawed geopolitical strategist, driven by geopolitical grievance and with a large capacity to hate those who opposed him. Lukacs argues that Hitler was prepared to cut a deal with Great Britain on terms that would allow Germany to exercise hegemonic powers on the continent. It was Churchill’s longstanding aversion to Hitler and Hitlerism and his ability to maintain British popular support for the war that blocked Hitler’s strategy to cut a deal. Once his overture was blocked by Churchill, Hitler underestimated British morale in the Battle of Britain. Then, in an effort to circumvent Britain’s resistance, Hitler gambled that he could cripple Stalin’s war making capacity and knock him out of the war and thereby present England with a fait accompli of German hegemony on the continent. The picture of Hitler Lukacs draws can plausibly be applied to Putin—a grievance-driven leader attempting to restore a lost geopolitical sphere of influence, who has miscalculated the resolve of democratic leaders and peoples and has doubled down on violence.

Astore:  In a word, no.  

Whenever American leaders want to justify military action and high spending on weaponry, they turn to Hitler and World War II.  The claim is made that we must stop the “new” Hitler.  We must not be appeasers.  Saddam Hussein was allegedly the new Hitler in 2003; his WMD was supposed to be a mushroom cloud on our horizon.  But there was no WMD and eliminating Saddam by invasion tipped Iraq into a disastrous civil war from which that country has yet to recover. 

Putin isn’t the new Hitler, and his invasion of Ukraine doesn’t represent the kind of existential threat the Third Reich presented to democracies in 1938-39.

Hitler had the finest military machine of his day backed by the economic powerhouse that was Germany in the late 1930s. Putin’s military machine is mediocre at best, and Russia’s economy is smaller than that of California.  Putin doesn’t appear to be seeking a huge empire or world domination, as Hitler was.  And while Hitler may have temporarily played nice with Britain, that didn’t prevent the Nazis from hatching plans to invade and loot Britain and to massacre its Jews as well.

Of course, Putin was wrong to have invaded Ukraine, but George W. Bush was wrong to have invaded Iraq in 2003.  Both these leaders have essentially nothing in common with Hitler, who was sui generis–a tyrannical dictator driven by genocidal fantasies of world dominance by a “master race.”

To what extent is US democracy hurt or helped by the Biden Administration’s policy of military support for Ukrainian resistance?    

Davout: Seeing his country in hostile competition with western democracies, Putin has deployed various forms of soft power and hard power to undermine confidence in, and injure the working of, democratic regimes. Hackers and internet influencers employed by the Russian state have intervened in the elections of established democracies either to foster social distrust or to promote candidates (e.g., Trump) and policies (e.g., Brexit) that weaken adversary countries. Military interventions are carried out on Russia’s border to maintain regimes favorable to Putin (as was the case when a popular uprising against fraudulent elections in Belarus was put down with the help of Russian soldiers). Meanwhile, as was documented by the Panama and Pandora Papers, the huge amounts of money pilfered from the Russian people by oligarchs moves through the banking, legal, and commercial institutions of democratic countries (including South Dakota!) with corrupting effect on people and officials alike. To be sure, the US has corruption problems of its own. And US military support of Ukraine will have the unfortunate result of strengthening the position of defense contractors and their lobbyists, Pentagon brass, and congressional hawks. However, it would be worst for US democracy if Russian ambitions to occupy or dismember Ukraine succeed. This would undermine European democracies whose continued survival and flourishing provide democratic reformers in the US with critically important role models and partners.

Astore: US democracy hasn’t been hurt or helped by this war because the US is a democracy in name only.

In reality, the US is an oligarchy in which the rich and powerful rule at the expense of the many.  The unofficial fourth branch of government is the US National Security State, a leviathan of enormous power. Its biggest component is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 termed the military-industrial complex (to which he added Congress as well).  This MICC is profiting greatly from this war, not only in the $54 billion in aid provided to Ukraine, but also in the ever-rising Pentagon budget for FY 2023, which will exceed $813 billion, a gargantuan sum justified in part by the Russia-Ukraine War.

The new cold war with Russia, and increasingly with China as well, is strengthening the state of permanent war in America.  As James Madison warned, permanent warfare serves autocracy while insidiously destroying democracy. As militarism becomes more deeply entrenched in the US government, and as that same government continues to send more destructive weaponry to Ukraine such as artillery and missile systems, options for de-escalation narrow even as chances for a nightmarish escalation to nuclear war, whether by design or accident, increase.

What would truly strengthen democracy in America, assuming it could somehow be reanimated, is if the USA pressed ahead with all its strength to broker a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine is getting wrecked by this war, and our aggressive actions, mainly in providing more and more lethal weaponry together with onerous sanctions, are guaranteed to shred more bodies and aggravate economic dislocation both here and in Europe.

Readers, what are your thoughts here?

Coda by M. Davout (6/6/22)

W. J. Astore has asked me to compose a “coda” of sorts, in which I might add some concluding reflections about the commentary provoked by our different views on the war in Ukraine. 

Yes, there is a relevant pre-2022 history to the current conflict—decades old promises from US officials to Russian officials about not expanding NATO east of the Oder, a popular pro-West Ukrainian uprising (supported by Western intelligence agencies, some have plausibly argued) against a Ukrainian administration’s decision to reject closer ties with the European Union (as was the will of the Ukrainian parliament) in favor of the Ukrainian president’s decision to push the country toward closer ties with Russia, a counter-uprising in the Donbas that drew Russian political and military support, etc. But there is also the fact of a full-scale military invasion against a country that posed little if any military threat to Russian borders, a military invasion that has led to the needless deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and combatants and the uprooting of millions of Ukrainians. 

It is undeniable that the invasion has promoted patriotic solidarity among different language speakers within Ukraine against the invasion, including Russian speaking Ukrainians whose rights Putin’s invasion was presumably intended to defend. It is also undeniable that voter support for Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion is very high in Eastern European countries. More noteworthy is the fact that in Western European countries, governments have been forced to respond to the pro-Ukrainian sentiments of their voters by sending arms to Ukraine and destroying longstanding economic relationships with Russia to the financial detriment of both European businesses and consumers.   

So the situation is nowhere near as neat or clear as either my contributions or Astore’s contributions or the contributions of the majority of the commentators would have it be. In this regard, the comments of Denise Donaldson strike me as the most interesting. You can tell that she can see the issue from both sides and is struggling with that ambiguity. 

That is the place to be on the Ukraine war, I think: struggling with ambiguity. There is no clearly right answer: the war is not solely a product of American empire, nor is it solely a product of Russian empire. And there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes. 

But, in politics, one has to make choices and, for now, I choose align myself with current US and NATO policy. Not because I am a dupe of the mainstream media or a supporter of the Establishment or the MIC (my earlier posts on this website should put those notions to rest) but because I believe the expulsion of the Russian military from the Ukrainian lands it currently occupies (maybe including Crimea, maybe not) is both possible and more likely to lead to a lasting peace in eastern Europe. And my taking that position does not mean that I do not also see some merit in the points my esteemed colleague WJ Astore (and his many followers) make.

Response by Astore (6/6/22)

I would like to thank M. Davout for his reasoned response and for continuing this important discussion. One thing I can say with certainty: you won’t hear such a nuanced and broad debate in the mainstream media, which basically just sells U.S. weaponry while waving Ukrainian flags in our faces.

Davout suggests that Ukraine posed no threat to Russia. Alone, that is true. But Ukraine was planning to join NATO, a powerful alliance led by the world’s most hegemonic country. Surely, that combination was something for Russia to be wary of, and even to fear.

When Americans think of Russia, many negative images come to mind. The evils of communism. A charging and rampaging Russian bear. But Russia has had its share of devastation. Davout certainly knows the rampage of Napoleon’s empire in 1812. Russia and the Soviet Union were almost destroyed by World Wars I and II. Russian leaders have been reassured by Western leaders before that “we come in peace,” but surely 1812, 1914, and 1941 taught Russia much about trusting Western assurances.

Look at a map. From a Russian perspective, NATO surrounds them. Look at military budgets. The U.S. and NATO combined spend more than 20 times what Russia spends. If the roles were reversed and we were the Russians, might we see this differently?

My point is not to excuse Russia’s invasion but to offer a partial explanation.

I agree with Davout that by this point “there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes.” Therefore, I choose not to align myself with current US and NATO policy, since I see this as recklessly escalatory and focused primarily on providing more and more weaponry to kill more and more Russians (and Ukrainians too). I propose an immediate cease fire, the end of arms shipments to Ukraine, and negotiation that would end with some territory being ceded to Russia, a promise from NATO and Ukraine that the latter will remain neutral, and a promise from Russia that Ukraine will not be attacked again, and that its territorial integrity will be respected. I would also insist on Russia paying reparations dedicated to rebuilding Ukraine. Finally, the U.S. should end all sanctions on Russia and redirect its aid entirely to rebuilding Ukraine rather than to more weaponry.

I think this approach would save lives and restore equilibrium to Europe while avoiding dangerous escalation that could conceivably end in nuclear war. It’s time for statesmanship and compromise, rather than militaristic grandstanding and mendacious obstinacy.

Sadly, I see no one in the US government with the sagacity and cojones to join Putin and Zelensky in working to stop this war reasonably and quickly.

Thursday Thoughts

W.J. Astore

The U.S. government continues to denounce Putin for “genocidal” war crimes yet continues to persecute journalist Julian Assange for revealing war crimes. Contradiction?

Julian Assange’s persecution really isn’t about Assange anymore. It’s about intimidating other journalists and whistleblowers who’d dare to reveal the crimes of empire committed by the United States.

If I suggest that NATO expansion to the borders of Russia was a provocative move that was almost guaranteed to provoke hostility with Russia, as prominent experts like George Kennan and Henry Kissinger warned us about in the 1990s, does that make me a Putin puppet? Are Kennan and Kissinger retroactive puppets?

If I suggest that sending billions of dollars in weaponry to Ukraine is not in the cause of peace, that more people will die as a result, Ukrainian and Russian, does that make me a Putin puppet?

They say that bipartisanship is dead in Washington, yet why are both parties boosting Pentagon spending and competing with one another on how much weaponry can be sent to Ukraine without provoking nuclear Armageddon? That last part — do we trust the geniuses in Washington to walk that nuclear tightrope?

The Saudis recently made a major $2 billion investment in Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Looks like they’re betting on a Trump victory in 2024. Speaking of Kushner, he gained admittance to Harvard only after his father made a mega-donation to the school. Or maybe it was a MAGA-donation?

I was asked what I thought of Russia’s new offensive in eastern Ukraine. Here was my response:

The short answer is war is war and it’s going to be ugly, especially in cities and other built-up areas.

Of course, there’s new technology like drones and guided missiles, e.g. Javelin and Stinger.  Those missiles will make it more difficult for Russia to prevail.  I’m guessing the Russians will use more artillery as a way of neutralizing Stinger and Javelin operators.  What that means is more destruction, more “collateral damage.”  More blood and guts.

I expect the Russians will lean on “combined arms” operations, meaning closer coordination among infantry, tanks, artillery, and airpower.  If you just send in tanks without cover, they’re going to get knocked out, which we’ve seen in videos.

What we could see is guerrilla warfare by Ukrainian forces in smashed cities, which is truly terrible for the people of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the U.S. keeps sending weapons in the name of peace …

I also got asked whether Putin would resort to nuclear weapons if the war in Ukraine went poorly for him. Here was my response to that:

Putin won’t use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.  He’d have nothing to gain here.

The danger of nuclear weapons arises if the war were to widen outside of Ukraine.  For example, if NATO enforced a no-fly zone and started shooting down Russian planes, I could see Putin responding with a tactical nuclear strike against a NATO airbase.  That would risk a wider nuclear war, truly a horrifying scenario, which is why those who are calling for NATO escalation and direct involvement in the war are being irresponsible.

Of course, “irresponsible” is putting it mildly. “Batshit crazy” is more like it.

If more of America’s politicians were historians, or indeed almost any profession other than “lawyer,” would we see a bit more care and humility in their words and deeds? Sophistry, cleverness with words, fancy rhetoric, and blatant hypocrisy may play well in court when it’s all backed up by money, and lots of it, but it doesn’t necessarily play well on the battlefield. If lawyer-speak and lies won wars, America would be undefeated. (With apologies to principled lawyers everywhere who know the value of personal integrity and who fight for justice.)

“Dream it true” is a slogan I see in ads today in America. MLK had a dream, but he sure worked hard to put it in motion, and for all his work he paid for it with his life. Meanwhile, the dream still isn’t true, which isn’t the fault of MLK, who gave his life for his dream of a better America.

People may think Greta Thunberg is being overly dramatic here in her speech about climate change and the empty words of elite powerbrokers, but I think these are the sanest words I’ve ever heard.

Did you know the USA plans to “invest” $2 trillion in new nuclear weapons over the next 30-50 years? Imagine what $2 trillion could do if focused on green energy and a greener, cleaner environment. More nukes, or cleaner water and air: which should we be investing in? Hmm … I wonder.

The United States Is 100% in the Right

W.J. Astore

Congressman Ro Khanna is a Democrat from California who counts himself as a progressive. He recently spoke with Briahna Joy Gray for her podcast, Bad Faith. The interview is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhnNJctvYTA

During the interview, Gray asked the Congressman about the Russia-Ukraine war and whether the U.S. contributed in any way to Russia’s decision to invade. Here’s a quick summary of Khanna’s position:

Nothing the USA did (or didn’t do) contributed in any way to the Russian decision to invade. Ukraine is a just war (for the Ukraine and USA, of course) and is 100% Putin’s fault. U.S. actions have been 100% in the right, and U.S. weapons shipments have been critical to saving Ukraine from Russian dominance. The U.S. is on the side of the vulnerable women and children in Ukraine and is supporting the freedom of a sovereign country.

Well, there you have it. Nothing the U.S. has ever done, or is doing now, is in the wrong with respect to Ukraine. The expansion of NATO, the U.S.-orchestrated coup in Ukraine in 2014, continued arms shipments to Ukraine since the coup: these actions were all 100% right and also did nothing to provoke the Russians to invade.

Naturally, I myself am against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I wish for the quickest possible diplomatic settlement and an end to the killing. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to how U.S. actions contributed to tensions in the area before the war, and are continuing to this day to make matters worse. (Consider Joe Biden’s declaration that Putin is a “war criminal” who must be removed from power. Not much room for negotiating there!)

Take NATO expansion beginning in the 1990s. NATO was supposed to be a defensive military alliance to deter and prevent Soviet military expansion; when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO’s reason for being collapsed with it. But NATO, showing the resilience of well-entrenched bureaucracies, found a new reason to exist. Its new mission, as events have shown, is not to defend against Soviet/Russian expansion, but instead to expand to the very borders of Russia, leaving the Russian people isolated, surrounded by a “defensive” alliance that keeps buying advanced military weaponry, much of it made in the USA.

NATO was not supposed to expand beyond a unified Germany, or so the Russians were told. Many prominent American officials warned that NATO expansion would aggravate regional tensions, leading possibly to a future war. We don’t need to say “possibly” anymore.

NATO expansion envisioned Ukraine becoming a member at some future date, regardless of Russian warnings that this wouldn’t be tolerated. Admitting such historical facts doesn’t absolve Putin of blame for Russia’s calamitous invasion, but it does provide essential context. Saying the U.S. is completely blameless is bonkers, but politically it sells well, I guess, and that’s all that Ro Khanna seemingly cares about.

If a so-called anti-war progressive like Ro Khanna can’t admit that the U.S. might be 1% responsible for tensions in the area, and 99% blameless, without being accused of being a Putin puppet, where are we at as a country?

Isn’t it great to be on the side of the angels and 100% right again, America?

Pity Ukraine, and Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and any other War Zone

W.J. Astore

As Russia’s invasion drags on, more and more destruction is visited upon Ukraine. Western media coverage is filled with images of this destruction, but rarely did we see images of widespread destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan during those U.S. wars. Meanwhile, the Saudi war in Yemen drags on as well, essentially uncovered and ignored by mainstream media outlets, even though that war is supported and enabled by the U.S. military.

It’s supposed to be good news, I guess, that Russia is “stalemated” in Ukraine, according to Western media outlets. If true, what this really means is a longer war with even more destruction, especially given major shipments of weapons to Ukraine by the United States and NATO. Weapons like the Javelin missile system, made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, are supposed to even the odds for Ukraine. What they’re effectively doing is ensuring a longer, more devastating, war.

Javelin missile system, carefully crafted in the USA, shipped generously to Ukraine, paid for by U.S. taxpayers

At NBC News today, I noted the following snippet: “Russia has roughly four times as many troops as Ukraine’s 130,000-strong army. It also spends about $78 billion on its armed forces annually, compared to the $1.6 billion Ukraine has been able to budget for its military.”

NBC failed to note that the U.S. military annually spends roughly $780 billion , ten times as much as its Russian counterpart. Meanwhile, it appears the Russian military is weakening due to this invasion. A weaker Russian military suggests that the U.S. military budget can decrease in FY2023. NATO-member countries’ spending on their militaries is due to rise, yet another reason why U.S. military spending could conceivably decrease. But of course Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being seized upon by the military-industrial-congressional complex as the primary reason why U.S. spending on weapons and warfare must soar ever higher.

Recall that President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s goal was to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Europe when European countries were back on their feet after World War II and able to fund their own militaries. We’re acting as if Ike’s goal will never be met. Put differently, we’re acting as if America’s right flank truly sat at the border of Ukraine rather than along the Atlantic seaboard.

The U.S., of course, acts as a global hegemon. No price is apparently too high to pay for global dominance. But when one seeks to dominate the world while losing one’s fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of speech, while impoverishing the lives of one’s people, especially the neediest and most vulnerable, what has one truly gained?

For what doth it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his immortal soul?

Orwell’s “1984” Holds Many Lessons for the New Cold War

Jeffrey G. Moebus

Anybody attempting to understand what is unfolding in Ukraine and over in the South China Sea and Taiwan should read George Orwell’s 1984. When you do, you will recognize and realize the following.

To use Orwell’s terms:  What we have here and now is a Eurasia with its Putin and an Eastasia with its Xi. All that is lacking is an Oceania with its Big Brother. And we have a whole gaggle of folks on the American political landscape ~ on the Left and on the Right ~ who would love to have the chance to fill that slot.

America’s twenty year “Forever War” after 9/11 was, is, and ever will be a half-time show designed to keep the troops occupied, the defense contractors profitable, and the American people comfortably numb to protracted conflicts in places many of them cannot find on a map of the world.

For now, Russia has recovered from the disintegration of European Communism and the USSR ~ and China has recovered from the madness of Mao ~ sufficiently for either [or especially both] to present viable, credible “threats” to America’s 30-year reign of global, unipolar hegemony since the end of Cold War I in December, 1991.

For now looms Cold War II, with Ukraine, the South China Sea, and/or Taiwan set to kick it off in fine fashion.

And to understand what is happening in Ukraine, in particular, one must also be familiar with the history of Russia’s interaction with Western Europe over the past 200 years.  Napoleon and Hitler both tried to bring the “blessings” of the West to Mother Russia, and failed at terrible cost, particularly to the Land, Country, Nation, and People that was ~ and still is ~ Russia.  

NATO is hard on all of Russia’s borders except in Ukraine; and, given that history spanning over two centuries, it is not at all difficult to understand why Russia wants to keep it that way.  This in no way justifies, excuses, or exonerates Putin and his illegal, immoral, and quite insane invasion of Ukraine.  It merely speculates on a very real possible motive. 

And beyond all that is the fact that a major force at work here in the United States is the possibility of a War, and the effect that that can have on the Citizens of a nation already hammered by a failed national response to a pandemic, inflation kicking in big time, a national Debt that just broached $30 trillion, a crumbling infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to disruptions by weather, cyber attack, and social unrest, and the disintegration of anything even close to a national consensus on virtually every hot-button issue: from vaccine and mask mandates, voting rights, and critical race theory, to gun control, police violence, and crimes against persons and property, to drug overdoses, suicides, and vehicular deaths, abortion, wokeness and cancel culture, “domestic terrorism,” and so forth.   

So that’s the “long answer” to what’s up in Ukraine and East Asia.    

The short, bottom-line, bullet-hits-the bone answer is that it is a very convenient distraction for Putin, Xi, and Biden [ie, his owners, operators, and script writers, America’s Ruling Elite] as they each attempt to deal with very serious economic and social problems within their own kingdoms. 

While the wings haven’t fallen off quite yet, rivets are popping loose and hydraulic fluid is streaming back across the wing tops.  And the folks up in the cockpit are very aware that it is increasingly visible to the other folks back in 1st, Business, and especially Tourist Class. 

Add all that to the fact that this is an election year in the US, and this is shaping up to be a very interesting Chinese “Year of the Black Water Tiger,” indeed.

Note:  One of the biggest differences between 1984 and today is that we all carry our very own portable, personal telescreen around with us. Certainly makes the job of the Thought Police a whole lot easier, eh?

Jeffrey Moebus, a retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant, spent two years in Vietnam in the 1960s and two years in the pre-Operation Desert Storm Middle East in the 1980s.  He lives in Sitka, Alaska on the sailboat he brought up from San Francisco Bay ten years ago this summer, and is the POC for Veterans Against War [Sitka Platoon] at vaw.sitka@gmail.com.

Condemning War

W.J. Astore

And so the dogs of war are off and running again, this time unleashed by Putin’s Russia against Ukraine. What is Putin up to? Is it a punitive raid against Ukraine, or a general invasion followed by an occupation, or something in between? Time will tell, but wars are unpredictable. Just look at America’s wars. Vietnam was supposed to be over with quickly after the U.S. committed large numbers of troops there in 1965. Afghanistan started as a punitive raid in 2001, then morphed into a wider invasion and occupation that persisted for two decades. Iraq was supposed to be over and done with in a few weeks in 2003, but that general invasion also morphed into an occupation that persisted for nearly a decade.

At their best, wars are controlled chaos, and that contradiction in terms is intended. My best guess is that Putin sees this as an extended punitive raid to send a message to Ukraine and to NATO that Russia won’t tolerate NATO expansion into Ukraine. Put bluntly, NATO, led by the USA, got into Putin’s grill on Ukraine, and Putin calculated that drawing his saber was a better choice than simply rattling it. Whether he who lives by the sword will die by it remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I took a quick look at how the mainstream media is covering the Russian invasion. I noted that NBC spoke of Russia’s “terrifying might,” while CBS spoke of “dozens reported dead” in Ukraine. CNN simply said that “Russia invades Ukraine” and that “Ukraine vows defiance.” I have nothing against these headlines, but I wonder if the same coverage would apply to the U.S. military. Would NBC speak of the “terrifying might” of U.S. military attacks? Would our mainstream media mouthpieces report on the deaths of foreigners from those attacks? Did we see terse headlines that read, simply, “U.S. invades Iraq” or “U.S. invades Afghanistan” or “U.S. invades Vietnam”? I can’t remember seeing them, since we like to think of the U.S. military as “liberating” or “assisting” other countries, or, even better, bringing democracy to them with our “freedom” bombs and “liberty” missiles.

U.S. leaders like Antony Blinken and Nancy Pelosi have shown their toughness. Blinken said Putin will “pay for a long, long time” for his actions, and Pelosi said the Russian invasion is an “attack on democracy.” Did Ukraine truly have a functional democracy? For that matter, does the United States have one?

I’m with Ike: I hate war with a passion. Most often it’s the innocent and the most vulnerable who end up dead. Whatever Putin is up to, it’s wrong and he should be condemned. But while condemning Putin for his invasion, we shouldn’t forget America’s wars. Indeed, in condemning Putin for his invasion, it offers us a fresh chance to condemn war in general — even, or especially, America’s own versions.

A Few Thoughts About NATO and Russia

W.J. Astore

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, dates from 1949. From its very name, the alliance focused on North Atlantic countries and Western Europe, and stated its intent was to deter the Soviet Union from attacking European countries like Germany, France, and Italy.

Interestingly, Dwight D. Eisenhower was NATO’s first SACEUR, or Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and he favored the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops when Europeans were back on their feet from World War II and capable of defending themselves. Since U.S. troops are still stationed in Europe nearly 75 years after the founding of NATO, one must assume Europe is still not ready.

All kidding aside, getting the U.S. to commit troops to NATO was in part a European ploy against a repeat of American isolationism, which had manifested itself in the aftermath of World War I. There was indeed a time when Americans wanted nothing to do with European intrigue and folly, and in the 1930s the U.S. Senate even attacked European arms manufacturers as warmongering “merchants of death.” Imagine that!

Nowadays, of course, it’s the USA that dominates the world’s arms market, and our merchants of death truly dominate the world. Our weapons merchants now deliver weapons to places like Ukraine in the name of “freedom” and “protecting democracy,” though I have yet to see a freedom or democracy bomb. (Interestingly, the names we choose for weapons systems are far more honest, like Hellfire missiles and Predator and Reaper drones. Talk about peddling death!)

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO’s reason for being collapsed along with it, but reason not the need, as King Lear said. NATO was not about to disband itself; lucrative and powerful bureaucracies rarely do. So NATO’s mission began to change to “out of area” operations, working in concert with the UN in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. Speaking of “out of area,” NATO countries also got involved in the War on Terror, including U.S. folly in Afghanistan, which provided political cover for the U.S. in the sense that American officials could claim to be working as part of a coalition to help the Afghan people.

But the biggest money maker of all for NATO and for today’s merchants of death has been expansion. Recall that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Recall that NATO was created to deter a Soviet attack on Western Europe. If NATO was going to continue to exist, it needed to morph into something else, but most of all it needed to grow. And so it did.

In 1999, former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined. Five years later, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the three Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) joined as well. In short, what began as a defensive alliance focused on Western Europe has grown into an alliance that includes just about all of Eastern Europe. And the new NATO members have been eager customers for NATO-compatible weaponry, much of it made in the USA.

The caption from the Economist suggested this map showed how Russia was menacing Ukraine! And that NATO was unlikely to retreat

If I were Russian, I think I’d look at the dramatic eastern expansion of NATO as worrisome. If not aggressive, it is most certainly constrictive. And with former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine mentioned as future NATO members, this constriction would seem more like strangulation if I occupied the Kremlin. And I’m not an ex-KGB agent like Vladimir Putin.

I remember a military history symposium in 1998 I attended in which the future of NATO was bandied about. Russian concerns about NATO expansion were discussed by four senior generals. One of them, General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, basically argued that NATO should tell the Russians to go pound sand. In the notes I took from the discussion, Farrar-Hockley said that to forego NATO expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe. Besides, Russia had nothing to fear from an expanded NATO, he added. The three other generals expressed some concern that Russia could see expansion as encirclement, and given Russia’s history of being invaded and devastated by countries to its west, any expansion would have to be done carefully, with plenty of dialogue.

We’re not witnessing much dialogue, are we? Instead, NATO expansion is seen by the U.S. as uncontroversial, and indeed as desirable, and certainly as non-threatening. Surely the Russians have nothing to fear from such a vast alliance creeping up to its very door step! It’s not like Russia wasn’t devastated by Napoleon in 1812, or by Germany and its various allies in World Wars I and II. I’m sure that will never happen again. Right, comrade?

Here’s an idea. Perhaps NATO expansion would be less problematic for the Russians if the U.S. withdrew all its troops from Europe, harkening back to Eisenhower’s initial vision. Shouldn’t European countries be able to defend themselves after almost 75 years of U.S. aid? Maybe Donald Trump wasn’t so crazy after all in asking whether NATO was really worth the candle.

When In Doubt, Send Troops

W.J. Astore

On that proverbial table in Washington D.C. where all options are allegedly kept, the one option that’s always used is military escalation. First, the U.S. sent more weaponry to Ukraine. Now, America’s commander-in-chief is sending more troops, according to this news update today from the Boston Globe:

President Biden is sending about 2,000 troops from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Poland and Germany this week and sending part of an infantry Stryker squadron of roughly 1,000 troops based in Germany to Romania, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

The military moves come amid stalled talks with Russia over its military buildup at Ukraine’s borders. And they underscore growing fears across Europe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to invade Ukraine — and smaller NATO countries on the eastern flank worry they could be next.

Has Russia given any sign of invading “smaller NATO countries on the eastern flank”? No matter. The solution is obviously to send small contingents of U.S. troops as a sign of resolve. A couple thousand troops split between Poland and Romania will show Vladimir Putin that America means business. (War business, that is.)

Such small troop contingents have negligible military value, so their real significance is in domestic politics. Biden, a typical Democratic president, is forever on guard against accusations of “weakness” vis-a-vis Russia or China or Iran or you-name-it. To minimize such accusations, while keeping the military-industrial complex happy, the go-to option on the table is to send in the weapons and the troops. Who cares about the risk of military escalation and a wider war between major nuclear powers?

One could imagine a different president, a savvier one, winning major international points by offering to defuse tensions between Ukraine and Russia through negotiation. But that option, farfetched as it would be, is never on that table of options kept in Washington. And why Russia would trust the U.S. is beyond me.

Kyiv (Kiev) in Ukraine is roughly 5500 miles from me by airplane. That’s a very long way indeed from what I consider to be my “eastern flank.” Maybe America should practice a new foreign policy in which we learn to mind our own business, or, if you prefer, stay in our own backyard?

A Ukrainian soldier. One imagines he’s hoping for a peaceful solution. But this is not what I think of as America’s (or NATO’s) eastern flank

Why America’s Wars Never End

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Really?

W.J. Astore

Inspired by three recent articles at TomDispatch.com, I’d like to suggest why America’s wars never end.

The first article marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is by James Carroll.  It brought me back to when I was a young Air Force captain on active duty.  All of us in the military were surprised when the wall came down.  Soon the Soviet Union would collapse as well.  I know because I got a certificate signed by President G.H.W. Bush congratulating us for winning the Cold War.

In the early 1990s there was much talk about a New World Order (largely undefined) and a Peace Dividend.  The “new” world order quickly became global military adventurism for the U.S. and the peace dividend withered as Desert Shield/Storm and other operations commenced.

I recall some personnel cuts, but no real cuts in weaponry.  And no change to strategy.  NATO remained even though the Warsaw Pact had dissolved.  Indeed, NATO would soon be expanded (in the cause of peace, naturally), even as U.S. imperial ambitions grew.  It was the “end of history” and the U.S. had triumphed, or so we thought.

But why had we triumphed?  Apparently the lesson our leaders took from it was that military strength was the key to our triumph, therefore more of the same would lead to new triumphs.  Pax Americana was not about democracy or freedom: it was about weapons and wars.  Peace through military strength (and destruction) was the driving philosophy.

Unbounded ambition and unbridled power – that was the new world order for America.  The wall came down in Berlin, but it didn’t come down in our minds.  Instead of an open society, Fortress America became the norm.

The second article is by Allegra Harpootlian and focuses on the “collateral damage” (murdered innocents) of America’s global bombing and drone campaigns.  It made me think of a conversation I had with a student; he’d been in the U.S. Army and fought in Afghanistan.  Basically, he described it as a dirt-poor country with a primitiveness that seemed Biblical to him.  He got me thinking about how we “see” people like the Iraqis and Afghans as less than us.  Different.  Inferior.  Primitive.  From another time, and from another place.

So, when Americans kill civilians in those places, it’s almost like it’s cinematic, not real, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  We just move on.

Of course, Americans are not encouraged to be empathetic people.  The world is supposed to revolve around us.  “You can have it all.”  In a world of selfies, why care about others?  Look out for #1!

To put a bow on this, consider evangelical Christianity and the prosperity gospel.  (The idea God will reward you with material goods and money as a sign of righteousness.)  Remember when charity to others was valued?  Not anymore.

Another way of putting this: In America there’s a huge market for self-help books, videos, etc.  But where are the books and videos encouraging us to help others?

The third article is by Andrew Bacevich and specifically addresses the never-ending nature of America’s wars.  His piece made me think of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who as a presidential candidate has called for an end to regime-change wars (though not the war on terror).  For her pains, she’s been accused of being a Russian asset by Hillary Clinton & Company.

Why is this?  Because there’s just so much money – literally trillions of dollars – at stake here, and the military-industrial-congressional complex knows how to protect itself.

The Complex offers or supports hundreds of thousands of decent-paying jobs, building weapons, staffing think tanks, and so forth.  President Trump may have voiced some skepticism about America’s failed and failing wars, yet he keeps giving the Pentagon more money.  Hence the wars will continue, no matter what sounds come out of Trump’s mouth.

As Tom Engelhardt has noted, for the Pentagon, failure is success.  Naval accidents mean the Navy needs more money.  Failed wars mean the military needs more money to replace weaponry, “modernize,” and prepare for the next round.  Defeat is victory, as in more money.

To recap, America’s wars persist because a martial imperialism is our new world order; because we have limited empathy for others, especially darker-skinned “primitives”; and because war is simply a thriving business, the Washington way to rule.

Here’s a final, bonus, reason America’s wars persist: thoughtfulness is not valued by the U.S. military.  Another “t” word is: toughness.  The U.S. military would rather be strong and wrong than smart and right.

For all the “think” tanks we have inside the Washington beltway, what matters more than thought is toughness.  Action.  Making the other guy whimper and cry, to cite President Trump.  This is yet another reason why America loses.  We prefer to act first, then (grudgingly) think, then act some more.

Thinking implies prudence.  Caution.  Restraint.  Patience.  Un-American qualities!

Here I think of U.S. officer performance reports, which also stress action, results, even when the results are “fragile,” “reversible,” or even made up.  How many officers have been promoted on pacification campaigns that pacified no one?  On training efforts, e.g. for the Iraqi Army, that trained no one?  On battles or skirmishes “won” that had no staying power?  Remember that Petraeus Surge in Iraq?

In a nutshell, perhaps we wage war without end simply because we want to.  We’ll stop when we wake up from our madness – or when someone makes us stop.

Trump Questions NATO: The Horror!

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Trump at a NATO meeting.  Looking to go his own way?

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump has considered withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has drawn great consternation and criticism in the mainstream media.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington’s influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades.”  On NBC News today, an op-ed suggests that “Trump’s reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin.”  In both cases, there’s more than a hint that Trump is favoring Russia and Putin while possibly endangering European allies.

Twenty years ago, I was a major at the Air Force Academy, and we hosted a symposium on coalition warfare during which the future of NATO was discussed.  This was a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.  There were quite a few senior officers at that symposium who, like Trump today, were willing to question the continued relevance of NATO.  One of the “roundtables” specifically addressed the future of NATO.  Its chair was retired General James P. McCarthy, USAF, and its panel consisted of retired Generals Andrew L. Goodpaster, USA; Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley; and John A. Shaud, USAF.

With another officer, I wrote an “executive summary” of this symposium and what these retired generals said about NATO back in 1998.  Here’s what I wrote two decades ago:

The value of America’s most successful and most enduring alliance, NATO, has been called into question since the end of the Cold War, a confrontation many credit it with winning.  But, like many successful alliances after the common foe has been vanquished, NATO’s long-time raison d’être has seemingly evaporated.  That the alliance has managed not just to survive but thrive has baffled many observers.  The four former high-ranking NATO generals who made up this panel shared a common view of the continued high value of the alliance to America’s foreign policy interests.  However, their views diverged on several key issues that face NATO in the years ahead.

General McCarthy opened the discussion … [suggesting] that advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and security remain NATO’s central task, made more difficult today because of the expansion of NATO’s membership.  Yet NATO continues to be important on the continent to discourage temptations to revert to old insecurities.  General Shaud echoed Goodpaster’s view of NATO’s essential role, saying if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.

On the effects of expansion, Shaud stated that NATO needed to expand, both in membership to include Eastern Europe and in mission to include conflict prevention and “out of area” operations.  Goodpaster quoted the late Secretary General Manfred Woerner, “It’s either out of area or out of business.”  He then raised a provocative question: Should NATO’s mission expand to include not just nations but peoples?  General Farrar-Hockley expanded on NATO’s continuing value, noting that during the Cold War, member countries came not to seek advantage for themselves over other members but came to put alliance interests and views first.

The sensitive issue of the effects of NATO’s expansion on Russia brought out disagreement among the panel members.  Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe.  Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion.  If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite.  Goodpaster suggested that NATO could have followed a different path that would not have antagonized Russia.  In the early post-Cold War years, the Soviet Union may have been open to an “overarching relationship” encompassing peaceful relations.  But as NATO developed partnerships with Eastern European countries, it chose not to pursue this approach with Russia.  Partnership for Peace itself could have been done differently by providing a more equal forum analogous to the new European-Atlantic Partnership Council.  Goodpaster asked rhetorically if NATO is a defensive alliance or a collective security alliance, but answered that NATO is what the times require.  It is ultimately a forum for solidarity in Europe, an organization in which different peoples have come to respect and trust one another.  Shaud took a middle view, saying NATO should ensure Russia does not become isolated; continuing dialogue is necessary.  He noted that earlier panels had pointed out Russia’s historical concerns about encirclement, suggesting that Russia’s views on expansion are not ephemeral concerns but rather enduring issues.

Policy Implications

One of the more pressing questions NATO faces today is expansion, the possible inclusion of former Soviet states.  Russian leaders believe, perhaps with some justification, that NATO is directed at them.  It is not that NATO has aggressive intentions, but that former Soviet satellites seek security in NATO’s orbit, thereby tending further to isolate Russia from the West.  The possibilities are ominous—the rise of a new demagogue in Russia in the absence of effective leadership, or alternatively chaos resulting from the implosion of an ungovernable, ineffective state.  How should the United States and NATO manage this sensitive relationship?  Can Russia be brought back from the brink on which it now stands through inclusion in Western institutions?  Or should NATO gather the flock against the impending storm, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep to take in all states desiring inclusion?  If NATO continues to expand, what will become of the cohesion that has been the hallmark of the most successful alliance in modern history?  If NATO stops expanding, what will become of non-members if crisis erupts in regions formerly controlled by the Soviet Union?  Whatever course of action NATO adopts, communication and openness must be its bywords; secrecy and exclusion will reap only suspicion and mistrust.

Again, this was written 20 years ago.  But I’d like to make a few points about this discussion:

  1. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
  2. Senior leaders disagreed on whether NATO expansion would serve the peace in Europe. Like General Goodpaster, some believed expansion would isolate and perhaps antagonize Russia, while others believed this was a risk worth taking in efforts to contain possible Russian aggression or turmoil.
  3. There was consensus that NATO was worth preserving in some form, but at other times during the symposium, concerns were expressed about equity, i.e. burden-sharing, and the perceived unfairness of the U.S. paying much more that its fair share to keep the alliance functioning.

In short, a generation ago military experts questioned whether NATO had outlived its purpose.  They asked whether the U.S. was paying too high a price, and they wondered whether NATO expansion would alienate Russia.  These were reasonable questions then, and they remain reasonable today.

Trump is not some “Russian agent” or Putin stooge for questioning whether the U.S. still needs to be in NATO.  In this case, he’s shown a willingness to think outside the NATO box.  After all, how long should NATO last?  Don’t all alliances eventually come to an end?  Or is NATO to exist forever?

Personally, I don’t think a precipitous withdrawal from NATO would be in the best interests of the U.S.  But surely there’s something to be said for building a new agreement or alliance in Europe that would be less driven by military concerns, less dependent on American money and weaponry and troops, and more inclusive toward Russia.