“When two elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled.” Swahili proverb
The New Cold War
Although the Ukraine War is certainly about the self-determination of the Ukrainian people, it is more than that, actually much more than that. On a geopolitical level, it is, after a brief pause, fundamentally a continuation of the Cold War that lasted from just after World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia and the former Soviet republics that are now independent countries were in a state of confusion and rebuilding for some years, but Russia has substantially stabilized, most of the East European countries formerly allied with the Soviet Union have been incorporated into the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union, and a few of the border states formerly within the Soviet Union are in a state of contestation and flux. We should ask the question: why has Russia invaded or supported rebellions in small breakaway slices of territories in the countries of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh), and Moldova (Transnistria), as well as Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk)? One relevant answer is that these are buffer zones between Russia and the rest of NATO and European Union countries. Russia is protecting its borders, just as the US continues to do under the infamous Monroe Doctrine. It is relevant that NATO has been talking for years about eventually including Ukraine and Georgia in that alliance. (The question of the Russian annexation of Crimea is more complicated, especially concerning its fossil fuel resources and large number of Russian residents.)
The Relevance of the Monroe Doctrine
Note that the US has directly invaded many Latin American and Caribbean countries and sponsored numerous coups since the 1823 declaration of the Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine put the world on notice that outside intervention in the Western Hemisphere would not be tolerated. Today’s US sanctions against the governments of Nicaragua and Venezuela, as well as the continuing boycott of Cuba, are a direct result of the continuing use of the Monroe Doctrine in the US sphere of influence. Let’s not forget how close the world came to nuclear destruction because the Soviet Union challenged the Monroe Doctrine by putting missiles in Cuba. Big-power geopolitical calculations are alive and well. Why should we be surprised that Russia does what it can to protect its borders? The US and Russia are both imperial powers.
Motives and the Risk of Nuclear War
But wasn’t the Russian attack on Ukraine unprovoked? Well yes, it is true that there was no specific immediate threat, but Russia has recently gotten away with unofficially annexing or supporting breakaway slices of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Isn’t it likely that the Russian leadership thought it could easily get away with taking more Ukrainian territory without major consequences from the West? Of course, that was a major miscalculation that has led to enormous suffering for the Ukrainian people. But we must consider the larger consequences for the world. Interference with the export of Ukrainian grain to many countries in the Global South has had severe consequences: more hunger and higher food prices. But that is not all. Just before his recent death, Daniel Ellsberg stated that “the current risk of nuclear war, over Ukraine, is as great as the world has ever seen.” If anyone should know about the risk of nuclear war, it is Ellsberg. His 2017 book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is a horrifying explanation of how the world was almost destroyed by nuclear war several times. Furthermore, in 2023 the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight, “largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine.”
Support for the Maidan Revolution
But what about Ukraine’s successful popular movement against Russian hegemony, the Maidan uprising that installed a pro-Western government? Aren’t the US and NATO obligated to support it? In fact, the West did actively support the revolution, knowing full well that this would be a provocation to the Russians. Although there was ample evidence that this was a red line for Russia, the NATO countries vastly miscalculated the Russian response. We might compare this to what happened in Afghanistan, where the US actively provoked the 1979 Soviet invasion by arming the mujahideen, to sink the Soviet Union into a quagmire similar to the US invasion of Vietnam. The unintended consequences resulted in the creation of Al Qaeda and the rise of Osama bin Laden! The term “military intelligence” is indeed an oxymoron.
The Need for Peace Talks
Haven’t the Ukrainians already tried to talk peace with Russia without result? Ukrainian President Zelensky actively campaigned on a peace platform. But the US government opposed the proposed two sets of Minsk Accords, in order to continue the war and therefore weaken its Russian enemy. The Ukrainian government lost its agency in these geopolitical machinations. Daniel Ellsberg called this US policy “a crime against humanity.” The US mass media continually projects an optimistic view regarding Ukrainian military advances, based on more and more lethal and sophisticated weapons supplied by the NATO countries, now including cluster bombs—which are condemned by a treaty adopted by 123 countries. The small “bomblets” in cluster munitions indiscriminately kill civilians, especially children. Many fail to explode and lie in wait for years until an unsuspecting child picks one up and is blown apart. According to recently leaked documents, US military agencies are now much less optimistic that Ukraine can win the war. Daniel Ellsberg recently voiced his opinion that it is very likely that there will be a stalemate and that the situation will look much the same a year from now as it looks today. Should the West be advocating continuing the war with the ongoing vast destruction, displacement of people, and death in the thousands when it is likely that Ukraine can’t realistically expect to win the war anyway against its vastly larger and stronger neighbor?
Voices in the East European Left are advocating for “progressive reconstruction,” the need for persistent diplomacy, as well as criticism of NATO and “US/Western dominance of the world.” A humanitarian approach demands that the US and most of Europe stop fighting to the last Ukrainian, stop the devastation of the country, and stop the continuing military escalation that could accidently provoke a nuclear war. To paraphrase Ellsberg again, we are only lucky that most of the world has not already been destroyed by nuclear war. And every gambler knows that eventually one’s luck runs out.
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