I just woke up here in Budapest to news that Russia has invaded Ukraine. This is both extremely sad and utterly contemptible. As much as I think (and have said) both that Russia’s desire to keep Ukraine out of NATO was understandable and just, and that I reject the Blob’s knee-jerk bellicosity towards Russia, under no circumstances is what Russia has done overnight acceptable. There were diplomatic ways out of this impasse, but Putin chose not to take them.
Oddly enough, I bet that a lot of the world back in 2003 felt the way that I do this morning watching Russian troops march into Ukraine: helpless anger at a great power imposing itself on flimsy pretenses in a war of choice on a country that can barely defend itself — all in an attempt to remake the geopolitical order. Yet as angry as I am at Russia today, I am not going to be goaded into supporting US policies that widen the war. Nor does it make US and NATO policy towards Russia prior to now retrospectively correct. Today’s events in Ukraine bring to a definite end the post-Cold War interregnum. Nobody can possibly be pleased with the way things have turned out.
I want to share with you an analysis I found striking. It comes from the right-wing European commentator Niccolo Soldo, from his Substack. Soldo, who filed the piece on the eve of the Russian invasion, believes that what’s happening in Ukraine is a victory for both the US and Russia. It starts like this:
Celebrations have been taking place in the self-declared Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in what is almost universally recognized Ukraine. Having declared independence eight years ago, events have now forced Russia’s hand in which these two nascent entities are now recognized by Moscow, with all the protections that come with it. One cannot help but understand why these people are celebrating.
Another celebration is taking place in the USA. The State Department has achieved its main objective of seeing Nordstream 2 put on ice. American LNG producers are now popping champagne bottles as they can envision huge stacks of cash to be made by overcharging Europeans desperate for gas. The Military-Industrial Complex is chuffed as well, as the arms will continue to pour into Ukraine and into the NATO armies in its periphery.
This passage here explains why I am not at all interested in hearing self-exonerating Western leaders and talking heads acting like Western policy had nothing to do with today’s execrable events:
Despite assurances to the contrary, NATO is not a ‘defensive organization’. Even though American memories are short, people elsewhere remember the bombing campaign against Serbia, and the removal of Gaddafi from power in Libya. What NATO is in fact is the military arm of US hegemony, a hegemony that has seen it expand eastwards through Europe, right up to Russia’s very own borders.
“Don’t individual states reserve the right to enter into alliances with those they see fit, Niccolo?” Of course they do. But not all countries are islands, and most countries have neighbours. And not all neighbouring states are created equal, and they have their own national security concerns and interests. This is the case with Russia.
Russia has been invaded several times from the west since Napoleon first crossed the border to enter Imperial Russian soil in 1812. Every time since, western powers have been forced out, but have left behind devastation in their wake. This explains why Russia has sought buffers to its west ever since, with the largest buffer being its puppet regimes in eastern and central Europe during the Cold War.
NATO, originally set up to counter the USSR’s expansion into Europe, was left without a raison d’etre after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. Nevertheless, it pressed on eastwards, and thanks to the CIA and MI6, effected Colour Revolutions to put into power friendly regimes that sought NATO membership in places like Tbilisi and Kiev. Where Colour Revolutions weren’t necessary due to historical grievances against Russia, NATO missile systems pointed at Russia have been set up (Romania and Poland).
For Russia, the nightmare scenario of dismemberment from the west is now tangible. You may disagree with their perspective, but what is important is HOW they view the situation. If you can’t understand their views, it is therefore impossible to talk to them, unless you are only willing to lecture to them or threaten them.
And lectures on democracy and threats to their economy and existence are all that have come out of the west towards Russia recently.
Ukraine has the right to rule over its territory as it sees fit. This is called sovereignty. Ukraine also has the right to seek alliances to maintain that sovereignty and to protect its own perceived interests.
Theory is great, but it is only theory. Reality does tend to intrude though. In this case, the Ukrainians have made a mess out of their post-Maidan revolution by exacerbating Moscow’s natural paranoia through its constant requests to join NATO. By doing this, Ukraine antagonizes its much more powerful neighbour which sees itself under existential threat from its smaller neighbour’s invitations to host a hostile organization on its soil. It is therefore only natural that Russia would act to neutralize this existential threat, because it can and it showed in 2014 (and again this week) that it will.
Much like how the USA would never tolerate a Chinese client regime in Mexico with nukes pointed at it, the Russians have shown that they won’t tolerate NATO in Ukraine. For the past few months, head Russian diplomat Lavrov has patiently explained to the West that NATO in Ukraine is a non-starter for them, and that they will take actions to ensure that their national security interests are protected. These security interests come at the cost of Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea in 2014, and now over the Donbass as of yesterday.
The precedent for recognizing these breakaway republics was set by the USA when it detached Kosovo from then Yugoslavia, and recognized its Universal Declaration of Independence a few years later. The 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia is what turned Russia away from the West, famously symbolized by then Premier Primakov ordering his jet to turn back to Moscow. It was at this point that the USA tore up international law. Albanian freedom from Serbian rule in Kosovo has now come at the cost of the loss of Crimea and Donbass to Russia.
It’s good when we do it — Kosovo, Iraq — but evil when they do it. I hope you’ll read the entire Soldo essay, because there’s a lot more there, and it’s the kind of thing you won’t be seeing much of in the US media from now on.
Let me say again: I abhor what Russia has done today. But this did not come from nowhere. Now Europe faces the prospect of a wider war — unlikely, but not at all unthinkable, which explains the anxiety so many Hungarians I meet have — and the opening of a new Cold War with Russia … and China. The historical period that ended last night, when Russian troops crossed the border, began with the US hoping to integrate China and Russia into a liberal democratic world order. It ended with wealthy China the world’s ascendant power; Russia — an historically Christian nation — having abandoned liberal democracy after the shambles that corrupt Russians and US advisors made of the 1990s, pivoting away from the West, and now firmly in the orbit of China; and the United States, a declining empire weakened and humiliated by twenty years of failed Mideast and Asian war, and sharply divided at home by the culture war American elites have waged on half of their own people, left to figure out what the hell to do with itself and its inheritance.
I know I am yelling into a whirlwind here, but please, Americans, do not let your anger over what Russia has done allow you to throw good sense away. Do not let the media whip you up into a pro-war frenzy, as happened to many of us post-9/11, which led America into a disastrous war. This is an extremely dangerous moment, one in which we could easily lose containment of the war to Ukraine. It might seem hard to imagine from the point of view of Americans, sitting on the other side of the ocean, but believe me, here in Hungary, which shares a border with Ukraine and living memory of Russian militarism in action, many people are very worried.
When the dust settles, I want to see some hard reflection on the unwisdom of successive US administrations pushing the outer boundaries of NATO farther to the East in the post-Cold War period. The smartest and most important thing Niccolo Soldo said in his essay was his point about the difference between theory (Ukraine, as a sovereign nation, has the right to set its own security policy), and reality (Russia, like any great power, cannot tolerate a military outpost of its enemies on its border). I’m not engaging in “Blame America First” here — the fault for today is Putin’s — but I am saying that it did not happen in a vacuum, and that the US foreign policy and national security elites, in the post Cold War period, bungled this through hubris, and by getting high on their own End-Of-History supply.
Now, if you think the US can funnel military supplies to the Ukraine resistance without suffering any consequences from Russia, you are being a fool. Russia’s cyberwarriors would devastate American institutions. We are not nearly as strong as we think.
UPDATE: John Mearsheimer, the foreign policy realist, called it years ago. Listen to him here! His prophecy has today been fulfilled:
Analysis & prediction on Ukraine from 6 years ago:
“The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path & the end result is Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”
-John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the U. of Chicago, pic.twitter.com/kPQNH58o7G
— Prodigal Son (@ThePr0diga1S0n) January 24, 2022