Democracy Gets a “Fist on the Nose” In Ukraine…But That’s Just the Beginning...
The situation in Ukraine is complex and the outcome is unknowable, but potentially world-changing for free nations and the world itself...
Unsurprisingly, alleged serial rapist and career criminal Donald Trump has come out in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen,” Trump told a rightwing talk show, “and I said, 'This is genius.' Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that's wonderful. I said, 'How smart is that?' And he's going to go in and be a peacekeeper.”
Donald Trump, you’ll remember, was first impeached because the very day Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy turned down his demand to manufacture dirt on candidate Joe Biden, the White House Office of Management and Budget moved to block hundreds of millions in defensive military aid to Ukraine.
Trump’s enthusiasm for the collapse of Ukraine notwithstanding, the most basic element of all law down through the ages is the right of bodily autonomy: the right not to have your body invaded.
When it’s done physically it’s called assault; when sexually, it’s rape. As the 1920s Temperance Movement saying goes, “Your right to swing your arm ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
The core principle of international law is similar. No nation has the right to violate the territorial integrity of another, except in self-defense. That principle has been, the western world asserts, violated by Russia with their invasion of Ukraine.
As Senator Bernie Sanders said yesterday, “Vladimir Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine is an indefensible violation of international law, regardless of whatever false pretext he offers.”
That said, the Biden administration finds itself in an awkward position when lecturing Russia about invading other countries without justification. We did just that in 2003 when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney intentionally and deliberately lied us into a war with Iraq to try a neoliberal experiment with their economy and “liberate” that nation’s oil.
Ironically, Russia — which formed closer security bonds with the US after 9/11 — was among the countries pointing out that Bush’s invasion of Iraq was both illegal and would damage the standing of America in the world’s eyes, as their invasion of Afghanistan generations earlier had taught them.
As Russian political analyst Aleksandr Tsipko noted, “The war in Iraq … had a significant effect on the psychological and political climate in Russia … [and] has boosted Putin’s stature as a statesman who cares about the dignity of his country.”
Ukraine is neither a member of NATO or the European Union, and we have no explicit defensive treaty or agreement with them. But they are a democracy — a vanishing breed in the world since the Bush years — and a full member of the United Nations.
It’s often argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is simply part of an effort to stop the eastward movement of NATO, which violated a handshake deal between George HW Bush and then-Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
The failure of the Clinton administration to honor that non-binding agreement not to expand NATO eastward has been an arguably justified thorn in Russia’s side for two decades. It was one of the top three or four American and European foreign-policy blunders of the past 30 years; even the Times’ neoliberal columnist Thomas Friedman agrees.
If it were true that Russia’s seizure of part of Ukraine were just about asserting influence over their part of the world by slowing down NATO’s expansion it would provide at least a credible excuse for the Russian action.
After all, “spheres of influence” has been at the foundation of US foreign policy ever since 1823 when President James Monroe declared, in the Monroe Doctrine, that we could legally assert power over, and interfere in, all of North, Central, and South America. And our claim to our own American spheres of influence is not just a leftover from that era: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in 2018 that it was “as relevant today as it was the day it was written.”
It’s difficult for America to assert Russia doesn’t have the right to meddle in what they perceive as their own “sphere of influence” when we haven’t likewise surrendered our own similar claim, used to justify our interference in the affairs of Central and South American countries dozens of times — including overthrowing elected governments like we did in Chile — up to and including recent years.
But NATO has repeatedly turned down Ukraine, and Germany’s chancellor as recently as last week said there’s no possibility of Ukrainian membership as long as he’s running the show. Other nations, including the US, have said essentially the same thing, and NATO membership requires consensus — a 100% vote of NATO members — to proceed, and that isn’t happening.
The Ukraine invasion may, however, motivate Sweden and Finland to finally decide to join NATO. Unintended consequences and all that.
As much as commentators on the right insist it doesn’t matter to America what happens to Ukraine, and commentators on the left try to claim our response is being driven by the desire of greedy defense contractors to enhance their profits, it matters when a democracy is taken down by an autocracy and it matters when a nation’s territorial integrity is violated by force.
Which leaves democracies around the world — collectively horrified by the “fist on the nose” penetration of Ukraine by Russian forces — under pressure to do something, but also wary of sparking a military confrontation with the world’s second-most well-armed nuclear power. Thus “soft” economic power.
From Australia to Germany to Canada to the US, democracies around the world are rolling out economic sanctions to isolate and punish Russia for violating international norms of behavior.
That said, sanctions rarely do any good. American sanctions on Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, for example, only strengthened the bond between those nation’s leaders and their people, driving them toward greater self-reliance and producing a “rally around the flag” effect. (They may have influenced Iran to seek peace, but Iran is not Russia.)
Oligarchic leaders are generally well insulated from the effects of sanctions, so often the impact — like with our sanctions on Iraq after the brief Gulf War in the 1990s — simply lead to deeper poverty and misery for the nation’s poorest people.
President Putin has been building up a nearly-trillion-dollar financial “fortress” for just this moment, a process he began when President Obama failed to impose severe consequences for the annexation of Crimea. Russian government bonds, paying over 6.4% in a world of zero-returns, are in hot demand (there’s an amazing read from Forbes here).
Thus, there are no really good options for the West.
And this isn’t about the American military-industrial-complex trying to make more money, as some imagine. They surely made huge profits off Vietnam, Afghanistan and continue to profit from Iraq, and need to be brought to heel.
But there is no war in sight in Ukraine that involves America armaments in a big way. American and European provision of weapons to Ukraine constitute an almost-irrelevant fraction of US military spending.
Nonetheless, western democracies feel they must speak out if they are to defend both a fellow democracy and the international rule of law. Sanctions and public shaming are about the only stand-ins available short of military intervention, even if they may (and often do) end up backfiring.
As Senator Sanders noted yesterday:
“There has always been a diplomatic solution to this situation. Tragically, Putin appears intent on rejecting it. The United States must now work with our allies and the international community to impose serious sanctions on Putin and his oligarchs, including denying them access to the billions of dollars that they have stashed in European and American banks.”
It looks right now that the best outcome may be that Russia takes a bite out of Eastern Ukraine and stops, perhaps hoping to foment internal divisions within America and the rest of Ukraine that could, in upcoming elections, bring pro-Putin Trump-like candidates back into office here in the US and in Ukraine. Helping install rightwing autocrats friendly to Russia across other European countries would be a bonus.
America has been in political chaos for five years since Trump was elected, and the European Union was seriously damaged by Britain’s Brexit.
Right wing movements are appearing all over the world, and much of it, from the Trucker Tantrum all the way back to Trump’s primary efforts and public ask for Russian help in 2016, have multiple links to social media. More Americans now get their news from Facebook than any other source, for example, and foreign trolls have a big presence there shaping western public opinion.
And now, having clearly seen how unwilling the west is to go to war to defend Ukraine, it looks like a full-on invasion may be in the near-term works. As The New York Times reports:
“A deputy defense minister, Nikolai Pankov, told the assembly that Ukraine had gathered 60,000 troops to attack the Russia-backed separatist enclaves in the country’s east — a step that Ukraine denies having any plans to take.
“‘Negotiations have reached a dead end,’ Mr. Pankov said in a televised speech. ‘The Ukrainian leadership has taken the path of violence and bloodshed.’”
If that full-on invasion happens, it may well bog Russia down for a protracted period; if, alternatively, they can accomplish the same thing through political means, the physical and reputational costs are lower and the outcome the same.
They nearly had it before Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution of February 20, 2014 toppled Paul Manafort’s employer and Putin’s friend Viktor Yanukovych and returned democracy to Ukraine.
From there, Manifort became Trump’s first (and free!) campaign manger, helped rewrite the GOP’s platform to eliminate references to defending Ukraine, all just after Obama fired Michael Flynn for his Russian contacts around the seizure of Crimea.
If Russia helped set the whole thing up using social media, from Trump to Brexit to the Truckers and ongoing western social strife, it was a master stroke. If not, the coincidences are awesome.
One wonders what China is thinking as they covet Taiwan while watching the western world’s response to the American disarray around the crisis in Ukraine with some Republican politicians openly supporting Russia over America. All while China has a say in the newest social media sensation out of that country, Tik-Tok.
Additionally, if this situation binds China closer to Russia it will create a new world order far less hospitable to democracies than what we have today. An “axis versus allies” of that sort is just what brought us World War II.
Meanwhile, here in the US, the issue of defending democracies has become politicized.
Our slogan used to be, “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” Reagan’s pre-election Grenada invasion, Bush’s illegal attack on Iraq, and Trump’s rhetoric congratulating President Putin for his invasion have killed that, perhaps forever. (Vietnam, at least, was championed and hated by both parties as it ran across the administrations of LBJ and Nixon.)
Probably the best upside for the world beyond Ukraine that could be salvaged from all this, as oil and gas prices skyrocket worldwide, is found in the way Senator Sanders wrapped up his statement yesterday.
“Finally,” he wrote, “in the longer term, we must invest in a global green energy transition away from fossil fuels, not only to combat climate change, but to deny authoritarian petrostates the revenues they require to survive.”
Strategically, the most important step the West can take right now is to disconnect itself from dependence on oligarchic petrostates. This is particularly important for Europe, which gets as much as 40 percent of its oil and natural gas from Russia, although the US is still heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia, another country hostile to both western values and democracy itself.
President Jimmy Carter started our move away from dependence on petrostates like Saudi Arabia and Russia when he introduced legislation in June of 1979 to create a “solar bank” that would “meet 20 percent of America’s energy needs by the year 2000.”
That went down in flames when Reagan moved into the White House, took down Carter’s solar panels, reversed his policies, and redirected our energy policy back toward fossil fuels and Saudi suppliers.
Now the world is facing serious fossil fuel shortages as OPEC only marginally increases production; Europe is on the verge of a full-blown military crisis, easily triggered while petrostates raise prices; and Russian energy imports to Europe — 40 percent of the continent’s usage — could stop at any moment because of the conflict.
Now that Germany has declared the Nordstream 2 pipeline a dead deal, this moment could signal a renewed opportunity for both Europe and America to strengthen our democracies and our energy independence…which could moderate global warming and reduce the most existential long-term threat to civilization itself.
Assuming, of course, social media trolls and Republican politicians haven’t whipped up another crisis by supporting new and different attacks on democratic nations, or the world hasn’t plunged into war as a result.
This was a fine analysis as usual, and one with too many parallels to the 1930s when the Axis dictators ate away at their neighbors. At the time most Americans and western Europeans, with painful memories of the Great War, wanted to believe the empty promises of the aggressors. So they did nothing until only war was possible. The victors of the resulting conflict were of course the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Times change but bullies don't. With excellent timing Putin is trying to reestablish his historic national empire. With Russia's weak economy that's probably not going to happen. But he can do a lot of damage and the victor of any lasting conflict will only be China.
Should Trump or someone like him regain power that will only accelerate America's international decline. Given a weakened Europe, a still limited Russia and a China with large but not world dominating aims we could well be entering a new era of regional powers. Perhaps these will balance one another, playing off weaker states for their own advantage, and forming shifting alliances somewhat like Orwell predicted. But one thing will be clear. Despite national bombastic claims by the victors of World War II, the era of super powers will have ended.
Super piece, as usual, Thom ! I've long liked your earlier show title "The Big Picture" and immediately got & read the book you recommended "The Fourth Turning" by Howe & Strauss (1997)...which I find all the more remarkable today given their prediction that the next Crisis...the next 4th Turning...would come to a climax somewhere between 2020 and 2025. We are there....yeh? History is repeating itself once more. The authors point out that our previous three 4th Turnings were: 1) Revolutionary War of Independence, 2) Civil War, & 3) Great Republican Depression & WWII. Is there a theme here? How about "authoritarianism vs. egalitarianism"? Or more simply "monarchs & dictators vs. democracy"? Why these....you might ask? Perhaps it has to do with the nature of the "animals running the zoo"? Us. Humans ! Apparently the War of the Roses kicked off this repeating 4-part cycle when a commoner defeated & killed the King of England and then announced himself king. Ahhh...the perpetual desire of the human ego for POWER ! First for "Freedom"...but then the victims-become-victors get drunk on their newly-acquired power...as in "Power corrupts....and absolute power corrupts absolutely"....eh? And so who is this latest instigator of Crisis on the Human Scene? Vladimir Putin....former KGB agent and wanna-be Peter-the-Great or perhaps Katherine-the-Great! A new Russian Czar...but with a reconstituted USSR / Soviet Empire. If the real problem was NATO, as someone pointed out recently, Putin would be attacking Paris because France has nukes that can easily reach Moscow....but Ukraine gave up theirs decades ago. No, Putin wants his beloved Soviet Empire reconstructed...with all the credit & praise going to him. Ego-trip....anyone? Really? This is all? Well, I propose...not quite. Like you have been pointing out repeatedly, Thom, we have a world-wide struggle going on between budding democracies that believe in human rights, freedom, and egalitarianism....and authoritarian regimes with dictators, oligarchs, & other "strong men" who demand control over everything and everyone. Why this ridiculousness? Here's where this becomes a little "science-geeky"...'K? How about the real struggle is inside the thing running this show--the Human mind? Do we have a struggle between our self-centered, power-seeking, small ego and our caring, giving, sharing Big Self ? Or in cranial terms: our "fight-or-flight" amygdala vs. our contemplative, rational pre-frontal cortex...? In short, are we Humans caught in an evolutionary seculum-repeating struggle every 80-100 years between these two forces--inside our heads and between our nations--so cleverly devised by our dichotomous universe ? Howe & Strauss said: "Crisis-era wars were all large, deadly, and decisive. Homefront resolve conformed to the visions of elder leaders, and the outcome totally redefined the kingdom, nation, or empire." (p. 119). Will we break with this pattern and somehow resolve this peacefully (at least until Putin leaves the world)...or will we have another "Crisis-era war"?