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Double, Triple, Quadruple Trouble
Fire Burn and Ukraine Bubble
When the Ukrainian civil war first erupted in 2014 — one side endorsed by the U.S. national security state, the other by the Kremlin — Barack Obama was a lonely voice of rationality and calm.
“Obama Said to Resist Pressure from All Sides to Arm Ukraine” was a New York Times headline seven years ago:
WASHINGTON — As American intelligence agencies have detected new Russian tanks and artillery crossing the border into Ukraine [in March 2015], President Obama is coming under increasing pressure from both parties and more officials inside his own government to send arms … But he remains unconvinced that they would help.
… [Obama] has told aides and visitors that arming the Ukrainians would encourage the notion that they could actually defeat the far more powerful Russians, and so it would potentially draw a more forceful response from Moscow. He … seems determined to stay aligned with European allies that oppose arms for Ukraine.
The Washington national security establishment met Obama and his Eurowimp friends with a bipartisan eye-roll. Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had just voted unanimously to get some weapons shipped! Top members of Obama’s own team — from the chair of his Joint Chiefs, to his defense secretary, to his spy chief James Clapper — were all eager to see Ukrainians fielding weapons made in the U.S.A.
But Obama was persistently skeptical.
Mr. Obama [said The New York Times] continues to pose questions indicating his doubts. “O.K., what happens if we send in equipment — do we have to send in trainers?” said one person paraphrasing the discussion on the condition of anonymity. “What if it ends up in the hands of thugs? What if Putin escalates?”
All valid concerns, and I’m grateful to Obama c. 2015 for asking them. In particular, his observation that we could uselessly provoke an escalation in on-the-ground violence showed concern for actual, physical, human beings called Ukrainians.
Our national security apparatchiks were unmoved, and kept grumbling. They knew what needed to be done, even if Obama didn’t. Many of them were once and future paid employees of a weapons manufacturer — Matt Taibbi has an excellent review of this at TK News — and almost no one in Washington saw the point in wasting a perfectly good war zone.
A rare person on Obama’s team who did voice agreement with the President was — go figure — Antony Blinken, then his deputy secretary of state:
“If you’re playing on the military terrain in Ukraine, you’re playing to Russia’s strength, because Russia is right next door,” Blinken said in a speech at the time. “It has a huge amount of military equipment and military force right on the border. Anything we did as [NATO] countries in terms of military support for Ukraine is likely to be matched and then doubled and tripled and quadrupled by Russia.”
The New York Times described Blinken’s double-triple-quadruple equation as the argument that “seems to most closely channel the president’s, according to people familiar with the internal debate.”
So that was Obama’s logic seven years ago: Providing immense amounts of armaments to Ukrainian national military forces could encourage them to seek out fights that they ultimately would lose; whatever we commit would eventually be matched, doubled, tripled, quadrupled by Russia — a useless escalation, with horrific humanitarian consequences.
Yet when famous lefty Noam Chomsky applied this same line of reasoning to the war today — Chomsky says that weapons shipments and sanctions would best serve Ukraine’s interests if they played a merely supporting role, with center stage occupied by active and energetic peace negotiations — his remarks were received as a minor scandal; as somehow disloyal.
“I think that support for Ukraine’s effort to defend itself is legitimate,” Chomsky told The Intercept recently. “Of course, it has to be carefully scaled, so that it actually improves their situation and doesn’t escalate the conflict, to lead to destruction of Ukraine.”
Unfortunately, the destruction of Ukraine is rapidly becoming a secondary consideration. No, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. The primary consideration is now a geopolitical Great Game, announced officially by the U.S. secretary of defense this week. The war in Ukraine will intentionally be escalated.
Why? Because it provides an opportunity to critically wound Russia. Ordinary Ukrainians will be cannon fodder in service of the mission of preventing a future hypothetical Russian invasion, somewhere. (It’s actually quite Bolshevik: Sacrificing specific Ukrainians today, in service of a vaguely better tomorrow. A tomorrow in, say, Estonia.)
It’s not even clear that wounding Russia is in the U.S. national interest — but never mind, that’s taken as axiomatic. With zero discussion, we are scaling up our military commitment to a conflict more than 5,000 miles from the United States — to levels reminiscent of our involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
Just a month ago Washington had approved a $13.6 billion military aid package, and in the Russia- and Ukraine-watcher circles I move in, everyone was flabbergasted — the recurring comment was along the lines of, “What an un-Godly sum of money! For one of the poorest places in Europe! Can you imagine the bonanza for thieving Ukrainian oligarchs?”
This week President Joe Biden announced a massive, startling increase in our proposed level of commitment. Now there will be an additional $33 billion.
The Onion lampoons this as “a $33 billion bill to send war-torn Ukraine free community college” — which is just about right since $13 billion + $33 billion = $46 billion = the exact price the Biden Administration decided a few months ago was way too much to pay to provide Americans with tuition-free community college. Maybe next year.
“This was the week when the war in Ukraine truly transitioned from one nation’s bloody fight for liberation … to a potentially years-long great power struggle … which will likely cost thousands more lives and tens of billions of dollars. The U.S. strategy is now unequivocal and public — to weaken Russia to diminish its global threat.”
No peace process. No effort to stop the death and destruction. No free community college for Americans, and of course forget about things like Medicare for All. But a generational Great Power struggle — for a chance to wound Russia!
Russia, of course, can also escalate, and can also wound. But thinking back to the old Obama-Blinken math: if America really delivers crushing explosive power to the killing fields of Ukraine, how could a backward place like Russia ever match it — much less double, triple or quadruple it?
Many answers occur, but the simplest is: They can reach for their nuclear weapons.
You know, the small ones.
They have them by the thousands, for just this purpose; they call them battlefield or tactical nukes, and it is stated Russian military policy to use them to fend off any existential threat.
So, now define “existential threat.” For Vladimir Putin and his circle and family, a rank defeat in Ukraine might well qualify. It would probably mean their collective fall from power — which, given the brutal nature of modern Russian politics, with its assassinations, imprisonments and poisonings, could easily be an extinction-level event for them.
That is context for the CIA director’s warning two weeks ago that before Putin ever accepts a crushing international embarrassment, he might from sheer “desperation” use nuclear weapons. (The CIA director, William Burns, is a former ambassador to Russia and knows Putin better than many.) The New York Times says this hypothetical nuclear strike would represent an attempt “to extract the semblance of a victory in Ukraine.” (“Semblance?” So, sort of how the United States extracted “the semblance” of a victory out of Japan in 1945?)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed CIA Director Burns on Monday, and warned of nuclear war as a “serious, real” danger. Lavrov cited the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 as a better situation (!) — as a time when Moscow and Washington understood each other and had some shared rules of conduct, unlike today, when “there are few rules left.”
Nuclear War is ‘Probably’ Coming, and ‘It Is What It Is’
Nine weeks in to this — nine weeks when Washington never once expressed the slightest interest in brokering a peace, in fact the opposite — the war is entering an ever more grim and brutal phase. Russia is increasing its shelling of Ukrainian forces, and again bombed Kyiv itself, this time even as the UN Secretary General was visiting (and lamenting the utter lack of any sort of peace process).
But many in the West see this as a bluff to call.
The U.S. secretaries of defense and state just visited Kyiv. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin gave a proud thumbs up to combat operations in Ukraine, promised more weapons were on the way, and said we hope they will be used to leave Russia’s military “weakened to the degree that [in future] it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine” — not exactly a comforting thought if you still live in Ukraine. Secretary of State Blinken (no longer an Obama wimp, now a Biden blusterer) offered his own wit, quipping that “Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin.” So, again, our interest in Ukraine is not about stopping the carnage — it is about using the carnage for a greater purpose (a weakened Russia, led by someone other than Putin).
Some world leaders are even more hawkish. The prime minister of Estonia and the foreign minister of Britain are boldly talking of pushing Ukraine “to win” — to drive Russian forces out of not just the disputed Donbass, but even out of the Crimean peninsula itself.
This is quite incredible. Crimea is so emotionally non-negotiable for Russia that use of tactical nuclear weapons to hold it would be highly probable. If the Estonian prime minister doesn’t know this, she is incompetent; if she knows it but doesn’t think it worth mentioning, she is not a good ally for us.
But onward! General Philip Breedlove, the retired former top NATO commander, wants boots on the ground — he wants to march U.S. / NATO troops into Western Ukraine to the banks of the Dnieper River, and complains, “We have been so worried about nuclear weapons and World War III that we have allowed ourselves to be fully deterred.”
All of this happened in just one week! Which brings us to Tuesday evening’s broadcast of The Evening With Vladimir Solovyov, a useful Russian show to watch to take the Kremlin’s political temperature.
Solovyov, the show’s Kremlin-approved host, started off the panel discussion expressing incredulity that the West was ignoring all warnings about blundering into World War III. He turned to his colleague Margarita Simonyan, head of Russia’s RT television network, and asked: “Are we going to war [with the West]?”
Possibly, she replied — as on CNN in America, so on state television in Russia, this is now being described as the opening days of a historic, years-long global struggle.
Simonyan added that she has been interviewing Moscow military thinkers and has come to believe escalation to nuclear weapons was now probable. (The translation below is mine; the italics reflect her spoken emphasis).
“There are two paths: Either we lose in Ukraine, we being Russia, and we surrender — or World War III starts,” she said. “Personally, I think the path to World War III is the more likely. Knowing us — knowing our leader Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin — knowing how everything works around here — it’s impossible, there is no chance, that we’ll just fold our hands and say, ‘Oh well, it didn’t work out. We thought we were going to defend the Donbass, restore order, shake things up, de-Nazify, but things went wrong, it didn’t work out, so excuse us, we’ll just go back.’ Well — that simply won’t happen! And so, the most improbable thing — that all this could end in a nuclear strike — seems to me more probable than the alternative. This is to my horror, on the one hand. But on the other hand, with the understanding that — it is what it is.”
So that’s one informed view from Moscow (and none of the other politically savvy panelists really disagreed with it). As the West commits more and more force to the conflict, this will lead either to a shameful retreat for Russia — which Putin cannot and will not accept — or to Russia having to double, triple, quadruple the pain for Ukraine, up to the detonation of, say, one or two or three nuclear explosive devices.
(To start. A lot of table top war-gaming has been done over the years — at the Pentagon, and elsewhere — and it turns out to be easier to start nuking things than it is to stop.)
I expect we’ll soon see preemptive Russian state media work to normalize this possibility. I anticipate officially sanctioned reinterpretations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as good and clever. The snap-of-a-finger destruction of those Japanese cities will soon be described in Russian media as a hard-headed but ultimately correct moral decision, taken by seasoned U.S. statesmen determined to end a war cleanly and quickly; Russians will soon be reminded that the 100,000 or so people killed by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima was an insignificance, compared to the 1 million people starved to death during Nazi Germany’s 900-day siege of Leningrad.
A small nuclear weapon can target a battlefield collection of tanks or artillery, or an airfield, or a city. Reviewing this with a fellow Russia-watcher, I phrased this as “a city like, say, Odesa,” prompting him to cry out in dismay, “Oh I hope not Odesa! Can’t they pick some other place? What about Kharkiv?” Soon you’re studying a map of Ukraine, wondering and fearful …
U.S. Actively Opposes Peace
One has to feel grudging admiration for the political gifts of Obama. He always looks and sounds so reasonable. Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Obama’s been occasionally asked if he’d like a do-over — if he wishes, for example, that he’d have given more weapons to Kyiv during the Ukrainian civil war.
But he deftly turns it aside: “the circumstances were different”, Putin has aged badly, “it’s too early to tell what an end game [in Ukraine] looks like” … and then we’re off on a meandering rhetorical ride the likes of which only Obama, with his easygoing charisma, can pull off — lofty sentences in which, he explains, the war is tragic, it’s in part “a very particular reaction to the ideals of democracy but also globalization, the collision of cultures, the ability to harness anger and resentment around an ethnonationalist mythology” — he’s on a roll! — but the war, which again, while tragic, is also a “bracing reminder” that we need to not take America for granted and — he’s gonna bring it home! — rededicate ourselves to “independent judiciaries, making elections work in ways that are fair and free.”
Blah, blah, blah, we get it, you aren’t going to even pretend to take any sort of position. I voted for Obama twice but he disappoints more often than not.
In 2015, the Obama-Blinken skepticism for pouring weapons into Ukraine was explained by their basic logic and math skills — by a desire to not exponentially and uselessly increase the explosive kinetic energy released upon poor, long-suffering Ukraine — but also because there was a peace process underway. It was a two steps forward, one step back dance, and the United States was not very engaged in it. But that was a golden era when typical Americans shared a vague, general idea that peace talks were always worth pursuing. And Obama explicitly opposed stirring the Ukrainian caldron to give that peace process a chance.
Those days are gone.
This week Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said Russia would continue negotiations toward peace with Kyiv, and added that it would be “useful” to hold discussions with the United States — “but we don’t observe any interest on their part.”
A foreign minister publicly stating talks would be “useful” even while admitting no one will take his call — that’s about as close to publicly crying uncle as we’re going to ever hear from Russia.
Our reply is: Not interested.
If only Obama could spare a drop or two of his immense and apparently useless political capital to support a peace process. If Jimmy Carter wasn’t 97 years old, he’d probably already be someplace like Istanbul, getting everyone around a conference table. (That’s one reason the nat-sec establishment hated Carter, and loves Obama.) But as with everything else, we’ll have to get it done with zero help from Obama.
What about Donald Trump? Well, Trump has little sway with the national security state or the mainstream media driving our wrongheaded policies — but for what it’s worth (trigger warning!), Trump sounds like Chomsky:
“It doesn’t make sense that Russia and Ukraine aren’t sitting down and working out some kind of an agreement,” Trump said in a statement two weeks ago. “If they don’t do it soon, there will be nothing left but death, destruction, and carnage. This is a war that never should have happened, but it did. The solution can never be as good as it would have been before the shooting started, but there is a solution, and it should be figured out now — not later — when everyone will be DEAD!”
“What is the best thing to do to save Ukraine from a grim fate, from further destruction?” asked Chomsky in his recent and oddly controversial interview with The Intercept. He answered his own question: “That’s to move towards a negotiated settlement.”
“There are two ways for a war to end: One way is for one side or the other to be basically destroyed. And the Russians are not going to be destroyed. So that means one way is for Ukraine to be destroyed. The other way is some negotiated settlement. If there’s a third way, no one’s ever figured it out. So what we should be doing is … primarily moving towards a possible negotiated settlement that will save Ukrainians from further disaster. That should be the prime focus.”
It’s not the prime focus.
“Nobody gets paid to lobby for not-war,” observes Taibbi at TK News, so you’re unlikely to hear the idea of peace talks raised. Instead, we’re too busy tossing more ingredients into the caldron — Switchback drones and howitzers, Javelins and Stingers, Claymore mine and Phoenix Ghost, eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog.
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.