Three weeks ago I wrote about events taking place in Ukraine and some of the reaction to them prior to the now ongoing Russian military campaign in the country. At the time, there were increasingly worried warnings coming from U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies, who were making the claim, usually through surrogates in the corporate press, that an invasion was imminent. A few days later, on February 22nd, the U.S. president gave these warnings more weight, claiming that supplies of blood arriving for Russian troops along the border were a serious warning sign that war was on the horizon.
Judging from what Western intelligence agencies and their media allies had claimed in the past regarding thing’s like WMD in Iraq and the danger that invading its neighbor would represent to the Russian government, I still believed that President Putin would avoid the risk of a hot war while trying to extract whatever concessions he could through his tough guy posturing and threats.
The simultaneous Russian wargames in the Black Sea and on land in ally Belarus was enough of a provocation to make countries like Germany and France frantically push for diplomacy with the Kremlin in the short term, perhaps by more emphatically denying Ukraine membership in the European Union and pushing for the country’s permanent exclusion from NATO.
Despite the diplomatic efforts, within two days of Biden’s prediction, tanks and military vehicles were streaming into Ukraine, adding another bloodstained horror that’s already cost thousands of lives to the entwined history of these two nations. This tortured history, with interludes of friendship and solidarity, has, paradoxically, enriched both cultures for centuries and produced monumental works of art.
With intense fighting in some parts of the country as a backdrop, Ukraine officially applied for a fast track to join the EU on Tuesday, with the country’s president addressing that body’s parliament to great applause from besieged Kyiv, resulting in a non-binding resolution that the country be considered for membership. It will take some time and there will still be many hurdles to overcome if Ukraine is successful in defending itself from the Russian onslaught, but the country has never been closer to membership in the economic bloc than it is now.
Many on the progressive left, including this writer, who have followed recent history in Ukraine have rightly worried about far right parties and openly neo-Nazi militias in the country, with one of the latter, the Azov Battalion, folded into the country’s military and receiving arms and training from Western countries like Canada. It’s also true that some historical figures from the last century worked with Nazi Germany and are still widely celebrated within Ukraine as national heroes.
It’s right to worry about this while also recognizing the fact that these groups are obviously not representative of Ukraine as a whole; for starters Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, the former comedian turned president, who has shown remarkable bravery during the crisis, is Jewish and was elected in a landslide in 2019.
Besides, the Russian Federation has its own extreme nationalists that mirror the worst elements on Ukraine’s extremist right. There is a reason that the Russian Federation and its leaders have seen such consistent support from reactionary far right populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
This reality puts the lie to the Russian president’s claim that his military intervention is in the name of ‘de-Nazification’.
While Vladimir Putin has taken risks using military force in the past, most recently in Syria, these actions always seemed calculated, with goals limited enough to be attainable. Expecting a country as large as Ukraine to quickly fold was delusional, and Russian soldiers, many of them conscripts not told they would become invaders or promised they’d be greeted as liberators, are paying the price for it.
Further, the Russian president, his subordinates and the country’s major media, private and state owned, promised their own citizens that no war was coming, shocking many in the country when it did and galvanizing thousands to risk arrest by taking to the streets in protest.
Facing fierce opposition from the rank and file of the country’s military and citizenry alike, Putin seemed to double down. The look of shock on the faces of Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, the two generals who joined him when he made a speech last Sunday in which he announced that he was putting Russian nuclear forces on high alert as the campaign already appeared to be going badly, seemed to show how much the war is being driven by one man’s hubris.
The last time I felt the way I did on hearing the news that Russian forces were streaming towards Kyiv was on November 9th, 2016. At that time I didn’t believe that the buffoonish Donald Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election. I had assumed that the four years that followed that election would be spent critiquing Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy and trying to restrain the interventionist tendencies of the liberal hawks on the center right of the U.S. Democratic Party that a President Clinton seemed certain to release.
Speaking of Clinton, she showed her lack of empathy over the victims of this conflict on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show on February 28th, where she argued that Ukraine could be turned into a second Afghanistan for Russia, ignoring her own country’s failed history there and what American support for fundamentalist warlords and more importantly, foreign fighters, led to on September 11th, 2001.
For their part, rather than reacting with horror at the inevitable loss of life and the sight of tank columns bringing war into Europe, many on the American right, including the former president, seemed to cheer on Putin, at least leading up to his recognition of the two regions of what Russians call the Donbas as independent before having to backtrack when the full invasion was launched.
We got insight into the reactionary thinking of some of these commentators, who defended the Russian president as a fighter for ‘Christianity’ and somehow admirable in his advancement of extreme nationalism. I don’t identify as Christian but I’ve read the 4 gospels and don’t remember the Jesus Christ presented in them as a war monger.
In a particularly despicable example of their barbarism, in an interview with mercenary entrepreneur Erik Prince, he and Steve Bannon decided to take a shot at an incredibly vulnerable population in his country and most of the world: trans people, with the former making a typical joke about bathrooms.
Not to be outdone in terms of using an international crisis to hammer on culture war themes and attack the marginalized, on February 23rd, Tucker Carlson said the following to his audience, the largest of any American cable news show, “It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is ‘no.’ Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that. So, why does permanent Washington hate him so much?”
This bit of wisdom became a propaganda vehicle for the Kremlin, with the country’s state television broadcasting the rant with subtitles while Russian bombs and bullets rained down on the country’s neighbor.
If anything remotely good can come out of this shocking war it might be that people throughout the world viewing live streamed destruction might remember these scenes of carnage the next time their leaders call for war or intervention in the future. As former UK Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn reminded us this week, the mothers and fathers of those killed, both Ukrainian and Russian, will be left with massive holes in their lives and no hope of consolation, left to wonder what might have been.
This truth has rarely been recognized in the wars already fought this century in places like Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. Will a war in Europe make more people wake up to the real costs of militarism, even when they are asked to sacrifice themselves, loved ones or fellow citizens by their own leaders in the name of patriotism?