Putin’s war has shaken up the commentariat in the West. In the blue (or should we say red) corner, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson bemoans the billions of dollars of military assistance being provided to Kyiv by the Biden administration. In the opposite corner, writing for the Guardian, Simon Tisdall sounds almost hysterical in his call for the West to overthrow Putin: “Get Putin. Take him down. Lock him up. That’s a strategic aim all could and should get behind.” Both pundits, I would argue, have got it wrong. Ukraine’s gift to the West is that Putin’s ambitions will be thwarted by the spilt blood of its own patriotic and heroic people. No dollar value can be put on that. And if Putin loses on the battlefield, suffering one or maybe two more reversals along the lines of the Battle for Kyiv, the West will not have to “take him down” or “lock him up”. The people of Ukraine will take care of the Russian army; the Russian people will take care of Putin.
Carlson is scathing in his denunciation of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s demand for more and more lethal weaponry. A report in Newsweek has Carlson dismissing Zelenskyy’s “authoritarian government” as dishonest: “They don’t care about the United States even a little bit. This is not democracy … uniting in solidarity. This is a scam.” Carlson is within his rights to be aghast that the United States once again finds itself embroiled in a foreign war. The fiasco of the gruelling and expensive two-decade Afghanistan War is too recent to be disregarded. We might say the same about the Iraq War. Figures provided by Brown University’s Costs of War Project put the price of America’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 at more than $6 trillion. Added to the original outlay of $2.2 trillion is the interest on the borrowing required to fund those wars. The Korean War and the Vietnam War were expensive enough but at least they were paid for contemporaneously by raising the tax rate on the highest earners. The wars of the twenty-first century, in contrast, have all been financed on credit and, according to a report by AAP, will reach the $2.1 trillion mark, even more if spiralling government debt is not addressed. And then there is the money, as much as $2.1 trillion, required to fund the health care of the four million US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, services not expected to peak until as late as 2048.
This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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The fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, conjured up grim memories of the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Afghanis plunging to their deaths from departing C-17s reminded us of the estimated 200,000 to 400,000 South Vietnamese who drowned on the high seas attempting to escape the communists. At almost the same moment as the Taliban made its move on Kabul, President Biden was assuring America that all was in hand. Then he failed to secure the perimeter of Kabul before thousands of American, British and other Western civilians were evacuated. The Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid was soon announcing that the new regime would be honouring “women’s rights” as long as women adhered to the Taliban’s “cultural values”.
America’s military intervention, in the end, gave the Taliban expensive and sophisticated American weaponry, including Black Hawk helicopters, abandoned by the Afghan National Army. The costly futility of it all was only reinforced by the news that Washington has now provided almost a billion dollars of foreign aid to Hibatullah Akhundzada’s so-called Islamic Caliphate of Afghanistan. The Biden administration promised that any financial aid provided by the US taxpayer would not be siphoned off by the Taliban—a hollow assurance given the totalitarian reach of the regime. America’s “nation building” in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, has been a disaster.
That said, the United States has participated in some astonishing victories over the past two decades, not least the original US-Northern Alliance partnership that overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001 in quick time and with a minimum of American casualties. Even the hapless Obama administration experienced a stunning victory against the Islamic State group in the 2014-15 Battle for Kobani by lending US airpower to the indefatigable fighting spirit of the Kurdish People’s Defence Units. The Syrian Kurds, not unlike the soldiers in Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, and here we could add the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU), have all been ready not only to fight to the death but to fight for victory against the enemies of humanity, who also happen to be the enemies of the West.
The tragedy for the Northern Alliance—and the same risk looms for the Syrian Kurds and Ukrainians—is that America and Western countries failed to understand the raison d’être of their erstwhile ally. Based in the Panjshir Valley, the Northern Alliance, made up of ethnic Tajiks and other non-Pashtun tribes, vanished during the “nation building” of the past twenty years. However, after the capture of Kabul by the mostly Pashtun Taliban and the dissolution of the Afghan National Army, the Northern Alliance 2.0, the National Resistance Front, has re-emerged. Ahmad Masoud Jr, its military commander, is calling for US arms to resist the Taliban: “America can still be the great arsenal of democracy.” There is almost no chance—given America’s disobliging mood—of Washington accommodating Masoud’s self-styled Second Resistance.
“Nation building” in Iraq proved no more successful. Bernard Lewis, in Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian (2012), lamented the fact that he was held responsible for the so-called “Lewis Doctrine”, the supposed set of guidelines that informed Vice-President Dick Cheney and in turn President George W. Bush in the lead-up to the Second Iraq War. Lewis denied the charge that the Bush administration followed his advice about how to deal with Saddam Hussein:
I still feel that the liberation of Iraq could have been achieved far more peacefully and more effectively by collaborating with the rulers of the free zone in the north. I have sometimes been blamed by the media for the second invasion of Iraq. This is the opposite of the truth. What I actually proposed, the recognition of a “Free Government of Iraq”, would have given international legitimacy to a home-grown, independent movement and thus would have accelerated the overthrow, from within, of the already crumbling tyranny of Saddam Hussein. But it was not to be.
The point, as it relates to this discussion, is that the chance of a successful American or Western foreign intervention depends on the cohesiveness, fighting spirit and, not least, pro-Western orientation of the local forces on the ground. To this day, Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, for all its nepotism and corruption, remains pro-American, autonomous and beyond the clutches of both Iran and the Islamic State group. That is its gift to humanity and, if you like, to the West.
Much the same might be said about Ukraine. We now know that in the first hours of Putin’s invasion on February 24, an elite group of Russian paratroopers twice attempted to storm the presidential compound in Kyiv. Putin’s orders were for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the democratically elected president of a sovereign state, to be either kidnapped or, if necessary, assassinated. Zelenskyy, his wife and two children must have feared the worst that night as the compound was secured with every kind of makeshift protection and blackout protocol was observed. Come the early hours of the morning, the unnerved Biden administration wanted to whisk Zelenskyy and his family out of Ukraine; the British government was busy making similar promises to other members of the government. Washington and Westminster jointly recommended Zelenskyy and his closest associates repair to Warsaw and set up a government-in-exile there. Zelenskyy and his inner circle, not a few of them in the local television and entertainment business, stayed to face the music. They proceeded to make real-life reality shows in the heart of Kyiv at the very time most observers believed the Battle for Kyiv could have only one outcome—Russia’s greatest post-Cold War triumph.
Not that any of this has impressed Tucker Carlson. The fact that two months after Russia’s invasion President Biden signed a $40 billion support package for Ukraine, which included M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, proved too much for Carlson. Getting under his skin, on another occasion, was a photo shoot of Zelenskyy’s wife, “Portrait of Bravery: Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska”, which appeared in the July 2022 edition of the (mostly) fashion magazine Vogue. You might think taking advantage of any public relations opportunity was only common sense given the dark arts of Kremlin dezinformatsiya, but Carlson was not alone in his outrage. Here is Adam Broomberg’s posting on Instagram:
The idea of a conflict zone as a backdrop for an Annie Leibovitz shoot for Vogue magazine is vile. Posing the “First Lady” against a destroyed airplane in which people presumably died. Depicting a politician as an iconic hero without any nuanced understanding of their function and complicity in this 155-day-old brutal war. A superficial glossy depiction of a hero in the Hollywood mould.
We could point out that “the destroyed airplane in which people presumably died” had been sent to kill the people of the sovereign state of Ukraine.
Despite the imprudence of a number of America’s foreign interventions, overly investing in the isolationist cause also has its drawbacks. Patrick Buchanan, a champion of the Old Right, was reduced to arguing against America’s war with Hitler in Churchill, Hitler and the “Unnecessary War” (2008) to defend the integrity of his isolationist ideology. Better to ditch your ideology, I would contend, than shirk a war for civilisation.
The belief systems of Nazism and Putin’s Eurasianism are not, of course, one and the same thing, and yet they share an anti-West obsession. Alexander Dugin, author of Foundations of Geopolitics (1991), one-time manifesto of Russian ultra-nationalism, has written with millennialist fervour about the providence of a “Eurasian Empire” in much the same way Nazi philosophers fantasised about a one-thousand-year Third Reich. There is certainly a parallel in the way both Hitler and Putin came to power in catastrophic times and, to borrow from Richard Landes’s Heaven and Earth (2011), understood “the apocalyptic scenario” by which their respective nations would “come out triumphant”. Thus, the envisaged Eurasian empire would be greater in scope and unity than the Soviet empire ever was, just as the ambition of the architects of the Third Reich was to be more glorious than the Kaiserreich.
Although Alexander Dugin has been variously described as “Putin’s brain” or “Putin’s Rasputin”, it is unlikely Dugin is a part of Putin’s inner circle. The brazen assassination of Dugin’s twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Darya Dugina, probably points to the family’s outsider status. If we are to believe the assertions of the Kremlin—which, of course, we are not obliged to do—a middle-aged Ukrainian woman, Natalia Vovk, with twelve-year-old daughter in tow, blew up Dugina’s Land Cruiser Prado in the outskirts of Moscow with a “controlled explosion”. Mission accomplished, Vovk, daughter still by her side, breezily motored past the guards on the Russian border and into the safety of Estonia. Russia’s security forces, the FSB, announced the identity of the assassin less than forty-eight hours after Dugina’s murder, something of a miracle given the FSB’s inability to uncover the identities of the murderers of anti-Putin politicians, journalists and businessmen The FSB, inevitably enough, announced that Natalia Vovk was a member of Ukraine’s Azov regiment, the alleged pro-Nazi outfit that President Putin used as one of his pretexts for attacking Ukraine. The Kremlin calling anybody in Ukraine “pro-Nazi” is, of course, somewhat ironic.
Putin, in any case, did not require Dugin to be close at hand to risk everything by invading the sovereign state of Ukraine. Dugin himself explained the situation in a book titled Putin vs Putin: Vladimir Putin Viewed from the Right (2014). The personality of Putin, according to Dugin, was divided between a “lunar” self, with a cautious and pragmatic outlook, and a more adventurous “solar” entity that hoped the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet empire might be somewhat reversed if circumstances turned propitious. Today Dugin’s grandiloquent vision of a vast new Russian empire is unlikely to be taken seriously by Putin, and yet the Ukrainian portion of the Eurasian empire project doubtless still lingers. For instance, Putin used Dugin’s Novorossiya (New Russia) terminology to describe Crimea’s status after it was annexed in 2014. Dugin has always been incensed that some—perhaps the vast majority by now—Ukrainians have no desire to see their country incorporated into Russia. Dugin, after the crackdown on pro-Russian protesters in Odessa in 2014, was consumed with fury: “Ukraine has to disappear from the Earth and rebuild itself from scratch or the people need to bring it back. I believe that the people in Ukraine need a total revolt in all levels and in all regions, not just in the south-east.” In this, if not in the Neo-Eurasian movement delusion per se, Putin and Dugin are of like minds.
Simply put, Ukraine has no right to exist as an entity independent of the Russian Motherland. Putin wrote as much as recently as 2021 in a lengthy article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. The Ukrainians and Russians were one people with an identical history and only the federal system initiated at the commencement of the Soviet era has deceived anybody into believing otherwise. The refusal of President Zelenskyy (and his predecessors) to acknowledge this “reality” and accept that, at the very least, Crimea and eastern Ukraine should be ruled from Moscow makes Zelenskyy a Russian traitor, a veritable Nazi in fact. Given that the vast majority of the Ukrainian people, including Russian speakers, would not have permitted Zelenskyy to hand over their sovereign nation or parts thereof to Moscow, it follows that the Ukrainian leader, democratically elected to power in 2019, is not so much “complicit” in Putin’s war but an unambiguous victim of it. The West, similarly, is not to blame for Putin’s war because it imposed sanctions on Moscow in the aftermath of Putin’s seizure of Ukrainian territory. After all, over the decades the Russian Federation itself has signed any number of bilateral treaties with a sovereign Ukraine. If the civilised world is not willing to defend the inviolability of recognised international borders, we really are on a fast track to a Third World War.
What the West can be blamed for (as I argued in “Churchill’s Lesson for Our Time”, Quadrant, May 2022) was allowing “the wicked” to believe the balance of forces were weighted in their favour. From an economic perspective, European leaders betrayed the West going all the way back to 1998. Foreign affairs expert Constanze Stelzenmüller, for instance, argues that Russia’s war of annihilation against Ukraine has cast a “dark backwards shadow” over Angela Merkel’s sixteen-year tenure as chancellor of Germany:
Should she not have paid more attention to Putin’s repression of civil society and murders of political opponents in Russia? His poisoning of European politics by means of disinformation and corruption? His careful weaving of a continent-wide web of dependency on Russian gas? His stationing of intermediate-range missiles in Kaliningrad? His increasingly evident imperial ambitions?
Merkel made a brief return to the public eye four months after the invasion of Ukraine. She insisted she had no regrets: “I don’t see that I should now have to say that I was wrong. And I will therefore not apologise.” Nonetheless, she claimed to have known all along Putin was up to no good: “I always knew he wanted to destroy Europe.” So, asks Stelzenmüller, why did Merkel sanction the sale of “Germany’s largest gas storage facilities to Gazprom after the seizure of the [Crimean Peninsula]” in 2014? Merkel, in response, spoke about the need for Germany to maintain “trade connections” with the second-largest global nuclear power.
In other words, at the very core of Europe throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century has been a moral and strategic void. No wonder that over the years New Europe—mostly former captive states of the Soviet empire—has become increasingly appalled at the folly of Old Europe, Germany and France especially.
Germany and France had their different reasons for not only barring Ukraine from joining NATO before February 24 but also discouraging military assistance from other NATO countries. For Paris, of course, upgrading Ukraine’s military preparedness in any form gave Washington a new reason to insinuate itself into the military affairs of Europe. For Berlin, however, the idea of a buffer zone between the West and Russia—that is to say, Belarus, Ukraine, Transnistria and so on—was not antithetical to either Germany or Russia. How else to explain Berlin’s refusal to sanction the sale of German-made military ware by Estonia to Ukraine on the eve of the Russian invasion?
Only after the war commenced did Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announce in the Reichstag the end of German appeasement: “In attacking Ukraine, Putin doesn’t just want to eradicate a country from the world map, he is destroying the European security structure we have had in place since Helsinki.” Chancellor Scholz’s promise to send Ukraine 1000 anti-tank weapons and 500 surface-to-air missiles, along with permission belatedly granted to Estonia to transfer German-made weapons to Ukraine, was welcome. Only the parliamentary representatives of the ultra-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), for reasons known only to themselves, opposed this paradigm shift in German foreign policy. Nevertheless, as far as averting Putin’s war, it was all too late. Half measures in the years leading up to the February invasion of Ukraine, as was the case before Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, only served to provoke the designated antagonist without deterring it.
It is no contradiction to argue that Ukraine’s full membership of NATO was an intelligent option before February 24 but less so after Putin miscalculated the chances of a quick victory. The death and wounding of up to 50,000 Russian troops in the first six months of his war is a total humiliation for Moscow, especially when it has very little to show for the carnage. Given that, Putin might be prepared to opt for a Third World War scenario if the West were to directly target Russian forces. Time for cool heads. To avoid a Hot War, the two superpowers during the First Cold War were careful to steer clear of Washington-against-Moscow conflagrations whenever possible: Korea and Vietnam two cases in point. Simon Tisdall, writing for the Guardian, takes a contrary view, arguing that the barbarity of Putin’s war necessitates NATO immediately launching strikes on Russian assets in Ukraine. In other words, to bring an abrupt end to a war that, as of July 24 according to the UN, has resulted in the death of 5,237 Ukrainian civilians, 350 of them children, caution must now be thrown to the wind. Ukraine should, effectively, be granted de facto NATO status. The title of one of Tisdall’s articles encapsulates his thinking on the subject: “The West Worries Too Much About Escalation in Ukraine”. The problem, nevertheless, is that wars tend to go sideways. Take, for instance, Moscow’s reckless plan to disconnect the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, in the occupied city of Enerhodar, and redirect the electricity to a Russian-controlled grid. What could go wrong with that?
In a similar vein, who knows how China attacking Taiwan would play out? Will Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force, the third-largest navy in the world, be drawn into such a conflict? Will 200,000 or more PLA servicemen be slaughtered attempting to cross the Straits of Taiwan or disembarking on the beaches of Taiwan? Will Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung be reduced to rubble by the PLA’s Rocket Force? Will the cities of China’s province of Fujian be reduced to rubble in return? The point, obviously, is that few sane people are in a rush to find out. John Lee, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and adjunct professor at the University of Sydney, believes that, while the conquest of Taiwan remains on Xi Jinping’s to-do list, Russia’s debacle in the Battle for Kyiv and catastrophic losses on the eastern front will have deeply troubled Xi, notwithstanding the “limitless friendship” he promised Putin immediately before the February invasion.
Ukraine’s Resistance Operating Concept, according to Mark Schwartz, former commander of Special Operations Command Europe, has seen the Ukraine people—military and civilians alike—combine to make life hell for the invader: “This is the way to turn the tables on a First World power. It’s just incredible to watch that despite the unbelievable loss of life and sacrifice, what the will to resist and the resolve to resist can do.” Consequently, Xi’s reputed plan to capture Taipei within a week and the whole of the island-nation in two weeks—thus circumventing Japanese or US intervention—is looking increasingly implausible. The heroes of Ukraine, who as I write are launching the Battle for Kherson, continue to tear the heart out of the Russian forces. John Lee believes that such exploits have at the very least “bought the West time” by delaying Xi’s Battle for Taiwan.
If Putin’s “special military operation” continues to be a costly miscalculation, not just for the Russian Armed Forces but Russia as whole, he will have no choice but to push for an armistice. In a sense he is probably angling for one already by reducing energy supplies to Europe and threatening to plunge the continent into a long, dark, cold winter. The Ukrainians are not likely to opt out of the war while Russian troops remain on their sovereign territory. They will hope that the usually cosseted population of Europe can endure the winter of 2022-23 without too much social unrest and remain united in their support for Kyiv.
After all, the sacrifice (so far) of 9500 Ukrainian soldiers—according to the ZSU’s own estimates—involves something more than that. Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World (1996) is often condemned for needlessly fomenting discord. Edward Said, for instance, abhorred the fact that built into Huntington’s worldview was an us-versus-them mentality that gave licence to Westerners—who else?—to fear, loathe and disdain the Muslim world, the Sinic world, the Orthodox world and so on and on. It is the likes of Vladimir Putin, Alexander Dugin and Moscow’s propagandist media who have pursued the clash-of-civilisations thesis, albeit with Russia as the saviour of humanity and the West (or the Atlanticists, as Moscow likes to say) as “degenerate”. In this context, at least, Ukrainians resisting their nation’s return to the Motherland are enemies of humanity or—in the lexicon of the Kremlin—“Nazis”.
From a Western perspective, of course, this is nonsense. But it is also wrong, contraire Huntington, to suggest the West has united to oppose Russia because Russia is “Orthodox”. After all, technically speaking Ukraine is far more “Orthodox” than the Russian Federation with its poly-ethnic make-up. Maybe we should update Huntington and redefine Russia not so much as the dominant partner in the so-called “Orthodox world” but an important (but not the most important) component of what Scott Morrison designated the Arc of Autocracy.
Equally, it is high time we accepted Ukraine as a heaven-sent new member of the House of Freedom. And, while we are at it, let’s welcome in Taiwan. Ex Unitate Viras.
Daryl McCann contributed “How Wokeists Are Working to Destroy the Family” in the September issue. He has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com