I’m trusting that all of my readers have already seen plenty of news about the Russia-Ukraine war. Thus, I’m not going to try to begin this essay with a summary of the situation – either of the invasion that began this week, or of the whole tawdry history of Russia-Ukraine relations over the last ten years or so.
However, I do think it’s a good idea to say that people trying to understand these events would benefit from keeping in mind two relevant definitions from The Devil’s Dictionary, by the great satirist Ambrose Bierce.
Boundary, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.
Cannon, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.
Ambrose Bierce was writing at the end of the 19th century. During his childhood, his country had sent a great number of cannons to its frontier with Mexico, and emerged from the scuffle with a “rectified” boundary. As a young man, Bierce fought in the Civil War, and helped make sure that the Confederacy would fail in its attempt to establish a new international boundary where there hadn’t been one before.
Meanwhile, as a mature journalist, he frequently found himself writing about such exercises in boundary rectification as the Franco-Prussian War, the Saltpeter War, the Spanish-American War, and the two Boer Wars.
So we can be fairly confident that Ambrose Bierce knew his stuff.
Now, it just so happens that, since the end of the Cold War, the United States and its various coalitions of allies have been the principal cannon-wielders of the world. Yet curiously enough, almost none of America’s wars have ended with the drawing or redrawing of boundaries.
For example, Iraq was “liberated” from Saddam Hussein, yet instead of granting his most oppressed subjects, the Kurds, what they wanted – an independent Kurdistan – they were just forced against their will into a new polity erected on the old Iraqi borders.
How well did this work out? Well, within a decade of the (partial) withdrawal of US forces, Iraq had already degenerated into a failed state, been temporarily overrun by ISIS, and finally gotten transformed into a de facto client state of Iran.
America has repeatedly proven ready and willing to insert itself into conflicts all over the world, instigate coups and install American puppet regimes in countries both large and small, and heavily bomb its supposed enemies with little concern for civilian casualties. Yet it is largely uninterested in redrawing national boundaries – even though, historically speaking, a desire to redraw boundaries has been the main reason for nations to go to war.
It seems to me that the most likely explanation for this weird fact is that the neocons and neoliberals who have set American foreign policy for the last thirty years or so don’t really believe in boundaries.
Oh, they will certainly get good and angry angry when a country that they disapprove of, such as Russia, starts violating the “territorial integrity” of one of its neighbors. Yet at the same time, they see the idea of a boundary that separates two distinct peoples with two distinct ways of life as being rather strange and antiquated. After all, the world to them is a place full of interchangeable people who all want the same things that they want – that is, to live under a government that governs in accordance with the value systems of Harvard and the New York Times.
They refer to such a system of government as “democracy,” in blithe disregard of the question of how much power it actually gives to the voters/common people. Have you ever wondered why, here in the United States, SCOTUS’ ability to legalize same sex marriage and abortion without any kind of democratic mandate does not get points knocked off of the US’ standing in democracy indices, while at the same time, Hungarian premier Victor Orbán’s highly popular decision to refuse entry to most Middle-Eastern migrants gets him called a “strongman” or even a “dictator” by the western press? Well, now you know.
But I digress. The point is that, in the neoliberal imagination, all people are homogenous, or at the very least they ought to be. If Iraq is suffering under a dictator, it is good to ask whether the dictator should be gotten rid of, and who should govern Iraq in his stead. It is bad to ask whether there should even be a unified “Iraq” in the first place.
Or consider South Africa. When the Apartheid regime fell in the 1990s, too few people asked whether the Zulus and Xhosas and Tswanas and Boers and Cape Coloureds and all of that country’s other ethnic groups, who had been forced into a very unhappy union in order to satisfy the demands of British imperialism, should now be free to go there own ways. Instead, they just asked what needed to be done so that all “South Africans” could live like, and be governed like, US Americans.
I trust that I do not need to devote time to summarizing the results for South Africa.
The first thing to take into account when trying to understand Russia is that the Russians, like most people in the world, do not share the neoliberals’ attitudes toward boundaries.
Vladimir Putin is not interested in global hegemony. His concerns are strictly regional.
The proximate cause of the war with Ukraine was the secession of the Donbas – a.k.a. the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – in the very easternmost part of Ukraine. The Donbas is full of ethnic Russians who have always favored closer integration with Russia, and who generally see the breakup of the Soviet Union as a tragedy because it separated them from their kinsmen.
Until 2014, the presidency of Ukraine was held by Victor Yanukovych, a member of the pro-Russian faction. Then Yanukovych was overthrown in a US-backed coup, and the Donbas, which refused to recognize the new central government which took his place, has spent the past eight years fighting a bitter war of independence.
Russia waited until this week to militarily intervene. For people who only heard the western side of the story, Russia’s recent actions are a senseless and unprovoked aggression. But for the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk, the eventual arrival of the (excessively patient) Russians was the well-earned and eagerly celebrated reward for eight long years of struggle and bloodshed and heroism.
The United States’ leadership class cannot understand or respect this, because to them, a man’s national identity depends – or at least, it ought to depend – only on which side of a more or less arbitrary line he happens to live on.
And that man’s political desires should not include a desire for unity with, or separation from, this or that group of people. Rather, he should desire only to be governed by the best possible government – which in practice means a pliable government, possibly installed in a CIA-backed coup, which can be relied upon to implement whatever policies Harvard and the New York Times and George Soros say are the best policies.
Now, if you’ve read this far, you’ll probably be patient enough to believe me when I say that none of this is meant as an expression of approval for what Vladimir Putin just did!
My desire is simply to remind people of the fact that there is more than one side to this story, and that it isn’t the simplistic tale of good-vs-evil that you would get by watching CNN or reading the Times. It is important for Americans to understand the Donbas separatists’ side of the story. Yet it would also be stupid to deny that in most regions of Ukraine, the population is quite patriotic and loyal to Kyiv, and that these people deserve not to have their houses bombed and their cities occupied by the Russian army.
Had the United States and its NATO allies been more honest with themselves and with Ukraine about the limits of their reach, this situation might have been settled through some sort of peaceful compromise. Until a few days ago, mutual respect might have prevailed – or in other words, the leaders of Ukraine might have realized that the best way to avoid war was to commit to staying out of NATO, and to negotiate an honorable peace with the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, who (it must be remembered) have a legitimate reason for believing that they don’t owe allegiance to the present-day Ukrainian government.
But instead, we have leaders who loudly, and up to the final moment, insisted that Ukraine’s borders, and Ukraine’s right to join NATO, were and always would be inviolable… in the full knowledge that they were unwilling to do anything to defend them if war broke out.
If Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dies in battle defending his homeland – something which he thinks is increasingly likely – then he will have died a hero, and he will live on in song and story for hundreds of years.
But Joe Biden? Antony Blinken? Olaf Shultz? Jens Stoltenberg? These people will be remembered by history very differently, to the extent that they are remembered at all.
And of course we must not leave out Victoria Nuland, the woman at Foggy Bottom who was the prime mover on the American end of the 2014 coup, and who then hand-picked the new Ukrainian government, and who, after four years out of office during the Trump administration, was put back into the State Department in a higher post under Biden, and confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent.
Now, I also think it is still a big mistake to compare Vladimir Putin to Hitler. Indeed, it is a sign of the intellectual poverty of our times.
If Americans were still decently educated, then instead of always rushing straight to the Führer, they would have a whole plethora of historical comparisons to draw on whenever somebody set to work using cannons as instruments of boundary rectification. They could bring up the memory of James Knox Polk, or Otto von Bismarck, or William McKinley, or Cecil Rhodes, to name a few.
I think that a particularly succinct way to describe what is happening between Russia and Ukraine right now is that Putin is trying to be the Bismarck of the 21st century. Like Chancellor Bismarck, he is leading a beleaguered country on what he thinks is a path of reform and rejuvenation that will restore it to its rightful place in the world order. And like Bismarck, he is not above including a few carefully-planned, well-executed wars in his quest for greatness.
Putin does not make war in the way that the United States makes war. To begin with, because his hegemonial ambitions are regional rather than global, his wars are all fought near his own country. Also, Putin’s wars tend to be quick – for instance, the invasion of Georgia in 2008 (which was launched in defense of South Ossetia, another tiny separatist republic recognized only by Russia) was over in just five days.
Finally, the goals of Putin’s wars are more modest. For instance, while the United States spent 20 years trying to rebuild Afghanistan as a liberal democracy, Russia’s involvement in the Syria war had the simpler (and much more achievable) aim of killing a lot of ISIS members, and shoring up the authority of Bashar al Assad.
The Ukraine war is clearly Putin’s most ambitious war to date. And it appears that this time he has gone the full Bismarckian route – tired of giving indirect aid to the separatists in a eight-year-long festering conflict with no hope of a clear resolution, Putin has decided to drop all pretenses, throw everything he can at the enemy, and make a hard drive deep into enemy territory in the hopes that, when the capital falls, he can quickly force his preferred peace terms on his prostrate foe, and then leave.
I think it is very unlikely that Putin is planning a protracted occupation like what the US did with Iraq and Afghanistan. I expect him to be content with demilitarizing the Ukraine and securing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. As a result, the human cost of the war is almost certain to be less than that of the United States’ recent Middle-Eastern misadventures.
Even so, it may turn out to be a price that’s too high to be borne, even, or perhaps especially, for Russia. From a military standpoint, Otto von Bismarck’s final war – the war with France in 1870 – was a brilliant and seamless victory. But it earned his country seventy years of enmity with France, and with that came the future losses in two World Wars.
For Russia, which I expect to face serious challenges later this century in the form of population decline and Chinese irredentism, the hatred of its western neighbors may more than it can handle. What will the long-term consequences be? At this point, no one can say.
Nor can one neglect the price that a nation pays at home when too many of its citizens come to believe that their leaders are sending them off to fight and die in needless wars of choice. America suffered a lot in this way from the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars; Russia may be at risk of something similar.
Since I started this piece with a reference to a work of satire, I may as well finish it with another. A few days ago, The Onion published an article entitled “U.S. Shocked Russia Would Invade Another Country After Seeing How Badly America’s Recent Invasions Went.”
Say what you want about The Onion, you’ll find more truth in it than you will in a lot of other news sources.
How badly (or how well) will this invasion go? At the moment, nobody knows.
All we know for certain is that Vladimir Putin, when forced to make a decision about how to deal with the situation in Ukraine, chose the quickest, most forceful option that was available to him. And we also know that the time has now come for the collective nations of Europe to endure the predictable consequences of outsourcing their security to the United States, and of becoming abjectly dependent on an ally that has turned out to be all bark and no bite.
And we know that Russia isn’t the only country that is positioning itself to take advantage of the coming international realignment. As American hegemony continues to weaken, more cannons will be employed, and more boundaries will be rectified. It would be naïve not to expect the world maps at mid-century to look quite a bit different than those of today.