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Saturday Commentary and Review #76
Putin YES!, Putin NO!, US Empire 100 Years Ago, Orban and the Challenge of the War in Ukraine, Led Zeppelin and How They Came To Be
This is a war in Europe. And just like in the first half of the 1990s, it’s a war between different Slavic tribes. But unlike the previous wars in Croatia and Bosnia, one of the parties in this conflict is wholly acting as a proxy for a much larger power, the USA.
I have come into a lot of criticism these past two weeks for my stance on the war in Ukraine, with accusations ranging from being a crypto-communist, to a crypto-Yugoslav, and even being a Serbophile. All of these charges are baseless, since recognizing that Ukraine is only the setting for the ongoing 30 year conflict between Russia and the USA is fact.
The USA continues to reject calls for instituting a no-fly zone above Ukraine, as it means WW3. It also rejects (along with NATO) sending in ground forces to combat Russian ones already there, for the exact same reason. But it is more than happy to let Russia bleed out in Ukraine, with the aim being to create a second Afghanistan for Moscow. Will that happen? I strongly doubt it. Will the USA try to make it happen? I strongly believe so.
Despite the Monroe Doctrine, despite NATO, and despite US forces being stationed in over 100 countries worldwide, the USA officially rejects the idea of ‘spheres of influence’. Russia disagrees, and what Russia is doing in Ukraine is drawing a thick line as to where its sphere of influence is. This is what the war is all about.
This war did not have to happen. Many US foreign policy planners and IR academics have openly stated in the past that trying to snatch Ukraine from out of Russia’s sphere of influence would be a red line crossed. Instead, the USA went ahead and armed Ukraine, and put it on the path towards NATO membership. It taunted the Bear, and the Bear is now reacting. Like it or not, that is the actual situation. This is a conflict about WHAT IS, not WHAT SHOULD BE.
One of the greatest IR scholars of all time is American academic John Mearsheimer. Belonging to the Neo-Realist school, he has been highly critical of US policy in Russia’s near abroad, and has been warning about taunting the Bear for some time now. He is most popular thanks to his book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”, that he wrote with Stephen Walt, a book that earned a lot of criticism by way of that lobby and its supporters in US media. He is now back in the media again for saying that the US bears the brunt of the responsibility for this conflict, showing that he may have a masochistic streak in light of the lockstep support for Ukraine and vitriol being directed at Vladimir Putin and Russians by the US Government and media.
Mearsheimer recently sat for an interview with The New Yorker to give his views on this conflict. This interview has gotten a lot of well-deserved coverage, and I feel that it’s rather important to share with all of you.
Much has been said in the West that the war is ‘really about Putin opposing western liberal democracy’ rather than containing the threat of NATO. Mearsheimer flat out rejects that notion, and pins the blame squarely on this:
I think all the trouble in this case really started in April, 2008, at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, where afterward NATO issued a statement that said Ukraine and Georgia would become part of NATO. The Russians made it unequivocally clear at the time that they viewed this as an existential threat, and they drew a line in the sand. Nevertheless, what has happened with the passage of time is that we have moved forward to include Ukraine in the West to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. Of course, this includes more than just NATO expansion. NATO expansion is the heart of the strategy, but it includes E.U. expansion as well, and it includes turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, and, from a Russian perspective, this is an existential threat.
On spheres of influence, and why they exist even if you state that they don’t:
It’s not imperialism; this is great-power politics. When you’re a country like Ukraine and you live next door to a great power like Russia, you have to pay careful attention to what the Russians think, because if you take a stick and you poke them in the eye, they’re going to retaliate. States in the Western hemisphere understand this full well with regard to the United States.
The Monroe Doctrine, essentially.
Of course. There’s no country in the Western hemisphere that we will allow to invite a distant, great power to bring military forces into that country.
We all live in neighbourhoods, and we have to respect our neighbours, especially when they are much more larger than us. As Stalin once quipped in reply to a question of his hostility towards Finland: “I am not responsible for geography.” Not every country is as lucky as New Zealand.
The USA as aggressor:
Oh, I think I was right. I think the evidence is clear that we did not think he was an aggressor before February 22, 2014. This is a story that we invented so that we could blame him. My argument is that the West, especially the United States, is principally responsible for this disaster. But no American policymaker, and hardly anywhere in the American foreign-policy establishment, is going to want to acknowledge that line of argument, and they will say that the Russians are responsible.
What we have learned these past two decades in the USA is that there is no accountability for failure. This means that Putin will continue to be drawn as the ultimate evil despite US foreign policy being primarily responsible for this conflict. It’s not in anyone’s interest to oppose this, so the charade will continue.
On what the Americans should be doing:
We should be pivoting out of Europe to deal with China in a laser-like fashion, number one. And, number two, we should be working overtime to create friendly relations with the Russians. The Russians are part of our balancing coalition against China. If you live in a world where there are three great powers—China, Russia, and the United States—and one of those great powers, China, is a pure competitor, what you want to do if you’re the United States is have Russia on your side of the ledger. Instead, what we have done with our foolish policies in Eastern Europe is drive the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. This is a violation of Balance of Power Politics 101.
I have been wondering for some time whether the USA would choose to go after Russia or China. Instead, it seems that they want to do both. This is hubris, and hubris ends empires.
One of the funnier aspects of this conflict is western media, particularly American, engaging in a bit of self-reflection and concluding that “Gee, maybe we shouldn’t have threatened Russia with NATO membership for Ukraine?”
Whether this self-reflection is honest or cynical remains to be seen. But it is funny because it costs nothing to engage in this self-reflection (and there is upside in being somewhat critical), as the USA has set itself up a win-win scenario: Russia invades and is cut off from Europe and its economy severely punished or Russia doesn’t invade and Ukraine becomes the forward base for regime change in Moscow.
The USA is the big winner in this conflict, solidifying its control over Europe, ensuring LNG and arms exports to that very same continent. The only threats are inflation and possible moves towards global de-Dollarization. Those remain to be seen.
Besides Ukraine, Europe is the other big loser in this conflict. It has lost more trade with Russia, it is being forced to re-think and re-orient its energy policies (which will see prices skyrocket), and will now divert money towards rearmament. Until they grow a collective backbone, Europe will continue to sink in global importance, being relegated to little more than a collection of American satrapies.
Robert Service is a well-regarded British historian and academic with a focus on Russian history. He is engaging in this hedging but offering up some critiques after the fires have started. Cynical or sincere? You decide.
The first of the two strategic blunders that led to this war:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted from two immense strategic blunders, Robert Service says. The first came on Nov. 10, when the U.S. and Ukraine signed a Charter on Strategic Partnership, which asserted America’s support for Kyiv’s right to pursue membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The pact made it likelier than ever that Ukraine would eventually join NATO—an intolerable prospect for Vladimir Putin. “It was the last straw,” Mr. Service says. Preparations immediately began for Russia’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine.
The November agreement added heft to looser assurances Ukraine received at a NATO summit five months earlier that membership would be open to the country if it met the alliance’s criteria. Mr. Service characterizes these moves as “shambolic mismanagement” by the West, which offered Ukraine encouragement on the NATO question but gave no apparent thought to how such a tectonic move away from Moscow would go down with Mr. Putin. “Nothing was done to prepare the Ukrainians for the kind of negative response that they would get.”
After all, Mr. Service says, Ukraine is “one of the hot spots in the mental universe of Vladimir Putin, and you don’t wander into it without a clear idea of what you’re going to do next.” The West has known that since at least 2007, when the Russian ruler made a speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy that was, in Mr. Service’s words, “a rage against Ukraine ever joining NATO.” He was about to step down from the Russian presidency (to become prime minister for four years), “so it was his last lion’s roar in the jungle.” When he returned as president in 2012, he made it clear again that “the Ukraine-NATO question wasn’t negotiable.”
The “second strategic blunder” is more an attack on Putin and his mindset:
The second strategic error was Mr. Putin’s underestimation of his rivals. “He despises the West and what he sees as Western decadence,” Mr. Service says. “He had come to believe that the West was a shambles, both politically and culturally.” He also thought that the leaders of the West were “of poor quality, and inexperienced, in comparison with himself. After all, he’s been in power 20 years.”
In Mr. Putin’s cocksure reckoning, the invasion was going to be “a pushover—not just in regard to Ukraine, but in regard to the West.” He’d spent four years “running rings around Donald Trump, ” and he thought the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel left the West rudderless. That set the scene for the “surprise he got when he invaded Ukraine, when he found that he’d inadvertently united the West—that what he’d done was the very opposite of what he wanted.” Mr. Service calls Mr. Putin “reckless and mediocre” and scoffs at the notion that he is “some sort of genius.” What kind of Russian leader, he asks, “makes it impossible for a German leader not to build up Germany’s armaments”?
Mr. Putin evidently “hoped there wouldn’t have to be a war” because the massing of troops on the border would lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian government. He underestimated Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he’d met in Paris in December 2019, six months after the Ukrainian president took office. Mr. Putin had “done his usual brutal discussion performance with him. Zelensky came out of these talks obviously shaken.”
Mr. Service says the key to understanding Mr. Putin is his adamant belief that Russia is “a great global power” and that the Russian sphere of influence should extend to as many of the former Soviet republics as possible: “There’s no state that’s more important to him than Ukraine.”
I think that it is rather obvious that Putin realized some time ago that the EU was always going to act as America’s lapdog in this potential (now real) conflict. Foreign Minister Lavrov had been saying just as much in the run up to the war. Both men were also well-aware that Russia had to turn east, as the USA was shutting off the west to them.
Putin will ‘win the war but lose the peace’:
As the Russian invasion continues into its second week, Mr. Service is pessimistic, certain that we’re heading into a prolonged war that will end in the subjugation of Ukraine. “He’ll win the war,” Mr. Service says, “by flattening Ukraine. By devastating a brother people, he could win the war. But he won’t win the peace. The task of tranquilizing the Ukrainians is beyond the Russians. There’s too much bile that’s been let loose in the stomach of Ukraine.”
Looking to history for analogies, he rejects Czechoslovakia in 1968, preferring instead the example of Hungary in 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to quell a major uprising. “When the Soviets suppressed the Hungarian Revolution, they had to pay for it economically,” Mr. Service says. “They had to subsidize Hungary with oil and gas.” Moscow bore a huge economic burden for “the retention of Hungary within its political orbit, and that would be the case with Ukraine. And they’d be hated at the same time—hated.” Not to mention taking on the weight of appeasing a conquered people at a time of impoverishment in Russia itself.
The Wall Street Journal being what it is (the voice of the financial class alongside the UK’s Economist), regime change in Moscow must happen. Service explains how:
“Putin’s got to be removed from power,” Mr. Service says. That is the only way to end Ukraine’s torment. But how?
It could happen in two ways. The first is “a palace coup,” which at the moment “looks very, very unlikely” but could become plausible. The second is a mass uprising, “a tremendous surge in street demonstrations as a result of the economic hardship” imposed by the war and Western sanctions.
For a palace coup to succeed, there would need to be palpable disaffection in the Russian establishment. Mr. Service notes that the Russian Orthodox Church hasn’t yet condemned the war, nor has the Academy of Sciences. “By and large, the establishment has been quiescent.” But the “personal and collective interests” of the ruling elite are at stake. Not only will sanctions stop them from traveling to the French Riviera or sending their sons to England’s Eton College; they’ll have to line up behind “a really reckless line of policy, which will require Russia to patrol the biggest state in Europe, now full of angry, vengeful people.”
Do not fool yourself. This is not a war between Russia and Ukraine. It is a new battle in the 30 year war between the USA and Russia.
The theme of this weekend’s Substack is US Empire, so why don’t we take a look back to its earlier days? Walter Lippmann’s reputation is known to all, and in 1927 he wrote a piece for Vanity Fair in which he delved into the subject of American meddling in both Mexico and Nicaragua (some things never change, it seems).
It wasn’t even 20 years ago that I was arguing with Americans that they had long since become an empire, with Patrick J. Buchanan trying to upend the apple cart when he wrote “A Republic, Not an Empire”, even though few took heed of his words. “Our armies are in those countries because the people there support it”, is a line that I’d often here from these types.
The War in Iraq effectively ended that argument, one that should have been resolved with the Spanish-American War in 1898. But some ideas die long deaths, and the notion that the USA continues to be a republic and not an empire is one of those.
American cognitive dissonance regarding its own empire:
ALL the world thinks of the United States to-day as an empire, except the people the United States. We shrink from the word empire, and insist that it should not be used to describe the dominion we exercise from Alaska to the Philippines, from Cuba to Panama, and beyond. We feel that there ought to be some other name for the civilizing work which we do so reluctantly in these backward countries.
We have learned to think of empires as troublesome and as immoral, and to admit that we have an empire still seems to most Americans like admitting that they have gone out into a wicked world and there lost their political chastity.
Hesitancy and opposition to being deemed and empire:
OUR sensitiveness on this point can be seen by an incident which happened recently in connection with that venerable book of reference the Almanack de Gotha. There, in this social register of the royal and princely families of Europe, there appears, as of 1924, a list of American "protectorates". They arc Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Liberia, and Panama. Now there can be no doubt that Washington exercises as much real authority in these countries, with the possible exception of Liberia, as London docs in many parts of the dependent empire. Yet the Almanack de Gotha's innocent use of the word "protectorates" was immediately protested by Mr. James Brown Scott, Director of the Division of International Law of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Scott pointed out, quite accurately, that the United States had never officially admitted the existence of any protectorates, and that Secretaries of State had again and again announced, as Mr. Hughes did in 192 3, that "we recognize the equality of the American Republics, their equal rights under the law of nations."
The tally up until the time that this article was written by Lippmann:
What the rest of the world sees is that after we had, in the years from 1803 to 1 853, rounded out the territory of continental United States by purchase and by conquest there was a pause in our expansion; that this was followed by the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, the obtaining possession of the Philippines and Porto Rico, and, in a different form, of Cuba as a result of the Spanish War. From that time on the expansion of American influence in the Caribbean and the West Indies has widened until there is hardly a country in that whole region which has not seen an American intervention. In an article which was printed in the New Republic Professor Shephard of Columbia University has counted the following separate military interventions in the Caribbean between 1898 and 1927. In Cuba, four; in Panama, five; in the Dominican Republic, five; in Nicaragua, six (the last still in progress) ; Haiti, one, still in progress; Mexico, two; Honduras, six; Costa Rica, one; Colombia, one. Scattered all over the Caribbean arc American High Commissioners and other officials, working under treaties, loan agreements and the like.
Empire by any other name……..
FOR all practical purposes, we control the foreign relations of all the Caribbean countries; not one of them could enter into serious relations abroad without our consent. We control their relations with each other, as was shown recently when the State Department thought it an outrage because Mexico recognized one President of Nicaragua when we had recognized another. We exercise the power of life and death over their governments in that no government can survive if we refuse it recognition. We help in many of these countries to decide what they call their elections, and we do not hesitate, as we have done recently in Mexico, to tell them what kind of constitution we think they ought to have.
Does this not at all sound familiar? The difference between then and now is that the USA is seen by more and more people as the biggest danger to peace in the world (disregard the various polls by polling outfits on this subject). In short: the USA is the ‘bad guy’ in many parts of the world, to use simplified American terminology.
Even with strong allies like Poland, the USA cannot help but dictate their laws on media, to protect US interests. At what point does this become intolerable micromanagement of foreign affairs? I guess we still haven’t reached that in Europe.
If I were Viktor Orban, I would be doing exactly what he is doing right now with respect to the war: taking in refugees and doing the bare minimum to support NATO allies, and not openly siding with the Russians (would be political suicide) while leaving them a small door opening for when things eventually begin to cool off. This is the only sensible position for a provincial governor of an American satrapy. If I were the Croatian President or Prime Minister, I’d be draping myself in the Ukrainian flag and doing all of the above. There is no upside in swimming upstream here.
Europeans seeking to lessen the spread of American popular and social-political culture to their countries are also big losers in this conflict. Europe is in lockstep with the USA for the foreseeable future. Any deviance from the ever-shifting parameters of western liberal democracy will be accused of being a pro-Russian turn, and will require punishment and/or regime change. Things are going to get tougher for the Magyars in particular, as they do not have the grace that the Poles do, with their strategically important geographic location.
Prime Minister Orban recently gave an interview on the subject of the conflict and how Hungary has positioned itself, with the theme of ‘peace’ being prominent throughout it.
Orban on the reason that the war erupted:
NATO has been expanding eastwards, and Russia has become less and less comfortable with that. The Russians made two demands: that Ukraine declare its neutrality, and that NATO would not admit Ukraine. These security guarantees weren’t given to the Russians, so they decided to take them by force of arms. This is the geopolitical significance of this war. The Russians are redrawing the security map of the continent. Russia’s security policy vision is that, in order to feel safe, they must be surrounded by a neutral zone. Hitherto they’ve seen Ukraine as an intermediate zone and, having failed to make it neutral by diplomatic means, they now want to make it neutral by military force. At the same time, Hungary must make it clear that war is not an acceptable path to any goal, and Hungary unequivocally condemns those who choose that path.
Orban’s tightrope approach:
I’d been in contact with President Putin and the Chinese leadership in 2009, in the run-up to our election victory. I thought that when we came to power we’d have to face up to the realities of world politics that had emerged after the 2008 financial crisis. I expected the financial crisis to shake the Western world, especially the European Union, but not the Chinese – and that therefore there would be an acceleration of the process whereby China assumed the leading role in the world economy. Hungary needed to prepare for this new world order. Following our election victory in 2010, we were thus able to start intergovernmental negotiations with the Chinese and the Russians in a spirit of partnership. As far as the Russian president is concerned, he’s always honoured everything that I’ve agreed with him so far, and so have we. Until very recently relations between Hungary and Russia were balanced and fair.
Energy as key security and economic interest:
As regards sanctions, we won’t veto or prevent the EU from imposing sanctions on Russia. EU unity is the most important thing now. As far as post-war bilateral relations are concerned, one thing is certain: after the war Russia will continue to exist. And after the war Hungary and the European Union will have interests. There’s no good argument for ending our energy cooperation with Russia. EU leaders have also made it clear that sanctions will not affect energy supplies from Russia, as this would destroy the European economy. This is also the case with the Paks project. Without Paks, we would have to buy more Russian gas – and at an even higher price. If we were to end energy cooperation with Russia, the energy bills of every Hungarian family would triple in a single month. Therefore I don’t support such a move. The price of the war should not be paid by Hungarian families.
Anglo-Saxon vs. Chinese Mindset:
We know what the world is like under Anglo-Saxon dominance. But we don’t yet know what the world will be like when there’s Chinese dominance. One thing is for sure: the Anglo-Saxons want the world to recognise their position as morally right. For them it’s not enough to accept the reality of power; they also need you to accept the things that they think are right. The Chinese have no such need. This will definitely be a major change in the coming decades.
On differences within the V4 regarding the war:
So far we’ve kept V4 cooperation separate from questions of military policy, because we know that there are differences of opinion among us. Now that the Russians have attacked Ukraine, however, this is the most important issue and we can no longer keep it off the table. We want to keep the Russians away from us, but among us there’s a significant tactical difference. The Poles want to push the border of the Western world up to the border of the Russian world. They feel safe if this is achieved and NATO – including Poland – can deploy sufficient forces on the western side of this border. This is why they vigorously support Ukraine’s membership of NATO. But the essence of Hungarian tactical thinking is that the area between Russia and Hungary should be of adequate width and depth. Today this area is called Ukraine.
This geopolitical difference is not important when one has to fight Brussels on the issues of household utility bills, gender or defence against migration; but now that there’s a war it’s become more important. The point is that the Poles know that they can count on the Hungarians, and we know that we can count on the Poles.
Orban cannot afford to alienate the Americans, among whom many are already working to unseat him and Fidesz in next month’s election. He has very little room for manoeuvre.
Let’s end off this weekend’s version with some Boomerbait: the story of how Led Zeppelin came to be. We can shit on the Boomers all we want (and we should), but their musical power cannot be denied. Maybe it’s easier for me to appreciate the bands and music from their youth since I am Gen X myself……dunno. Despite my go-to music being Stereolab/Pavement/Blur/Spiritualized/Turntablists like Cut Chemist, Led Zeppelin continues to be a band that I can turn to and still enjoy to this day. John Bonham was an incredibly funky drummer! As Robert Plant once said, unlike other hard rock acts of their era, you could actually go to a Zeppelin show and dance to some of their songs.
Just watch this clip from one of their performances at Madison Square Garden in 1973 when they were at the peak of their power. Most importantly, watch the interplay between guitarist Jimmy Page and John Bonham; perfectly in sync with one another.
Millennials and Zoomers: does this music appeal to you at all? Pls reply.
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