Yesterday, in one of the rare respites I’ve had amid nonstop work for my book launch, I logged into a Zoom discussion whose title was the question that has been keeping me up at night: “Can War in Ukraine Be Avoided?”
It’s a question with a question behind it of course: Will a Russian invasion of Ukraine will become a war with the United States—sparking the first direct war between “great powers” (that is to say empires) in 77 years? In other words, are we headed for World War III?
The panelists—a Russian journalist/foreign policy wonk and an ex-U.S. diplomat/Council on Foreign Relations fellow—were somewhat, though not entirely, reassuring on that front. In short, their shared analysis was: a) that Vladimir Putin doesn’t really want to stage a costly and risky all-out invasion of Ukraine; b) that he is massing troops on the border primarily to force the United States to declare that a key western neighbor and fellow former Soviet republic will never join the enemy alliance of NATO; and c) that there are tricks left in the grab bag of diplomacy to do so. (You can watch the full replay here.)
I don’t know how seriously to take the Russian journalist’s protestations that it’s only Washington and U.S. media who are talking about, and thus in some ways preparing for, imminent conflict. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has not given anything more concrete than insistences that the troop buildup is either benign or a response to unspecified Ukrainian provocations. His statements seem too cute by half.
But it is impossible to miss the incipient revving of the American war engine: the rushing of weapons to the prospective battleground, the (somewhat symbolic) placing of U.S. troops on “high alert,” a normally dysfunctional Congress rushing to “act.” There is the ramping up of popular news coverage humanizing our prospective allies against the backdrop of an unseen and sinister enemy force. And there are the more technical stories—such as this “inside” look at a secret planned $200 million U.S. weapons shipment to Ukraine in a Politico newsletter sponsored by Lockheed-Martin.
It may be, as former U.S. ambassador to Moscow turned pundit/academic Michael McFaul (and many like him) keeps insisting, that the “West” doesn’t “want a war.” But there are plenty of people within the machine who are content to profit from every step leading up to one, such as energy companies eager to replace Russian natural gas exports to Europe, whether as a result of sanctions or shooting.
And, of course, there are the arms dealers like Raytheon, whose CEO Gregory J. Hayes told investors during a recent earnings call: “I fully expect we’re going to see some benefit from [the tensions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere].” Hayes, it should be noted, was positively apoplectic about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. A new arms build-up is just what the sales team ordered.
There is no doubt that the same kinds of profiteers and cynical calculators are making equivalent moves and exerting influence on the Russian side as well. (As Smedley Butler noted in War Is a Racket, written on the eve of the last world war, identifying the inner workings of our system over here does not mean ignoring that there are “mad dogs of Europe … on the loose.”)
For their part, leaders in Kyiv seem split on whether the war talk itself is dangerous or whether the U.S. should be more aggressive. In the middle are 44 million Ukrainians, who have their own ideas about what should be done—not to mention who should rule them, and under what system of government they should live—even as they remain pawns in two stumbling empires’ games.
Edited by Sam Thielman
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I’ve got an op-ed (sorry, “guest essay”), in the New York Times this weekend about the ways in which foreign war imperils democracy at home. It’s my first ever in the section. I hope you like it.
For those who missed my book event this week with author Clint Smith (How the Word Is Passed) at New America, you can catch the replay here:
I’ve got another virtual event coming up Feb. 2 at 9ET/6PT. This one is hosted by City Lights Books in San Francisco. I’ll be in conversation with David Talbot—author, “independent historian” (I guess I’m one of those too) and co-founder of Salon.com. Come and ask questions!
And if you haven’t bought Gangsters of Capitalism yet, there’s no time like the present:
More to come next week, including another edition of Gangsters Movie Nights. A hint: We’re going to the Philippines …