The West vs Russia – Was It All Inevitable?

Paul Atkin, Orinoco Tribune, August 17, 2023 —

This look at Mike Phipp’s review of Gilbert Achar’s The New Cold War- The United States, Russia and China from Kosovo to Ukraine, is because it represents an archetype of the thinking among sections of the Left that have fallen into becoming cheerleaders for NATO; despite their recognition that, as the author approvingly quotes Achar it continues to push, global relations in the worst possible direction, (my emphasis) at a time when the world should be focused on fighting the greatest threats that humanity has ever faced short of a nuclear Armageddon—climate change and pandemics—as well as the socioeconomic consequences of global economic crises related to these same threats.” So should we all.

The title of the review is a belated acknowledgement by the author that this is not a war between Russia and Ukraine, but a war between Russia and “the West”. “The West” can be described in many ways. “Global North” is another label for it. The most developed, advanced, dominant countries in the world, united militarily in NATO with the United States at its core is another. And it is, indeed, pushing global relations in the worst possible direction. The tragedy of the position taken by the author is that the logic of it provides them with left cover to do so.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990, the way that pushing global relations in the worst possible direction manifested itself was a drive by the United States to “dominate the post Soviet space”. This is thoroughly documented, but the author ignores it because it is such a blatant move by the dominant global imperial power to extend its dominion eastwards; with the ultimate aim of control of Russia itself, “a gas station masquerading as a country” as Senator Lindsay Graham put it. Understanding this makes supporting NATO’s war aims under the guise of supporting Ukraine’s national self determination an unsustainable posture; therefore the only possible position is disavowal. Look right at it, and not see. Or try to talk it away…

So, let’s look and see.

Dominating the post Soviet space meant not only moving to absorb Eastern European members of the former Warsaw Pact into the USA’s political, military and economic orbit, but also breaking the USSR down into its constituent republics, and seeking to control the leadership in Russia while this took place.

By 1992, precursors to the neo cons, often with direct fossil fuel interests like Dick Cheney, argued for partitioning Russia into smaller parts immediately, the better to dominate it and, “get the gas”. This is now back on the agenda, both in Ukraine and the US. The more cautious heads, who won out in 1991, felt that this would lead to uncontrollable political and economic chaos that would be more trouble than it was worth, particularly with several thousand nuclear weapons in the mix. They went for holding the country together under the control of a biddable President (Yeltsin) while shock therapy shattered its economy and reduced it to its knees as a competitive power.

Politically, in Eastern Europe, this also meant disinterring old nationalist identities from the shadows that, in their rejection of a common Soviet past, celebrated collaborators with the Nazis as national heroes, particularly in Ukraine and the Baltic States.

Economically, as the author puts it, “The IMF-blessed economic reforms plundered the former USSR, wrecking the economy and impoverishing the mass of people” throughout the nineties. GDP declined 3% in 1990, 5% in 1991, 14.5% in 1992, 8.7% in 1993 and 12.7% in 1994 and didn’t recover sustained growth until 1999. Between 1988 to 1999 per capita income in Russia dropped from $3,777 pa to just $1,331 pa.

This also involved overt anti democratic action, backed by “the West”. Again, as the author puts it ” when the Russian parliament became a centre of opposition to the policy, the then President Boris Yeltsin dissolved it and ordered the military to shell the building in 1993″ killing 147 people and wounding 437, according to Yeltsin’s own officials. The anniversary of this event on October 4th passes in silence in the West every year. Hardly surprising as the US at the time praised Yeltsin’s “superb handling” of the situation.

It is evident that Western shock therapy could not be carried through without repression. The author puts this mildly. “There’s no doubt that the economic policies imposed on Russia by the West contributed significantly to this process.” Indeed.

But he then makes an arbitrary detachment of the military dimension of US policy “It’s less evident, in my view, that US-led military policies played the same role”, on the basis that “they did not impact on the life of ordinary people in Russia in anything like the same way as the economic destruction.” As if the military, economic and political dimensions of a single policy can be divided from each other. As if the economic destruction could have been guaranteed without the military threat of the US in the full flush of its unipolar moment. This serves a purpose because, if NATO expansion is conceded to be a real, and very widely understood, threat in Russia, the whole house of cards resting on the oft repeated phrase “unprovoked invasion” collapses.

Instead, the author spins his argument around speculation about how the rise of Vladimir Putin – as an embodiment of nationalist self assertion – might have been avoided. This implies that – far from being inherently locked into a push for its own dominance, the US could have applied a different policy, one that built up and integrated Russian into a “common European home” perhaps and, instead of shock therapy, applied a Marshal Plan to the “post Soviet space”. The implication of this is that he shares Gorbachev’s delusions about the nature of US imperialism. That it is possible that it could genuinely lead the world in the interests of anything other than its venal ruling class. As though the Marshal Plan itself were an act of selfless generosity, rather than a hard nosed intervention by the US to prevent Europe going Communist – reviving flattened European competitors to revive as the price paid – allowing Western European Social Democracy half a century of delusion that its welfare states were a tribute to its own strength and wisdom rather than the temporary price paid to stave off the red threat.

This gets quite surreal when discussing Putin’s proposal to join NATO in 2001. Nowhere does the author consider why the US turned this down. The clue is in Putin’s own statement, that Europe (my emphasis) will reinforce its reputation of a strong and truly independent centre of world politics soundly and for a long time if it succeeds in bringing together its own potential and that of Russia, including its human, territorial and natural resources and its economic, cultural and defence potential.” A strengthened European pole inside NATO with Russia as a hefty and unshiftably consolidated component part is the last thing the US wanted then, and now, as it would put its own hegemony in Europe at risk.

But, not letting the Russians in, and continuing to expand NATO at the same time, while fomenting or taking advantage of political crises in Russia’s “near abroad” in Georgia and Ukraine particularly meant that Russia, with the 20 million dead from World War 2 seared into living memory, was bound to feel under threat. Because it was, in fact, threatened. It takes an extraordinary level of dulled empathy to ignore this; or treat it as some sort of irrational paranoia on their part – or attribute it to a personality defect on the part of President Putin – all of which have become articles of faith among these currents.

In presenting the “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine as “attempts to break free” the author swallows the US narrative whole. Becoming imperial junior partners of the United States is not the same thing as to “break free”.

His argument that local actors have agency – which they do – is presented as in itself a sufficient refutation of any notion that these movements were “Western orchestrated” or “designed to encircle Russia militarily”; as if all three can’t be true at the same time.

This is odd, because the author comes close to acknowledging the point when he states, “Equally, from the standpoint of the opportunities available to self-interested Western capitalism, any military or diplomatic arrangement with Russia which left the latter’s hegemony over these states intact would be less than satisfactory, especially given the exploitable, mineral-rich nature of some of them. If opportunities for a grand US-Russia rapprochement were missed, it was not accidental. (my emphasis)”. Quite so.

There is reckoned to be $12 trillion worth of rare earths and related minerals, most of it in the rebellious region of the Donbass; which “self interested Western capitalism” would like under its control, regardless of the rights or views of the people who live there.

The Maidan movement in Ukraine had popular support in Western Ukraine. The hegemonic political current within this is passed over without comment, the better not to acknowledge the strength of the far right. To do so is embarrassing, so best not. The US and EU were also active participants in the process, and the aim to pull Ukraine decisively into the Western orbit economically and politically, and to begin to pull it in militarily, had been part of the agenda since 1991. Not to acknowledge this is disavowal again.

What is even stranger about this is that the argument is completely inverted when it comes to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. When people there rebelled against the overthrow of a government they had, for the most part, voted for, their “local agency” is dismissed by the author’s camp as completely invalid, and reduced to them being simply Russian agents.

This is where the author’s central argument, that “for socialists, the central starting point is the human and social rights of the peoples in the states involved, which could not be sacrificed to great power bloc considerations” exposes itself as utter tosh. The human and social rights of the people of the Donbass, who rebelled against Kyiv in 2014 and have been shelled and bombed by the UAF daily ever since, and mobilised in tens of thousands into the Donbass militia, are ignored completely, of no account, dismissed, written out of history. Some people, it seems, are more equal than others.

Its also evident that Ukraine itself is part of the “post Soviet space” that the US and its allies were, and are, seeking to dominate. The impact since separation in 1991 has also been to wreck the economy. As Renfrey Clarke has noted “World Bank figures show that in constant dollars, Ukraine’s 2021 Gross Domestic Product was down from the 1990 level by 38 per cent. If we use the most charitable measure, per capita GDP at Purchasing Price Parity, the decline was still 21 per cent. That last figure compares with a corresponding increase for the world as a whole of 75 per cent.”

Even before the war, Ukraine had the worst death rate in Europe and was losing 600,000 young people to emigration every year. The country has been asset stripped at an increasing pace, especially since 2014, with Western agri-businesses buying up land, and the post war reconstruction deal aimed to be run by Blackrock seeking to recoup the debts Ukraine has run up to the West by acting as its henchman/military frontier state/ willing sacrificial victim. This is grotesque any way you want to look at it, and will be crippling, whatever the residual assets and territory controlled by Kyiv.

Self determination, it won’t be.

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