Text by Stephen Eisenman; Art by Sue Coe.
The recent New York Times editorial (September 15) opposing negotiations between Ukraine and Russia was so hallucinatory it might have been written by an AI chatbot. “It is in America’s national interest,” the editorial writers state, “to lead its NATO allies in demonstrating that they will not tolerate Mr. Putin’s revanchist ambitions. It is a demonstration of America’s commitment to democracy and leadership that other would-be aggressors are watching.”
America’s commitment to democracy has always been tenuous at best. Our wealth was founded upon the enslavement of Africans and the expropriation of Indigenous land and resources. International power was derived from war and intervention, both military and economic. Even the U.S. system of voting, the crowning glory of our democracy, is badly compromised by an electoral college and gerrymandering. “Leadership” has generally meant bullying friends and enemies alike, or as Kissinger once said about South Vietnam: “Being America’s enemy may be dangerous, but being America’s friend is fatal.” Our enemies are often democratic and our allies repressive.
Ukraine, for example, is no democracy. Transparency International ranks it 33/100 (near Russia) on its Corruption Perceptions Index. Since the start of the war, Ukraine has taken a further anti-democratic and neo-liberal turn. Rather than establish a conventional war economy like the U.S. and other nations did during World War II — nationalizing key industries to direct resources toward the common defense — Ukraine privatized public assets, enriching a cadre of oligarchs. The Defense Ministry’s procurement and conscription system is so riddled with corruption that its entire leadership was recently replaced. That’s progress, but it comes late, and its results remain to be seen. The tax regime, already regressive, has become more so. Individuals (rich and poor) and businesses all pay a flat tax of 18% — Steve Forbes would be a happy Ukrainian – and the incidence of corporate tax avoidance is high. Recent changes to the country’s labor laws have erased protections from nearly 3/4 of the workforce. Most workers now lack the right to bargain collectively and are subject to “zero hour” contracts that allow employers to change employment schedules at will. (Even the World Bank, where neo-liberal “structural adjustment” was born, is doubtful about the wisdom of these so-called reforms.) Ukraine has since 2015 regularly imposed sanctions on independent media, and last year President Zelensky banned 11 opposition parties for supposed “links with Russia.” There is no longer any progressive opposition.
Any peace negotiations between the warring parties, the Times editorial authors state, are “premature” because “neither side is willing to negotiate”. In fact, Russia has publicly welcomed peace initiatives following successive Papal, Chinese, Indonesian, African, Turkish, and Saudi Arabian interventions. Their rhetoric has never been put to the test however, because Ukraine has insisted upon full Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory – including Crimea — as a precondition of direct negotiations. Ukraine’s stipulation is also its maximalist goal.
The only viable course, the Times editorial bot says, quoting Biden, “is to give Ukraine the weapons and resources to defend itself, so that when the time comes, it would be ‘in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.’” In other words, negotiations will come after success on the battlefield. War is the precondition of peace. The formula is a familiar American one. It was deployed successfully (but at exorbitant human cost) at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but without result in Vietnam. In December 1972, Nixon pledged to bomb the North Vietnamese until they begged to return to the peace table. The U.S. military dropped more bombs on the North in 12 days than in the previous three years. We know how that war ended.
The Friedman bot
On the same day as the Times editorial, Tom Friedman, the paper’s most influential columnist, wrote a similarly hallucinatory op-ed, but with a dose of theodicy: “What Putin is doing in Ukraine is not just reckless, not just a war of choice, not just an invasion…What he is doing is evil.” Friedman continued: “And the Ukrainians I met, to a person, seemed to understand that they and Europe were bound up together in an epochal moment against Putinism….This is as obvious a case of right versus wrong, good versus evil, as you find in international relations since World War II.” When one side of a conflict says God is on its side, you know you’re facing a long war.
Don’t get me wrong. Putin is despicable thug. Though taunted for over two decades by NATO expansionism, he responded in February 2022 with utter recklessness. Rather than press for negotiations while he had the world’s attention, he attempted to seize Kiev in an ill-fated blitzkrieg that in the first weeks cost the lives of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, and thousands of Russian troops. Posturing and fulminating before banks of cameras and fawning generals, Putin increasingly resembled Adenoid Hynkel. His veiled threats of nuclear war recall the famous scene in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in which Hynkel performs a ballet with an inflated balloon-globe.
But Putin is no Hitler. However loathsome, he lacks the capacity if not the desire to enact wholesale slaughter upon any nation or people. The point is unintentionally made by hawks who say that Russia is too weak to seize the small Donbas region, but then claim it is so strong that it threatens to conquer Western Europe. The contradiction exposes the lie. To see Putin as a new Hitler is both to deny the unique intensity and scale of the Shoah and to risk extending the duration of a punishing and dangerous war.
After Russian forces were defeated at Kharkiv and Kherson in Fall and Winter 2022, Putin narrowed his strategic aims. They are now to ensure Ukrainian neutrality, secure the status of Crimea as part of Russia, and protect the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. (Neither is currently recognized as a state under international law because they are controlled by Russia.) Putin’s war-fighting tactics have similarly narrowed. They now consist of two, equally senseless but sustainable modalities: trench warfare and sporadic bombing of cities and other military, and commercial targets. The civilian bombing has so far been limited – nothing like the strategic or “terror” bombing of Barcelona by German and Italian forces in 1938, or the carpet bombing of Rotterdam, Dresden, and decades later, Hanoi and Haiphong. (The U.S. bombing of targets in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1965 to 1973 killed at least 300,000 civilians.) Russia’s intermittent terror bombing of Kiev, Odessa and other cities is an effort to break the spirt of the enemy. Such tactics however, it’s long been known, tend to strengthen a people’s resolve to fight.
After arguing in support of total victory over Russia whatever the cost, Friedman’s shifts from moralism to pragmatism. Russia is bigger and better armed than Ukraine and is prepared to fight indefinitely, he says. Humiliating Russia could cause it to use tactical nukes, possibly leading to nuclear Armageddon. What’s necessary therefore, is to inflict sufficient punishment on Russia to force it to the negotiating table. Once again, war is seen as the precondition of peace: “Ukraine needs to inflict as much damage on Putin’s army as fast as possible. That means we need to massively and rapidly deliver the weaponry Ukraine needs to break Putin’s lines in the country’s southeast. I’m talking the kitchen sink: F-16s; mine-clearing equipment; more Patriot antimissile systems; MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems, which could strike deep behind Russian lines — whatever the Ukrainians can use effectively and fast.” Friedman offers a shopping list to warm an arms merchant’s heart.
Winners in the war so far (a partial list)
Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, TotalEnergies, Cheniere Energy, Gazprom, Rosneft, Novatek, Lukoil, Vitol, Wintershall (BASF), Sperbank, VTB Bank, Transneft, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Northrop Grummon, General Dynamics, Honeywell, Bechtel, Rheinmetall, Lockheed Martin, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus, Goldman Sachs, SG Trend Indicator, Managed Futures Offshore fund, Diversified Aspect Capital, Applied Research Laboratory Europe, Bristol Trust, BlackRock, Frontline, and International Seaways.
Losers in the war (partial list)
Ukrainian soldiers (more than 70,000 killed, 180,000 wounded), Russian soldiers (more than 120,000 killed, 180,000 wounded.) Ukrainian civilians (approx. 10,000 killed, 18,000 wounded). Russian civilians (approx. 80 killed). Ukrainian refugees (approx. 6 million external and 5 million internal). Ukrainians in need of humanitarian support (nearly 18 million). Poor and food insecure people globally (345 million). Wild animals (10’s or even hundreds of thousands). Zoo animals (500 – 1,000). Farm animals (approx. 7 million). The global climate.
The New York Times editorial and opinion writers, with very few exceptions, support a continuation, and even sharp escalation of the war, with the U.S. and NATO sending more, and more-advanced weapons. They argue that a successful offensive will strengthen Ukraine’s position when the adversaries eventually begin negotiations. They further argue that the U.S. has no right to push Ukraine into talks until it is good and ready.
There are two flaws to the argument. The first is that Ukraine has since Spring 2023, undertaken a major offensive but made no significant progress. There is little reason to believe that more tanks, missiles, fighter planes and the rest will overcome Russia’s significant advantage in troop numbers and war materiel. I’m no war strategist, but protecting territory, as Russia is now doing, is clearly much easier than advancing to seize territory. The morbid fact is that in a long war, Ukraine will run out of soldiers well before Russia does. It’s magical thinking to believe – absent actual conquest of Russian territory and Moscow itself – that more war will bring a rapid peace, or that negotiations are impossible during an ongoing conflict.
The second flaw concerns the prohibition on the U.S. encouraging Ukraine to negotiate. The U.S. is a party, not a bystander to the conflict. I won’t rehearse here the history of U.S. duplicity and aggression following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO. (I did so in CounterPunch soon after the war began.) But regardless of its role in the war’s initiation, the U.S. is now the main funder and promoter of the conflict. It has contributed some $75 billion in arms and other aid to Ukraine, and currently has an appropriation request for another $24 billion. In addition, the U.S. has wrangled some $140 billion and counting for Ukraine from its NATO allies. The U.S. in sum, had a role in starting the war and has a stake in ending it.
Finally, the politics in Ukraine demand that the U.S. openly suggest that Zelensky begin negotiations with Putin or at least prepare the ground for them. Claiming that Putin is a war criminal and has committed genocide – that he is another Hitler — makes it politically impossible for the Ukrainian president to initiate a dialogue. Persuasion by the U.S. and NATO to begin talks, however, along with back-channel discussions with China, India and Turkey to persuade Russia to negotiate in good faith, might be enough to hasten the end of this senseless and destructive war.