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As Russian forces inch toward the capital of Ukraine in a continued act of outright aggression, a fourth round of talks came to a “technical pause.” As the west tries to get firmly ahead of escalation, global planners and analysts look to anticipate this unfolding story, which looks increasingly difficult to follow socially, politically, and economically. In this interview, Middle East historian Lawrence Davidson, international law professor Richard Falk, and international relations scholar Stephen Zunes, break down the historical, cultural, geopolitical, and media implications of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Daniel Falcone: Given the history of the region, how likely was this conflict? Can you provide the historical formations that brought us to this point?
Lawrence Davidson: Recent history made this war a very real last resort option for the Russians. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO with American urging, extended itself eastward. Based on Russia’s experience as the Soviet Union, there was only one way to interpret such action on NATO’s part—it was an act that threatened Russian national security.
One must ask why Washington and NATO should want to act so precipitously. Expansion was relatively easy at that moment because Russia was temporarily weak. The desire of the ex-Warsaw Pact states to protect themselves from a future resurgent Russia certainly came into play. Speculating a bit further, the expansion might have been seen as the first step in a long-term plan to achieve pro-Western regime change in Russia.
As suggested, the NATO Alliance’s expansion had an aggressive edge and the Russians certainly saw the advancing alliance as a hostile force. Adding salt to the wound, there were also Western attempts to impose regime change in countries directly bordering the Russian Republic. One of these was Ukraine. NATO and the U.S. encouraged Ukraine to turn toward the West and supported Ukrainian politicians who would follow this line. NATO went so far as to get informally involved with the Ukrainian military. It appeared that by 2016, Ukrainian leaders were receptive to these moves.
Once Moscow recovered from the disruption that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union, they found themselves confronted with a situation described above—one that accentuated their historical vulnerability to invasion from the west. The Russian leaders spent a lot of time and energy trying to explain their concerns to both Western leaders and the Western press. Their efforts fell on deaf ears. When Ukrainian leaders started to talk about joining NATO the Russians went into crisis mode. Their first steps were non-violent ones—they put forth a demand for an internationally recognized security treaty that would have halted NATO’s eastward expansion and halted Ukraine’s ambition to join the alliance. This was a sure sign that Russia had a red line which the proposed treaty was designed to protect.
Both Washington and the Europeans rejected this overture. It is very probable that they knew this rejection would force the Russians to act militarily against Ukraine if it too resisted Moscow’s red lines (which precluded Ukrainian membership in NATO). But the Ukrainian leadership clearly believed that NATO and Washington would stand with them, essentially risking war with Russia.
All of this set up the conditions for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And alas, for Ukraine there was to be no Western rescue.
Richard Falk: Perhaps, the ambiguity of the word ‘region’ in your question is deliberate. In any event, it raises the vital question of geographic context. Most discussions of the Ukraine Crisis and Russian attack assume the locus to be exclusively Ukraine, perhaps inclusive of Crimea. However, a broader conception of relevant region would encompass Russia and Europe, with a conceptual spin creating a more arresting focus of Russia and NATO. If geopolitics is considered, then reconstituted alignments of the West, led by the U.S., versus Russia, with a serious balancing role that China adopts as exemplified by its abstention vote on the UN General Assembly Resolution condemning the Russian attack of March 1. A comprehensive answer based on these overlapping interpretations of region is not feasible within this format. I will limit myself to some comments on the historical depth of the conflict.
About Ukraine itself, there are several crucial points bearing on the competition between Russia and an expansive NATO that seem important. First, when the Cold War ended it was followed by an immense gray zone of geopolitical uncertainty. The West was in a triumphalist mood, celebrating ‘the liberation’ of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic from the clutches of Soviet domination. Russia acted realistically in accepting this measure of a loss of influence in the proximity of its Western borders, which seemed also to reflect the overwhelming will of the relevant national populations who had resented the repressiveness and austerity that came with their subordinate status in the Soviet Bloc.
Geopolitical trouble started brewing when the further ambitions of NATO enlargers, specifically, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. Detaching these Slavic peoples from Russia by affiliation with the European Union, much less formal membership in NATO, was not only a threatening humiliation for Moscow but a direct challenge to its sphere of influence that had deep roots going back to Czarist times. Bill Clinton bears some responsibility for opting for an Enlargement Doctrine to expand the number of democratic states throughout the world, a liberal imperial conception weaponized by George W. Bush in presenting a partial rationalization of the Iraq War.
This challenge to Russia’s ‘near abroad’ was further confirmed and intensified by the perception that the U.S. backing of Poroshenko in the 2014 elections shifted the Ukrainian political identity Westward and was further inflamed by the de-Russification policies of the new leadership. Some attempt at avoiding a violent eruption was undertaken in the Minsk Agreements of 2014-15 establishing a ceasefire, promising self-government, and regulating relations between Kyiv and the Russian majority populations in the two Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s refusal to implement the Minsk Agreements aggravated relations with Russia.
Another aspect of the historical background that has not been analyzed in the media involved a clash between the U.S. and Russia as to the delineation of geopolitical space. It has been observed by certain so-called ‘Russia experts’ that Putin’s underlying strategic aspiration is overcome Washington’s behavior since the Soviet collapse that manifested its identity as the global manage of hegemonic geopolitics, including denying traditional sphere of influence claims of Russia (and China) that were integral to symmetrical geopolitics in a tripolar world. It is relevant to observe that the design of the UN embodies symmetrical geopolitics, even if in a currently anachronistic form given the frozen realities of the UN. Conferring permanent membership and a right of veto to the five victors in World War II, which turned out to be the five first states to acquire nuclear weapons, was an institutional mistake that has had a delegitimizing effect on the UN over time.
In this sense, ‘the unipolar moment’ commencing in the 1990s has been under growing pressure, at least since the Iraq War of 2003, and the unlawful Russian intervention can be viewed as part of a larger effort to restore the geopolitical dimension of Westphalian world order, an essential element of which is mutual respect for spheres of influence by the Great Powers, an element of world order that can be traced back to the early stages of the formation of European state system in the middle of the 17th Century. The U.S. borrowed the idea, extending spheres of influence already in 1823 by proclaiming and implementing the Monroe Doctrine (opposing European colonization in the Western Hemisphere), further elaborated by the Roosevelt Corollary in 1905 (asserting a right of intervention to enforce debt obligations of hemispheric governments and to protect Americans in danger). Although repudiated as doctrines of foreign policy the U.S. during and after the Cold War continued to implement a hegemonic policy of opposing the existence of Marxist or socialist governments by sanctions, destabilization moves, and intervention.
The European ‘region’ is likely to be most profoundly shaken by the events unfolding in Ukraine. It is the first major war in Europe since 1945, and it revives what had seemed past: the perception that Europe is once again as during the Cold War threatened by a rapacious Russian Bear, and in a setting that could witness catastrophic uses of nuclear weaponry. This united Western stand—a blend of self-righteous opposition to violations of the international law prohibition of aggressive uses of international force, fears of a bigger war, cultural and racist affinities with the Ukrainian people—is the mirror opposite of what we know about Russia’s nationalist resolve, fortified by memories of devastating invasions of Russia costing millions of lives, and brought back to life by a variety of Western provocations in recent years, giving rise to hyper-belligerent rhetoric and behavior by Putin.
Stephen Zunes: Two forces have come into play here: One is the triumphalism following the Cold War, the belittling of post-Soviet Russia, the eastward expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries and even the three former Soviet Baltic Republics, and the Western refusal to consider a neutral status for Ukraine. This contributed to the rise of the second force: Putin’s reactionary ultranationalism, militarism, and imperial designs towards Ukraine and elsewhere.
Both have fed on the other. Given Putin’s insistence that Ukraine has no right to exist as its own nation and that it is inherently part of Russia, it is quite possible that the latter would have emerged regardless, which is why I reject claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is therefore “NATO’s fault.” So, while there is little doubt that Western hubris has contributed to the tragedy, the responsibility rests solely on the Russian government. To assume that the United States somehow threatened Russia by developing military alliances with Russia’s near neighbors or sought to oust its government is as simplistic as assuming that Moscow’s efforts to establish security ties with Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua, or other near neighbors of the United States during the Cold War was part of a Russian “hit list” to eventually take over the United States, as Reagan claimed.
For decades, Washington couldn’t understand why so many in Latin America embraced Marxism and looked to the Soviet Union for protection from U.S. imperialism. The U.S. falsely assumed that Latin American nations were simply passive victims of Russian aggression/expansionism, and the U.S. was therefore forced to intervene in “self-defense.” We shouldn’t fall into this trap regarding the United States and Ukraine. As wrong as U.S. policy has been in Eastern Europe, we must understand why most people in those countries do not see Western imperialism as their main threat and have welcomed NATO as a protector. (I think that’s the wrong approach myself, but if I was an Eastern European, I would be in a distinct minority.) For centuries, it was primarily the Russian Empire, followed by the Soviet Union, that threatened their freedom, not the West. The United States has taken advantage of this anti-Russian sentiment for its own imperial designs, which we should vigorously challenge, but let’s not deny agency to the people of those countries who, rightly or wrongly, have looked to the West for protection.
Just as concerns about human rights abuses or other policies by the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan governments can never justify U.S. interventionism in those countries, neither can problematic policies by Zelensky and other Eastern European governments be used to excuse Russian interventionism. Similarly, the 2014 uprising against Yanukovych was not a “U.S. coup”—it was a popular, largely nonviolent, uprising mostly led by liberals, which would have succeeded anyway despite the limited amount of U.S. funding provided some opposition activists and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s efforts to influence the makeup of the interim government following Yanukovych’s ouster. The general strike and mass protests which brought down the government utilized classic nonviolent resistance tactics, even though the government they were bringing down had been democratically elected and compromise agreement had just been reached. Yanukovych’s notorious corruption, increasing repression, and close ties to Putin had alienated most of the population by that point.
The limited amount of aid to some opposition groups from the United States, the EU, and various Western foundations were no more responsible for the 2014 uprising against Yanukovych as was the limited amount of Soviet aid to leftist rebels in Central America caused those revolutions take place. Zelensky was elected in 2019 with 74% of the vote as an ethnic Russian promising to clean up the corruption riddling both the pro-Russian bloc and the main pro-Western bloc. He has failed to do so thus far, but it seemed that in many ways Ukraine was stumbling towards a more functional government and economy that could eventually transform it into a modern EU state. Perhaps this is what Putin is upset about. Just as the United States could not tolerate what Noam Chomsky has called “the threat of a good example” in the form of successful socialist models in the Western hemisphere, Putin may similarly be troubled by the prospects of a successful liberal democratic alternative among a people with such close geographical, cultural, and historical ties.
Daniel Falcone: In the United States, from a political perspective there seems to be a left and a right on both sides; Ukrainian advocates/skeptics of the left and right, and Russian advocates/skeptics of the same. Can you guide us through some of these moving parts that make the ideological divides so random and hard to nail down?
Lawrence Davidson: This situation is confusing to me also. I know that on the liberal left, Russia is seen by many as an expansionist imperial power—a view which follows from Cold War tropes. On the right, which now appears to be mostly a “follow Trump” affair, the message is that Putin is some sort of admirable strong man. The U.S. government line is that Putin is insane. Only a few on the American Left (Bernie Sanders for instance) recognize that Russia has legitimate security needs and was threatened by NATO.
The bottom line is that most Americans are ignorant of the circumstances that led to the invasion. For many that ignorance is filled in with the propaganda that is offered by the government and media. So, for the majority you either don’t care one way or the other because the Ukraine is far away and certainly does not touch your life, or you’re an angry puppet whose mental strings are pulled by those who shape the national airwaves to the left or to the right.
Richard Falk: The reason for this seeming divergence of ideological perception and prescription is a consequence of the complexity of the fate of Ukraine as suggested by its multidimensional implications. President Biden in a strident March 1st State of the Union speech presented the Ukrainian Crisis as a normative confrontation between ‘democracy and tyranny.’ By stressing the worldwide scope of the encounter, Biden made support of Ukraine’s sovereignty a matter of vital significance to the liberal conception of world order favored by the West, and as such, a legitimate moment to flex the U.S. militarist and globalist muscles. Whether the claim of ideological solidarity should be treated as a genuine clash between two kinds of state-level governance rather that geopolitical propaganda is questionable.
At the meeting of the Biden’s Summit for Democracies in December 2021, such countries as India, Philippines, Israel, Malaysia, and Brazil with autocratic leaders and terrible human rights records were invited to participate. Looked like objectively the summit was less about democracy than geopolitical leadership.
The left has good reasons for skepticism. First, a high degree of hypocrisy is present, considering that the U.S. has done to many countries what Russia seems to be doing in Ukraine—regime-changing intervention, accompanied by ‘shock and awe’ tactics causing massive death, widespread devastation, and vast international and internal displacement of the civilian population. Added reasons for this critical stance relate to the internal role played by the U.S. in recent domestic Ukrainian political life via its covert role in the 2014 coup overthrowing the elected pro-Russian president, Yanukovych, and the emergence of a right-wing government headed by Poroshenko, giving Russian propaganda about Ukraine a ring of plausibility and the attack a defensive spin. At the same time, Russian propaganda is at least as deceptive and self-serving as what emanates from the West and is further invalidated by recourse to aggressive war and saber rattling rather than a more patient and concerted effort at finding a diplomatic solution.
The Russian outlook, as indicated in my prior response, can be seen as mainly one of defending a traditional sphere of influence from a hostile takeover combined with a more general renewed Russian assertiveness on behalf of symmetrical geopolitics. It should be noted that geopolitical norms of conduct are separate from, and with respect to the use of force as odds with international law, as governing the use of force. In the geopolitical sphere precedent enjoys legislative force, making what the U.S. and NATO has done by way of regime-changing military intervention, which through practice has become a geopolitical norm. The denunciation of this behavior from the perspective of international law is thus irrelevant and hypocritical propaganda as these geopolitical actors enjoy impunity both legally and existentially.
This observation does not lessen the reprehensible quality of this Russian recourse to criminality while carrying out its foreign policy. Even defensive geopolitics—the revolt against U.S. unipolar hegemony—tends to be cruelly harmful to third party sites of geopolitical rivalry turned violent, generating proxy wars and military interventions.
It may clarify the ideological confrontations to call attention to the distinction between statism and geopolitics in. the current world order. Russia’s attack is norm-shattering from a statist, international law standpoint, lacking any credible legal justification, whereas the Euro-American justification for denunciation rests on widely accepted norms of international law, territorial sovereignty, and nuclear taboo. Russia’s still obscure goals of the attack upon Ukraine’s sovereignty accords with geopolitical norms as set primarily by the West, particularly the United States, and on that score cannot be faulted unless past instances are similarly repudiated regardless of the identity of the actor.
The Western response is geopolitically norm-shattering to the extent it challenges Russia’s traditional sphere of influence along its Southern border, while in this sense Russia’s Ukraine attack is in accord with geopolitical norms. When the U.S. or NATO denounces Russia, it is best understood as hostile propaganda validating coercive diplomacy (sanctions), while when New Zealand or countries of the Global South make the same argument, it is an attempt to repudiate geopolitical lawlessness, and seek state-centric rules of order in accord with the UN Charter and systemic applicability.
Stephen Zunes: There is a broad spectrum of the political mainstream in support of Ukraine, as there should be. They are victims of aggression. Indeed, the outpouring of support and sympathy to the victims of Russian aggression is quite moving, though it certainly raises questions as to why there hasn’t been similar support and sympathy for nonwhite, non-Christian victims of aggression, such as Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Sahrawis, and others.
In terms of apologists for Russia, Putin’s rightwing nationalism, ties to ultraconservative elements of the Russian Orthodox Church, and his support for far-right parties in Europe and elsewhere are quite consistent with the views of the Trump wing of the Republican Party.
Support of Putin by some elements of the left is harder to understand. Perhaps there is a nostalgia for Soviet Russia, which—despite the serious problems with their system—tended to be on right side of many popular struggles in the Global South, so the Kremlin is therefore mistakenly still seen as “anti-imperialist.” Putin’s government is a far right, reactionary, homophobic, racist, imperialistic regime which—like the United States in Iraq—has engaged in an act of aggression in direct violation of the United Nations Charter. Like Israel and Morocco, Russia must withdraw from their occupied territories and renounced their irredentist claims. Opposing U.S. imperialism does not in itself make a regime progressive or worth defending.
Part of it may be the old “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Much of it could be about the understandable upset at the real, if somewhat exaggerated, provocations by the United States leading up to the crisis. There is also the fact that many people are still bitter at the way that so many in mainstream media and in Washington, including Joe Biden, made repeated demonstrably false claims about Iraq to justify the invasion of that oil-rich country, resulting in an assumption that the U.S. version of international events simply cannot be trusted under any circumstances.
Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on the media and how it’s structured around this war? Who do you consider to be the most effective on the ground reporters in this situation and why?
Lawrence Davidson: I think the U.S. media has simply revived the Cold War and proceeded as if this was 1950s. Those who control the news media outlets apparently only know one version of post-World War II history and the interim years following the fall of the Soviet Union has done nothing to alter that point of view.
Thus, as regards Russian behavior the media has deleted all the contextual background to the invasion. The whole thing has been reduced to an expansionist driven Russia led by Putin the madman. Speaking of reporters on the ground, this self-censoring storyline is very well represented by Trudy Rubin, the foreign policy person at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her present position of “we must do more for Ukraine” shows little concern that “more” might well mean “war” with Russia.
Richard Falk: I found the U.S, mainstream media shocking in its patrioteer-ing, one-sided presentation of the issues as norm-shattering without mentioning that this pattern of behavior had been normalized geopolitically by U.S. practice over the last half-century. The media has created no opportunities for informed progressive public intellectuals to give their views even as compared to the radical right, which has put forward a variety of dissident views, mostly unsavory. For instance, Tucker Carlson speaks for some prominent Trumpists as he denies sufficient national interests of the United States to justify a robust defense of Ukraine. Looking back, it seems that the Trump presidency was threatening to the post-Cold War consensus as to hegemonic geopolitics, seeking a more economistic and transactional world order, less willing to pay the price of subsidizing NATO and state-building misadventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The online independent media gives more context and diverse views, generally condemning Russian aggression and tactics but also blaming the U.S. for setting regime-changing aggression precedents, especially, Iraq since 2003.
The somewhat unexpected display of global unity in support of a coercive response to the Russian attack needs to recognize and explained, given its similarity to comparable U.S. interventions. It partly exhibits the geopolitical realities of unipolar world order, which includes the domination of public discourse bearing on the authoritative rendering of conflict narratives. A compliant media is an important policy tool of hegemonic geopolitics.
Stephen Zunes: The media coverage has not been bad in my view in terms of reporting the facts on the ground. Sympathy for the Ukrainians is well-deserved in most cases, though it again raises questions about double-standards regarding coverage of victims of aggression by the United States and its allies.
What upsets me about the media coverage is that their analysis has been based largely on the assumption that Russia’s invasion is somehow a uniquely terrible violation of international legal norms, and the United States is somehow uniquely qualified to defend the international order. There is barely any mention of the fact that the Biden administration is the only government in the world to formally recognize Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and Morocco’s illegal annexation of the entire country of Western Sahara.
Instead, the media is simply repeating White House and State Department insistence that no country can change its borders unilaterally and that expending territory by force is illegal which—while certainly correct—has not been U.S. policy regarding the conduct of U.S. allies. Similarly, there has been little mention of the irony that Biden—a strident supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the specious grounds that Iraq was somehow a threat to U.S. national security—is criticizing Putin for similarly false claims justifying the invasion of Ukraine.
Daniel Falcone: There is no way to predict human affairs, but based on your expertise and the political and historical implications taking place, what do you envision as the likely outcomes or possibilities?
Lawrence Davidson: I think Russia will continue its military operation until Ukraine concedes. If Ukraine does concede at a relatively early stage, maybe they can save some of their domestic independence while conceding controlof foreign policy to Russia. If not, Russia will destroy Ukraine. They will reduce the Ukrainian cities to rubble and leave the people starving. Then a leader responsible to Moscow will be put in power and the Russians will supervise a slow redevelopment program.
Throughout this process the sanctions which seem to soothe the Western conscience over its culpability in this affair will only cause suffering on the ground, both in the East and the West. It will not change Russian strategy or tactics. Finally, I do not think there will be a coup in Moscow. I know this is a very negative and sad picture, but the Russians had told the Western leaders that they would never allow hostile forces on their borders. The Western leaders did not listen, and the Ukrainians pay the price.
Richard Falk: The configuration of circumstances caught up in the Ukraine Crisis are distinctive to the current phase of international relations. History offers little guidance, although it contains some experience that is relevant, especially with reference to crisis management and de-escalation. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is instructive in somewhat contradictory ways. The most definitive studies of the crisis suggest that the avoidance of catastrophe depended on such good luck to a substantial degree. It also depended on two leaders, Khrushchev, and Kennedy, who wanted to avoid violent confrontation, and used their leadership skill to find a way out that didn’t humiliate the adversary. Whether Biden and Putin have either the skill or the motivation to find a peaceful means to end this ugly confrontation, which has become a grotesque example of lose/lose geopolitics and an unspeakable humanitarian tragedy for the Ukrainian people.
Pugwash, the loose network of scientists dedicated to peace, founded in 1957 by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, has issued an eight-point plan on February 26, 2022, featuring an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign forces, ending of sanctions on Russia and Russians, permanent neutrality for Ukraine, implementation of autonomy arrangements for Eastern Ukraine in the Donbass region. Some such sensible compromise that recognizes the various issues at stake is rational, possible, yet in the present atmosphere elusive, improbable.
More likely, and grimmer, is the persistence of confrontation, perhaps somewhat moderated by a ceasefire followed by a Russian withdrawal of armed forces from Western Ukraine and a diplomatic understanding that the sovereign state of Ukraine can join the European Union, but not NATO. There are economic incentives to calm the roiled geopolitical waters and devoted desperately needed attention and resources to climate change and post-COVID recovery.
Stephen Zunes: Russia could end up being bogged down in its advances on the ground due to lagging logistical support, poor morale of its troops, and tenacious resistance by the Ukrainians, yet they could still engage in the kind of devastating strikes on urban centers as Russian troops did in Grozny, the Israelis have done repeatedly in Gaza, the Saudis in Yemen, and the Syrians in their own cities. It’s also possible that Russia might end up physically seizing much of Ukraine, but both the armed and unarmed resistance will likely make the country ungovernable. Just because you have tanks in the streets and collaborators in government buildings doesn’t mean you control the country if people do not recognize your authority.
Meanwhile, the sanctions will lead to growing opposition among elites and ordinary Russians to Putin’s impetuous actions, possibly forcing him to compromise and perhaps even removing him from power. I have little doubt that Ukraine will win. The questions are: How long it will take and how many people will die until they do? And will Russia’s eventual defeat lead to increased U.S. militarism and imperial reach, or a stronger global stance against all forms of aggression, including that of the United States and its allies?
 See Anthony Lake,” From Containment to Enlargement,” Clinton Digital Library, Sept. 21, 1993; John Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of Liberal Hegemony,” Stimson Lecture, Yale University, Nov. 22, 2017
 e.g., Guatemala 1954; Chile 1973; Nicaragua 1980s
 Some fascists that staged a limited role late in the uprising and briefly held some minority positions in the interim government have received barely 4% of the vote in recent elections, though the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion has played a role in the fighting in the Donbas region.
 The $5 billion figure attributed to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was in reference to all U.S. foreign aid sent to Ukraine since its independence in 1991, which includes aid to pro-Western Ukrainian administrations (which the United States presumably would not have wanted to destabilize). Like most U.S. foreign aid, some of it went for good things and some for not so good things. There was also some funding through the National Endowment for Democracy and other organizations to some opposition groups that were involved in the recent insurrection, but this was in the millions of dollars, nothing remotely close to $5 billion.
 No ‘no-fly zone’? Then NATO must find another way to protect Ukraine’s skies.