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War: Which Side Faces Forward?


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Why are the war’s various main actors doing what they are doing? Answering that question might help inform what various actors, including ourselves, ought to be doing.

Did Russia amass and invade because Putin is a lunatic, Putin is seeking a legacy, the big man theory of history, or… what?

A prevalent answer is that Russia was provoked by fear of NATO expansion. I have doubts that that concern is alone operative. Would a ground-based missile in Ukraine really matter that much? Is Moscow hit by a border-based missile worse than Moscow hit by a submarine-based missile a bit further away, or even by a missile from a silo in Kansas?

A different explanation is some sort of Russian wanderlust desire to return to the pre-deSovietization or even pre-Soviet level of empire. To me, even ignoring its impossibility, it is not clear what for and why.

A third explanation is that Russian political and economic leadership worries about further defections. If Ukraine dramatically merges westward, and, in particular, if it gets mammoth aid that uplifts its citizen’s circumstances, then perhaps that would evidence by example that it is possible to extricate from the Russian system and do much better. Such hope can breed action.

Remember how the U.S. responded to the threat that Vietnam might become a good example that could foster more extrications from U.S. tutelage. Washington moved heaven and earth so that even if Vietnam did miraculously extricate, it would not teach the world that extricating was easy. It would teach that it was humongously damaging.

Consider the above motivations. If Putin is simply a maniac, as many propose, what would that say about prospects? After all, unpredictability is the word maniac with twice as many syllables, though acting maniacal is admittedly right out of the Henry Kissinger playbook, the madman’s method of negotiation.

On the other hand, if Russia is scared of what it perceives to be a military security threat, that suggests negotiations that take the future disposition of missiles to Ukraine off the table could end the carnage. It also suggests a supreme level of Kremlin ignorance given that Putin’s choices for how to reduce NATO expansion have done more to legitimate and propel NATO growth than anyone in NATO had previously dreamed of. In fact, the invasion has propelled not only NATO, but military spending near and far. In Indochina the U.S., “destroyed cities to save them.” Is Russia expanding NATO to shrink it? Perhaps doubts about shrinking NATO being their agenda have some basis.

But if the motive is Russian expansion, expansion to get what? To annex a corruption-ridden neoliberal economic basket case? A country that Russia will have to demolish to make sufficiently digestible to swallow? Not much nourishment in that. But morbid sarcasm aside, access to warm water ports is indeed worth a lot in the geo-political scheme of countries behaving like gangsters. So this suggests another thing to negotiate: access to ports.

And finally we come to the fear of a good example. The problem with this being the motive, as evidenced by the U.S. template for big power extermination of good examples, is that it suggests the Russian goal is either to prevent extrication from occurring at all or to insure that if it does, in any event, no one can think running Westward is attractive because the surviving escapee is demolished. So: Install a puppet? Occupy the whole country? Demolish the whole country (which, however, may induce massive aid)? Succeed or retreat? Or what?

So, as to Russia’s motivations, despite lots of firm formulations from diverse pundits, I think we actually have no firm answers.

What about Ukraine’s motivations? This seems obvious, no? Instead of the U.S. filling Indochina’s sky with warplanes to put “everything that flies on everything that moves,” Russia fills Ukraine’s roads with tanks to put everything that rolls against everything that stands. Ukraine’s main shared motive is therefore blazingly obvious. Defend homes, land, language, culture, and bodily security. The only surprise is that Ukraine’s defense has been so effective and Russia’s offense has been so ineffective. In fact, the fighting has been so unexpectedly effective on one side and so unexpectedly ineffective on the other side, that now Ukraine may have dreams not simply of holding on sufficiently to enter negotiations without abject total surrender, but of actually winning and driving the Russians out.

Suppose we look a bit closer, however, at what Ukraine’s aim is for after the war. This introduces fuzziness as like every country Ukraine is diverse. Is the goal to attain peace by a negotiated settlement or even by driving away the invaders in order to protect or even enlarge the sway of Ukraine’s own oligarchs? Is it to go even further and elevate Ukraine’s still relatively small fascist elements? Or is the goal to have the aftermath of the war’s horrid destruction elevate solidarity, mutual aid, and a push toward truly political participation, economic redistribution, and innovative ecological sustainability (which would make Ukraine a universally relevant good example)?

What about NATO and the U.S. itself? Well, the mainstream media cacophony proclaims that we are in it to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, reduce violence, and aid those hurt and exiled. Setting aside the ludicrous notion that U.S. foreign policy is moved by someone else’s interests, some critics and now also key policy makers say instead that we are in it to win it—which means we are in it to engage Russia via Ukraine’s sacrifice until the Russian economy is severely crippled and the Russian military is entirely de-fanged. In short as in our every international endeavor, even in the rare cases when their policies arguably have some positive collateral impact that U.S. elites can brag about, the heart of the matter is expanding U.S. deviltry, known less poetically as U.S. imperialism.

Back in the Sixties we used to chant one side right, one side wrong, victory to the Vietcong. Whether or not one thinks that was the best way to expand opposition to the war and to advance awareness of broader issues, it was largely true. The current situation is more complicated. Russia is wrong. Ukraine is right to try to survive but beyond that… what? And the U.S. is wrong.

What’s an anti war activist to do? The first step is easy. Oppose the war. The next step is more complicated. Explain Russia’s culpability. Explain U.S. and NATO culpability. Explain the aims of each, flexibly, as best one can, and reject all of it. Aid the Ukrainian people, but don’t align with reinforcing Ukraine’s pre war status quo. Support workers, progressive, and socialist movements in Ukraine. Help refugees from Ukraine. But do all the above without succumbing to parroting U.S. or Russian talking points. Do all the above in ways sensitive to present carnage but also to future local and international prospects. Oppose increasing the probability of international war. Oppose collateral starvation and arms spending. Oppose entrenchment of horrible institutions whether in Russia, Ukraine, or the U.S. Seek a negotiated end.

Sometimes bad motives and aims can broker policies that have some good effects, perhaps even sufficient to warrant temporary careful support, for example, of vile arms dealers providing defensive arms. But regardless of all the above, here comes the point of my writing about this situation at all.

The facts are unclear. People of good will and strong understanding can arrive at different impressions of what is going on, why it is going on, and with what possible resolution it can end. Based on those perceptual differences about undeniably vague facts—and not based on the commentators’ morals, broad politics, or genetic attributes—such good people can sincerely disagree about how to talk about, write about, organize about, or make demands about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the American response. Such differences do not call for a good person with one view to ridicule or even attack a good person with another view. That kind of circular firing squad behavior does immense harm to prospects for change. Disagreement is one thing. Denigration is another.

And then there lurks beneath at least some destructive disputes a very weird form of thought that we all need to transcend. “My enemies enemy is my friend” is a Machiavellian mindset that replaces thought with mindless tribal allegiance. If a new team seeks control of drug distribution in my neighborhood and so wars on the old team that is currently my enemy, the new team is not my friend. If Stalin opposes Hitler, Stalin is not my friend. If Russia today opposes the U.S. today, Russia is not my friend. For that matter, if the U.S. today opposes Russia today, the U.S. is not Ukraine’s friend. When a second vile entity obstructs or challenges a first vile entity who is my current prime enemy, it does not make the second vile entity my friend. Nuance is relevant. Outcomes matter. But vile is vile.

Whatever we do to address the war, we need to stop thinking that my view, your view, or anyone else’s view who is sincerely leftist deserves to be condemned and even overtly attacked. A conversation would be better all around. Conversations might even lead to better views.

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