Radioactive Righteousness

We’re all going to be radioactive and happy. Contaminated and self-righteous. The Geiger counter will tick furiously as democracy triumphs over barbarism. For in Europe, fingers crossed, we’re headed full-steam towards a nuclear showdown. We are advancing towards the abyss with the same joyous thoughtlessness with which the great powers plunged into the First World War, as recounted in Christopher Clark’s fine work The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012). But, unlike then, today’s sleepwalkers are in an induced narcosis.

Transfixed by the horrors perpetrated in Ukraine, we no longer perceive the escalation that’s unfolding before our eyes. I’m not referring just to Russia’s intensifying war effort and the senseless brutality displayed by its armed forces. Nor to the West’s increasingly heavy sanctions against Moscow, or the influx of ever more powerful and sophisticated weaponry from NATO member states to Kyiv. Rather, the most worrying escalation is in the rhetoric of war. In the present conflict the field of propaganda is decisive, perhaps even more so than the battlefield itself.

In recent weeks, all the tropes of ‘war crimes’, ‘genocide’ and ‘atrocities’ have been adopted (before the war began I wrote for Sidecar on the use of atrocities as a political tool). Let’s be clear: atrocities have surely been committed, and more will come. War is atrocious by definition; otherwise it would be more like a sporting event, a jousting tournament. Yet it is uncommon to call the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a genocide or an anatrocity. Atrocities are committed in all wars, but only decried in some. These categories are evoked with the specific aim of excluding any possibility of negotiation. It’s not by chance that poor Macron (snubbed by the US and mocked by Putin after hours of useless tête à tête) had opposed the verbal intensification represented by accusations of ‘genocide’. You can’t negotiate with a war criminal; deals can’t be struck with a mass murderer. If Putin is the new Hitler, the only thing left to do is to raze the new Reich to the ground. There is no room left for reasoning, so no remedy is possible.

No room, indeed. Who remembers the four rounds of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine held between 28 February and 10 March (three in Belarus, one in Turkey)? A deal seemed possible then; now it’s inconceivable. The feeling we all had from the beginning – that the United States wouldn’t be displeased with a Russian invasion, and that they would do very little to avoid it – was increasingly confirmed as the months went by. As early as March, when it became clear that no one wanted to negotiate a peace deal, one of the leading scholars of Stalinism, Stephen Kotkin (not exactly known for his tenderness towards Russia), warned in an interview with the New Yorker:

The problem…is that it’s hard to figure out how to de-escalate, how to get out of the spiral of mutual maximalism. We keep raising the stakes with more and more sanctions and cancellations. There is pressure on our side to ‘do something’ because the Ukrainians are dying every day while we are sitting on the sidelines, militarily, in some ways. (Although, as I said, we’re supplying them with arms, and we’re doing a lot in cyber.) The pressure is on to be maximalist on our side, but, the more you corner them, the more there’s nothing to lose for Putin, the more he can raise the stakes, unfortunately. He has many tools that he hasn’t used that can hurt us. We need a de-escalation from the maximalist spiral, and we need a little bit of luck and good fortune, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Helsinki or Jerusalem, perhaps in Beijing, but certainly in Kyiv.

Since then, two months have passed, and the situation has deteriorated. On 26 April James Heappey, the British Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, told the Ukrainians they should bring the war into Russian territory. Such figures in the Western foreign policy establishment are aware that, contrary to what common sense would dictate, the stalling of Putin’s military advance has actually undermined the hopes for peace. The Kremlin could never expose itself to Russian public opinion and sit down for talks without having achieved any of its war aims, for that would highlight the failure of its offensive. And NATO, for its part, has no interest in de-escalating the conflict. It will not spare Russia from punishment, either for its atrocities in Bucha or its insubordination before the US hegemon.

The war’s trajectory has shown that Russian military power was overrated. Just as Germany has been defined as an economic giant and a political dwarf, Putin’s Russia has, until recently, been seen as an economic dwarf and a military giant. But a dwarf-giant is an oxymoron, and Moscow’s military might is more realistically commensurate with its economic capacities – a GDP larger than Spain’s but inferior to Italy’s. This was made strikingly apparent on 14 April, with the sinking of the guided missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Whatever the truth about its demise, whether it sank because of a fire – implying that the Russian Navy is in such an appalling state that it was unable to put out such a blaze – or due to a Ukrainian missile attack – indicating that Russia lacks the technology to repel an offensive against its most advanced vessel – the calamity demonstrated what the impasses of the ground war already suggested: that Putin’s Russia can also be defined by the sardonic turn of phrase once used by a Financial Times reporter to describe the USSR under Gorbachev, an ‘Upper Volta with rockets’.

More concretely, though, the Moskva’s shoddy anti-missile defences have taught the Pentagon that if this is the condition of Russian electronic systems, the risk posed by its nuclear arsenal is relative. As Andrew Bacevich notes in The Nation,

most embarrassingly for American policy-makers, the failure of Putin’s ‘special operation’ exposes the overall Russian ‘threat’ as essentially fraudulent. Barring a suicidal nuclear attack, Russia poses no danger whatsoever to the United States. (Emphasis added for the slow-witted.). Nor does it pose a meaningful threat to Europe. An army stymied in its efforts to overcome the scratch force cobbled together to defend Ukraine won’t get very far should the Kremlin choose to attack the European members of NATO. The Russian bear has effectively defanged itself.

Bacevich is too hasty in excluding the possibility of a suicidal nuclear attack, but he’s also wrong on another point. It’s true that Russia doesn’t constitute a serious threat to the United States and its defensive arsenal, itself protected by a web of satellites and avant-garde technology. But what about Europe? European cities are truly at risk, both because of their more modest protections and their contiguity with Russia (that is to say, the relative speed with which Russia could hit them). Berlin lies a mere 1,000km from the Russian border. Let’s not forget that the conflict between NATO and Russia has taken place entirely within Europe; it would be the third time in a little over a century that the United States fights a war on the European continent without having to face its consequences at home (in March, erstwhile CIA Director Leon Panetta conceded that the US was already fighting a proxy war in Ukraine).

By now NATO and the US have begun to speak like victors, openly discussing what punishments to inflict on a defeated Moscow. ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine’, says US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. Meanwhile, Francis Fukuyama predicts that ‘Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine’ – one that ‘will make possible a “new birth of freedom”, and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.’ Moreover, writes Fukuyama, the war will be

a good lesson for China. Like Russia, China has built up seemingly high-tech military forces in the past decade, but they have no combat experience. The miserable performance of the Russian air force would likely be replicated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which similarly has no experience managing complex air operations. We may hope that the Chinese leadership will not delude itself as to its own capabilities the way the Russians did when contemplating a future move against Taiwan.

In short, ‘thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians’, the defence of the free world becomes an unexpected occasion to reaffirm US global hegemony and consolidate an empire which a few months prior had been diagnosed with irreversible decline. As Pankaj Mishra writes, ‘Humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at home by Trump, demoralised the exporters of democracy and capitalism. But Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine have now given them an opportunity to make America seem great again.’ (Everyone takes advantage of war to settle personal scores: Boris Johnson, for instance, is using it to cause problems for Germany, exacting a small revenge for the humiliations suffered during the post-Brexit negotiations).

The main problem is that the more Russia finds itself backed into a corner, the more it will be restricted by its military weakness, and the more it will be tempted to compensate with nuclear threats. We know from experience that threats can’t be drawn out indefinitely – sooner or later they must be carried through, even if they are entirely counterproductive (as Putin has seen, at considerable cost, with the decision to start the war itself). ‘Do not press a desperate foe too hard’, Sun Tzu cautioned, some 24 centuries ago.

This is a different escalation to the one Kotkin described, but its effect is the same. As Russia comes unstuck in Ukraine, its enemies are no longer compelled to negotiate; they therefore become more intransigent and change the negotiating terms, leading Russia to intensify its efforts, and so on. The first victim of this cycle is the Ukrainian people. The outcome of stalling negotiations is the shelling of more cities and the death of more civilians. The West will continue to trumpet its values over their corpses (unless it decides to intervene directly and trigger a nuclear war). To paraphrase an old saying: it’s easy to play the hero when someone else’s neck is on the line.

In the meantime, the Russian invasion has already caused irreparable damage. It has shown just how much the environmental question counts for those far-sighted elites that govern society. Any global crisis becomes yet another opportunity to relegate the future of our planet to the lowest rung on the order of priorities. There’s a pandemic, ergo forget about the environment. A war in Ukraine? Let’s start fracking at full blast. They’re already making us swallow the comeback of nuclear energy. More coal plants, more gas from our ‘democratic’ ally al Sisi – anything is better than striking a deal with the perfidious Kremlin.

The second victim of the Russian invasion is the EU, which will emerge in tatters, even if it’s spared the missile strikes. German fantasies of a new Ostpolitik have vanished,French dreams of (relative) military autonomy have been dispelled, and the relations (kept throughout the Cold War) between Rome and the Kremlin have been severed. Above all, any notion of the Union’s political autonomy is now extinguished. Europe in its entirety has realigned itself with NATO, the same organization that Macron termed ‘brain dead’ in 2019. On the contrary, Monsieur le Président: today there are queues outside NATO’s box office.

But there’s more: the Russian invasion, with its aim of ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine, has also given renewed legitimacy to neofascism and authoritarianism across Europe. The right is no longer judged on its dictatorial impulses, but on its relative hostility to or sympathy for Putin. Poland, on trial by the EU for infringing its rule of law, finds itself miraculously elevated to a bulwark of democracy, while Hungary is further ostracized for its tepid anti-Russia stances.  

Putin has performed two miracles. The first has been the creation of Ukraine. If to exist politically a nation must first be imagined as a community, and if this community can only be imagined when the dead become our dead, then the Russian invasion has truly given birth to Ukraine, not just as a geographic entity, not even as a political-diplomatic construct (remember that from the fourteenth century until 1991 Ukraine has always been under foreign control), but as a community, as a feeling of belonging to a people.

The second miracle has been the legitimation of Ukrainian neo-Nazis in the eyes of the world. Of note here, for anyone who might not have read them, are the two fine reports on the European far-right published before the invasion of Ukraine: one in Harper’s, other in Die Zeit, both dealing with Ukrainian neo-Nazis and their leading organization, the Azov Battalion (now a Regiment). When Russian tanks crossed the border, the Azov Battalion became a hotbed of heroes. This transformation verges on the ridiculous – if it wasn’t already tragic. It has been expressed in interviews like the one in La Repubblica, which quotes the commander of the second regiment as saying, ‘I’m no Nazi, I read Kant to my soldiers.’ The commander goes on to cite the well-known conclusion from the Critique of Practical Reason: ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.’ All this is reminiscent of the SS, who were known to have an exquisite taste for German Romantic music.

This goes to show that, in propaganda wars, the law of the excluded middle doesn’t hold. It isn’t the case that if one’s opponent is wrong then their adversary must be right. Lies in war aren’t symmetrical; two enemies are perfectly capable of lying simultaneously. That’s why it’s childish to accuse anyone who questions the Western narrative of the war of philo-Putinism. The fact that Putin is, to borrow Roosevelt’s words, ‘a son of a bitch’, doesn’t mean his enemies are angels. And the opposite is also true; Western political cynicism shouldn’t turn Putin into a saint.

It’s striking that the US always stages the same script, presenting itself as the Empire of Good, sometimes clashing with the Empire of Evil, sometimes with a rogue state or a crazy criminal. For over eighty years we’ve been shown this same Western. In reality, though, human history resembles a Spaghetti Western more than the American variety; a story without heroes and villains, where everyone acts unscrupulously in their own interest, or what they (often wrongly) perceive as such. Let’s just hope that this time round story doesn’t end with Joe Biden riding solo into a sunset blotted out by a billowing mushroom cloud.

P.S. Contrary to most self-respecting commentators, I’d be extremely happy to be contradicted by the facts and admit to committing an enormous error. I’d be happy, most of all, simply to be alive.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Volodymyr Ishchenko, ‘Towards the Abyss’, NLR 133/134.