By Paul Street / CounterPunch
I would encourage many online “leftists” to try a lot harder not to come off as Vladimir Putin bootlickers indifferent to the plight of ordinary Ukrainians (and for that matter of everyday Russians who are losing access to non-state media and who face 15 years in prison for even calling Putin’s war of invasion a war or an invasion) when you bring up the undeniably horrible role of the imperialist United States and the imperialist North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Russian people are captive to an imperialist capitalist gangster state understood as such by many Russian Marxists, who oppose Putin’s war of invasion. F*ck Putin and his oligarchic regime.
“We so-called ‘bootlickers,’” an old white left Putinist wrote me in the name of anti-imperialism, “are standing up to the pressure of the new Cold War just as Paul Robeson stood up in the first.” I guess Comrade Dinosaur hasn’t heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of kleptocratic gangster capitalism in Russia. Everyone on what’s left of an actual Left opposes NATO and a New Cold War (see below), but the smarter ones among us reject the false belief that there’s only one imperialism (the US-American Empire) on Earth.
F the Zelinsky Cult Too
At the same time, I would encourage other leftists and progressives and liberals to also distance themselves from the Cult of Zelinsky – a mediocre comedian turned oligarchic politician who was first granted world celebrity status by Donald Trump (who earned his first impeachment by trying to use the threat of withholding US military aid to bully Zelinsky into somehow providing political dirt on Joe Biden) and who has now been turned into a Western messiah by Vladimir Putin, the US, Europe, NATO, and the corporate media. Zelinsky’s call for a NATO-imposed No-Fly Zone over Ukraine is a call for US warplanes to directly engage Russian jets and thus a call for great power escalation potentially proceeding to World War III, which nobody wins. Talk about reckless!
“If you won’t close the air-space over Ukraine, then give us planes to fight back,” Zelinsky says. That’s not much better than No-Fly. That too will make it impossible to NATO to be taken seriously in claiming that it is not at war with Russia. Who will fly Polish Soviet-era fighter aircraft into Ukraine? “If Ukrainian pilots do,” the military historian Alexander Hill writes on The Conversation, “then they are operating from NATO bases, but if Polish pilots do, then are they participants in the war? Few in the West or Russia want open war between NATO and the Russians…For the West to get even more deeply involved militarily,” Hill adds, “would undoubtedly open the door to a much wider war, one that would dramatically increase the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used. The current Ukraine crisis simply cannot be allowed to morph into the Third World War or a conflict in which the West’s end game is Putin’s ‘unconditional surrender.’ Even if he’s saber-rattling to instill fear, Putin’s hints at the possible use of nuclear weapons must not simply be dismissed, because the stakes are too high….”
Zelinsky soaks up the love and adoration the television actor craves in his new role on the global stage while women and children die so that Ukraine can cling to the poison option of someday joining the mass-murderous Western imperialist military alliance (NATO) – something that any Russian state (including an imaginary socialist Russia) would legitimately consider an existential threat (Imagine Ontario refusing to stay out of a Chinese and/or Russian military alliance that already claimed northern Mexico, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan).
No to Zelinsky and his Western imperialist allies and the vast Western ideological apparatus that have converted him into a symbol of “democracy” and “freedom.” He is, as I once described Barack Obama, “the [US and Western] Empire’s New Clothes”: a supposedly insurgent but in fact oligarch-backed rockstar called forth by history to wrap the bloody-toothed wolf of Western capitalism-imperialism in adorable sheep’s clothing.
Perhaps that judgement is too harsh, but this seems clear: the cult of Zelensky, the related exaggeration of Ukraine resistance power, and the smoothing of the path to NATO engagement with Russia (via Polish planes and/or pilots) seems likely to get a large mass of human beings turned into corpses before their time.
As events speed forward to possible if not likely further and expanded disaster, it is difficult indeed not to acknowledges the wisdom of George Kennan’s oft-quoted 1997 warning. In a New York Times opinion piece, the architect of the United States Cold War policy of Soviet “containment,” argued that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error in American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” Kennan predicted that “it would inflame nationalistic, anti-western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion,” “have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy,” “restore the atmosphere of cold war to east-west relations,” and “impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
You Can Oppose Two and Even Three Things at the Same Time
Here is a very wise reflection from the venerable Left commentator Peter McLaren:
Listening to many news reports that have decried the bloody violence inflicted by the Russian military in Ukraine reveals a disturbing trend: there appears to be a flagrant ethnocentricity and racism at work. Some pundits appear to be upset with the Russian attack on Ukraine mainly because (as they shockingly proclaim) it’s a war between prosperous middle-class people, between peoples that you would never find in Third World populations in Latin America or Africa, between ‘civilized’ people, people who ‘look like us’ – fashionable victims, unlike those unfashionable victims being bombed in, say, Yemen. If they were reporting on a war between tribal factions in Africa, they would not be nearly as emotionally invested. Those are the pundits whose demands for NATO to impose a no-fly zone are the loudest. But a physical engagement between Russia and NATO would be guaranteed to bring about mutually assured destruction…Social media accounts of the war raise our emotions to a fever pitch. But we cannot lose our capacity for sound, rational judgement. And that means that those of us in the West must continue to challenge the imperialist playbook of NATO, as we continue to challenge Putin… We must hold all imperialist regimes accountable for their crimes the world over. That is why socialist internationalism is so important, especially at this inflection point in history… All imperialist regimes must be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Notice McLaren’s ability to properly criticize two, even three things at the same time – Putin’s criminal aggression, NATO imperialism, and racist selectivity in media designation of who counts as a worthy victim of imperialist aggression. We need more thinkers and activists to chew gum, walk, and raise and chant for peace at the same time.
“The Last Thing the U.S. Wants is for Peace to Break Out”: Hence “the New Winston Churchill”
On the morning of Monday, March 7, Reuters reported the Kremlin’s offer to immediately cease hostilities – to end its military actions “in a moment” – if Ukraine and the West do four things: cease military action as part of a wider ceasefire; change Ukraine’s constitution to enshrine neutrality, meaning pledge to stay out of NATO; acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory; recognize the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. In other words, the Minsk Accords.
The offer received little if any attention in the big three cable news networks (CNN, MSNBC, and FOX) entrusted with manufacturing mass consent to US and Western imperialism. As my correspondent Frank Hughes explains:
“Basically the Minsk Accords which Russia has agreed to in principle all along and the us has consistently scuttled. As [Russian foreign minister Sergi] Lavrov has stated on multiple occasions, ‘they refuse to negotiate.’ The last thing the US wants at this point is for peace to break out. From the US perspective the more dead Ukrainians, he better. Ukies need to wake up. There’s no doubt about who will ‘win’ this and Russia’s offer is not going to get any better.”
As another correspondent, Terry Thomas reflected on Tuesday morning:
“I have checked all over the internet and see no reference this peace offer anywhere. Everything is ‘Biden to prohibit Russian energy imports.’ Also, and this is rich, apparently kissing Maduro’s ass to try to get oil from Venezuela. Just saw an article referring to Zelensky as a new Winston Churchill. And my guess is Biden wants to humiliate and completely defeat Putin, probably wants him gone. Then he can announce to the world that freedom has prevailed and get a big boost in his flagging approval ratings. The idea of rational conclusion to this bloody chapter may have gone away when Russian troops crossed the border, which would help explain [Washington’s] apparent refusal to really negotiate with Putin prior to invasion. Perhaps they were not completely displeased when the shooting started.”
It’s a shame, likely to kill a large number of soldiers and noncombatants. Instead of dismissing and burying Putin’s peace offer, the West should, well, negotiate to save lives and to pre-empt the slide to great nuclear power conflict. As the bloody battle for Kyiv beckons, what in the name of God would be so horrible about (a) pledging Ukrainian neutrality (maybe this could be negotiated down from a constitutional change), (b) officially accepting the fait accompli of Crimea’s incorporation into Russia, and (c) recognizing independence (or perhaps negotiating increased autonomy) in the two Russian-speaking breakaway provinces? How many more Russian and ordinary troops and how many Ukrainian civilians needs to die so that some version of the Minsk Accords can’t be implemented? Is the prevention of official Ukrainian neutrality and demilitarization really worth tens if not hundreds of thousands of deaths and potential escalation to nuclear winter? Seriously?
The alternatives are not pretty and the likelihood of decent outcomes with accepting some version of the terms offered are not high. “Putin won’t back down without some sort of win… If things carry on as they are,” professor Hill writes. Further:
“the result will eventually be diplomatic discussions about just the sort of terms Putin has put forward — but after countless additional deaths and unimaginable suffering in Ukraine. The likelihood of Ukraine fighting Russia to the point at which Putin is willing to drop any demands is still extremely low, no matter how many weapons the West provides Ukraine. There’s a chance Putin will be overthrown, but at this moment in time that too is unlikely. Putin has more support in Russia than many western commentators seem willing to admit, and currently has a firm hold of the reins of power…A long, drawn-out war and the impact of sanctions will drain Russian support for Putin’s war, but we shouldn’t underestimate the strength of Putin’s resolve or patriotic elements within Russia.”
“Back After This Brief Message”: Scenes of Depravity Floating in the Icy Waters of Bourgeois Calculation
Here is a grave MSNBC understatement I saw a few nights ago: “A No-Fly Zone is a big ask.” No shit! Someone should tell NBC there’s no advertising revenue from Liberty Mutual and Pfizer under conditions of nuclear winter. Which reminds me: it is deeply offensive and disturbing to watch the cable news talking heads move from scenes of sheer horror in Ukraine to the Liberty Mutual insurance idiot with is f*#king emu. Wow: “we’ll be right back with more images of dead families, live coverage of nuclear power plants under artillery attack and reflections on potential nuclear after a few infantilizing messages from our parasitic corporate sponsors.” Thomas again:
“Been watching these scenes of pain, misery, and cruelty for more than a week now, and I have hit a point where the commercials have become something different than they were before. Previously, before this all started, I sort of saw them as part of the creepy absurdity of late consumer capitalism and a bizarre manifestation of the obvious power behind the information I was being fed. I would turn the volume off when they came on. But it was just sort of the pathetic way our pathetic society did its pathetic thing. But now they seem like something way worse, way darker: something truly odious, disgusting, and quite frankly evil. These talking heads can go through scene after scene of absolute human depravity and then inform us they’ll be back after “this brief message” to show us some more depravity. They don’t blink an eye or even show embarrassment at what they are doing. It all just speaks volumes. How anyone could watch the juxtaposition of the two and find it anything but filthy and existentially hollow is beyond me. Real horror brought to you by evil absurdity… It’s not like this horrible stuff doesn’t happen on a regular basis, and of course a good deal of it the result of the degenerate late capitalism complex that also pukes up the Liberty Mutual commercials. But it is the way cable news is covering this particular horror story, and then they have the audacity to simply do the other shit without as much as a comment or an apology. It is really beyond description. And apparently Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and Lawrence O’Donnell don’t seem to notice or care at all, which makes it just surreal.”
These are things that the Frankfurt School, Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, and Neal Postman, among others, have tried to warn us about. Like also-capitalist US foreign policy, it’s shameless, soulless, crass, cynical, cold, calculating. “The bourgeoisie,” two young and peripatetic German philosophers-turned-communists wrote in 1838, “has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned….” Capitalism is imperialist and it is also socio-pathological like the modern corporation and the military industrial complexes it has hatched.
No War but the People’s War
“Fight the Rich, Not Their Wars.”
“No to Putin, No to NATO: Stand with the People.”
“No War but the People’s War.”
“The Working People Have No Country.”
These slogans no doubt strike many liberals, and many “left” campists as empty platitudes. I disagree. We must press the war masters on both/all sides to negotiate for peace since there’s no social justice, no democracy, and no livable ecology for the common good on a war-levelled planet any more than on a climate-baked Earth. But we must also wage a people’s war on class rule and oligarchs of all national stripes for it is the chaotic and soulless capitalist order that most fundamentally gives rise to modern imperial war (and eco-cide) in the first place.
Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.