By Paul Street / CounterPunch
US Americans, as products of television and Hollywood, want good guys and bad guys. So who have been the good guys in the Ukraine War and the politics surrounding it?
Not Putin and the Kremlin
Certainly NOT the fascistic dictator Vladimir Putin and those who back his ugly invasion of Ukraine. His assault on a country directly proximate to his own is nothing on the scale of the United States’ arch-criminal assaults on nations far from its own shores – Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia in the last century and Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya in the current one – but it is a war crime nonetheless. It is chilling to witness the sheer impunity with which the sheltered, super-opulent Russian ruler has sent many thousands of Russian soldiers off to death along with (conservatively) more than a thousand Ukrainian civilians, including hundreds of children.
Instead of pursuing political and diplomatic channels to address Russia’s regional security concerns regarding Ukraine (see below), Putin opted instead for mass death and destruction while threatening to use nuclear weapons to discourage a Western military response to his criminal action. He has preposterously denied Ukraine’s existence as a legitimate nation and ludicrously called it a “Nazi” regime engaged in “genocide.”
Along the way, the blood-soaked tyrant has shut down independent media within Russia (essentially declaring “martial law for the media”) and sent his military police to sweep up Russian antiwar protesters. He has directed his government’s rubber-stamp legislative body (the Duma) to make it a crime carrying a 15-year prison sentence to call his war of invasion a war or an invasion (doing so is described in Trumpian terms as “fake news” by the Russian state). He has gone on national Russian television to deliver a chilling and fascistic speech calling war opponents a “fifth column” full of “scum and traitors,” comparing them to small insects to be spat of proud Russians’ mouth.
That he likely and wrongly expected a smooth and relatively bloodless takeover of Ukraine does not absolve him. Neither does the fact that Washington significantly provoked his incursion.
Vladimir Putin is a bad guy.
Not Biden and Washington
But you won’t find the “good guys” in Washington either. The United States of America (USA) has no moral standing to denounce any other nation’s murderous wars of invasion given its own much larger criminal Superpower record on that score. To make matters worse, Washington has spent years egging the Russian strongman Putin into his latest crime. Since the late 1990s, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that is the USA, has been boldly violating George H.W. Bush’s post-Cold War pledge not to expand NATO eastward. The USA-led Humiliate Russia Project has gone full speed ahead in defiance of warnings from imperial architects and operatives including George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Jack Matlock, current CIA Director William Burns, and many others.
Washington has been poking the Russian bear in the eye regarding the especially sensitive case of Ukraine since at least 2014, indifferent to the plight of millions put at risk by such imperial jabbing far from US shores. A critical document that has been widely ignored by US media certainly set Putin and his planners on edge last fall. The Joint Statement on the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership signed by Joe Biden last September said that the door was wide open for Ukraine to join NATO. It established a “Strategic Defense Framework” that provided Ukraine with elite anti-tank and air-defense weapons and “a robust training and exercise program in keeping with Ukraine’s status as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner.”
What sheer imperial impunity on the part of a real if fading global Superpower, aimed at the vast regional underbelly of the proud and repeatedly invaded Russian state (death and destruction has been brought to Russia from the West via Eastern Europe states on at least seven occasions since 1570)! Anyone who follows recent history and current events with at least a handful of working gray cells knows that Washington would never permit Mexico plan to join a Chinese-run military alliance, install Chinese missiles aimed at the U.S. and conduct military exercises with the People’s Liberation Army.
To make matters worse, Biden and Washington have shown little interest in pursuing and promoting peace negotiations around terms that would let Putin stand down from further carnage in the wake of the difficulties his invasion has faced. There’s nothing mysterious about the off-ramps Putin needs for some kind of “mission accomplished” moment to save Ukrainian and Russian lives: official neutrality for Ukraine, recognition of the fait accompli of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, and readjusted sovereignty status for the two long-contested Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine provinces.
Biden recently damaged chances for peace by recklessly saying this about Putin during an emotionally evocative trip to rally NATO forces and the US 82md Airborne in Western Europe and visit Ukrainian war refugees in Poland: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” It was what the Associated Press rightly called “a dramatic escalation in rhetoric…[that] the White House found itself quickly walking back…Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov quickly denounced Biden, saying ‘it’s not up to the president of the U.S. and not up to the Americans to decide who will remain in power in Russia.’”
What madness. The top Russian military official just said that it would use atomic weapons only if it felt that the Russian state itself was in danger. That’s when Pool Chain Joe decided to “personally” advocate regime change in Moscow? Seriously? How head-shakingly pathetic. As the left writer Dan Hanrahan remarked:
‘Word is that Biden was just riffing or that the utterly reckless phrase was added by him at the last minute and was not in previously cleared drafts of his speech… How bizarre that the two men presiding over the artillery that can vaporize humanity and our fellow Earth species are a loose cannon Delaware shit talker and a KGB weasel with a fondness for crypto-fascist ’mystic’ philosophers like Alexander “don’t call me a fascist” Dugin. Biden and Putin are precisely the two types of people I would endeavor to avoid at all costs if I found myself at a dinner party with them.”
It’s good that Biden and the Pentagon have seemed determined to avoid World War III, as is seen in US rejection of calls to set up a “no-fly zone” (more on that mad idea below) and send in NATO jets (also insane) over Ukraine. But this hardly makes them champions of decency. They clearly intend to fund and arm a protracted insurgency meant to bleed Russia with another “Russian Vietnam” like the Afghanistan war that helped crash the Soviet Union during the 1980s, birthing a virulent jihadist movement along the way. That such a prolonged struggle will ruin much of Ukraine and kill untold thousands of troops and civilians is of little concern to the masters of US-imperial realpolitik. To quote Black Sabbath:
‘In the fields, the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor, yeah
Time will tell on their power minds…
Treating people just like pawns in chess
Wait till their judgement day comes.’!
Sorry man-crushing liberals, but here’s another guy to keep your distance from at a dinner party: Volodymyr Zelensky. The Zelensky regime was surely aware that refusing to foreswear NATO membership, engaging in military operations with US/NATO forces and signing on to the Joint Statement with the White House and Pentagon was precisely the sort of thing that put ordinary Ukrainians at risk of Russian aggression. A former comedian now playing Winston Churchill on giant Western telescreens placed before assembled masses across Europe, Zelensky has spent the last month using his overnight cult status trying to put humanity at risk of atomic obliteration by going before huge crowds and European parliaments and (with a specially produced emotionally potent video included in his presentation) the US Congress to call for NATO, meaning Washington, to set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine or, failing that, supply Ukraine with NATO jets. What lunacy: both actions would create direct military engagements between the world’s two leading nuclear weapons superpowers, drastically increasing the likelihood of terminal global nuclear war. This is more than vaguely reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s “Armageddon Letter,” sent to Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro’s missive demanded that the Soviet Union launch a full nuclear assault, “however harsh and terrible the solution,” on the US if Washington re-invaded Cuba.
I keep hearing that it’s “understandable” that Zelensky wants a No fly given what Ukraine is facing. What nonsense: WWIII’s first victims would include tens of millions of ordinary Ukrainians.
Who is this new Western cult hero being cast as a sexy young Churchill leading the great struggle between democracy (supposedly represented by the Zelensky government) and autocracy (un-controversially represented by Putin’s fascistic state)? He’s not exactly Tom Paine. As Richard Seymour recently observed:
‘There has been scarcely any realistic reflection on Zelensky’s record as a leader. One of the puzzles about Ukraine’s president is the counterintuitive relationship between his funding source and his election promises. His major donor was the brutal oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky who owns the 1+1 Media Group that broadcast Zelensky’s popular comedy vehicle, Servant of the People. Kolomoisky was an active proponent of war with Russia in Donbass who bankrolled the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and other militias responsible for war crimes. Yet Zelensky was elected on a platform of opposing oligarch corruption, ending the war in Donbass and making peace with Russia…Since 2019, the president has made little progress on this agenda. Although he talked up his commitment to de-oligarchization, in practice this has meant pursuing those with alleged connections to Russia…’
The new messianic symbol of Western “democracy” appears to have recently been a creation and tool of Western-facing Ukrainian oligarchs in their struggle with Russia-facing Ukrainian oligarchs. The only kind of democracy that Zelensky may partially represent is of course oxymoronic bourgeois democracy of the sort that provides a deceptive cover for the capitalist class rule of concentrated wealth and power. We have bourgeois democracy in the USA, where majority public opinion is trumped and cancelled by concentrated wealth and power on one issue after another (please see my 2014 book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy, for an introductory description of how the US ruling class rules and why its rule matters).
Worthy and Unworthy Refugees and Victims
Razor Wire and Electric Fences for Iraqis and Syrians, Jobs and Welfare for Ukrainians
The European states who are welcoming Ukrainians immigrants by the millions are being portrayed in shining good guy terms in US media. How ironic. Europe’s planet-cooking reliance on hydrocarbons to fuel their continuing parasitic hyper-affluence as the United States’ partners (with Japan added as the honorary First World capitalist whites of Asia) atop the world capitalist system (1500 -20??) means that they have long helped pay for Putin’s war machine with the purchase of Russian oil and gas. At the same time, there is a grotesque, transparently racist contrast between European NATO states’ remarkable readiness to welcome millions of Ukrainian refuges with open arms – including step-to-the-front-of-the-line job offers and welfare benefits – and their cold refusal to take in equally and more desperate war, climate, and poverty refugees from the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Africa. As Lale Arab Jouneghani and Warren Montag recently noted on Spectre:
‘Throughout the last decade, other waves of refugees have preceded the Ukrainians and have equaled or surpassed them in numbers, just as the wars they fled were at least as destructive as the war in Ukraine. A large number of the earlier refugees were children, and they travelled far greater distances than the 50 miles between Lviv and the Polish border, often with little food or water. No matter how great their suffering, however, they failed to elicit anything like empathy from the vast majority of politicians and journalists. In fact, the greater the numbers of those seeking refuge from the expanding wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the greater the antipathy to them across the political spectrum. The governments of some of the wealthiest countries in Europe (and the world) declared that taking in several million refugees would prove ruinous to their economies and was simply not possible. Most journalists accepted this judgment as objective fact to be treated as such….This…allowed Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and other Central and Eastern European countries to claim that if the wealthiest nations could not withstand the influx of hundreds of thousands of destitute families, they could not be expected to do so. The same countries that have together accepted over a million Ukrainian refugees in a ten-day period refused just a few years earlier to allow refugees simply to walk across their territory on the grounds that their passage would involve costs these nations could not bear. Their governments decided it would be more cost effective to divert money from refugee aid to razor wire, electrified fences, surveillance equipment, as well as weapons, tear gas, and up to date crowd control technologies for border guards. The fact that nations beyond Europe, whose per capita income is a third of that of Poland or Hungary, have opened their doors to fleeing Iraqis and Syrians was ignored or declared irrelevant. Lebanon and Jordan have together taken in 4.5 million refugees.’
Jouneghani and Montag might also have mentioned the mass of desperate Africans denied access to European nations and living standards even as Western policies and practices make lives miserable on the Black continent.
Shocked by Crimes That Make Them Shrug When Committed Outside “Civilized” Europe
Another poor “good guy” candidate is the US and western “mainstream” media. The same racial double standard badly mars US media coverage of the cable news brand-named War in Ukraine. The heart-rendering coverage and commentary of the very real trials and tragedies imposed on Putin’s Ukrainian victims that one sees and hears in US-American corporate media was and is completely unthinkable when it comes to the far greater scale of misery imposed on Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, Palestinians, Libyans, Congolese, Somalis, Central Americans, and Yemenis by the United States and its allies and clients. Part of the difference in who is granted US media status as “worthy victims” has to do with race and ethnicity, as some journalists make clear when they openly acknowledge their special horror at seeing wartime devastation occurring “in 21st Century Europe,” the supposed heart of “civilization.” Massive tragedy and ruin in Africa or the Middle East fail to shock them but seeing those same things in white Europe freaks them out.
Another part of the equation has to do with who is doing the victimizing. Russian is an official enemy, but the Palestinians are oppressed by an official US ally, Israel. The same goes, of course, for the people of Yemen, bombed and starved by the arch-reactionary US client state Saudi Arabia. The US, definitionally “good” by US corporate media standards, has itself directly and indirectly murdered millions in the Muslim world, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, and Syria over the last generation. But you wouldn’t know this ever happened going by the dominant US “manufacturing consent” media as your source of information.
The Media Out-Hawking the Pentagon
Still, that media is quite capable of furthering the victimization of ordinary white people on the wrong side Washington’s imperial calculus. It led cheers for Bill Clinton’s neoliberal bombing of Belgrade in 1999. It applauds onerous economic sanctions on ordinary Russians on the dubious and repeatedly disproven theory that such sanctions undermine create popular resistance to ruling regimes within enemy states. And now it is prolonging agony of white Ukraine by refusing to give serious and sustained attention to Russian peace terms and grossly exaggerating the extents to which Putin is targeting civilians and seeking to invade Europe beyond Ukraine. As various warmongering neoliberal cable news talking heads like Joy Reid, Anderson Cooper, Erin Burnett, Chuck Todd and Lawrence O’Donnell and their selective roster of imperial “experts” (the former US spy chiefs John Brennan and James Clapper, the deranged ex-diplomat Michael McFaul, the virulently anti-Soviet historian Timothy Snyder, the neoliberal mad-bomber Thomas Friedman et al.) have drummed up liberal outrage over Russia’s crimes and supposed grand westward ambitions, fueling mass US support for reckless US/NATO policies (No-Fly and NATO jets over Ukraine), a US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst quietly and anonymously told Newsweek that, in the magazine’s words:
“As destructive as the Ukraine war is, Russia is causing less damage and killing fewer civilians than it could…Russia’s conduct in the brutal war tells a different story than the widely accepted view that Vladimir Putin is intent on demolishing Ukraine and inflicting maximum civilian damage—and it reveals the Russian leader’s strategic balancing act. If Russia were more intentionally destructive, the clamoring for U.S. and NATO intervention would be louder. And if Russia were all-in, Putin might find himself with no way out. Instead, his goal is to take enough territory on the ground to have something to negotiate with, while putting the government of Ukraine in a position where they have to negotiate.”
Things would be far worse in Ukraine if Putin had really been targeting civilians and pursing total annihilation to anything like the degree that Wolf Blitzkrieg have wanted USA-ers to believe. “I know that the news keeps repeating that Putin is targeting civilians, but there is no evidence that Russia is intentionally doing so,” the DIA analyst told Newsweek. “In fact, I’d say that Russian could be killing thousands more civilians if it wanted to…Russia is dead wrong…But in terms of concluding the war in a way that both sides can accept and where we don’t see Armageddon, the air and missile war provides positive signs.” Remarkably enough, the DIA informant notes that the US military flew more bombing sorties on the first day of the US invasion of Iraq than Russia flew in in nearly a month in Ukraine!
The “widely accepted view” has been the one spread by CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, “P”BS, and N“P”R. In the US as in England and Europe, and “not for the first time,” Richard Seymour notes, “the punditry, in out-hawking the Pentagon, has become more royalist than the king.”
Taking its cue from the national paper of record, the New York Times, the US war media has acted as if the United States isn’t already heavily invested in the equipping and training of the Ukrainian resistance. A recent Times history of the Ukraine War’s first four weeks deleted any reference to either the US or its tool NATO, absurdly proceeding as if the Ukrainian fight back sprung from sheer Ukrainian pluck, with no arms or technical assistance from the world’s leading military superpower. By the Times’ preposterous account, the Ukrainians “fought Russia to a bloody stalemate” with no US military help. The Times’ twisted history ended by saying that “Mr. Zelensky [recently] renewed his calls for the West to supply his country with weapons to fight the Russians,” as if the West/US/NATO had not been supplying Ukraine with advanced weaponry, technical assistance, and training for many years.
The US Weapons, Fossil Fuel, and Fascism Sectors
Now for some other not-so “good guys.” The US capitalist fossil fuel and “defense” (war) sectors are poised to profit royally from the Ukraine War. The latter are cashing on US/NATO and Ukraine weapons orders. The former is crying for Ukraine all the way to the bank because calls to reduce Western dependence on Russian gas and oil and real massive disruptions in Russian oil and gas exports mean a lessening of restrictions on US fossil capital’s eco-exterminist project of turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber. That project is nearing a tipping point of no return at an ever-accelerating pace (see the latest briefly bemoaned and widely ignored report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), but who cares about that in wartime? At the same time, also eco-exterminist US Big Ag is primed to cash in on foodstuff inflation resulting from the slashing of Russian and Ukrainian grain and fertilizer exports and production. Three cheers for war capitalism!
Republifascist (Rf) politicos and patriarchal white supremacist media led by Fatherland (FOX) News are moving ahead at a rapid pace and under the cover of foreign war with their Christian white nationalist red state and homeland assault on truth, history, civil and voting rights, public health, pandemic protection, and women’s right to control their own bodies. Virulently patriarchal and violent, femicidal forced motherhood laws are spreading like fascist wildfire across Amerikaner-controlled US states and are about to be granted full approval by Donald Trump’s high Handmaid court.
The RepubliNazis are playing a devious game on Ukraine. While some of their more demented elements identify with their fascist role model Putin, most of the Republikaner Party of Trump and DeSantis joins the Democrats in opposing Russia’s invasion – but not without exploiting the crisis to mock Biden as a dithering weakling. “Republicans” of all stripes are exploiting the war to push the deadly “white skin, black fuel” fossil fascist agenda and to prepare the ground for the fascist (see historian Annika Brockschmidt’s brilliant reflection on US Senator Rick Scott’s [Rf-FL] “11-Point Plan to Rescue America”) takeover of US government in 2023 and 2025.
Listless Liberals Who Applaud Molotov Cocktails in Kyiv but Won’t Turn Off MSDNCNN and Get Off Their Couches to Fight Christian Amerikaner Patriarchy and Fascism
And then there’s the millions of listless US “liberals,” including people who claim to back peace and justice but post paeans to the now deceased imperialist mass child-killer Madeline Albright, the former US Secretary of State who went on national television in 1996 to say that the murder of half a million Iraqi children killed by economic sanctions she helped design was a “price was worth paying” for the advance of inherently noble US foreign policy goals. Not good! These “I Voted” Dem liberals post Ukrainian war flags on their Facebook and Twitter, applauding the armed resistance in Ukraine and the economic sanctions on Russia with no apparent concern for the death and misery resulting from a prolonged war and the sanctions on everyday Russians. They combine outrage at Putin’s criminal invasion with woeful ignorance about, indifference to, and fatalistic resignation before the fascist war on women that is gathering steam in their own supposedly democratic homeland – not to mention their own country’s crimes again women and children in Afghanistan and around the world.
Would US liberals who applaud the manufacture of Molotov Cocktails in Kyiv like get up from their couches and into US streets and public squares to defend 100 million US females from the fascist nightmare of forced motherhood that is spreading across the US and about to be approved by the absurdly revanchist US Supreme Court? Liberals’ anemic captivity to a pathetic definition of “politics” as nothing more than taking two minutes to vote in major party electoral extravaganzas once every two or four years is part of why Roe v. Wade feels absurdly doomed in a nation where two-thirds of the population nominally supports Roe’s continuation. Here an old lecture from Noam Chomsky seems relevant:
‘Americans may be encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially [US]…election[s are] a method of marginalising the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalised quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics…The population has been carefully excluded from political activity, and not by accident. An enormous amount of work has gone into that disenfranchisement. During the 1960s the outburst of popular participation in democracy terrified the forces of convention, which mounted a fierce counter-campaign. Manifestations show up today on the left as well as the right in the effort to drive democracy back into the hole where it belongs…The urgency is for popular progressive groups to grow and become strong enough so that centres of power can’t ignore them. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labour movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years.’
Chomsky’s old comrade Howard Zinn said it well too:
‘I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity…Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth. But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.’
My own take, influenced by the observation that eco-exterminist capitalism-imperialism is now moving to rapidly end life on Earth, is that the real task is for progressive groups to grow and then become radical and powerful not merely to influence “centres of power” but to overthrow capitalist centers of power and replace with them with eco-socialist power centers. But becoming strong enough to shake society’s foundations and scare the existing wealth and power elite would be a good beginning. And this is about, among other things, taking to the streets and public squares and staying there en masse to make it clear that things like female re-enslavement and the escalated war on livable ecology are intolerable to We the People.
That is exactly what the nation’s leading liberal-establishment civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, and environmental organizations don’t want to encourage and cultivate. Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill-Johnson recently went to the patriarchal fascist ground zero state of Texas to say that “the question we have to ask ourselves in this moment is not if Roe is going to fall. The question is who are we going to be when we are no longer defending Roe.” Holy shit! You can’t make up stuff like that. Nearly three-fourths (72%) of US citizens want Roe to stay intact and Planned Parenthood will do nothing to mobilize women and their allies as a mighty force to try to prevent US “democracy’s” absurdly right-wing high court from signing off on the de factor female re-enslavement of forced motherhood. Much the same can be said of the other leading pro-choice organizations (including NARAL and EMILY’s List), for whom fear of the mob and captivity to the militantly electoralist and deeply conservative Democratic Party of Hollow Resistance trumps willingness to fight the increasingly mainstream far right.
McGill-Johnson actively embraces advance surrender by jumping ahead to “when we are no longer defending Roe.” This is your liberal establishment “leadership” in a nutshell. It’s the same on other issues. They will literally let the nation slip into full-on fascism before they will consider mobilizing people by the millions to fight for human rights, equality, and decency.
The Only Really Good Guys and Gals…
Good guys and gals in the Ukraine Crisis? I suppose the state capitalist Chinese President for Life Xi Jinping, playing geopolitical Go on the slow and steady path to Chinese global hegemony, deserves some sanity credit for refusing to take full sides with either the US or Russia. Anyone who thinks he’s a good guy should talk to the recently crushed democracy fighters of Hong Kong and Myanmar.
It’s hard not to side with ordinary Ukrainians resisting Russia’s incursion. The resisters include socialists who have no love for Western capitalism and imperialism but understand that there’s more than one form of imperialism to resist on planet Earth. (No pacifist, I would certainly try to Molotov a Russian tank rolling down my street if I were an ordinary Ukrainian on the path of Putin’s criminal invasion.) But the folks most worthy of designation as “good” regarding Ukraine are the people who have risked life and limb to tend to the wounded and provide humanitarian aid to those trapped in the conflict, the many thousands of Russians who have risked incarceration and beatings to protest Putin’s war, and all the sincerely anti-imperialist groups (two among many all-too small examples include Code Pink and the Revolutionary Communist Party) calling for an immediate end to the bloodshed – for negotiations and peace now.
Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.