“Imperial Decline” in the Ukraine War

David Finkel

“NATO Summit Leaves Ukrainians Frustrated,” says the Atlantic Council, but Washington’s authority is alive and thriving.

MY SHORT PIECE ON “imperial blowback” posted on the Solidarity webzine, June 28, 2023) was primarily intended to draw parallels between the Prigozhin putsch (or whatever that thing was) in Russia and the domestic consequences in the United States of the calamitous U.S. wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

That main theme seems to have attracted little critical response. On the other hand, a lively debate emerged in the comments posted below the article, which I’d encourage readers to check out for themselves. As the back-and-forth began to take on the character of a flame war, I’m attempting to sum up the debate here.

I hope readers will keep in mind that the war itself becomes more horrific by the week, with Russia turning to systematic bombing of Ukraine’s grain storage facilities, a blood transfusion center and civilian targets around the country, retaliating against Ukraine’s growing capacity to strike Russian military shipping and targets behind the lines.

Rather than responding to bits and pieces of invective in the comments on my webzine piece, I will focus here on arguments raised in the two extended contributions in particular from reader Jim Levitt. Although I’ll quote from Levitt’s posts, I do suggest reading them in full for context.

Whose Defensive War?

Levitt and some other critics contend that it’s Russia, not Ukraine, waging a defensive war against an imminent threat of NATO/U.S. encirclement, if not invasion. Jim goes a big step further, claiming that U.S. imperialism is “facing an existential defeat” in the Ukraine war. If the first of these is hard to swallow, I’ll explain why the second strikes me as something to choke on.

In a July 6 post, Levitt writes:

“This war could have been avoided had the Ukraine regime and its US, UK, French and German backers, adhered to the [post-1914] Minsk Accords. Poroshenko, Hollande, Merkel have all openly admitted they had no intention of implementing the agreements they signed, instead seeking to use the time available to build up the military force needed to destroy the significant portion of the population that aligned with Russia. We have ample evidence that US/NATO had made post-coup Ukraine a de facto member of NATO, yet another in the long line of US betrayals of commitments to not move NATO ‘one inch to the east’ after Gorbachev agreed to the reunification of Germany. The Russians are absolutely correct in their assessment that the US is ‘not agreement capable.’ At what point does Russia have the right to say ‘enough’?”

This is a fairly representative narrative circulating on the left. There are significant problems with it, beginning with the factual detail that Russia invaded Ukraine — and not for the first time in February 2022. In the wake of the 2014 upheaval, Moscow created the Luhansk and Donetsk fake “peoples republics,” with the agency of so-called “volunteer soldiers on vacation” which we now know to have been the Wagner group.

International law is quite clear that attacking another country is allowed only in response to an aggressive attack, or an imminent threat. Although very real issues were inflamed by NATO’s reckless post-1991 expansion, there was no such imminent threat to Russia.

U.S. imperialism, of course, has repeatedly ignored that same prohibition, as when it invaded Iraq with catastrophic results (as well as countries like Panama and Grenada that couldn’t fight back). But the crimes of one imperial power don’t offset those of another.

War is indeed “the continuation of politics by other means” (Clausewitz), but the outbreak of war itself can alter the politics as well as raising the stakes and terrible costs of the conflict. That’s partly why for the present discussion we need to bracket the endless sterile debate about the so-called “U.S. Maidan coup,” which is a mirror image of the Western narrative of a unified people’s democratic uprising. It is hopelessly naïve to ignore the reality that the United States, European Union and Russia were all up to their ears in Ukraine before, during and after the Maidan events.

There are competent accounts of what occurred — for example, Yuliya Yurchenko’s Ukraine and the Empire of Capital. From Marketisation to Armed Conflict, which is as scathing in its treatment of Washington, the EU and the Ukrainian oligarchs as it is of Moscow — which are worth studying, but should not divert us from the fundamental issue of which side is the aggressor here.

As complex as Maidan was, Russia was indeed “provoked” — first and foremost, by the refusal of the clear majority of the Ukrainian people to join Vladimir Putin’s “Novorossiya” expansionist project. And with the full-scale Russian invasion, the alternatives facing Ukraine are survival or enslavement — and this is the paramount question right now, not the quarrels in the international left about whose provocation came first.

Neither Levitt nor I nor other anti-imperialist observers have any competence to judge what the populations of Donetsk, Luhansk or Crimea — especially the Indigenous Crimean Tatars — might be thinking now. They should ultimately have the democratic right to decide their own futures, when that choice becomes possible free of occupation and coercion. As difficult as such a scenario may be under any conditions, it’s clearly impossible if Russia imposes a territorial amputation of Ukraine.

As for the immediate situation, Russia’s concentration on destroying Ukraine’s grain stores and export facilities may be some kind of negotiating ploy, or a sign of desperation, or just sadistic revenge. It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t appear to represent military confidence, and it can hardly enhance Russia’s standing with starvation-threatened nations in the Global South.

An “Existential Defeat”?

When it comes to the state of the U.S. empire and NATO, there are starkly contrasting perceptions of reality. Jim Levitt’s July 6 and July 8 posts lay out the claim that this war is weakening U.S. imperialism. While again you can read it in full, I think the following excerpt captures the essence:

“We spent our entire lives working toward the end of US imperialism. Now the Empire is tottering, facing an existential defeat… As to imperialism ‘tottering:’ yes, the hold of the US is getting shakier by the month. Sanctions on Russia have actually done most damage to the US vassals in Europe, Germany most especially. European prosperity has been built on cheap, reliable energy imported from Russia. The US deliberately destroyed that when it blew up the Nordstream pipelines, an act of war against its own supposed allies.

“The ‘tilt’ expressed by the development of BRICS, etc, is all toward China and Russia, not toward the US. Increased bilateral trade conducted in yuan, ruble, rupee and other non-dollar currencies, and moves to build a bank clearing system independent of the US-controlled SWIFT all point to a weakening of the US ability to crush countries that dare step out of line.

“NATO has been ‘revived’? Because Sweden and Finland signed on? Bringing exactly what to the table other than increased military spending extracted from their populations? European industry shuts down or moves, all while billions are funneled to the war project….”

I really think we are glimpsing an alternative ideological universe here. [On a point of detail, we should also set aside the obscure question about whether the United States, or pro-Ukraine operatives, or just who blew up the Nordstream 2 pipeline, and who benefitted. It hardly much matters now.]

To be sure, the fantasy entertained by some Western ideologues, that sanctions would bring the collapse of the Russian economy, was an absurdity. But let’s look at what’s happening in the real world of NATO expansion (quite apart from the fact that 90 percent of global trade is still conducted in U.S. dollars).

Right here and now, it’s not the Biden administration that’s trying to fast-track NATO membership with the full treaty protection it would bring for Ukraine. On the contrary, it’s the countries of Eastern Europe pushing hardest for that course — which includes Poland, often in history an enemy rather than ally of Ukraine — and as they live in the shadows of Russia, it’s not hard to see why.

Most of all, they’re looking to the United States guarantees of protection. So much for the U.S. hold “getting shakier by the month.” Regardless of the war’s outcome in an ultimate Ukrainian victory, or military stalemate, or forced territorial amputation, Washington’s “leadership” of the Western alliance is firmly reestablished after a period of uncertainty.

Further, as NATO declarations make clear, U.S. leadership is successfully enlisting its partners in the growing rivalry with China. The anti-imperialist left may wish it were different, but there’s no point trying to deceive ourselves.

On the purely military front, U.S. support for Ukraine is not all that it could or needs to be. By many accounts, U.S. advisors gave sophisticated “training” to Ukrainian forces in highly coordinated operations for their much-advertised spring counteroffensive. But without the necessary air power (the F-16s that Ukraine requested from the beginning) those methods don’t work, resulting in big losses for very few gains until the Ukrainian military shifted back to the smaller-unit probes and improvised assaults they know best.

To pinpoint what’s most important for the United States and NATO, I think Levitt and some others on the left are missing the big point. It’s laid out in an important piece by Grey Anderson and Thomas Meaney, “NATO Isn’t What It Says It Is” (New York Times, July 12, 2023). The authors write that

“NATO, from its origins, was never primarily concerned with aggregating military power…Rather, it set out to bind Western Europe to a far vaster project of a U.S.-led world order…In that mission, it has proved remarkably successful.”

The point is worth spelling out:

“In fact, NATO is working exactly as it was designed by postwar U.S. planners, drawing Europe into a dependency on American power that reduces its room for maneuver. Far from a costly charity program, NATO secures American influence in Europe on the cheap. U.S. contributions to NATO and other security assistance programs in Europe account for a tiny fraction of the Pentagon’s annual budget — less than 6 percent by a recent estimate. And the war has only strengthened America’s hand.”

Indeed, in the years preceding this war, voices and governments in Europe were increasingly questioning NATO’s mission, and U.S. dominance. No more — the alliance’s reinvigorated energy and purpose is thanks to Vladimir Putin’s awesome strategic “genius,” as Donald Trump called it. Is that what “existential defeat” looks like?

Despite our sharp differences, I want to thank Jim Levitt and others who commented on my “Imperial Blowback” piece. Discussions like these are where ideas and analyses can be clarified and tested.

Empire in Decline, and Why?

Finally, I would offer a quite different scenario as to why, the U.S.-centered empire actually is “in decline” although far from “facing an existential defeat.”

On one level the answer is obvious: The post-1991 euphoria over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the notion that the moment of U.S. global dominance and triumph of the neoliberal economic order would be unchallenged and permanent, is itself worth examining as a case study in the production of ideology.

It’s noteworthy how many purportedly intelligent wonks actually believed that end-of-history, new-world-order myth, no doubt in considerable part because they were well-paid to promulgate it. In any event, there was no way the U.S. “unipolar moment” would be permanent. It was becoming shaky well before the catastrophic events of 9/11 and the following upheavals.

The actual rhythm of U.S. imperial decline was rapidly accelerated by George W. Bush’s disastrous wars (with plenty of bipartisan support) in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with the 2008 financial collapse and then the Great Recession, and rapid rise of China to the world’s second largest economy. Those stories have been well documented and don’t need repeating here.

In a kind of appalling symmetry, Russia’s annexationist invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s too-apparent designs for a 21st century version of the Tsarist empire have actually restored much of the military prestige and political authority that the United States had lost. That’s what our present debate is about. And with all the shakiness in the world economy and financial system, the U.S. economy remains by far the strongest — especially with China facing major internal economic and demographic problems.

Is there then a serious threat to U.S. imperial power? I believe there actually is — but not really from the war in Ukraine, or Russia, certainly not BRICS, or even the challenge from China (although that’s more important as the central emerging longterm global rivalry).

Rather, the internal dysfunction of the U.S. political system and the potential for a massive crisis of legitimacy, along with elements of social disintegration, constitute the real threat to U.S. power. The symptoms include mass shootings on a once-a-day-plus schedule, the epidemic of fatal drug overdoses, and systemic failures to address grotesque inequalities.

These are factors that we’ve been covering in articles and editorials (for example in our previous issue, “’Noise As Usual’ — Or Crisis Now?” in ATC 225, and “It’s All Out in the Open,” ATC 220, September-October 2022).

The potential exists for serious crises in the U.S. political system, due in part to the transformation of the Republican Party from a more-or-less traditional corporate conservatism to a white-supremacist, Christian-nationalist Trump cult. The political dysfunction of a ruling class that failed to intervene in the Republican Party to neutralize the power of Donald Trump, when it could have done so, is an astonishing spectacle in itself.

Much of the world, and elites in particular, are agape at the prospects of a 2024 Biden-Trump rematch and have no idea of what U.S. policies might look like in the aftermath of a possible far-right takeover of government — let alone if there’s a better-organized effort to overthrow election results as in the 2020 “dress rehearsal.” None of this self-inflicted mess, however, reflects a U.S. “defeat” in Ukraine.

This isn’t the place to ponder the details of these and other contingencies. But none other than Richard Haass, outgoing honcho of the Council on Foreign Relations, opines about the biggest factor in global instability — “it’s us” — and I think he’s on to something. (“To Foreign Policy Veteran, the Real Danger Is at Home,” New York Times, July 1, 2023)

Hanging over all this is what Nature is telling us in the appalling summer of 2023 with huge parts of North America, Europe and Asia burning up or flooding out, with the biggest part of the hurricane season still to come. No imperialist power struggle can begin to resolve a crisis that only an ecosocialist transformation could address.

September-October 2023, ATC 226

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