The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Ukraine Crisis Is Just a Chance to Acknowledge Choices Already Made

I read two fairly good articles this week. One, in Foreign Affairs, makes out the maximalist Russian case:

Putin also believes that Russia has an absolute right to a sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space. This means its former Soviet neighbors should not join any alliances that are deemed hostile to Moscow, particularly NATO or the European Union. Putin has made this demand clear in the two treaties proposed by the Kremlin on December 17, which require that Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries — as well as Sweden and Finland — commit to permanent neutrality and eschew seeking NATO membership. NATO would also have to retreat to its 1997 military posture, before its first enlargement, by removing all troops and equipment in central and eastern Europe. (This would reduce NATO’s military presence to what it was when the Soviet Union disintegrated.) Russia would also have veto power over the foreign policy choices of its non-NATO neighbors. This would ensure that pro-Russian governments are in power in countries bordering Russia — including, foremost, Ukraine.

This is, of course, the maximalist Russian position, but it is very tiresome to have it presented as “take it or leave it.” What it is, is a negotiating position. In negotiations, one traditionally asks for more than one expects to get. But Washington has responded to this negotiating position by refusing everything. Every single thing.

The Time article, written by someone who remembers Russia in the 90s, and thus knows it could have been a Western ally, sketches out what a negotiated settlement would look like:

There are three possible elements to a compromise with Russia, two of which the West has in effect already conceded. The first is either a treaty of neutrality or a moratorium of ten or 20 years on Ukrainian membership of NATO. The West loses nothing by this, as it is clear that Ukraine cannot, in fact, join NATO with its conflicts with Russia unresolved. In any case, the U.S. and NATO have made it absolutely clear that they cannot and will not defend Ukraine by force.

The second element is a return to the (Adapted) Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement limiting NATO forces in eastern Europe and Russian forces in contiguous territories. And the third is internationally-guaranteed autonomy for a demilitarized Donbas within Ukraine, according to the Minsk II agreement of 2015 brokered by Germany and France but since, in effect, rejected by Ukraine.

Failing at least initial moves towards such a compromise, it does indeed look likely that there will be some form of new Russian attack on Ukraine, though by no means necessarily a large-scale invasion.

Putin isn’t insane, and he doesn’t expect to get everything he wants. But he is old, like me, and the three of us –me, Putin, and the Time writer — remember that George Bush Sr. promised NATO wouldn’t expand past a reunited Germany.

So much for Negotiation 101. Let’s move on to the world model. I think this is somewhat accurate (from the Foreign Affairs article).

The modern Kremlin’s interpretation of sovereignty has notable parallels to that of the Soviet Union’s. It holds, to paraphrase George Orwell, that some states are more sovereign than others. Putin has said that only a few great powers — Russia, China, India, and the United States — enjoy absolute sovereignty, free to choose which alliances they join or reject. Smaller countries, such as Ukraine or Georgia, are not fully sovereign and must respect Russia’s strictures, just as Central America and South America, according to Putin, must heed their large, northern neighbor

Now, here’s the thing: I’m Canadian.

So I KNOW that Canada is not a fully sovereign nation. When the US really gets serious about cracking the whip, we buckle, because we have a population one-tenth of that of the US, and a much smaller military and economy, and Americans are savage warmongers who have invaded or hurt the nations around them (and nowhere near them) hundreds of times in the past couple hundred years.

No South American or Central American nation is under any illusion they have full sovereignty. They don’t. The US is clear about it, too, from its actions and words. Hell, the US is currently holding on to 90 billion dollars it stole from Afghanistan as Afghans starve, nowhere near the US. The US is holding Venezuelan assets, and seizes other countries merchant ships on the high seas, then sells the contents if it feels like.

The US is a fully sovereign nation. No nation in Central or South America is. I would say that no one in Europe is, either, given that Europe is still an American protectorate (if barely). The EU could be a fully sovereign nation if it ever chooses to grow up and accept responsibility, but it isn’t now, though it’s more sovereign than anyone other than the US, China, and maybe Russia. (India might be fully sovereign, I suppose, but I don’t consider them a true Great Power yet.)

Is this “how it should be?” I’d say no. I’d prefer a world full of fully-sovereign nations. I don’t like being under the American boot, personally, and I’m not interested in trading that for some other taste of boot leather.

But this is the way the world is, and US foreign policy “professionals” refuse to admit it, while Putin is clear.

All that is being argued about here is whether almost everyone will be under the US boot, or whether or not there will be three boots: China, Russia, and the US — with perhaps the EU putting on some nice German black leather boots itself, if it ever decides to take responsibility for itself again, and the rest of the EU decides that they’re okay with even more German rule, eased a bit by the French.

The Foreign Affairs author understands this:

Weakening the transatlantic alliance could pave the way for Putin to realize his ultimate aim: Jettisoning the post–Cold War, liberal, rules-based international order promoted by Europe, Japan, and the United States in favor of one more amenable to Russia. For Moscow, this new system might resemble the nineteenth-century concert of powers. It could also turn into a new incarnation of the Yalta system, where Russia, the United States, and now China divide the world into tripolar spheres of influence. Moscow’s growing rapprochement with Beijing has, indeed, reinforced Russia’s call for a post-West order. Both Russia and China demand a new system in which they exercise more influence in a multipolar world.

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century systems both recognized certain rules of the game. After all, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union mostly respected each other’s spheres of influence. The two most dangerous crises of that era — Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1958 Berlin ultimatum and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — were defused before military conflict broke out. But if the present is any indication, it looks as if Putin’s post-West “order” would be a disordered Hobbesian world with few rules of the game.

But every time I see “rules-based international order,” I reach for my gun, because I know what that means is the US seizing ships and invading countries and slamming everyone in sight with financial sanctions while fomenting fake revolutions and engaging in coups. Oh, other countries have been bad actors too, but really the “rules-based international order” means “there’s only one superpower.”

So yes, Putin, and for that matter Xi, want a multipolar great-power world. So does Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Libya, and most African countries. (Though I suppose Putin might acknowledge the US right to crush Venezuela given his own rights are respected.)

BUT, this is the maximal position. The US “rules-based international order” is doomed. That’s simply a fact; the US is no longer powerful enough to support it. You can’t have that after you’ve given up your position as the primary manufacturing state to another country. It’s impossible. Britain didn’t keep it, and neither will the US — the only question is how many hundreds of millions of people will die creating the international order.

If the US wanted a fair world order, truly, then it would have to actually acknowledge and genuinely respect the autonomy of other states. But Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezeula, Iran, and, yes, Russia, among many others indicate it doesn’t. If it did, the US would have vast numbers of allies.

But that order wouldn’t be the “rules-based international order” of today. You wouldn’t be able to unilaterally cut nations out of the payment systems and invade other countries with the acquiescence of only a few core European allies.

So what’s being argued over isn’t about a choice between a “good system” versus a “bad system,” despite the author’s mutterings about Hobbesianism, but a choice between two bad systems.

And in that case, it’s just a question of the power of those who want to keep the status quo and those who want the new state. And in that case, it’s not clear that the US can keep its precious privilege to hurt everyone else because it’s the only real great power. If you want to the only hegemonic state, you have to have the power and enough lackeys who are willing to fight with you.

If the US does, and is willing to fight, then maybe it can keep its order.

But I doubt it, again for the simple reason that US primacy was based on economic primacy, and the US doesn’t have that any more. (Their military primacy, since the Industrial Revolution, has been based on industrial primacy.)

Given that US elites decided to give China their industrial core in exchange for a few pieces of silver (so they could kick the shit out of the poor and the middle class internally), they’ve already made their choice. They got their money and their internal supremacy. The price is going to be their international primacy.

That was always the price. US international primacy was based on power and benefit-sharing at home. When US elites decided that they’d rather be oligarchs, they decided they’d also rather not rule the world.

Putin and Xi are just pointing out the consequences of decisions already made.





The Joy of Reading & the Discovery of a New Author (Nero Wolfe Edition)


Open Thread


  1. Feral Finster

    “No South American or Central American nation is under any illusion they have full sovereignty. They don’t. America is clear about it, too, from its actions and words.”

    The Monroe Doctrine, how does it work?

  2. Feral Finster

    I should add that the administration’s recent comments would indicate that if the United States says Ukraine is a NATO member, it is a NATO member, regardless what the vassals
    think about it.

    As the American Empire declines, its increasing reliance upon naked force is wonderfully clarifying.

  3. StewartM

    Superbly said, Ian. An awesome summation.

  4. Z

    Anytime you consider the supposed follies of U.S. foreign policy, you have to consider Israel, which has no loyalty to the U.S. IMO and is very willing to shove the U.S. into wars that are not in the U.S.’s interests. Every enemy of Israel eventually becomes an enemy of the U.S. because the Zionists have such an “influence” on U.S. foreign policy, especially when the democrats have the presidency. Right now the top three people in the State Department are in fact Zionists. That’s not to say that Zionist influence isn’t very strong with republican presidents; most of the biggest players in creating the justification to attack Iraq for instance were Zionists and Trump also bowed down to Israel.

    During the Clinton Administration, Larry Summers and the Harvard Boyz arranged it so that Zionist oligarchs gained a large share of Russia’s wealth after the break-up of the USSR and then Putin came in and tossed most of them out, though they kept much of their wealth, and many of them moved to Israel and now of course Russia is an enemy of the U.S. too even though it’s not in the U.S.’s interest.


  5. Z

    There ain’t no way that Biden will get involved in a military conflict with Russia though. He ain’t that dumb, this is all bluffing at this point.


  6. Occasional Poster

    There’s a good article at Middle East Eye by former Italian diplomat and ambassador to Iraq Marco Carnelos in which he argues that Chamberlain’s ‘appeasement’ of Hitler in Munich in 1938 is a myth that drives the United States-led West’s pit pull “diplomacy” of threats and ultimatums:

    Munich did not prevent Adolf Hitler from invading Poland in September 1939, triggering the start of the Second World War, after which the Munich Conference assumed quite different and far more sinister connotations. The then prime ministers of Britain and France, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier respectively, were both condemned to perpetual infamy for their weakness towards Hitler.

    The catchword for the conference became “appeasement”, and it was soon transformed into a symbol of the futility of talking to totalitarian or autocratic states. The tense relationship that the West has today with Russia, China and Iran is, to a large extent, still framed by the legacy of Munich.

    But go back to September 1938 and the perspective changes. Hitler was appeased not because European democracies were weak or cowardly, but because the UK, especially, was not yet ready for war. Munich gave Britain a further year to better prepare for an armed conflict that appeared more and more inevitable.

    There are other factors at play too, including the maintaining of the military industrial complex and empire more generally, but Carnelos makes a good point. The ‘peace in our time’ thing is wheeled out regularly to remind us how very, very bad it was (didn’t Netflix or Amazon do one of their tedious specials on this recently?) and Russia, China, the DPRK and Iran are often framed as Nazi-like states and comparing their leaders to Hitler is SOP for Western media and US State Department types.

    Given the West’s own post-1945 history of illegal wars and human rights abuses at home and abroad, this kind of framing is ridiculous but thanks to media repetition it is very effective at riling up the public and convincing it that evil lurks just over the horizon waiting to destroy “democracy” and all that westerners hold dear.

    The West’s hubris and inability to self-reflect and adapt to changing geopolitical conditions will be its downfall.

  7. chum'sfriend

    “The Time article, written by someone who remembers Russia in the 90s, and thus knows it could have been a Western ally…”

    What could have been… The Russian people wanted our help. Makes me think of Jesse Helms, and I can feel the bile rise up in the back of my throat.

  8. bruce wilder

    Well and truly written!

    As clear-sighted and clear-minded as Ian is, I find myself wondering about the mentality — let’s call it that — of those righteously (!) arguing for American (further!) intervention of some sort in Ukraine.

    One marker of the dishonesty of narratives of Ukraine as innocent victim and of Russia the rapacious bully with no legitimate interests (not just no legitimate interests in Ukraine, but none anywhere even inside the Russian Federation) is that the history of grievance and the present deranged state of Ukrainian politics is omitted and ignored.

    It is very nice to make talk of “spheres of influence” as objectionable abstract principles. Russia is “interested” in protecting its gas transiting Ukraine from theft and extortion and “interested” in protecting Russian-speaking populations from being killed, oppressed or driven from Ukraine, is “interested” in protecting the regime in Moscow from subversion in a color revolution financed by the EU/US. I am not saying Russia’s desiderata are inherently just. I think that Russia unopposed would have maximalist demands severely inimical to the welfare of its neighbors.

    The possibility of recruiting allies in opposition in a multi-polar world is a reason to think a multi-polar world could be fairer than the uni-polar world dominated by a deranged giant. “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable (in my immediate neighborhood)” is the principle Russia and China seem to favor. The promise of a multilateral harmony is lost in a clash of authoritarian regimes, but that possibility, idealistically sought in the aftermath of WWI and collapse of European Empires, was lost long ago, when American elites turned to the secret state and manipulatively lying about their purposes, a pastime enabled by the public’s passive indifference.

  9. Gaianne

    A nice perspective, Ian. I doubt America’s oligarchs gave much thought to consequences at the time.

    And now it is too late.


  10. Jessica

    I have wondered what it would look like in the unlikely case that some of the powers that be in the US decided to retain global hegemony. One path would be to restore US manufacturing prowess. This would require a complete cultural reworking to put making things in charge, not playing games with money. This would require sweeping Wall Street and pretty much the entire current corporate elite aside, drastically changing the culture of the masses, and as a byproduct would annihilate the current PMC. So, yes, not likely. But if part of the powers that be wanted to try, they would not some powerful ideology to drive it. Some intolerant form of Christianity is the only visible candidate at the time for that role.
    The very fact that the US is playing games (I hope they are games) with Ukraine against Russia, rather than trying to befriend Russia (OK, too late for that; that opportunity was missed in the 1990s) or at least not drive Russia completely into China’s arms shows that the folks running the US don’t have the collective intelligence required to continue as a global hegemon.
    There is another path to continued US global hegemony but it is darker than anything we have mentioned, even on the “The Psychological Difficulty Of Radicalization” post.
    A successful ruling class is able to maintain class discipline. (Think FDR ramming the New Deal down the throats of the business class, especially the non-monopoly business with less capital per worker.) The US ruling class for decades now has been more like a collection of shards, incapable of class discipline. Unfortunately, the second path to continued hegemony would not require wisdom or intelligence (actually, it would require their absence), but would only require towering cruelty, which unfortunately is one thing the US is still good at producing.

  11. Eric Anderson

    Damn, Ian.
    Hammer. Nail. Head.

  12. Mark Pontin

    Jessica: ‘the folks running the US don’t have the collective intelligence required to continue as a global hegemon.’

    Good post, Ian.

    The folks running the US are a class of psychopaths and malign narcissists. Literally: the US system selects almost exclusively for such types. I’ve worked as a journalist and had some direct observation of them, both during interviews and while watching them at Senate hearings.

    Psychopaths, particularly, tend not to be good at long-term thinking and planning the long game. When one wonders how US ‘elites’ could have so mismanaged US foreign and industrial policy that in thirty years since the Cold War’s end they’ve turned what was then the strongest hand in world history into this increasingly rapid collapse, you could simply conclude that they’re incompetent and arrogant to a massive degree.

    That’s true enough, as far as it goes. But the underlying reason is that they’re psychopaths and their brains simply aren’t constructed to do long-term planning well.

  13. Ché Pasa

    Every time I see a still or video image of the diminutive Russian Ruler striding manfully and purposefully through those golden doors, held open for him by Czarist-costumed guards, I get some inkling of why he is so despised and feared in the West.

    He gets things done, and he’s not ashamed to show off. Despite the best efforts of the West’s foreign policy establishment, Mother Russia endures and at least to some extent prospers. This is unacceptable for reasons so obscure they are never mentioned except in some context of the expired Soviet Union.

    “Stalin did this. Stalin did that. The USSR must be destroyed!” It’s gone. Dead and buried. So is Stalin. There is no USSR to destroy, and the rump Russian Federation isn’t that. But oh well, as others have pointed out, foreign policy, such as it is, exists in its own bubble, a bubble that doesn’t allow in facts or reason, but proceeds entirely on the basis of fantasies created long before.

    Zelensky, for all his silliness (recall he was a television comedian before being elevated to the presidency), seems surprisingly level-headed about what he and his oligarchy want and need, while the Western Powers fling poo at the Russian bear. The Kremlin doesn’t want ownership of the Ukrainian basket case. It’s done that, didn’t much care for it, though Russia itself was “born” in Kiev — so at least in some sense, Russia and Ukraine are forever inseparable. What is the West’s interest in Ukraine? From appearances, it’s to taunt and harass the Russian bear, and nothing more. To have a stage from which to demonstrate its cruelty. And to provoke Russia. So as to be able to go in for the final kill.

    Would that the rulers of the West and their foreign policy whack-jobs would just let go.

  14. different clue


    Any residual American Hegemonostalgiasts who might decide to retain American Hegemony can decide it all they want. Other rising regional Hegemonists will not just hand over their emerging regional hegemonies to remaining American Hegemonostalgiasts just because the American Hegemonostalgiasts want them to.

    And also, America is currently ruled by the International Free Trade Conspirators and the Corporate Globalonial Plantationists. If those two groups decide America is no longer a “base” for their operations, they will demote the “America” division to “branch plant” status and establish other bases elsewhere. Actually, that’s just about all-the-way happened. At this point, the American Hegemonostalgiasts are just Ghost Dancing. It will be a very violent Ghost Dance. But it is just Ghost Dancing.

  15. Z

    I believe our rulers’ prolific use of amphetamines also leads them to chase dopamine pings which can lead to poor long-term thinking.

    But what price have they personally paid for for being short-sighted and selfish? They’ve only benefited from it and they’ve scattered all the costs on us and we don’t make them personally pay for it largely because it’s so difficult to do.


  16. VietnamVet

    So true. A Canadian naturally sees the subservience to the neighbor to the South. The miles long trucker convoy to Ottawa is one response to this. Another aspect that is ignored is that the peoples of 50 States themselves have become subjects of the global oligarchy composed of the old Aristocracy, new Billionaires, Brahmins, Israelis, etc. — The Western Empire. The USA is a failed nation. 906,861 Americans killed with COVID matters not. Americans are politically divided and conquered.

    Washington DC now consists of antagonistic corporate/state fiefdoms with no central authority in the White House for years since the last corporate CEO, Jeff Skilling, Enron, was jailed by George W Bush.

    Vladimir Putin recognizes that the Western Empire is on the ropes. He is using NORD Stream II natural gas energy supply to pull away Germany, weaken NATO and de facto neutralize Ukraine. The corporate Empire still wants that Russian energy managed by themselves. They cannot let that go. The question becomes will the global oligarchs ever see reality or will they continue their relentless march towards the dystopian future for humans on earth.

  17. different clue

    @Vietnam Vet,

    The answer to your question is . . . . no, they will never see the reality that you see.
    I myself have given up on the concept of “speaking Truth to Power.” I think it is better to speak “Truth” to “Powerlessness”. Some of the “powerless” might be able to understand that “Truth” and some of them might not be able to understand it. Some of those who can understand it might respond with helpless rage and hate. Others might be motivated to begin an earnest search-for and analysis-of how to destroy Power itself so that “Power” ends up degraded and attrited and pulled down onto the killing floor and into the killbox which they have engineered for the rest of us. If enough of the seemingly-“powerless” can achieve that, perhaps we can then physically exterminate them all down to the very last member, so that they are no longer in our way if we are still motivated to try improving this and that after the Powerful have been safely physically exterminated in their entirety. ( And yes, I am open to charges of hypocrisy for advocating that general solution while being personally too squeamish to kill even one of the class of people which so desperately needs killing if the rest of us are to reconquer the slightest chance of survival.)

    Meanwhile, how might the squeamish among the educable powerless be able to order our affairs to begin withholding our revenue and support streams from the most powerful? Blog threads like this might be a place to share that kind of information before the Powerful shut the internet all the way down.

    For example, what can individuals like us do to lessen our own and eachothers’ chances of being infected by the coronavid virus even while living in the matrix of deliberate omni-infection deliberately engineered for us by the Overclass Covid Spreaders? Information like that, made viralizable and weaponizable and disseminationizable among millions of “powerless” people can reduce the Power of the Overclass to kill us quickly with covid and/or slowly with long-covid and post-covid health decay. And that is one example of one way to destroy Power by speaking Truth to Powerlessness).

  18. Jessica

    The position of the Canadian satrapy within the US-led empire is and has always been different from that of the rest of the Americas. One reason that there is so little resistance to reduced sovereignty is that Canada is integrated into the US empire as part of the first world, not the third. Canadian elites participate fully in all the fun of predatory investing in third world countries. (This is more true for Anglophone elites than for Francophone.) And sheer numbers do mean that Canada winds up with much American mass entertainment. (The situation is similar for Austria vis-a-vis Germany both economically and culturally.)
    I have only visited Canada, though for a total of some years, but I never got the impression that the Canadians I know really imagine the US turning its military toward Canada. I think that that is a real possibility eventually* and I think Ian is write that Canada would do well to prepare more for such an eventuality, but I don’t think it affects most Canadians yet. Though the political chaos and mismanagement of covid do seem to have considerably lowered the repute of the US among ordinary Canadians.
    (*If the climate change forecasts are correct, almost an inevitability unless Canada porcupines up or the US breaks up completely before then.)

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