American Dissent on Ukraine Is Dying in Darkness - II
by Michael Brenner on 02 Jun 2022 0 Comment

RS: Clearly Russia’s action in invading Ukraine should be condemned, at least in my point of view; I consider myself an advocate for peace. But take us through this history, what have we missed? Because if you read the New York Times, Washington Post, it’s all about rushing even more military stuff to the Ukraine. There seems to be almost a delight in getting this war expanded, forget about negotiations; there’s no real caution here. How did we get to this place?


MB: Robert, I’ll try to do it in a staccato fashion. One, this crisis, in leading to the Russian invasion, has little to do with Ukraine per se. Certainly not for Washington; for Moscow it’s otherwise. It’s been the objective of American foreign policy for at least a decade to render Russia weak and unable to assert itself in any manner of speaking in European affairs. We want it marginalized, to neuter it as a power in Europe. The ability of Putin to reconstitute a Russia that was stable, had its own sense of national interest, and a vision of the world different from ours, has been deeply frustrating to the political and foreign policy elites of Washington.


Two, Putin and Russia are not interested in conquest or expansion. Three, Ukraine is prominent to them, not only for historical and cultural reasons, but because it is linked to the expansion of NATO and as became tangible at the time of the Maidan coup [unclear], that they wished to turn Ukraine into a forward base for NATO. Against the background of Russian history, that is simply intolerable.


I think a point to keep in mind is—and this relates to policy-making in Moscow—that if one were to place the attitudes and opinions of Russian leaders on a continuum from hawk to dove, Putin has always been well towards the dovish end of the continuum. The majority of the most powerful forces in Moscow—and it’s not just the military, the oligarchs, it’s all types—the locus of the sentiment has been that Russia is being exploited; that cooperation will become a part of a European system in which Russia is accepted as a legitimate player, is illusory.


So, we’ve gone to the current crisis. The Donbass, and that is not just Russian-speaking but a highly concentrated Russian region of Eastern Ukraine, which tried to separate itself after the Maidan coup; by the way, Russian speakers in the country as a whole represent 40% of the population. You know, Russians, quite apart from intermarriage and cultural fusion, are not some small, marginal minority in the Ukraine.


Quickly down now to the present: there is growing and now totally persuasive evidence that when the Biden people came to office, they made a decision to create a crisis over Donbass to provoke a Russian military reaction, and to use that as the basis for consolidating the West in a program whose centerpiece was massive economic sanctions, with the aim of tanking the Russian economy and possibly and hopefully leading to a rebellion by the oligarchs that would topple Putin.


Now, no person who really knows Russia believes that it was ever at all plausible. But this was an idea which was very prominent in foreign policy circles in Washington, and certainly the Biden administration, and people like Blinken and Sullivan and Nuland believe in it. So they set about strengthening even further the Ukrainian army, something we’ve been doing for eight years—armaments, training advisors.


And it is now becoming evident that we might well—probable that we have physically, in the Ukraine now, American special forces, including British special forces and some French special forces. Not only people who engaged in training missions, but are actually providing some direction, intelligence, et cetera. We’ll see if this ever comes out. That’s why [unclear] Macron, et cetera, are so desperate about getting the brigades and other special elements trapped in Mariupol out of the city. [At time of interview-Editor]


So, an assault on the Donbass was planned. In November the final decision was taken to go ahead, and the time set for February. That is why Joe Biden and other members of the administration could begin to say, with complete confidence, in January that the Russians would be invading Ukraine. Because they knew and committed themselves to a major military attack on the Donbass, and they knew the Russians would respond. They didn’t know how large a response, how aggressive a response it would be, but they knew there would be a response.


You might recall Biden saying in February, second week of February, that when the Russian invasion comes, if it is small, we’re still going to go ahead with sanctions, but we might have a fight within NATO as to whether to go whole hog. If it is large, there’ll be no problem, everybody will agree on killing Nord Stream II, and taking these unprecedented steps against the Russian Central Bank, et cetera. And he said that because he knew what was planned. And the Russians reached the conclusion about the same time. They certainly understood what the broad game plan was.


The final blow came when the Ukrainians began massive artillery barrages on cities in the Donbass. Now, there had always been exchanges over the past eight years. On February 18, there was a 30-fold increase in the number of artillery shells, to which the Donbass militias did not retaliate in kind. It peaked on the 21st and continued to the 24th. This apparently was the last confirmation that the assault would be coming soon, and forced Putin’s hand to pre-empt by activating plans which no doubt they’d had for some time, to invade. I think that has become clear.


This is the diametrical opposite of the fictional story that pervades all public discourse. You can only count on the fingers of your hands and toes the number of dissenters. Let’s leave open the question of do you defend Putin’s actions. I, like you, find it very hard to defend, justify, any major military action that has the consequences that this does. Except in absolute self-defence.


But, that’s where we are. If there had been the Ukrainian assault that was planned on the Donbass, Putin and Russia would have been in real trouble if they limited themselves to resupplying the Donbass militias. Because given the way we had armed and trained the Ukrainians, they really couldn’t withstand them. That would have been the end of [unclear] subordination of the Russian population and suppression of Russia’s language, all of which are steps that the Ukrainian government has moved on and has in the works.


RS: You know, what’s at the heart of this really is the denial of anyone else’s nationalism. It’s been the theme of the post-World War II U.S. posture. We are identified with universal values of freedom, justice, liberty. I watched the movie Fog of War—with Robert McNamara, where he admits to the war crimes and says three and a half million people died in a war that you cannot defend. Actually, the number is much closer to six million or five million, somewhere up there maybe, but higher.


But that we denied the nationalism of the Vietnamese, and when McNamara went to Hanoi, the Vietnamese said to him, did you not know we are nationalist? That we had a thousand years of fighting with the Chinese and everyone else? Why did you put us into that? You denied our national feelings and what Ho Chi Minh represented.


And I remember being in Moscow covering, really, Gorbachev for the L.A. Times. And at the time, Gorbachev, it seemed to many people I talked to, was being naïve about the willingness of the United States to accept any independent Russia. Reagan for a moment looked Gorbachev in the eye and said we can do business, the same way, I guess, George W. Bush looked Putin in the eye. But Gorbachev became very unpopular, very unpopular.


I personally don’t like nationalism and think it’s a sort of great mischief and evil in the world. Nonetheless, you cannot cope with the world if you don’t understand nationalism. When Nixon went to China, he actually conceded that Mao was a representative of Chinese nationalism and had to be listened to. The same thing was true in the arms control with Russia. That is lost now, and the idea that there might be Russian aspirations, concerns—that’s pushed to the side.


The irony is that the United States is now—I don’t know if you agree but it would be a good thing to consider in concluding this. The United States has accomplished something that communist ideology was not able to accomplish. Because the Chinese communists and Russian communists were at war even before the Chinese communist revolution succeeded. They called themselves followers of Marxist Leninism, but the Sino-Soviet dispute could be traced back even to the 1920s, and certainly recognized when Mao went to Moscow, and is reflected in Khrushchev’s memoirs.


So, the Sino-Soviet dispute became this major force, this opposition, despite Marxist Leninism. Now, you have communist China uniting with anti-communist Putin Russia—why? Because of a common fear of a U.S. hegemony. Isn’t that really the big story here that’s being ignored?


MB: Yeah, Robert, you’re absolutely right in everything that you say. Of course the world system is being transformed by the formation of this Sino-Russian bloc, which is increasingly incorporating other countries. You know, Iran is already part of it. And there are only two countries outside the Western world—speaking politically and socially, not geographically—who have supported the sanctions: South Korea and Japan. All of Asia, Southwest Asia, Africa and Latin America is not observing them. Some are exercising self-restraint and slowing down deliveries of certain things, out of sheer prudence and fear of American retaliation. But we’ve gotten no support from them. So, yeah, the gross underestimation of this, Bob.


Now, in what passes for grand strategy among the American foreign policy community, not just the Biden people, they’ve had a dual hope: one, that they could drive a wedge between Russia and China, an idea they entertain only because they know nothing or have forgotten anything they might have known about each of those countries. Or, second, to in effect neutralize Russia by what we talked about: breaking the Russian economy, maybe getting some regime change, so that they would be a negligible contributor, if at all, to ally with the Chinese. Of course, we have failed utterly, because all of those premises were mistaken.


And this utterly unprecedented hubris is peculiarly American. From day one, we’ve always had the faith that we were born in a condition of original virtue, with some kind of providential mission to lead the world to a better, more enlightened condition. That we were therefore the singular exceptional nation, and that gave us the freedom and liberty to judge all others.


It encourages or justifies the United States setting it up as the judge of what’s legitimate and what isn’t, what government’s legitimate and what isn’t, what policies are legitimate and which aren’t. Which self-defined national interests by other governments we can accept, and which we won’t accept. Of course, this is absurd in its hubris; at the same time it defies [unclear] logic—Nixon and Kissinger really operated and were able to set aside or sort of surmount this ideological, philosophical, self-congratulatory faith in American unique prowess and legitimacy, based on strictly practical grounds.


Currently, we don’t exercise restraint based either upon a certain political-ideological humility, nor on realism grounds. We’re living in a world of fantasy which clearly serves some vital psychological needs of America, and especially of its political elites. Because they are the people who are supposed to have taken on the custodial responsibility for the welfare of the country and its people, and that requires maintaining a certain perspective and distance on who we are, what we can and cannot do, of reality testing even the most basic and fundamental of American premises. And now we don’t do any of that.


In that sense, I believe it’s fair to say that we have been betrayed by our political elites, and I use that term fairly broadly. The susceptibility to propaganda, to allowing the popular mindset to be set the way it’s going now, in giving in to hysterical impulse, means that there’s something wrong with society and culture as a whole. But even saying that is up to your political leaders and elites to protect you from that, to protect the populace and themselves from falling prey to similar fantasies and irrationalities, and instead we see just the opposite.


RS: One final point. What is really being challenged here is a notion of globalization. Of one world based on economic productivity, trade, advantage of one region or another to provide different things. And we’re back to pre-World War I nationalism and borders and so forth.


What is truly frightening about it is the point you made about China. After all, China was held up as this great revolutionary military threat; communist was inherently expansionist, the Soviet model had somehow trimmed its sails or been intimidated, but the Chinese were really radical. Then, somehow, peace was made with China; they turned out to be better capitalists, they carried us through this whole pandemic; and then because they’re an economic threat, and they can produce things and so forth, they are now the real target of the people we used to call neoconservatives. Because they talked about it when they were Republicans, before they became the Democratic establishment again. China was really the enemy.


The irony here is that China, Chinese expansion, is not needed anymore if they have in fact an alliance and are forced into trade patterns with this huge real estate called Russia that remains, with all of its underpopulation, incredible resources, not just petroleum, which China is obviously missing. You have to really wonder whether we’re not talking about an America as a Rome in decay, of an idea that somehow you can control everything to your advantage and make it palatable to the world, and it’s going to stand.


Because that’s really what we’re talking about here, is a notion of equating U.S. hegemony with enlightenment, civilization, democracy, freedom, and anyone else who challenges it—which clearly China is doing, and Russia, certainly—that becomes the enemy of civilization. That is the frightening message here. It’s kind of the Roman empire gone nuts.


MB: You’re absolutely right, Robert. It is China which we look at over our shoulder. I mean, you could argue in a number of respects—if you look at Chinese history, they have never been terribly interested in conquering other societies, nor in governing alien peoples. Their expansion was to the west and to the north, an extension of their millennia-long wars with the marauding tribes of central Asia, and dealing with that constant threat. And those Central Asian barbarians succeeded four times in breaking through and in bringing them central authority in Asia.


So they’ve never been in the conquering business. Two, yes—so it’s easy enough to conflate China’s growing military capabilities with its economic prowess, and the fact that its whole system, in every respect, whatever you want to call it—state capitalism, ideological overlay, whatever—is going to be different from what we’ve seen before. And that is very threatening. Because it calls into question our self-definition as being in effect the natural culmination point of human progress and development. And suddenly we’re not; second, the guy who’s taken another path might very well, is certainly going to be in a position to challenge our dominance politically, in terms of social philosophy, economically, and secondarily, militarily.


And there is simply no place in the American conception of what’s real and natural for a United States that is not number one. I think that’s ultimately what drives this anxiety and paranoia about China, and that is why we have not seriously entertained the alternative. Which is, you develop a dialogue with the Chinese that’s going to take years, that will be continual, in which you try to work out the terms of a relationship, about a world which will be different from the one we’re in now, but will certainly satisfy our basic interests and concerns as well as China’s. To agree on rules of the road, carve out areas of convergence as well. You know, a dialogue of civilizations.


That’s the kind of thing which Chas Freeman, one of the most distinguished diplomats and who was the interpreter as a young man for Nixon when he went to Beijing. he’s been writing and saying this since his retirement 10, 12 years ago, and the man is ostracized, shunned, invited almost nowhere to speak, nobody asks him to write an op-ed piece. As far as the New York Times and the Washington Post and the mainstream media, he doesn’t exist.


RS: Who is that you’re referring to?


MB: Charles Freeman, incredibly intelligent, acute, sophisticated, by orders of magnitude superior to the kinds of clowns who are making our China policy today. [he] recently published a breath taking long essay on the nature and character of diplomacy. He’s the kind of person who could be involved in and help to shape the kind of dialogue I’m talking about. But these people don’t seem to exist. Those that have any potential like that are marginalized, right.


Instead, we’ve taken this sort of simplistic path of saying the other guy is the enemy, the bad guy, and we’re going to confront him across the board. I think this is going to lead to, sooner or later, confrontation and crisis, probably over Taiwan, which will be the equivalent of the Cuban missile crisis, and hope that we survive it, because we’re going to lose a conventional war if we choose to defend Taiwan. Everybody who knows China says the Chinese leadership is watching the Ukraine affair very closely, and thinking to themselves, ah, maybe Russia has given us a glimpse of what the dynamic might be if we go ahead and invade Taiwan.


RS: Well, that’s of course the position of the hawks also: let’s show them that they can’t, and let’s get embroiled in that. But leaving that aside, we’re going to wrap this up. I want to say I hope you keep blogging and return to the fray, because your voice is needed.


I want to thank Professor Michael Brenner for doing this. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW and the rest of the staff for posting these podcasts. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who does the introductions and overview. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And I want to thank the JKW Foundation and T.M. Scruggs, separately, for giving us some financial support to be able to keep up this work. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.



Courtesy Michael Brenner; dated April 15, 2022

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