Old roads in Ukraine
The US is moving north with policies that built extremism in West Asia
I’ve cycled twice through the Ukraine, in different directions. Once west from Odessa towards Poland, after a boat from Istanbul. Once east from Moldova and across towards Russia.
As much as I once studied international relations, still read and write on the subject, and have a thinking to some extent trained in its way of seeing the world, I don’t think anything has or will ever be so valuable to me as my time simply cycling through places. Just having experienced any form of normalcy inside a country is an implicit corrective, however incomplete, to any of the most sensationalist media narratives.
This is particularly useful when the US is talking about going to war, or making threats so that it gets what it wants without having to. The precondition for either is the total demonisation of the entity the US intends to war against, and the total valorisation of the entities - however questionable or simply evil - they plan to support. The process of propaganda that takes place at this point - intensely binary, intensely good vs. evil - is the opposite of passing through a country by bicycle; something intensely holistic and intensely - in the best way - normal.
The issues in Ukraine
The first time cycling through Ukraine I rode immediately north, into Moldova, and then after a stretch of that country crossed the Dnister River on a small raft that served as a ferry back over the border to Ukraine.
Apart from remembering the enduring niceness of that river-border on a sunny day in spring, with grass rich green and the sky and river blue, I remember passing back into Ukraine and seeing a Soviet-era MiG fighter jet mounted on a plinth near the crossing.
A border official checked and stamped my passport. She was disdainful about the Ukraine; asking why I would come to such a country, a poor country. I said that wasn’t how I judged countries, and then made a mention of the MiG nearby, and how it must have been interesting to see all day, every day.
“We were a great country once,” was all she sighed in reply as I left, and to this day it sticks in my mind as proof of both the nostalgia for the Soviet Union that many Ukrainians feel, as well as the pro-Russian thoughts - often defined against a corruption-riddled polity in Kiev - that many Ukrainians do not internalise as the same threat presented in propaganda to Western audiences. (This is not to say that the opposing sentiment is not also found in Ukraine, but few could deny that it is abundantly covered - indeed is all that is covered - in Western media.)
Russian demands on NATO
Matters have escalated recently due to Russian troop movements near to Ukraine (though inside its own borders), and the raising of a list of security demands Russia would like met by NATO.
The problem here is probably found at the outset and in the words “Russian demands”. The US is not accustomed to having demands made of it, though as a falling state with civil war-ideation among its bourgeoisie and a destitution hard to describe among its masses, it may have to start getting used to the phenomenon.
The US quite simply does not have capacity to manage or stave-off internal collapse; continue its West Asia belligerence towards Iran at the behest of US clients in Israel/UAE/Saudi; try to ‘contain’ China; and at the same time repel Russian intent to see resolution in the long-running conflict on its border with Ukraine.
Presumably sensing all this, Russia recently put forward its proposed guarantees for security from NATO.
The demands include an end to NATO expansion towards Russia and into Ukraine, removal of NATO nuclear-compatible missiles from states adjacent to Russia, and a general removal of US and NATO troops from across Russia’s European border.
To read, and given that NATO was founded for the sole purpose of defeating Russia’s immediate forebear, the USSR, the list is a picture of reasonability. It concedes far more than anything the US would ever countenance by way of encroachment into its own sphere of influence, but naturally the US has nonetheless to regard the list as totally unreasonable. One assertion has been that the NATO positions are not a threat to Russia, though that equally begs the question of why they have to be there?
Nord Stream 2
The ongoing saga around the new Russia-Germany gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, is also of course backdrop to the dispute. The pipeline is physically completed and now awaits only German and other permits in order to be switched on and begin receiving gas. The US does not want it to be turned on because it will strengthen Russian energy sales, which is good for Moscow but also in-turn reduces the growing European demand for US gas exported from its fracking heartlands.
Elements of the European climate movement also seem to oppose Nord Stream 2, but given that the alternative is gas shipped from further afield, and an increased use of coal power in Germany during the energy transition, this runs contrary to climate goals. It is of course totally possible to both turn-on the pipeline and continue lobbying for more European renewable energy sources. This is, indeed, just what we should be doing.
Current record gas prices, though partly exacerbated by a small Russian undersupply that Nord Stream 2 would likely help alter (both physically and in terms of political will), are already high enough to form a deterrent to fossil gas. Meanwhile, the integration of renewable energy sources to European grids is a contributing element of current high energy prices, and campaigners should beware a breakdown of consent for otherwise popular green policies if energy prices continue upwards.
A final point of note is that the current movement of gas to Europe sees Russia shipping a large amount of its exports to Europe through Ukrainian pipelines, thus paying substantial transit fees to a Ukrainian government in Kiev that is actively hostile to Russia. From a Russian point of view, this is far from ideal, and it would be abnormal for a state not to try to rectify such a situation.
Given that Nord Stream 2 is a direct subsea link to Germany, one that does not incur transit fees to a hostile neighbouring government, it points again to US expectations that are not realistic; to wield the right to insist that Russia should continue doing something so obviously contrary to its own interests. None of this is necessarily to take a moral position, so much as to stress the degree of influence the US hopes to claim for itself.
Ultimately, put simply, the US has no business interfering in Nord Stream 2. Matters are admittedly complicated by the deranged hypocrisies of a section of US media who persistently decried former-president Donald Trump as an “asset” of Putin, despite the fact his Nord Stream 2 policy was far more hawkish than Biden’s has been, and despite the same quarters of media naturally having nothing equivalent to say of Joe Biden. Whatever the double-standards of this, it does not alter that Biden’s current policy is the correct one, and that European energy policy must be its own.
The final problem is that Russia has the means, proximity and apparently now the will to settle affairs with some finality in Ukraine, whereas the US does not.
What the US does have is the means and also (as ever) the will to unsettle affairs in its own interests. Russia will aim to secure a Ukraine that is amenable to its interests. The US, meanwhile, will be content (but also limited) to see and leave Ukraine war-torn simply so that Russia is inconvenienced.
Under this model, Ukraine will be made a sort of one-way proxy war, the consequences of which will be lost Ukrainian and Russian lives and livelihoods, refugees, an unsettled Russia, and very little impact on the US.
It cannot be said enough that the US is an illegitimate party to these affairs. The issue validates the assumption that is always safest - if admittedly not 100% accurate - that where US designs are not wholly nefarious, they are nonetheless sure to be executed with such incompetence that they might as well be.
At this stage, one of what should be the most concerning dynamics of US involvement in Ukraine - and particularly for Europeans - is its backing of far-right and Neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalist groups.
US support for these groups being readily passed-off as proud, anti-Kremlin liberationists is nothing new. It has been reported on - including by US media - for a number of years. The renowned Azov Batallion - an informal-turned-formal part of Ukrainian forces - has already skirted (though avoided) US arms restrictions based on its openly fascist ideology. What does seem to be escalating along with the conflict, however, is US willingness to back such entities, and implement full-scale programmes of support, arming, and training. The typically war-hungry New York Times offered the below fantasy of a US-backed insurgency operating from inside the EU.
This would, it’s safe to say, be a disaster. Extremism does not conform to the predefined objectives of a far-away and fading power. Nor does it go away with the immediate purpose for which it was backed, regardless whether it fails or succeeds in that purpose. Extremism can always find some new task to turn to, because the goal of extremism is mostly simple; carry out acts of extremism.
When the ideals of an extremist movement are far-right, white nationalist and Neo-Nazi, and they occur adjacent to a Europe with existing and serious problems with all three issues, the threat of contagion is clear. Whether it is Anders Breivik with a Nazi salute at his latest parole hearing in Norway, German concern at Neo-Nazi infiltration of its police, British armed forces using the images of left-wing politicians as target-practice, or French training camps purporting to help people prepare for insurgency, there is already a strong and grassroots movement of organised European hate groups only too happy to take-up violent means to further fascist ends. That the US could start mass sponsor of Ukrainian groups fluent in such ideologies, right on Europe’s doorstep, is yet another instance of abysmal US policy that poses a critical threat to European security.
Not that it should need saying, but none of this is to extol the virtues of Vladimir Putin or Russia. Russia’s own US-inspired mercenary force, Wagner Group, was known to include Islamophobic and Neo-Nazi elements when it was dispatched to Libya to fight the Tripoli government alongside UAE-backed warlord, Khalifa Haftar (this was one of many reasons why Turkish support of the UN-recognised government in Libya should at the time have been supported rather than condemned).
But while Russian support of separatists in Donbas (or annexing Crimea) can of course be questioned and indeed should be criticised, Russian goals in Ukraine are clearly for some sort of durable stability over ongoing precarity. The US position, particularly in its willingness to back extremist paramilitary groups, seems content with ongoing instability.
West Asia similarities
What might be apparent in all this is that it looks a lot like the US repeating its failed policy of supporting or fostering extremism in West Asia. The US has done this in the form of Afghan mujahideen, Saudi Arabian export of Wahhabism, Islamic extremists quickly badged-up and armed as freedom fighters in Syria and elsewhere, tyrants dressed-up as secularists and let-loose in multiple countries, or merely by the US inducing the conditions of war, bombing and state collapse in which all extremism thrives.
Because the US-Israeli Islamophobia industry has worked tirelessly to associate Muslims, Islam, Arabs and any related category with extremism, terrorism, and threat, mainstream Western observers have become conditioned to see all of these things as characteristics that are intrinsic - almost uniquely - to Islam, Muslims, Arabs and West Asians. This prejudice has proven resistant to the facts of these populations also being those who have most often risked most to oppose extremism, and have also been most numerous among its victims.
By the same token, because Western audiences are so used to seeing a terrorist threat through this Islamophobic lens, and are equally unaccustomed to seeing far-right and white nationalist violence in such a way (but rather as something one-off, or even relatable and so forgivable on mental health grounds) there is a real risk of underestimating the threat posed by proposed US policy in Ukraine. The wholesale support of right-wing nationalist paramilitaries in Eastern Europe, including operating within the EU, portends an industrial unleashing of a more heavily-armed and emboldened European Neo-Nazi movement, even as US media at a domestic level hypocritically proclaims the acute threat of this very ideology.
The crime that was the US war on Iraq led to the collapse of the Iraqi state and the formation of ISIS. In turn there came the Syrian Civil War, the subsequent movement of refugees into a racist EU that furthered its own right-wing authoritarian politics as a result. Once already in recent memory, a truly abysmal US policy in Eurasia has set in motion a destruction and extremism from which Europe could not and did not escape blowback. Now in Ukraine, and with the US willing to support far-right nationalists for its own ends, a similar dynamic is being proposed by the same country, which once again has no stake in the consequences.
Europe should manage its affairs with Russia carefully, and with a view to the nature of the relationship. It should show equal pragmatism, and regard for recent history, in dealing with the interventions of the United States.
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