Something Very Like Aggression

America’s Posture Toward Russia is Nothing if not Consistent—and Consistently Misrepresented

During frantic post-Second World War planning sessions in the West, the British Foreign Office noted its fears of “ideological infiltration” from the Soviet Union, a terrifying possibility it described as “something very like aggression.” This near-hysterical fear of independent nationalism has been the hallmark of Western foreign policy ever since. Lately it has been restored to its natural fever pitch by the crisis in the Ukraine. Last week the venerable Economist, that heady rag that all financial fledglings and crusty mandarins fold beneath their arm on the way to lunch, headlined its April 19th issue with a map of Russia and Ukraine with the header, “Insatiable”. All that was missing was a series of social media-esque exclamations points to ram home the clamorous message.

The lead did much to amplify the histrionic tone struck by the cover image. As the presiding house organ of neoliberalism, The Economist is ever anxious to decry any threat to the supremacy of its ideology. Here it sounds the alarmist note at once: the “cost of stopping the Russian bear now is high” but it will only be worse if we (all right-thinking inheritors of the Magna Carta) fail to face our fears at once. After all, the trembling byline proceeds, Vladimir Putin has “mauled” Georgia, “gobbled up” Crimea, and “infiltrated eastern Ukraine.” Clearly, if the West does not face down the frothing Siberian menace, “it may find him at its door.” (Cue house chills.)

Alas, we are “feeble and divided” before the drooling visage of the beast. Here the byline runs out of breath, and in the panting pause that follows, it recalls that it has provided no hard evidence for its suggestion that Russia plans to overrun the western world (although, devoid of context, the capture of Crimea seems a nice start.) The author or authors—and it probably took a battery of zealots to craft this masterpiece—first claims the amateur takeovers in the eastern Ukraine were designed in the Kremlin because “the attacks were coordinated, in strategically useful places.” A few sentences later it recalls that in one of these professionally coordinated attacks, a phalanx of “’local people’ stormed what they thought was the regional administrative headquarters in Kharkiv only to find that they had taken control of the opera house.”

Amid all this, the authors breezily note that the Kremlin has “much to fear from the pro-European demonstrations that toppled Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych. It appears determined to see the new Ukraine fail.” Pity that. Especially since the “new Ukraine” is a model of democratic legitimacy ruled by admirable, even-tempered progressives. Or not. The article then produces a line equally desirous of irony as this last: “Mr. Putin has shown that truth and the law are whatever happens to suit him at the time.”

Nowhere do the authors, blinkered by their own propaganda, betray the slightest awareness that they are blaming Russia for the exact kind of illegal interference of which their own Western governments are the undisputed masters. Could they be unwittingly projecting their own side’s global ambitions onto the ever-useful foil of Russia?

A subtitle in the “Insatiable” piece said, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. This is a nice illustration of the standard profile deployed by Western propaganda agencies like The Economist, The New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. Namely, the ‘innocent bystander’ motif. The purpose of this persona, as it were, is to characterize the United States and its lessers east of Kiev as mild-mannered defenders of liberty, constitutionally disinterested in anything but the happiness of its own minions (still huddled at Lady Liberty’s feet, but that’s another matter). Foreign intrigues? No thanks. Murderous occupations? Why, we would never! A midnight putsch? Not for us, thank you very much. The West is simply the innocent bystander of history, being forced to intervene by pressure from weaker nations and, dare it be said, by the goodness of its heart. We are, after all, as President Obama tirelessly repeats, an “exceptional” people, alone among nations, with both the wisdom to know what to do and the might to actually do it. (At some point, shouldn’t the sons of Abraham garner some royalties for this blatant rip-off the “chosen race” narrative?)

Is It True?

But are we history’s innocent bystander? Do we gape in horror at the latest bloodbath, appalled at the behavior of (lately) Slavic degenerates whom we have so painstakingly tried to shepherd into the light of neoliberal finance capitalism? Do we flex our considerable muscle only after hand-wringing deliberations with the community of nations?

I hope you’ve already answered the question. If you haven’t, you may be a victim of the greatest propaganda machine in human history—the U.S. government. Thankfully, there are reliable remedies for such conditions. Looking at the facts can be a useful prescription for mental health. To that end, in our quest to discover whether America is freedom’s reluctant defender, the planet’s mild-mannered policeman, we should look at its strategic thinking over the years.

It might be useful to refer to a document penned 64 years ago this month. That would be NSC68 from April 1950. This founding document of the Cold War lays out the American estimate of Soviet strength and the plan to resist it. Inherent to the document was the belief that the Soviet Union was bent on “absolute power” and “the dynamic extension of their authority and ultimate elimination of any effective opposition to their authority.” This included the “domination of the Eurasian landmass,” a threat that “whether achieved by armed aggression or by political and subversive means, would be strategically and politically unacceptable to the United States.” Estimations of Soviet resources and nuclear strength were reviewed, along with several potential responses, before finally recommending a build-up of weapons and active efforts to place “maximum strain on the Soviet structure of power and particularly on the relationships between Moscow and the satellite countries.”

Move to the end of the century. The Berlin Wall has fallen, Russian satellite states are being happily looted by Western interests. But the Russian threat still remains, at least in the minds of U.S. planners. As have many others in recent weeks, Arnie Mayer has unearthed the mad ravings of President Obama’s foreign policy advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Like a poor man’s Rasputin, Brzezinski has exerted a hypnotic effect on John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and now the pitiful Barack. In his 1997 book The Great Chessboard, it was Brzezinski that foresaw, in his crystal of global domination, the importance of Eurasia, rather than the Middle East, in future geopolitics: “America is now the only global superpower, and Eurasia is the globe’s central arena.” Note how the reemergence of Eurasia as the central prize of the geostrategic game recommissions the former Soviet Union as a primary threat. Here’s Mayer’s recap of Brzezinski’s thinking:

Brzezinski argued that “the struggle for global primacy [would] continue to be played” on the Eurasian “chessboard,” and that as a “new and important space on [this] chessboard . . . Ukraine was a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia.” Indeed, “if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its [then] 52 million people and major resources, as well as access to the Black Sea,” Russia would “automatically again regain the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.” The unwritten script of Brzezinski, one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers: intensify the West’s—America’s—efforts, by means fair and foul, to detach Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence, including especially the Black Sea Peninsula with its access to the Eastern Mediterranean via the Aegean Sea.

In this context, with the Ukraine playing such a pivotal role in the plan for Eurasian hegemony, the U.S.-backed coup d’état might have been predicted the moment deposed president Viktor Yanukoyvch vacillated over the onerous conditions of the IMF loan he was offered and turned a welcoming eye to the East. Likewise, Mike Whitney recently pulled out a dog-eared copy of the scribbling of that great progressive, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, which naturally found their way into our US National Defense Strategy. Note how Wolfowitz prizes liberty and self-determination for all:

Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”

…convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests. In non-defense areas, we must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order. We must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.

Here, the emphasis is not simply controlling Eurasian resources, but aggressively checking the ambitions of any regional power.

Think Globally, Act Locally

If these documents suggest generalized world dominance at a planetary level, they suggest rather clear strategic goals at the local level. Namely, the dismemberment of Russia in an effort to return it to the subservient status held by the rest of Eastern Europe. Russia has been the black sheep of Eurasia since the Bolshevik revolution, at first providing the world with a horrifying example of non-capitalist industrialization, and then annoyingly preaching communism even as it launched its manic purges.

Weakening Russia always began with uncoupling Soviet satellites from Russian influence. Ukraine is seen as the central bridge between Russia and Europe, particularly since most of Europe’s Russia-sourced gas, flows through it. Likewise, Crimea has long served as Russia’s Black Sea outpost, from which it exerts influence over the resource-rich body of water. By severing the umbilical cord of the Ukraine, Russia can be detached from Europe and its Black Sea dominion and reduced to the role Wolfowitz foresaw for it, with a modest regional mandate, restored to its servant role cowering in the shadow of American power.

NATO is the most useful tool in this regard. It can hardly be said that Russia is more aggressive than NATO. Just recall Mikhail Gorbachev’s unrequited gestures in the late eighties, when he let go of the Warsaw Pact and agreed to the reunification of Germany, taking home a promise from the U.S. that NATO wouldn’t move an inch eastward. Ever the amnesiac, NATO forgot its promise and “gobbled up” a dozen Eastern European states, moving its heavy weaponry ever closer to the Russian heartland. Outstripping its original mandate to launch itself into far-flung locations like Libya and Afghanistan, it had to fashion a new mission statement for itself, even as it swallowed the majority of former Soviet satellites, including Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia, but also Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Croatia, and Slovenia. Georgia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are short-listed for membership.

And it was, of course, the West that instigated the faux uprising in Ukraine; fomenting a coup d’état of Ukraine’s democratically elected government by a confection of paid snipers and unhinged ultra-nationalists with fascist sympathies. The historic context in which this coup happened shouldn’t be forgotten. In the 20th century, Russia was very nearly destroyed by German fascists twice in 30 years.

No matter, the imperial drumbeats drone on. Obama is moving destroyers in the Black Sea, flying NATO patrol missions close to the Russian border, rushing an uncertain contingent of U.S. troops to Poland, hundreds more to the Baltic states, and dispersing F-15s and F-16s to complement this hasty display of power.

If the five billion dollars spent clandestinely undermining democracy in Ukraine wasn’t enough, there’s also the “hard power” military budget. We spend most of our discretionary funds on guns. America accounts for close to 40 percent of global military spending, and its military budget has grown by 35 percent since 9/11, dwarfing expenditures of Russia and China. Given the gross inequality in military spending, it’s no surprise that since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States alone has invaded six nations (officially), and the Russians two.

None of this adds up to the portrait depicted by The Economist, that of a cautious, peace-loving West unhappily shouldering the burdens of history, battling to preserve the light of liberty in a world of barbarians and degenerates. But it was ever thus, one story peddled to the world, another inscribed in the history books. Usually in blood.

Fear of the Alternative

Simon Bolivar, the Latin American revolutionary who inspired Hugo Chavez to launch his Bolivarian revolution, once described the United States, saying, “There is at the head of this great continent a very powerful country, very rich, very warlike, and capable of anything.” It was Bolivar’s Pan Americanism that had to be crushed by the United States, preserving its dominion over the South, as mandated by the Monroe Doctrine.

Bolivar’s ideas were but one variation on the theme of independent nationalism. Its characteristics are varied but well known: state managed economies, regulation of industry, capital controls, import-substitution development strategies, strong social safety nets, import tariffs and other measures to protect fledgling domestic industry, etc. How can a ruthless capitalist ever dispossess the masses when the state keeps intervening on their behalf? It’s damned nigh impossible.

A cursory glance at recent history may be enough to persuade you of the threat that Henry Kissinger tremblingly referred to as the “domino effect”. Troubling socialist experiments were variously achieved in Cuba, Venezuela, China, and pre-WWII Russia—until they were brutally undermined by the West. As well the protectionist measure successfully employed by nations like Holland, Germany, and Korea in the last century—against the better wisdom of Washington. And perhaps most terrifyingly, the successes of socialist state interventions in our most burgeoning industries—military procurement, biotechnology and Big Pharma. Evidently there’s no industry that a trough of taxpayer funding and a government-guaranteed market can’t fix.

Indeed, as Mayer notes, we’ve had to forcefully intervene across the hemisphere just to stave off the nightmare scenario of leaving a foreign population to its own devices. One can only imagine what the rabble might do, left unchained. Mayer provides a cursory list including, “Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1962), Dominican Republic (1965), Chile (1973), Nicaragua (1980s), Grenada (1983), Bolivia (1986), Panama (1989), and Haiti (2004)”, each intervention conducted, “almost invariably without enthroning and empowering more democratic and socially progressive” governments. Gore Vidal has provided a more comprehensive list in his Dreaming War screed (some 200 interventions between Pearl Harbor and 9/11).

What with all the indictments of laissez-faire capitalism flying about—notably Thomas Pikkety’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century—a hidebound capitalist extremist could be forgiven for feeling nervy and anxious to secure his power. Indeed, that’s precisely what elite capital is doing through its benign front organization, the IMF, according the European Network on Debt and Development (EURODAD). Likewise, the lapdogs of elite money in Washington have dusted off the old Cold War phrase book in a concerted campaign to demonize Russia and any other threat to the neoliberal program of pillage and plunder. For this Russia is delightfully suitable—a distant nuclear power, ruled by an ex-KGB autocrat, and with a blood-soaked legacy of misguided communism, brutal purges and fatuous show trials. Behold the Russian bear. On both fronts, whether enslaving nations with debt or encircling them with missiles, it has the feel of something very like aggression.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at: jasonhirthler@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.