The US, which is almost singularly the country that initiated disastrous events in the Ukraine, does not evidently want a direct confrontation with Russia. Indeed, it hurriedly instructed Poland through its NATO bellboy, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, not to transfer MIG-29 fighter planes to the Ukrainian air force. It feared that would potentially precipitate direct military combat with a NATO member because Poland might then attract direct Russian retaliation. Such Russian action would potentially trigger war between all 30 of NATO members and Russia, since the alliance obligations require that all members respond to an attack on any one of them.
However, the US subsequently appears to have massively upped the ante days later by reversing the earlier caution by giving the green light for NATO members to supply fighter aircraft to Ukraine. The US has declined a pitiable yelp of the comedian-turned-politician, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to declare a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace. That would have entailed an inevitable clash between NATO airpower and the Russians, constituting a momentous escalation of the already fraught situation. The US is calling all the shots in the imbroglio rather than anyone else, least of all the laughable British, huffing and puffing as if it’s the mid-19th century and Britannia rules the waves. The faux belligerence of the party-loving soon to be deposed British prime minister, and his embarrassing foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who is using the Ukraine crisis as part of her campaign to replace him, are now disgracefully inciting former British soldiers to fight in Ukraine.
While the war in Ukraine affirms known hard geopolitical truths, it has also revealed some novel dimensions when competition brings major nuclear powers into contention by proxy. One established geopolitical truth is the extreme inadvisability of setting up military bases directly adjacent to the territory of a rival great power. Attempting to do so will provoke it to resist even if it bears a high cost in doing so. The same reason explains why Polish freedom was constantly repudiated by the erstwhile Austro-Hungarians and the Russian empire. When Finland forgot its vulnerability to impending Russo-German military confrontation it too suffered in 1939. Nepal faces the same situation vis-à-vis China and India and is managing the resulting challenges rather incompetently.
The playbook available to the US and dominant Western powers when they seek to inflict punishment on an adversary can be read in their reaction to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Russia has been mostly removed from international trade and its monetary system by denying it access to the Swift system. This is hugely consequential and likely to squeeze Russian international trade severely while hurting third parties who won’t be able to transact with Russia. The deployment of Swift for warfare will have a wider longer-term impact, with all rivals and potential adversaries of the US who fear US sanctions for not complying with its unilateral demands. It will accelerate the creation of alternative payment mechanisms for international transactions, which is already being attempted by China, Russia and even India.
Paradoxically, such a development will pose a threat to the role of the US dollar as the reserve currency and use for 80 per cent of international trade payments. It will detract from the huge privilege that it bestows on the US by enabling it virtually unlimited international borrowing at modest cost. However, the attempt to cut Russia off from most of the liberal international economy comprehensively is unlikely to be extended by belligerent Europeans to energy supplies from Russia, worth a billion dollars daily, because that would cause them huge dislocation and prompt massive price rises, already at a historic high.
Declaring President Vladimir Putin and senior Russian officials like Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, persona non grata can be effectively inferred as a declaration of war in terms of international norms. The supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine further makes NATO a direct participant in the war rather than remaining mostly a spectator. Of the greatest significance is Germany abandoning its policy of not supplying weapons in the context of an ongoing conflict, abandoning a policy that had roots in its pacifism after WWII. By implication, Germany has now returned to the international arena fully as a state willing to take military action.
Other measures, the seizure of private property like homes and yachts of Russians by the UK and possibly other countries is highly provocative and all amount to war short of military engagement. As a cost the UK will have to bear the undermining of the hard-won perceived integrity of a safe investment destination. It will also ruin London’s reputation as the world’s most prominent safe haven for money laundering, as fugitives from Indian justice find, even once admitted by former prime minister David Cameron.
On a wider canvas, a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign has been unleashed, refusing to even acknowledge leave alone entertain any Russian contentions over Ukraine. Instead, there is crass demonisation of the Russian leadership and especially Vladimir Putin, with the entire British media phalanx engaged in jingoistic indignation of shameless lies that recall the recent libel against India’s elected prime minister being a ‘textbook fascist’ by the FT’s Edward Luce. Once again, academic experts in the West are also demonstrating their role as instruments of state policy by cheerfully repeating insupportable misleading spin with scant regard to facts.
The wayward reporting of major Indian news outlets of the Ukraine crisis, including allegedly nationalist-minded ones, is exposing them as foreign assets, plying disinformation even if their dismal level of professionalism might cause a degree of unease to their sponsors. This phenomenon highlights how hostile propaganda and blatant fabrications are produced, disseminated and legitimatised by Western intelligence agencies.
It points to the nature and dynamics of the increasingly indiscriminate calumny organised against Narendra Modi and his nationalist-minded posture for India. Global conferences, academic work and day-to-day untruths and libel against the Indian prime minister provide compelling grounds for suspecting that his attempt to ensure India’s place at the high table of international prerogatives has been deemed unacceptable. Hence, the attempts being made by foreign chancelleries and their myriad global media assets to discredit him are only a few steps short of the kind of unbridled propaganda war unleashed in recent days against Russia. The recent episode in the Punjab, manoeuvring him into a situation of serious physical danger, may be considered a trial run if all else fails and the propaganda onslaught and street protest cannot force him from office.
The Russian advance slowed earlier because of a reluctance to engage in a heavy bombing campaign to soften urban targets first, followed by the infantry and armour. The hesitation over inflicting major civilian casualties is being used cynically by the US puppet Zelenskyy and his Washington controllers to hold out as long as possible. They are unconcerned about Ukrainian casualties because they hope to intensify global outrage against Russia.
The recent Russian negotiation to end the war without having to take Kyiv by force was therefore destined to fail. In order to achieve its goals Russia has the constrained options of fighting for Kyiv 1) without heavy bombardment and in doing so losing a lot of their soldiers fighting street by street, building by building, while Ukrainians now possess plenty of weapons to take out advancing armour or 2) bomb Kyiv and, in so doing, prompt a global outcry and alienate Ukrainians indefinitely or 3) engage in a prolonged siege though Russia is degrading communication and energy services to hasten surrender by the civilian population or 4) withdraw without achieving regime change and be content with control of the Russian-speaking Donbas.
Targeted precision bombing is a possibility but they still seem to cause casualties, as we saw in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan as well as with the drone bombings against targets in Pakistan. Of course, most of the population could have fled already but Zelenskyy is not allowing adult men to leave, intending them to remain as shields. Even though the US declines to acknowledge that its own implacable refusal to contemplate Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962 is identical to the Russian unwillingness to accept them in the Ukraine, this ongoing crisis clearly mirrors its Cuban predecessor. Both of the actual combatants, the US and Russia, are in heightened state of nuclear readiness. a dangerous situation being allowed to develop with shocking nonchalance. It has been preceded by the highly provocative manoeuvres by a British warship into Russian territorial waters in the Black Sea and US nuclear armed bombers on an exercise thirteen miles off the Russian coast.
The deeper and more realistic analysis of the Ukraine crisis suggests that the US remains determined in its bid to maintain a unipolar world in which it is the dominant power, fuelled by hubris and the apparent overwhelming influence of its US military industrial complex, which prescribes foreign policy rather than being an instrument for its goals based on a rational balance of power calculus. Possible evidence is emerging that senior US politicians, Lindsey Graham and the late John McCain, were already inciting war in the Ukraine against Russia as early as 2016.
A recording circulating of their shocking discussion with Ukrainian soldiers about preparing for war against Russia merits closer scrutiny. In line with Russia's unequivocal warning in 2008, it seems the US already knew full well Russia would invade if its plea not to induct Ukraine into NATO and install IRBM’s failed. The US had plainly sought war when it engineered a coup d’etat against the pro-Russian government and installed its own groomed asset, Zelenskyy in 2014.
The US had apparently been waiting for the withdrawal from Afghanistan as the opportune moment to instigate the Ukrainian crisis by getting Zelenskyy to adopt a hard-line and extreme posture. The price to be paid by Ukraine was apparently irrelevant. It seems that embroiling Putin in an intervention, whose costs have been raised by the transfer of advanced weapons to Ukraine, was always the plan.
By forcing a costly war on Putin’s Russia, the US appears to hope he will be overthrown by rivals. Obviously, he has made many enemies in Russia during his long reign accomplished by wielding absolute power, depriving them of their understandable personal political ambitions; plus, there must be quite a lot of personal dislike for a domineering Putin too. It is also worth bearing in mind that families are small in Russia now and parents deeply reluctant to lose their only son, one critical reason why Russia withdrew from Afghanistan; mothers were demonstrating publicly in Russia.
As such, this Ukrainian war is especially about attempted regime change in Russia, a return to the heady days of Boris Yeltsin the West had helped to remain in power. The resort to street protests, like the Ukraine’s 2014 Orange Revolution that brought Zelenskyy to power or hijacking them, as in Tahrir Square in Cairo, is the contemporary playbook for undermining governments to achieve regime change, and Ukraine might prove fatal for Putin.
The author taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Views expressed are personal.