Nearly three months into the war Ukraine, events up-ended quite a few assumptions by quite a few people. I count myself in that crowd.
I didn’t expect Vladimir Putin to order the invasion.
When he did, I expected it to go the way of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War — a quick rout of Ukrainian forces, a stern “don’t ever do that again” warning from Putin (as with Ukraine, the Georgia dust-up had to do with attempts to re-conquer seceded, pro-Russian areas), and a quick return to International Relations Business as Usual.
When it didn’t go that way, I at least expected Russian forces to wrap up the obvious objectives — securing the seceded Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republicans and a land corridor along the Azov coast connecting them to Crimea — in time for Putin to give a “mission accomplished” speech on World War Two Victory Day (May 9), wag a “don’t do that again” finger at Kyiv, and stand down.
Instead, Putin seems to have made a poor decision and bought himself a quagmire. Some blame his inability to get the job done on a US/NATO “proxy war,” and they’re not wrong, but it’s not like there’s anything new or novel in the idea. The US and Russia have been playing the “proxy war” game since the beginning of the Cold War, each assisting the other’s opponents in an attempt to expand their own empire and limit the expansion of the other.
In the 1990s, John Walker’s “bumper sticker” graphic popped up on the Internet: A Soviet flag with an “X” through it, next to an American flag without the “X.” The slogan:
“Evil Empires — One Down, One to Go …”
Both empires are, indeed, going, and the US “proxy” war in Ukraine, even if it brings about a Russian defeat, will likely hasten the US empire’s decline as onlooking regimes realign — not necessarily “with Russia,” but toward a studied neutrality.
Some take Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine as evidence that he aspires to reconstitute the Soviet empire. But while he’s described that empire’s disintegration as a “geopolitical catastrophe,” his record suggests he’s less interested in reconstituting it than in preserving some semblance of its remnant state’s “sphere of influence.”
If either “proxy war” party is guilty of “reconstitution” (even “expansion”) hubris, it’s the United States. Instead of taking “yes” for an answer, reaping a peace dividend, and moving to a peace economy when the Soviet empire collapsed, the US reveled in its role as self-perceived “only remaining superpower” and went right back to fighting — and losing — wars of aggression and conquest. Only when it brought prospective NATO expansion to Russia’s border with Ukraine did Putin rouse himself to real belligerence.
While the timelines are very different, both the Soviet and US imperial bankruptcies resemble the process of Mike’s in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Gradually and then suddenly.”
For the US, “suddenly” now knocks at the door. The alternative being nuclear holocaust, might I suggest that we consider beating our swords into plowshares?
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.