Public opinion being readied

Will the war spread?

It is not just the immediate consequences for Russia and Ukraine that should concern us, argues Daniel Lazare

In 1914, it took 35 days to go from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the outbreak of general hostilities. By contrast, Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” is now entering its ninth week without a single bullet straying into Nato territory. How long will Europe’s luck hold?

The answer: not very long. If the Russo-Ukrainian war was merely a binational affair, then seeing to it that combatants stayed on their side of the border would not be difficult. This is why the Yugoslav wars stayed put in the Balkans in the 1990s, while the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan failed to overflow into neighbouring Georgia, Turkey and Iran. Outside powers had an incentive to see to it that both conflicts stayed safely contained, so that is where they remained.

But Ukraine is different. Not only is Kyiv an obvious proxy for Nato, but China - the world’s number two power - is deeply invested. Xi Jinping cannot stand by and watch, as the US tries to impose regime change on the Kremlin - for the simple reason that, if America can do it in Russia, it can do it in China too. Lesser powers like India and Indonesia know that US imperialism will grow ever more onerous if it succeeds in eliminating a major rival, so they also have a stake. The same goes for large swathes of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Once America finishes slicing up Russia, their turn on the carving board will come.

The war thus has an international dimension that previous conflicts lacked. Since the politics are international, it is only a matter of time until the fighting follows suit. Hence, it is not a question of whether the war will spread, but when and how - and how far the process will go.

Consider some recent highlights. In another of his off-the-cuff remarks, Joe Biden accused Russia on April 12 of genocide: the worst possible offence in the post-World War II political lexicon. Moscow at the same time handed the White House a diplomatic note formally protesting at US arms deliveries to Kyiv - a not so subtle hint that it will take military steps if lethal aid continues. On April 14, a Ukrainian missile sank the Russian warship, Moskva, in the Sea of Azov, while a US congressional visit to Taiwan prompted a furious China to scramble frigates, bombers and jet fighters in response as a show of force. A day later, Russia used long-range Tupolev bombers to pulverise an estimated 2,500 members of the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and other Ukrainian units holed up in Mariupol’s massive Azov steelworks. On April 17 it pounded Kharkov and Lvov with missiles, while the next day it launched a 300-mile-wide offensive for control of the Donbas.


All are indicative of a conflict that, rather than levelling off, is burning more and more intensely. Inflation is rising, Biden’s poll numbers are plumbing unprecedented depths, while Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are neck and neck in a battle that will affect not only Nato and the European Union, but the war itself. Despite polls showing that Americans oppose military intervention by nearly three to one,1 pressure on the White House will grow if Russia succeeds in bottling up thousands of Ukrainian troops in the country’s east - a prospect that is now far from impossible. The more the corporate press turns up the anti-Russian vitriol, the more the chattering classes will convince themselves that intervention is the only way out of the vice.

The Guardian - that all-important mouthpiece for bien-pensant liberals - is once again leading the way. After calling for Kremlin regime change last month, Simon Tisdall, the paper’s long-time diplomatic correspondent, published an article this weekend slamming Nato for not doing more: ie, for not supplying the Ukraine with jet fighters and M1 tanks, for not creating “safe havens” on the ground, and for not directly targeting Russian artillery, naval and missile forces. The alliance must act, he said, instead of wringing its hands over the consequences.

Fear that such measures “would automatically escalate into all-out Nato-Russian warfare is almost certainly unfounded,” Tisdall assured his readers - with the fulsome self-confidence of someone 2,000 miles from the battlefield. “Putin knows he would lose such a fight. But who dares put it to the test?”2

In Washington, this is known as ‘do-something-ism’: the belief that, the worse the war grows, the greater the need for the US to do something - anything - to boost Ukrainian fortunes and ensure its own global dominance.

Senator Chris Coons - a Democrat from Biden’s home state of Delaware and a politician so close to the president that he is known as his ‘shadow secretary of state’ - is sounding out the same theme: “There will almost certainly be an incident in which Putin goes too far” - either by using chemical weapons or by striking at Nato arms depots across the Ukrainian border. If so, he told an academic conference last week,

… it is important that, in a bipartisan and measured way, we in Congress and the administration come to a common position about when we are willing to go the next step and to send not just arms, but troops, to the aid and defence of Ukraine. If the answer is never, then we are inviting another level of escalation and brutality by Putin.3

A collective march over the precipice - in proper bipartisan fashion, of course - is unavoidable, according to the president’s alter ego. As the conservative journalist, Byron York, pointed out, Coons made the point even more forcefully a few days later in an interview with CBS News:

If Vladimir Putin, who has shown us how brutal he can be, is allowed to just continue to massacre civilians, to commit war crimes throughout Ukraine without Nato, without the west coming more forcefully to his [sic!] aid … I deeply worry that what’s going to happen next is that we will see Ukraine turn into Syria.

Then came the kicker: “I think the history of the 21st century turns on how fiercely we defend freedom in Ukraine and that Putin will only stop when we stop him.”4

Once again, America is the ‘indispensable nation’ riding to the rescue like the US cavalry. If Putin continues waging war - or, more importantly, if he dares to win - then US intervention is regarded in certain quarters as a foregone conclusion, public opinion be damned. If so, US allies will have no choice but to follow suit. If Russia fails to oblige by targeting Nato depots or using poison gas, then Ukrainian forces will have to stage an incident on his behalf with the appropriate international agencies providing back-up.

This is what happened in Syria, when the Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in the Hague, accused the Assad government of using poison gas in the Damascus suburb of Douma in April 2018 - only to face a revolt by staff experts, who pointed out that US-backed rebels were clearly manipulating the evidence.5 Although the Azov Battalion appeared to be heading off in the same direction when it accused Russia last week of using poison gas in Mariupol, the claim has so far made little headway. But that will change if Russia’s battlefield prospects improve and western hawks search ever more desperately for an excuse to step in.

Cold War II?

But there is another reason why others will find themselves dragged in: because neither side has come up with anything remotely resembling an endgame. Once Putin failed in his opening bid to seize Kyiv and capture president Volodymyr Zelensky, he turned his attention to seizing the Donbas and the Black Sea littoral. But, even if he succeeds, he will be left with the question of what to do with the rest of the country left behind. He will have to contend with a Ukrainian rump that is more hostile than ever, more thoroughly dominated by the Azov Battalion and other Nazi elements, and more likely to be taken under Nato’s wing. It is either that or launching a second-stage invasion that is far more ambitious than anything he has tried so far.

After all, Ukraine is nearly as big as the Third Reich was in 1939. Where the Allies had nearly seven million men under arms during the invasion of Germany in 1945, Russia currently has at most 225,000, including militia units from the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, while Ukrainian forces, including paramilitaries and reservists, may have as much as 1.2 million. That is, more than five times more. Putin would have to put Russia on an emergency war-footing to even the balance, yet, even if he does, the only result will be to bring himself face to face with Nato forces in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. If he succeeds in stampeding Finland into the alliance, the result will be even worse: ie, a bristling Nato phalanx stretching 1,600 miles from the Arctic to the mouth of the Danube. Instead of freeing Russia from Nato encirclement, he will wind up ensnaring it all the more completely. It is a no-win proposition, if ever there was one.

Yet Nato’s prospects are not much better. Even if Zelensky prevails in the Donbas, what will he do next - use all that Nato aid to drive Russia out of Donetsk, Luhansk and the Crimea as well? If so, will the west take the battle to the Kremlin, so as to smash Russia into three separate parts, as Zbigniew Brzezinski recommended in 1997?6 Will the US then take over the oil and gas fields of Kazakhstan, while using ethnic unrest in the western province of Xinjiang (already the subject of a major western propaganda campaign centred around the claim that China is engaged in genocide against the Uighurs) to barrel into China itself?

Or, if certain foreign-policy ‘realists’ prevail, will it content itself with splitting the Ukraine down the middle, the way it subdivided the Korean peninsula in 1953?

Either way, it is a choice between war and a brutal stalemate, leading to yet more conflict, if the CIA opts to subject Ukraine to an Afghan-style campaign of subversion and guerrilla warfare. The world will be divided into 1950s-style hostile camps, with Nato on one side, Russia and China on the other, and the majority of the world’s population watching nervously from the sidelines. Where the original cold war turned into a force for stability, ironically version two will likely prove the opposite due to declining economic circumstances. After 75 years of exploitation, corruption and brutality, Pax Americana is giving way to an era of war and recession with no end in sight.

Indeed, if US hawks succeed in drawing China into the fray, the outlook will prove even worse. Ukraine will not burn itself out. Like fire, rather, it will spread and spread.

  1. ‘74% of Americans think worst of war in Ukraine is yet to come”: poll.qu.edu/poll-release?releaseid=3843.↩︎

  2. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/mar/26/wanted-russian-revolution-to-topple-tyrant-putin-internal-applicants-welcome; also: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/apr/17/nato-should-talk-less-and-do-more-or-ukraine-will-be-torn-apart-bit-by-bit.↩︎

  3. Quote begins at 12:05 at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=oG1I8oxKskg.↩︎

  4. www.cbsnews.com/news/chris-coons-transcript-face-the-nation-04-17-2022.↩︎

  5. thegrayzone.com/2020/02/11/new-leaks-shatter-opcws-attacks-douma-whistleblowers.↩︎

  6. See: ‘What hath Zbig wrought?’ Weekly Worker March 31: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1389/what-hath-zbig-wrought.↩︎