From Biden, to Austin, to Truss
Despite the failure of phase one - the attempt to take Kyiv - Daniel Lazare says it is Nato that is floundering, not Russia’s invasion
In 1910, a sportswriter named Franklin Pierce Adams dashed off a poem about a trio of Chicago Cubs infielders named Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. Tinker would field a ball and then fire it off to Evers, who, after tagging out a runner at second base, would throw it to Chance, so he could tag the hitter out at first. “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” became a byword for teamwork so smooth and efficient it was practically a work of art.
Now we have a new combination: Biden to Austin to Truss. The trouble is that it is not nearly as effective as the original.
Joe Biden kicked things off on March 26 with a stirring anti-Russia speech in Warsaw that ended with the president saying of Vladimir Putin: “For god’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” A month later, it was the turn of US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin, who told reporters during a visit to the Polish-Ukrainian border: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Finally, the ball passed to Liz Truss. On April 27, she outlined a series of sweeping proposals that went well beyond anything the US or Nato had come up with to date.
The west, she said, should impose nothing less than a full oil and gas boycott. Instead of merely undoing the February 24 invasion, it should “push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine”, including, presumably, the Donbas republics and the Crimea peninsula. “We need a global Nato” she went on - not a Nato composed of nations from all over the globe, but the same old alliance with “a global outlook” that would allow it “to tackle global threats” - in other words, the familiar Euro-American heavies bending the rest of the world to their will. For good measure, the British foreign secretary called on the Group of Seven to also “act as an economic Nato, collectively defending our prosperity”.1 Economically and politically, Truss’s goal is to see to it that the global elite has the international system all sewn up.
In a matter of weeks, top US and UK officials have thus gone from toppling Putin and shrinking Russia to a Dr Evil-style project, in which a Nato-ised G7 will rule the world. Truss also had a warning for China:
Beijing has not condemned Russian aggression or its war crimes. Russian exports to China rose by almost a third in the first quarter of this year. They have sought to coerce Lithuania. They are commenting on who should or shouldn’t be a member of Nato. And they are rapidly building a military capable of projecting power deep into areas of European strategic interest.
But China is not impervious ... By talking about the rise of China as inevitable, we are doing China’s work for it. In fact, their rise isn’t inevitable. They will not continue to rise if they don’t play by the rules.
Putin must go, Russia must go in anything resembling its present form, and China had better watch it or it will go too. It is all too easy to point out the hypocrisy behind such statements. And it is startling to hear Truss declare that “most of the world does respect sovereignty - it is only a few pariahs and outliers that don’t” so soon after Britain and America trampled the sovereignty of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries too numerous to mention. It is strange to hear her condemn China for allegedly threatening “areas of European strategic interest”, when the US and its allies refuse to consider whether others have strategic interests too. But then imperialism and hypocrisy have long gone hand in hand.
What is more important is the degree to which such rhetoric amounts to whistling past the graveyard. No matter how much people like Truss may threaten and bluster, what the Atlantic alliance has mainly accomplished so far in Ukraine is to underscore its own comprehensive weakness.
Examples abound. The pro-Nato establishment, for instance, is no doubt breathing easier, now that Emmanuel Macron has fended off far-right challenger Marine Le Pen by nearly 5.5 million votes in France. But is Macron’s victory a vote of confidence in Nato and the anti-Russian crusade? Or is it a sign of weakness, given that since 2017 Le Pen has reduced Macron’s lead by half? It is a safe bet that, the worse the war gets, the more Macron’s advantage will shrink.
Despite calling for regime change in Moscow, Biden himself is all but certain to face regime change at home due to sinking polls and an economy in growing trouble. He will still occupy the Oval Office if Republicans, as expected, gain control of both houses in the November congressional mid-term elections. But the party is already thinking up ways to make his life miserable by either impeaching him or launching a congressional investigation into the business dealings of his wayward, drug-addled son, Hunter.2 Either way, Biden will be more of a lame duck than ever, as he tries to fend off a loony right, while preventing a Democratic mutiny aboard what is plainly a sinking ship.
Then there is inflation. Contrary to the Democrats, the problem did not originate with Putin. Rather, it has been building from nearly the moment Biden took office 15 months ago.
But two things are clear: the war is accelerating the process and Moscow, ironically, is turning out to be a major beneficiary. The reason is simple: thanks to trade interruptions and shrinking supplies, Russia’s main exports have all jumped in price since the invasion began. Natural gas is up 55% as of May 2, petroleum is up 14%, coal is up 69%, while wheat is up 40% and nickel 30%. This is why after plunging 42% during the first two weeks of the war, the rouble has not only bounced back, but has actually risen 10% more.
This is a weakness because it shows how badly the US has bungled an economic war aimed at bringing Russia to its knees. The pain is less apparent in America, a net exporter of both energy and grain. But it is growing in the European Union, a net importer, and creating wave upon wave of distress in a global south more dependent on international food supplies than ever.
Egypt and Tunisia, for example, both import 80% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine alone, while Lebanon imports 60%. South of the Sahara, the picture is even worse, with the region as whole dependent on wheat imports for 85% of its supplies. Since it was a spike in food prices that triggered the Arab Spring in 2011, governments have every reason to be nervous, now that another price hike is in the works - and every reason to keep their business jets at the ready, in case angry mobs begin massing outside the presidential palace.
Which brings us to a third weakness: the military. With a pro-war press in lockstep with the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, the public continues to receive a one-sided view of the war, in which plucky Ukrainians inflict huge casualties on Russians, whose tanks have broken down for lack of spare parts and whose soldiers are so short of food that they are reduced to ransacking local shops. If miracle anti-tank weapons such as UK-made Nlaws and US-manufactured Javelins and Switchblade drones are tossed in, then it is plain as day that Russian forces must be floundering.
Yet in practically the same breath, the press reports that Russia continues to
fire rockets and shells at Ukrainian military positions, cities, towns and infrastructure along a 300-mile-long front, including bombarding the Azovstal plant, where the last remaining Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol are hunkered down.3
If Russia is on the run, then how is it able to maintain such a powerful military presence? Ukrainians are meanwhile running through western arms so rapidly that the United States is having trouble keeping up. The Wall Street Journal reports that America is unable to manufacture replacements because “the military-industrial base is smaller than it once was” and because
Years of budget cuts and industry consolidation has left the US with just two producers of missile rocket motors. That is down from six in 1995, while the number of companies’ sub-suppliers has shrunk to 1,000 from about 5,000 …4
The more the war drags on, the more munitions manufacturers will fall behind. Remarkably, the only western leader who has dared speak anything resembling the truth is Boris Johnson. It is “a realistic possibility” that Putin is “still in a position to win”, he said on April 22:
Putin has a huge army. He has a very difficult political position, because he’s made a catastrophic blunder. The only option he now has really is to continue to try to use his appalling, grinding approach - led by artillery - trying to grind the Ukrainians down. And he’s very close to securing a land bridge in Mariupol.
Johnson’s relationship to truth is famously casual, yet this time he may be on to something. Evidently, the war is not going as swimmingly as western propaganda maintains.
Finally, there is a fourth weakness: the nature of the Kyiv regime.
From Chiang Kai-Shek to former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, the US has shown a remarkable propensity for choosing local allies who are corrupt, incompetent and fascistic - indeed, sometimes all three at once. Zelensky is no exception. He is a protégé of the notorious oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, an early funder of the neo-Nazi Azov battalion even though he is Jewish. Despite heading the poorest country in Europe, Zelensky managed to stash millions in secret bank accounts in the British Virgin Islands, Belize and Cyprus. Ukraine is in general a failed state - a kind of Lebanon by the Black Sea that has been sucked dry by oligarchs and is held aloft only by billions of dollars in US aid and seemingly unlimited supplies of Nato arms.
Moreover, it is a failed state permeated by Nazism. As even Zelensky admits, “Stepan Bandera is a hero for a certain part of Ukrainians, and this is a normal and cool thing. He was one of those who defended the freedom of Ukraine.” Bandera, of course, is the Ukrainian nationalist whose idea of defending freedom was to collaborate with the Nazis and kill thousands of Jews and as many as 100,000 Poles in an ethnic-cleansing operation launched in mid-1943. Dozens of Ukrainian cities, towns and villages have erected statues in his honour, while Lvov dedicated an entire year to his memory in 2019.5
This too is a weakness, because, once word gets out about Zelensky’s unsavoury ties - and it is getting out already - politicians will find themselves facing tough questions about why food is increasingly expensive, why pensioners are shivering because they cannot afford to heat their homes, why fuel prices are rising more and more - and why Nato is shipping billions in advanced weaponry to the neo-Nazis of the Azov battalion.
Liz Truss may have dreams of world domination dancing in her head, but that is where they are likely to stay. Nato is already stumbling before it reaches first base.
The full transcript is available at: www.gov.uk/government/speeches/foreign-secretarys-mansion-house-speech-at-the-lord-mayors-easter-banquet-the-return-of-geopolitics.↩︎
‘Rival nationalist bigotries’ Weekly Worker April 28: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1393/rival-nationalist-bigotries.↩︎