Their fantasy, our nightmare
Ukraine’s offensive is getting nowhere and when a compromise is eventually reached Zelensky will be in deep trouble, argues Daniel Lazare
Nato is on a collision course with reality - the rhetoric at last week’s summit meeting soared ever higher, even as the situation on the ground turned increasingly grim.
In Vilnius, the talk was about turning the Baltic into a Nato lake and extending the alliance’s reach all the way to the western Pacific. A Nato communiqué declared:
We are boosting our shared awareness, enhancing our resilience and preparedness, and protecting against the [People’s Republic of China’s] coercive tactics and efforts to divide the alliance. We will stand up for our shared values and the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.1
That is, 5,000 miles away. Closer at hand, the story was different, as the Ukraine’s much-ballyhooed summer offensive ground to a halt in the face of Russian drones, artillery and minefields - so densely sown that seemingly every square foot is alive with explosives. Reports from the front were bleak. Eric Schmidt, long-term head of Google and now chairman of a hi-tech Pentagon advisory board, said after a tour:
Since 2014, the Russian side has dug themselves in, in this horrific way. So if you were a Ukrainian soldier with your commander saying go across this five-kilometre disputed area, you’d have to get through the tanks, the mines, the machine guns, the drones ... it’s an insurmountable task.2
Indeed, drone footage released by the Russian defence ministry last month shows wounded Ukrainian soldiers lying in the middle of a minefield, their legs (what’s left of them) in tourniquets, as they await rescue. When a Bradley armoured vehicle finally arrives, a medic emerges and jumps onto a nearby patch of blackened earth that appears safe - only to trigger another explosion that blows off one of his legs and mangles the other.3
It is a nightmare that flies in the face of upbeat reports by lapdog journalists and government officials. Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg was typical: “The support that we are now providing together to Ukraine is now making a difference on the battlefield as we speak,” he said a couple of weeks into the campaign. “The offensive is launched, and Ukrainians are making progress, making advances.”4
Except that they are not, due to unsustainable levels of punishment and what The New York Times describes as “startling” losses of heavy equipment.5 “What we do know is, the more land Ukrainians are able to liberate, the stronger hand they will have at the negotiating table,” Stoltenberg added. If so, the outlook is discouraging, since the territory Ukraine has so far ‘liberated’ is nil.
So why the happy mood in Vilnius - the chest-thumping, the smiley group-photographs, the tough tone towards China? The answer is simple: rhetoric is outstripping reality. As Nato approaches its 75th anniversary, it is subsisting more and more on dreams of global domination, even as the real world goes to pot.
The New York Times marked the start of the summit by publishing an op-ed by a couple of New Left Review writers named Grey Anderson and Thomas Meany that presumably was meant to be ironic, but came across as starry-eyed and naive. Nato was never about military defence, at least not primarily, they wrote. Rather, its purpose has been to “bind western Europe to a far vaster project of a US-led world order, in which American protection served as a lever to obtain concessions on other issues, like trade and monetary policy”.
The article continued saying the quiet part out loud:
Nato acted as a ratings agency for the European Union in eastern Europe, declaring countries secure for development and investment. The organisation pushed would-be partners to adhere to a liberal, pro-market creed, according to which - as president Bill Clinton’s national security advisor put it - “the pursuit of democratic institutions, the expansion of free markets” and “the promotion of collective security” marched in lock step ... When European populations proved too stubborn, or undesirably swayed by socialist or nationalist sentiments, Atlantic integration proceeded all the same.6
Quite right. But what Anderson and Meany forgot to mention is that other things have proceeded as well, such as imperialist aggression - the war on Serbia, the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the misnamed war on terror, etc - plus refugees, financial crises and a misconceived war on drugs that is spreading havoc from US cities and French banlieues to vast swathes of Latin America, Africa and Asia. If such events do not flow directly from Nato, they are nevertheless in accord with the militarism it represents.
But the good times in Vilnius continued - especially once Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dropped his opposition to Sweden joining the alliance after nearly two centuries of neutrality. CNN praised Nato’s “reinvigorated sense of unity”, while the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal congratulated Biden “for helping to keep the alliance together”.
To be sure, Volodymyr Zelensky sounded a discordant note by complaining that Nato was not offering Ukraine a fast-track to membership. But the Americans smoothed his ruffled feathers by explaining that Nato could not possibly admit Ukraine right away, since the alliance’s famous article 5, which says that a blow to one is a blow to all, would put it on a path to war. Because that is unacceptable, the only solution is for Ukrainians to continue dying, while Nato supplies weapons that Russia continues to destroy.
As the summit was winding down, Biden told Zelensky:
I hope you all got a sense today ... how much support you have, It’s real. And I hope we finally have put to bed the notion about whether or not Ukraine is welcome in Nato. It’s going to happen. We’re moving - you’re all moving - in the right direction. I think it’s just a matter of getting by the next few months here.
To which Zelensky could only reply that the meeting was a “great success” and that he was grateful for whatever Nato aid he could get.7
Biden also went on about the “genuine courage” of ordinary Ukrainians: “When you see a 65-year-old woman on television after her apartment has been bombed out, picking up the pieces, going to help the next-door neighbour, I mean, it’s - it’s just astounding.” Left unmentioned, of course, was the US role in sparking such destruction by backing a neo-Nazi-led coup in Kiev in 2014 that rendered Russian intervention all but inevitable. In a move that drew remarkably little attention in the press, the Biden administration upped the ante in November 2021 by encouraging Ukraine to sign onto a reckless statement pledging to take back the Crimea.8
Take back a region that voted 97% in favour of unification with Russia in March 2014, following an 83% turnout? It was the equivalent of Russia and Syria pledging to take back the Golan Heights or Mexico pledging to take back Texas. Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’ that followed four months later may have been illegal, insupportable and all the rest. But unprovoked it was not, which is why the US bears responsibility for the horrors that have ensued.
Biden concluded the July 11-12 summit with an enthusiastic speech at Vilnius University filled with the usual clichés about “liberty and freedom”, but which was mainly notable for the equation it drew between America’s 45-year anti-Soviet crusade and its current struggle against Russia. Lithuanian independence in 1991 was “a resurrection that quickly became a revelation”. Today, he said, we have a nation which stands as “a stronghold of liberty and opportunity, a proud member of the European Union and of Nato”.
Left unmentioned as well was Lithuania’s first independence in June 1941, when, on the heels of Operation Barbarossa, it became a proud member of the Axis and celebrated by slaughtering thousands of Jews with such ferocity that even the Nazis were taken aback.
Biden went on:
When Putin, and his craven lust for land and power, unleashed his brutal war on Ukraine, he was betting Nato would break apart. He was betting Nato would break. He thought our unity would shatter at the first testing. He thought democratic leaders would be weak. But he thought wrong.
Perhaps - but the jury is still out. Given the dramatic gains throughout the EU by far-right nationalists who are cool to Ukraine (if not downright hostile), it is plain that patience is running out and that the appetite for a prolonged war of attrition is limited.
The political strains have already caused one country to crack, thanks to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny in Russia, and it may cause others to as well. Certainly, Zelensky is vulnerable. As the military analyst, Edward Luttwak, recently noted, he is a Jew who heads a country that originated in an anti-Semitic bloodbath led by a Cossack hetman named Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the mid-17th century. Khmelnytsky was followed by Symon Petliura, another national hero, who killed tens of thousands of Jews during the Russian Civil War. He was followed by a third hero, Stepan Bandera, who killed thousands more during World War II, along with as many as 60,000 Polish peasants during an ethnic-cleansing campaign that his pro-Nazi Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists launched in the west-Ukrainian province of Volhynia.
That amounts to a lot of bloodshed by nationalists whom the US now regards as champions of democracy. Instead of “opprobrium”, Luttwak notes, Khmelnytsky “has a city, a region, countless streets and Zelensky’s own Presidential Guard brigade named after him. Given the nationalists’ bigoted mistrust of the president, ... he cannot be seen to be a compromiser.”9
Yet a compromiser is what he will have to be, if he does not want to see his country destroyed. Given that the Irish Republican Army launched a civil war in 1922, when Dublin surrendered control of the Six Counties in what is now Northern Ireland, who is to say that the Azov battalion will not launch a civil war if Kyiv surrenders control of the pro-Russian provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk and the Crimea?
We have already had a taste of what might happen. In October 2019, Zelensky ran into a buzz saw of opposition when he unexpectedly descended on the front lines in Luhansk. His goal was to push for a mutual withdrawal that Ukraine had agreed to as part of the Normandy Format, but what he got instead was an argument from a local commander named Denys Yantar - a leader of a far-right Azov battalion spinoff known as the National Corps - who said he was opposed: “Listen, Denys, I’m the president of this country,” Zelensky erupted. “I’m 41 years old. I’m not a loser. I came to you and told you: remove the weapons. Don’t shift the conversation to some protests.”
After a video of the confrontation went viral, Andriy Biletsky, founder of the Azov battalion, threatened to flood the area with far-right militants: “There will be thousands there instead of several dozen.” Sofia Fedyna, a rightwing member of parliament, threatened violence. “Mr President thinks he is immortal,” she said, but he should be aware that “a grenade may explode there by chance”.10 Protestors in Kiev predicted “riots” if Zelensky made concessions, while a “moderate” politician named Svyatoslav Vakarachuk warned: “There are clear red lines that Ukrainian society, and especially the active part of Ukrainian society, is not willing to cross and not willing to let anybody cross, including the leaders of the country and the president.”
So Zelensky’s bluff was called. Hemmed in on all sides, he had no choice but to go along with it, when the US pushed for a more confrontational stance once Biden took office.
As a result, he is trapped - unable to make concessions due to rightwing pressure, but unable not to make concessions, now that the offensive is running aground. If he tries to stand firm, the result will be a deepening deadlock at the front, along with growing instability in Kiev.
This does not bode well for his survival or for that of Ukraine. As for Nato, it is riding high for the moment, but its bubble is about to burst.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovAHPqC4AjQ; see also: www.nytimes.com/2023/07/16/world/europe/ukraine-russia-land-mines.html.↩︎