The forgotten war
Ukraine demonstrates how the sun is beginning to set on the US empire, argues Daniel Lazare. And now there is Gaza and the danger of a general conflagration in the Middle East
Five months ago, the mood was ebullient in both Washington and Kiev. Ukraine was about to launch its long-awaited spring/summer offensive, and observers were confident that a breakthrough was imminent.
“I think that this counteroffensive is going to be very impressive,” retired US general David Petraeus said on June 3, while ex-general Ben Hodges commented on June 15: “I think the Ukrainians can and will win this fight,” A RAND Corporation expert named Dara Massicot observed a month later that, although
the Russian front lines are holding, despite the Kremlin’s dysfunctional decisions ... the cumulative pressure of bad choices is mounting. Russian front lines might crack in the way Hemingway once wrote about going bankrupt: “gradually, then suddenly”.
The Economist added in mid-August: “Ukraine’s counteroffensive is making progress, slowly; ten weeks in, the army is starting to figure out what works.”1
But all that changed, as summer gave way to fall. On September 28, The New York Times reported that despite the offensive, “The least territory [had] changed hands in August of any month so far.”2 The offensive, in other words, was adding to the deadlock. On October 30, Time magazine published a devastating portrait of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky as a leader trying desperately to drum up international support. “Exhaustion with the war rolls along like a wave,” it quoted him as saying. “You see it in the United States, in Europe. And we see that as soon as they start to get a little tired, it becomes like a show to them: ‘I can’t watch this rerun for the tenth time’.”3
A few days after that, Valery Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian army’s chief of staff, gave an interview in which he conceded: “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.” The reason was twofold. Ukraine had misjudged Russia’s determination to stay in the fight despite suffering what he said were 150,000 battlefield deaths. And, while the US and other Nato members had given Kiev enough arms to hold Russia off, he added, they have not given it enough to win. “They are not obliged to give us anything,” Zaluzhny observed gloomily, “and we are grateful for what we have got, but I am simply stating the facts.”4
The results are devastating for the Zelensky regime, which two days later complained that its top general was sowing “panic” among its main allies. The failure of the Ukrainian offensive is equally devastating for the Biden administration, which now has a second war on its hands - one winning it no friends on the international stage and leaving it facing a loss in public confidence at home that grows sharper by the week.
A poll issued on November 5 by The New York Times and Siena College in upstate New York brought particularly bad news. Donald Trump, it found, is leading by as many as 10 percentage points in five of the six key battleground states that could well decide the 2024 election (thanks to America’s antiquated electoral college). With Trump on his way to winning more than 300 electoral votes next November - well over the 270 needed to put him over the top - the survey found that Biden’s position was deteriorating across the board.
Over 70% of respondents described him as too old (with his 81st birthday less than two weeks away, Biden is looking increasingly uncertain and frail) and 62% say he lacks “mental sharpness”. Those concerned about the economy gave him failing grades by a ratio of two to one, while support among blacks and Hispanics is slipping as well.
Military concerns are clearly adding to the jitters. “I actually had high hopes for Biden,” a Georgia voter told the Times. “You can’t be worse than Trump. But then, as the years go by, things happen with inflation, the war going on in Ukraine, recently Israel, and I guess our borders are not secure at all” (illegal immigration is up about 13% over the last year5). Travis Waterman from Phoenix, Arizona said: “I don’t think he’s the right guy to go toe to toe with these other world leaders that don’t respect him or fear him.” Waterman voted for Biden in 2020, but now considers him too “weak” and says he prefers Trump.6
This is what happens when presidents suffer battlefield reversals: supporters peel off in search of someone better able to command. Biden already has one military disaster on his record - the Saigon-like rout in August 2021 that marked the end of 20 years of US intervention in Afghanistan (a war he had personally championed from the start). But he may well end up with another if the situation in eastern Ukraine goes further downhill.
As for Gaza, the military odds plainly favour Israel, with its seemingly endless supply of electronically-guided bunker-buster bombs, weighing up to 2,000 pounds each. But a Zionist victory at the cost of tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths will leave the United States more isolated than ever - and more politically impotent too.
How did the US paint itself into a corner? Biden deserves much of the blame, since, as head of the Senate foreign-relations committee and then as vice-president under Barack Obama, he helped create the policies that are now blowing up so spectacularly. But Ukraine in particular is a slow-motion train wreck that was in the works long before he stumbled on the scene.
Indeed, if you want to return to the roots, you will have to go back to at least the 1940s, when post-war reconstruction sent thousands of Russian workers streaming into the Donetsk coal basin in eastern Ukraine - followed by millions more in the 1950s and 60s, as industrial development accelerated. Nikita Khrushchev bumped up the Russian-speaking population even more by transferring the Crimean Peninsula from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction in 1954. But, with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the result was a newly-independent Ukraine that was more linguistically diverse than ever. In addition to Hungarian, Turkic and other linguistic minorities, the country was evenly split among those who spoke Ukrainian or Russian at home and those who said they spoke both.7 In 2008, 83% of those taking part in a Gallup poll said they preferred talking in Russian rather than in Ukrainian - another indication of linguistic preferences.8
Conceivably, a democratic, post-Soviet government anxious to keep the country together could have threaded the needle by guaranteeing equal language rights for all. Certainly, that would have been the socialist approach. But America, in case anyone needs reminding, is not socialist, but rather an imperialist power naturally drawn to the most extreme nationalist elements. Equal rights fell by the wayside as George W Bush threw his weight behind the government of Viktor Yushchenko - a politician from the country’s Ukrainian-speaking north who favoured membership of Nato and the European Union and whose “pro-western” policies were increasingly threatening to Russian speakers.
In 2008, Yushchenko celebrated when Nato announced that it was putting both Ukraine and its southern neighbour, Georgia, on a path to membership. In 2010, he dropped another bombshell by formally naming Stepan Bandera - a World War II Nazi collaborator and arch-enemy of all things Jewish, Polish and Russian - a national hero. Ukrainian speakers in the country’s nationalist west, which was part of Poland prior to 1939, were exultant, while Russophones in the south and east, which had remained loyal to the Soviets during the war, were appalled. Yushchenko’s successor, Viktor Yanukovych, annulled the decision, but the US-backed Euromaidan coup d’état sent Yanukovych packing in February 2014. As a result, dozens of statues and memorials in Bandera’s honour soon sprouted up across the country, along with others honouring close associates, such as Roman Shukhevych, Bandera’s military right-hand man.9
The fracturing of the Ukraine was on. Although the US blamed Russia for the rebellions in the east, the fact is that 2014 saw two parallel uprisings - one among Ukrainian nationalists in Lvov and Kiev and another among pro-Russians in Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa and the Crimea. It was the US-backed Euromaidan coup that tore Ukraine apart, not interference by Russia. When Vladimir Putin invaded in February 2022 in response to a Ukrainian war on the Donbas that had claimed more than 14,000 lives (most of them pro-Russian), Biden dredged up the usual evil-empire rhetoric:
Now, the entire world sees clearly what Putin and his Kremlin allies are really all about. This was never about a genuine security concern on their part. It was always about naked aggression, about Putin’s desire for empire, by any means necessary.10
How many times has the United States invaded its neighbours in response to self-perceived security threats? The list is seemingly endless in the western hemisphere alone: Nicaragua in 1912, Mexico in 1914‑16, Haiti in 1915-34, Guatemala in 1954, Cuba in 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1965, etc.
When Germany sent Mexico a half-baked offer of a secret military alliance in January 1917 to help it regain Texas, New Mexico and Arizona - an offer that no-one should have taken seriously for a millisecond - Woodrow Wilson seized on it as a pretext to declare war on Berlin. Yet, when Russia expressed alarm over America’s deepening military alliance with Ukraine, the US pronounced itself mystified. Why get upset over something as inconsequential as a Nato takeover next door?
It has thus taken decades for the outlines of a first-class military disaster to take shape, but now it is all coming into view. According to Time magazine, front-line commanders are refusing even presidential commands. When orders recently came through to retake the city of Horlivka, some 40 miles north of Donetsk, the response from front-line officers was: with what? “Where are the weapons?” asked one. “Where is the artillery? Where are the new recruits?” With the military reduced to conscripting out-of-shape 40-year-olds, a close Zelensky aide told Time that, even if the US and its allies come through with all the weapons they have promised, “we don’t have the men to use them”.
“He deludes himself,” another Zelensky aide said. “We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.”
America’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives is another roadblock. Republicans failed to include Ukrainian military aid in a spending resolution in early October and are so far giving no indication as to whether they will do so in a second spending bill slated to go into effect on November 17. Eight Republican members recently sent Biden a letter asking whether taking back the Crimea is “realistic” (it isn’t) or whether the war in Ukraine is undermining US ability to provide military assistance to Taiwan and Israel (it is).11 As I write, the administration has yet to respond.
With 41% of Americans saying that the US is spending too much in Ukraine (up from 29% in June)12, the walls are closing in, as public support for Ukrainian military aid begins to collapse.
The US is also paralysed with regard to Gaza, where Palestinian deaths now exceed 10,000, more than 4,000 of them children, and the West Bank, where far-right Jewish pogromists have killed more than 150 Palestinians since October 7 (Israel wants to purchase 24,000 US-made assault rifles, so the rampage can continue13). While no-one knows what lies at the end of the debacle, the long-term prognosis is not good. Domination of the Persian Gulf with its vast energy resources has been a top US priority since 1980. Yet control is all but certain to slip from America’s grasp, as revulsion over Israeli tactics grows and Russia, China and Iran assert their power.
Bottom line: the sun on the US empire is beginning to set.