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US, Russia and Ukraine – The death trap beyond the new Cold War and World War 3

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Dr Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations. He is the editor of BRICS and the New American Imperialism – Global Rivalry and Resistance (2020, Wits University Press). He is a co-founder and activist in the Climate Justice Charter Movement.

A global historical process has brought us to where we are, a political project to remake the world in the image of the US after the end of the Cold War. This project has failed after four decades and is driving all of us deeper into a death trap.

Vladimir Putin’s regime, unlike Franco, Mussolini or Hitler, has a formidable nuclear arsenal. In this context, the contemporary world stands on the brink, facing extinction either through nuclear holocaust emanating from battle fields in Ukraine or worsening the climate crisis, while in our everyday lives prices for food and fossil fuels are skyrocketing.

Precariousness, uncertainty and complex risk have become the lived reality of deep globalisation in which markets for finance, energy, food and production have been integrated.

The fragility of this global economy was exposed in the “great financial crisis” (circa 2007-2009) from which the world economy has not recovered, by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and now by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These realities cannot be understood through simple memes, propagandistic binaries or abstract security concepts.

The stakes are high

A global historical process has brought us to where we are, a political project to remake the world in the image of the US after the end of the Cold War. This project has failed after four decades and is driving all of us deeper into a death trap.

Yet the leadership of the US and its allies continue to repeat the same mistakes. If we do not grasp this premise as the basis to understand the world disorder, we are also not going to escape this madness. Moreover, we are not going to be able to think through – or find a way out of – this crisis and will remain hostage to a paradigm of war shared by the US, the EU, Russia and China.

Using a more nuanced and critical geostrategic reading of the US, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its wider implications will illustrate the point.

Many security strategists and media commentators, mainly in the West, characterise the invasion of Ukraine as the inauguration of “World War 3” or a “new Cold War”. This framing defines international politics by setting up two opposing sides with distinct ideological orientations: the liberal West versus the authoritarian Russian Federation and China.

This narrative has immense commonsense appeal but does not correspond to reality. US democracy sits on the same authoritarian spectrum as Russia and China. It is a failed market democracy, best designated as a plutocracy in which it has given overwhelming power to corporations over citizens.

The Republican Party is also the harbinger of a minority project based on supremacist white nationalism, including voter suppression laws in several states. US democracy looks more like a “racist banana republic” than a shining example of democratic rights and freedoms.

Moreover, the binary geopolitical frame is dangerous because it reinforces a paradigm of war which serves the interests of countries with big military-industrial-security complexes, and as a result believes war is necessary to order international relations.

Philosophically, this rests on simplistic and static conceptions of human nature as inherently about violence. Both world wars in the 20th century led to immense loss of life, about 80 million people, and scorched ecosystems.

While the US likes to believe it won the Cold War through outspending the former USSR in an arms race, the fact of the matter is that Mikhail Gorbachev and his party realised – after decades of building nuclear arsenals, chemical and biological weapons – that the geopolitics of the Cold War was a dead end for humanity. 

Nobody wins if we all self-exterminate

By the 1960s, both sides had nuclear weapons that could vapourise cities the size of Cape Town and Johannesburg. No matter what military doctrine and narrative was used to justify nuclear weapons, these technologies of mass annihilation were never about deterrence, but essentially about first strike extermination of millions of human beings.

About 40 recorded nuclear incidents occurred during the 45-year Cold War, including planes and submarines armed with nuclear warheads ending up in accidents. Our world could have ended during the Cold War because none of the safeguards really worked. A whole generation alive on our planet today does not understand this threat.

Most people also do not appreciate that nuclear war fighting has become ingrained in how the US understands its superiority in the world. After the Cold War, instead of embracing Gorbachev’s invitation to secure a nuclear weapons-free world, the US leadership did the opposite. It failed to sign on to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and take seriously nuclear arms reduction and reductions in strategic ballistic missiles.

Instead, it steamed ahead with the wrongheaded assumption that nuclear capability, both strategic and tactical, was necessary to complement conventional military capabilities.

In the 1990s, Russia’s military budget collapsed and its nuclear arsenal was put into storage. However, other nuclear powers such as Britain, France and China followed the US lead. Putin jumped on this bandwagon once ensconced in the Kremlin, propped up by criminalised petro-capitalism (aided by US corporations), as Nato expanded east and his revanchist ultranationalist dreams of territorial empire took shape.

The world has to ask: Why has the US not thrown up a Gorbachev? Why is the US, which has had the power to lead by example, not actively worked to prevent nuclear proliferation after the end of the Cold War? Where is the American leader who can ensure Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and all other nuclear powers terminate their nuclear arsenals and ambitions by showing the US will do the same for world peace?

Militarist expansionism has its roots deep in US history going back to early frontier expansion and genocidal violence against Native Americans. In the 19th century, this was married to the notion of “manifest destiny” which is about a divine right to expand the territorial boundaries of the country.

Hence, throughout its modern history, the US has had a selective respect for international law, including the UN Charter. This was demonstrated starkly during the Cold War, when US-trained militaries in the infamous School of the America’s overthrew democratically elected governments in Latin America. In the so-called US backyard and beyond, about 10 million people were killed during “hot wars” in the Global South.

For Noam Chomsky, such forms of US interventionism were tantamount to fascism and up till now there has been no reckoning. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the US continues to furnish this example of hypocrisy to the world through violations of human rights, illegal invasions and extrajudicial killings during its “war on terror”. 

Putin is a good student of US hypocrisy and is putting it to the test in his own maniacal way. Some misread Putin and his denazification rhetoric as a progressive anti-imperialism.

In the post-Cold War world, based on a complex weave of fragile economic integration, the US also trailblazed with a new form of global warfare, adding to its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capability. This is made up of three elements: 1) Full-spectrum dominance (including air, land, sea, space and the cybersphere); 2) Hybridising full-spectrum warfare in combination with economic, extrajudicial actions, embedded journalism and even multilateral relations; and 3) Projecting global reach.

Producing copycats like the Putin regime

This war machine and national security orientation nonetheless has a contradictory relationship with its ambitions for global economic integration. 

Global war constantly disrupts economic circuits and introduces instability into the global economy. The first Gulf War had implications for oil supplies; the failed “war on terror” created risk all over the world; and US involvement in Syria added to the tragic refugee crisis (which did not receive the same commitment to humanitarian aid as Ukraine but instead exclusionary border regimes were utilised by European countries).

Current sanctions against Russia, including oil and gas bans by the US and UK, led to a spike in global oil and gas prices and it triggered a food and fertiliser export ban from Putin causing a price spike and global food shock.

The logic of global war within US national security thinking has explicitly been about a collision with declared “rivals” such as Russia and China, ensnaring them in a spiral of escalation including defensive and dangerous pre-emptive moves. Both Trump and Biden’s national security thinking fit this template.

Even if Putin withdraws from Ukraine, the US is certainly on a warpath with China. Does the American public want this? Will the US plutocratic rulers democratise US foreign policy, including having a national referendum on such an issue? Does the world want this kind of explicit warmongering which threatens everything?

The decline of the US and its inability to think beyond the global war paradigm was also on full display before and after Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine. 

The faltering Minsk agreements, after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, and the amassing of a sizeable number of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border over the past few months should have given the US and its EU ally pause to secure a lasting peace. Instead, aid packages have kicked into gear mainly to militarise the conflict. Both the US and EU have escalated the conflict with increasing military resourcing and thus have reduced Ukraine to a military proxy of the US-EU-Nato alliance.

Failure by the EU

The EU in particular has failed spectacularly to incorporate Russia into a pan-European project and break out of the shadows of US power. 

After the Cold War, a London-Paris-Berlin-Moscow project was a distinct possibility. Again, embracing the peace opening inaugurated by Gorbachev was dismissed. Instead, selective geostrategic relations were maintained with Russia for commodities and for laundering dirty oligarchic finance, mainly through London.

Germany and the EU are now remilitarising and embracing the US global war paradigm. Together with Brexit, rising ultranationalism, deepening economic crisis and worsening climate shocks, the EU project faces serious challenges.

With growing signs of shifting towards robotised warfare (including drones, roboticised guard dogs on the US border and the robot soldier) the US is laying the basis to take the world into endless global warfare.

The US military has one of the largest carbon footprints in the world; some studies show it has a carbon footprint larger than Portugal or Denmark. Biden’s administration has just secured a bipartisan military budget worth close to $800-billion while at the same time only allocating $100-billion to assist poor countries with the climate crisis – a problem it has played a major part in creating.

At the same time, in the midst of the conflict with Russia it has called on US shale oil and gas producers to increase supply, as well as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to also meet global supply needs. The EU is also faltering in terms of using this moment to break its dependence on fossil fuels. 

Recent studies show the world will only cut emissions by 9%  rather than half by the end of the decade, which means the world risks overshooting the 1.5°C target, while the UN IPCC in its recent report on Climate Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability says over three billion people are now vulnerable to current levels of planetary heating.

An American failure

The Cold War wasted the talents and skills of two generations. The world cannot afford to repeat this mistake. 

All scholarly security thinking today highlights the climate crisis as the primary complex threat facing the world; the entire world needs to be seized with this challenge. The US is brazenly failing to take responsibility for its contribution to the worsening climate crisis and rather has become a threat multiplier in both military and climate terms to the world.

Is it time for climate justice sanctions against the US and those like it? Russia, China and the EU are no different if they remain within the US death trap. All these geopolitical competitors certainly do not represent the interests of the greatest superpower on planet Earth: the human species.

Even with a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine based on commitments not to join Nato and security guarantees, the situation in eastern Europe is going to be tenuous; there will be no lasting peace.

Hence, at minimum, anti-war politics today has to stand for a nuclear-free Europe and world (already billions of people in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia are in nuclear-free zones); a renewed social rather than a market-centred pan-European project embracing both Ukraine and Russia; an end to Nato; the termination of war machines driving endless global war in Ukraine, Palestine, Yemen and elsewhere; extending support to all refugees on the planet, including enhancing humanitarian aid to Ukraine through cancelling all foreign debts; and an end to the war with nature, particularly the climate crisis, by immediately phasing out fossil fuels and going beyond a politics of nationalism to embrace a politics of human and non-human solidarity.

It’s time for collective human power to prevail over those who threaten all of us before it is too late. 

The South African government, in its “neutrality” stance, is far from these concerns and is stuck in outdated geostrategic and security thinking. It needs to use the termination of the apartheid nuclear arsenal and chemical and biological warfare programme to echo the imperatives of contemporary anti-war politics on the global stage: in the AU, the UN, BRICS and in engagements with the US, EU and Ukraine. DM

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All Comments 7

  • Wow, its all the US fault. The bodies of women and children build up. Hospitals bombed. A country invaded and flattened. Dont worry Putin – there’s always someone in South Africa to shift the blame.

  • Thanks, Vish. This is a very important contribution to the discussions. Breaking from binary thinking and re-centering the most fundamental issue of our time, the climate catastrophe.

  • An extraordinary and balanced article well worth reading and assimilating. Unfortunately some people will only read it as an attack on the US.

  • “and the amassing of a sizeable number of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border over the past few months should have given the US and its EU ally pause to secure a lasting peace” – please explain what should have been done. Are you saying that “The West” could have avoided the “special military operation”?

  • The world is not a nice place and focusing on the climate is great. The USA is also not the shining example we would hope for!
    However, the case made against the Western nations including the USA and EU could be achieved by other means than looking at the Ukraine War/Special Operations conflict. This is Putin’s making and we cannot even be sure how widespread support is for his agenda in Russia with the elimination of any sort of free press.
    There is no doubt that any nuclear conflict would be devastating for both the combatants and the rest of the world. The article misses the efforts of the world in trying to deny these weapons to North Korea and Iran(?)
    This article is really a whole bunch of concepts bolted together that would be clearer as separate topics.

  • In the comments appended, I notice that there is criticism of the article as being a ‘whole bunch of concepts bolted together? Surely I f we don’t view the problem holistically, this is one of the major contributors to the misunderstanding and bias?

  • I enjoyed the balanced argument about the warmongers versus the climate demands which we as a species face. You are obviously correct that the warmongers see human nature as merely as inherently violent. It is not, but a lot of Western theology backed by political economists have helped to create that idea. The blame for the actual attack on the Ukraine falls squarely on the shoulders of Putin and his cronies, but it would be short-sighted to ignore the context wherein the world operates internationally. The context is spelled out by you very succinctly and correctly. The US, being the political, economic, and military hegemon for the past 30 years, must take responsibility, together with their allies for the militarized, antagonistic international order. They had the opportunity to foster peace. They dismissed it.

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