The Only Argument Against Russian Escalation in Ukraine Is Humanitarian
In every other way a Muscovite expedition against Kiev makes sense and is overdue
In 1913 Russia owing to its high fertility rate was on a trajectory to by 2000 become a superpower composed of 350 million East Slavs.
Instead, after the 5 million lost in the Civil War and famine, the 12 million lost to Stalin’s famines and repression, and the 25 million lost in WW2 there are just 200 million East Slavs. — The tens of millions of deaths coming early in a high-fertility century prevented an even higher number of their descendants from being born.
Even these 200 million are disunited with the two largest East Slavic states locked in a rivalry, and the smaller one backed by foreigners in order to weaken the larger one.
In place of a 350 million East Slav superpower, there is a 140-million Russia, which is isolated on the European continent. It is without major European allies and facing the hostility of entire Europe united in an anti-Russian bloc. Moreover, this hostile Europe that wishes it ill is backed and led by hegemonic North America that hates it even more. The only other times Russia has been this isolated in Europe — without allies, but instead facing the whole continent against her — were 1812, 1853, and 1941. Moreover, this isolated 140-million Russia doesn’t even command hegemony over the East Slav world.
Putin correctly points out that the combined warmaking potential of NATO is incomparable to that of Russia. If Russia did not possess nuclear weapons it is entirely likely that the scenario of 1853 would have already been organized years ago (perhaps with Chechnya as the pretext).
Not only is Russia the underdog in the weaker position, but its position continues to deteriorate. NATO has annexed the ex-Soviet Baltic and Romania on the Black Sea. Ukraine’s NATO-ization and Banderaization continue. 40 million East Slavs whom a hundred years ago nobody considered any less Russian than the Russians themselves are not just not adding to Russian power, but are being used to subtract from it.
It doesn’t help that the high economic growth (but from a low base) of the early 2000s has dried up. Absent some radical and visionary transformation (but which in the Russian case usually result in something awful — see Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev, Yeltsin) there is little chance of ever catching up to the West economically. Perhaps in the military-technical sense Russia can nonetheless keep pace, but at what cost? Having to be eternally vigilant against entire Europe, entire North America, and 40 million of your own kin on top isn’t an enviable position. In fact, it is a position that guarantees permanent existential insecurity. Will at one point the Russians have to revert to the Spartan Soviet days where everything revolved around military needs just to be able to remain independent?
The inability to generate enviable growth also means that sadly soft power is lacking. Where in 2013 Russia could still compete for influence on somewhat equal terms, and where the option for Ukraine to trade with both the EU and Russia seemed possible, now over time Ukraine with an anti-Russian school curriculum seems guaranteed to drift farther and farther.
The situation is complicated by the fact that Ukraine and the US both are when it comes to power centers decentralized enough so as to be agreement incapable, but not democratic enough that the peace option could ever win. Moscow could talk with either an American/Ukrainian autocrat, or with their peoples, but not with the collective amorphous managerial blobs that currently run them. The managerial blob is set up in the way that there is cutthroat competition between its members and that the very top positions are in fact the most uncertain ones and the most vulnerable. How is it possible to get anything but narrow personal and institutional self-interest from a blob that is continuously in a war for positions with itself, with everyone on high alert for the tinniest temporary vulnerabilities of their competitors? No honesty, self-awareness, experimentation, courage, prudence, or honor can ever manifest from such a collective. Only the strict collective policing of the most hysterical and maximalist party line.
Putin spent 15 years trying to integrate with the West albeit on somewhat honorable terms. With the benefit of hindsight, all this resulted in was lost time. An alternate leader, someone like Lukashenko, someone who was reconciled to eventual “rogue state” status may have prepared for it from an earlier date, and may have been prepared to take grand decisive action earlier. Perhaps in such a case 2022 might not look quite so bleak for Moscow, with so few available options. Alas, it is what it is.
Even now not all is lost. The technological rise of China presents a great opportunity for Russia that the USSR did not have. It means that Russia can never be economically besieged in the way that Iraq and Iran were. The West can cut its entire trade and the Russians can still get all their machine tools, as well as some capital in China.
The other welcome development is that NATO has given Moscow a free hand in Ukraine. The Russian military buildup has made clear that Russia can do whatever it wants militarily in Ukraine and the West will not get involved in any way that could make a difference. The West has told Russia that if it can swallow Ukraine, it can have it.
Of course, the West believes that Russia can not swallow Ukraine, and hopes it will choke on it instead.
Nonetheless, it means that the only avenue that is left to Moscow to influence Ukraine, and to affect its unenviable strategic position — that avenue being military power — is in fact an option. Not a pretty option. But an option.
If Moscow is now serious about changing its circumstances it is an option it has to take. Because it doesn’t have anything else. Because standing still in fact means continued deterioration of its position.
Russia won’t get anything major from just the buildup from either the US or Ukraine. If the Russian military returns to its bases then in a few years’ time Russia will once again be amassing at the border and impotently demanding assurances yet again. We all know this.
Except by that time, Ukraine will have drifted yet more, and a military operation will be yet more complicated.
I’m not saying that Putin & co should escalate with a Moscow offensive against Kiev. Any offensive is going to kill innocents. Ordering any such enterprise means condemning your soul to hell. I’m not going to ask of Putin to condemn himself to hell for Russia’s strategic position. I’m also not an East Slav, and as such I’m not going to be advocating for, rooting for, or supporting a fratricidal war between East Slavs.
But I’m not going to do these things because I am an idealist. People who run governments usually aren’t. They usually describe themselves as realists and believe that actions of governments can not be judged by the same criteria as actions of individuals outside governments. As an anarchist, I happen to vehemently reject that, but this isn’t about what I think should or should not happen. This is an analysis of how people in the Russian government must think, based on their worldview, not my own.
I think a Moscow military offensive against Kiev is possible. Whether the Ukrainians or Americans provide a helpful pretext or not. I am sorry if this offends you and the image of Russia that you have. But Russia does not need to live up to the image of Russia that you have. No more than it needs to live up to my anarchist morality. Russia does not exist to conform to your view of a model great power. It exists to survive as best as its ‘realist’ leadership can steer it.
If someone says a Russian offensive is possible that doesn’t make them “pro-Empire” or whatever. What that means is understanding that Russia won’t necessarily keep limiting itself to picking from the playbook the West (or anarchists) would have for her.
If you figure that a Moscovite invasion against Kiev would be a jerk move, against international law, or “aggression” then that’s great, but it’s doubtful the leadership that sees its country as being in a lifeboat situation will prioritize not embarrassing its foreign online supporters over its survival.
And if I say that Vladimir Putin ordering a military escalation would be immoral then that is in the anarchist, small-people humanitarian, and Christian sense. It does not mean that it would be immoral in the sense that Washington and Kiev could condemn him for. They themselves have already done worse.
Does anybody doubt that if a similar situation existed in the British Isles or North America, with Ireland or Canada allying China that they wouldn’t be dealt with in a heartbeat? (In fact, isn’t regime change, whether by the Pentagon, the CIA, or a color revolution a national sport of the Americans?)
In a sense, a fratricidal war between East Slavs already exists. It is waged by Kiev which unseated a government that was legitimate in Donbass, then sent out tanks to make Donbass bow to a government that wasn’t legitimate there. Moscow can say it is moving in to for all times end Kiev’s (or is it really Lviv’s?) war on Donetsk. And furthermore to allow more East Slav cities to get from under Kievan (or Galician?) hegemony and get under Moscow’s hegemony instead if they so please. Is there any reason that the right to pick own allies that NATO can’t shut up about shouldn’t extend to Donetsk, Kharkov and Odessa?
Or Moscow can annex all of Kiev’s territory, then move the capital to Lviv, change the flag to yellow-blue, rename the country Ukraine, enshrine Ukrainian as the most honorable and exalted of all East Slav literary standards, and put Bandera on coinage for good measure, to give birth to an East Slavic superpower from Galicia to Vladivostok by the name of “Ukraine”. Ultimately that stuff doesn’t matter. What matters is that East Slavs have the best chance of attaining and retaining a measure of independence and free and independent development if they are united and not expending energies on internecine conflict.
Too often what follows after more and more secession isn’t more local rule but the de facto enslavement to an imperial capital that is even further away and even less responsive than the one you started out with.