Problem-Posing War and Death in Ukraine

There are many conflicts over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And these need to be debated and debated again. Debates in the spirit of dialogue work best. Dialogues that initially serve to pose questions are important. Which doesn’t mean solutions are unimportant. They are crucial but best served when the right questions are asked. In my writings on Ukraine, I have tried to show how nationalist conservatives have engaged in an insidious lexical opportunism in order to adjust their allegiance from Putin to Ukraine so as to advance their version of authoritarian populism and make it seem compatible with the interests of the Ukrainian government. They might have a point if they believe that Zelenskyy is a puppet of the oligarchs and supports an ‘exclusivist nationalism’ that is anti-Western, anti-democracy and would be completely inhospitable to Russian speakers in Ukraine. I don’t believe this to be the case. At the same time, the left is having its own disagreements, often freighted with acrimony and populated by vile accusations hurled about like daggers in a travelling circus act.

The question of how to frame the war in Ukraine and what to do about it is clearly urgent. While Paulo Freire would try to approach this as a problem-posing challenge, others whose tongue-wagging partakes of a neo-campist militancy already seem to have clear answers before listening to the questions often raised by earnest and sincere interlocutors. What are some of the issues that are preventing the left from achieving a united front on the war in Ukraine? Should we even consider a united front as politically viable? Should ‘realpolitik’ guide our perceptions and decisions around the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Is Ukraine fighting a just war against a foreign occupier engaged in a full-scale invasion? Should other countries arm Ukraine’s popular resistance? Will resistance by Ukraine’s military forces impose sufficient cost on Russian aggression to make it unlikely that Russia will resort to such measures against other ex-Soviet bloc countries in the future?

Should we support Russian soldiers who refuse to participate in an unjust war? What is the role of ‘pseudo-leftism’ in this war, an approach that utilizes ‘democratic and populist phraseology to advance the interests of privileged sections of the upper-middle class and defend capitalism against socialist revolution’? Should we respect Putin’s ‘red lines’ and what he claims is Russia’s rightful sphere of influence’ (given Putin’s vast nuclear arsenal and his threats to use them), or do we support Ukraine’s efforts at constructing ‘democracy, equality, class and national self-determination’? Do we relegate Ukraine to the status of a buffer state for the sake of geopolitical security, or do we act as ‘real leftists’ and remind Russia that they have abrogated the agreement to respect Ukraine’s borders in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed in writing that Russia and the US and Britain would respect Ukraine’s then-existing 40-year-old borders? Should we encourage Ukraine to cede Crimea and the Donbas to Russia? Or should that remain open to negotiation? In my early writings on Ukraine, I tended to be more in the realpolitik camp, fearing Russia would send in the tactical nukes for use in the invasion and swiftly take over Kyiv. That said, I don’t profess to be able to offer unequivocal guidance on these questions, but by raising them, I hope to deepen some of the debates, if only in the local coffee shops between college freshmen and the MAGA locals.

I still am for a negotiated settlement but am not convinced that Crimea and Donbas should be taken off the table. As for Azov, here is a comment by Paul Mason, whom the cranky World Socialist Website describes as ‘[t]he pseudo-left’s chief pro-NATO, pro-war ideologue’ (the same website that dismissed supporters of Paulo Freire, including Chomsky and myself, as ‘pseudo-left’; the author, Patrick O’Connor, revealed an astounding lack of comprehension regarding Freire’s work, almost as if he had never read it. Mason writes:

Into the space that winning would create, it is time for politics to intervene, including left-wing politics. There’s been a lot of criticism – justifiably – of the Ukrainian elite’s softness for the country’s Bandera tradition of far-right nationalism; and for its tolerance of the far-right Azov movement and the Pravi Sector, both of whom maintain politicized military units. But during the war, the left-oriented Ukrainian trade unions, human rights groups, independent media and internationalist left parties have also thrown themselves into the defence of the country.

Here is how left commentator Paul Street pitches his position, which is very different in content and emphasis from Mason:

Actual Left anti-imperialist radicals cursed with social media accounts have been watching Ukraine further break the brains of much of what’s left of the online US’ left.’ On one hand, one’s more Democratic Party-affiliated ‘friends,’ ‘followers,’ and commentators have gone wobbly for the corrupt bourgeois oligarchic nationalism of the multimillionaire Zelensky. They place Ukraine flags on their online accounts (and front lawns and windows) with zero concern for how the wannabe Churchill has essentially called for World War III, opposed territorial concessions required for peace, crushed internal opposition, and tolerated open Nazis in his government and armed forces. They wrongly charge ‘what about-ism’ and Putin’s allegiance against anti-war internationalists for pointing out basic historical facts on Washington’s central role in creating and sustaining the Ukraine Crisis (this accusation comes no matter how often and loudly an actual Left anti-imperialist says that Putin is a fascist and that his invasion is criminal). They end up as useful idiots for US imperialism, consistent with their captivity to the imperialist Democratic Party, as with this preposterous comment from a prolific Facebook commenter named Michael Dawson: ‘The US and NATO deserve none of the blame! The political left is siding with Russia.’

Of course, the US deserves blame; it is an imperialist power. And so is the EU, for that matter. On that issue, we cannot flinch. Alex Callinicos’ description of the relationship between the US, the EU and NATO found in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s famous book, The Grand Chessboard, pretty much holds today:

In The Grand Chessboard (Basic Books, 1997), [Brzezinski] frankly describes the US as an imperial power and its allies as ‘vassals, tributaries, protectorates and colonies,’ and sees the EU as ‘the Eurasian bridgehead for American power and the potential springboard for the democratic global system’s expansion into Eurasia’ (p. 74). And the strategy worked. The expanded NATO takes its marching orders from Washington – bombing Libya, occupying Afghanistan, and helping to encircle China – and helps to legitimize the Pentagon maintaining a huge network of military bases in Europe. The EU is important also as a US partner in enforcing market discipline on the world.

So are we fooling ourselves if we think that there is an ‘emergent Western-orientated democratic culture in Eastern Europe’ that we should support by pledging our allegiance to Ukraine? And should we abandon our leftist comrades being blown to pieces by Russian artillery? Are we saying that Ukraine has an ‘exclusivist nationalism’ powered by the oligarchy that mirrors that of the national conservatives (NatCons) in the US and the EU? Is this war fated to end in ethnic cleansing by both sides as a result of supporting the ‘liberal imperialism’ of the US, as suggested by Callinicos?

This war is an inter-imperialist conflict, I agree, but what is the line that we cross that makes us complicitous with Western imperialism? Gilbert Achcar concedes that the war is inter-imperialist as well, but also characterizes it as ‘a war of aggression by Russian imperialism against Ukraine and therefore 1) a war of rapine waged in the name of Great Russian Chauvinism on the side of Russian imperialism and 2) a just war on the side of the Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion of their country.’

Callinicos asserts what he believes to be ‘the properly Marxist approach,’ which is ‘to recognize that the present situation involves both an inter-imperialist war by proxy and a war of national defence on Ukraine’s part. This is complicated, as it requires us to support the Ukrainians’ national rights while opposing all measures – including sanctions and NATO arms shipments – that feed the ‘fatal spiral’ of inter-imperialist escalation.’ Well said, Alex, but without weapon shipments, where would this lead, in terms of Ukrainian deaths proportionate to Russian deaths? And how would this affect Ukrainian resistance to an invading and occupying (and imperialist) army seemingly unperturbed about killing women, children and old men? One can only imagine. And wait! Did I just hear the word ‘proportionate’? We need to be careful about using that term. Helen Frowe writes:

According to what we might call the traditional view of the ethics of war, the fact that a war is unjustified has nothing to do with whether it is being justly fought. This position is famously defended by Michael Walzer in his seminal 1977 book Just and Unjust Wars. It continues to dominate public and political discourse about war, not to mention international law. On this view, the fact that Putin’s war is unjustified is no bar to its being justly fought. This is why, faced with an unjustified war, commentators routinely debate whether its particular offensives are proportionate, or suitably discriminate, or satisfy the criterion of necessity. But such wars make a nonsense of these criteria. There is no number of casualties that is proportionate to achieving the occupation of Ukraine. Proportionality requires that the morally good end that one (reasonably hopes to) achieve outweighs the morally significant harms one expects to cause. The fact that an offensive will promote the wrongful ends of occupying Ukraine and toppling its democratic government is just a further moral evil, incapable of justifying any harms caused by Russian troops.

The same goes for necessity. The fact that a harm is unavoidable if one is to achieve some morally good end can help to justify causing that harm. But the fact that a harm is unavoidable if one is to achieve an impermissible end has no justificatory power whatsoever. Adding the prefix ‘military’ – implying some special category of military necessity – doesn’t somehow enable us to ask sensible moral questions about whether, for example, besieging Kyiv is really justified as a matter of necessity. Such questions might make sense in discussions about strategy or expedience – what is the best way to grind a people into submission? – but treating them as plausible parts of discussions about the ethics of war is fundamentally misguided. It lends credence to the idea that some Russian offensives – the necessary parts of the aggression – might be morally permissible and, if so, then the combatants who carry out these offensives do nothing wrong. This kind of vertigo-inducing moral reasoning is clearly mistaken.

There are no permissible ways of pursuing this aggression. Did you hear that Mr Putin and Patriarch Krill? Or should we have a debate about it over a bowl of borsch?

A main concern of mine, and many others, has been Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal, the largest and apparently most sophisticated in the world, estimated at 5,977 nuclear warheads as of 2022. Even Marjorie Taylor Greene’s ‘Jewish Space Lasers’ would have a difficult time dismantling this mighty arsenal. Paul Street has commented that

the US warns about Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling as the Pentagon dangerously modernizes its Strangelovian nuclear arsenal and menaces the world with enough nuclear missiles and bombs to turn the world into a radioactive ash-heap in a matter of minutes.

The US inveighs against Russian militarism even as its giant, historically unmatched military empire accounts for more than a third of global military spending and maintains more than 800 military installations across more than 100 countries.

The US finds it imperialist and authoritarian that the Kremlin doesn’t want a large NATO-aligned nation on its long Southwestern border. But anyone with five working grey cells should know that Washington would never tolerate Mexico planning to join a Chinese-run military alliance, install Chinese missiles aimed at the US, and conduct military exercises with the People’s Liberation Army.

The US political and media class insists that Putin is hellbent on war even as Biden and Washington have shown little interest in pursuing and promoting peace negotiations around terms that would let Putin stand down from further carnage in the wake of the difficulties his invasion has faced. There’s nothing mysterious about the off-ramps Putin needs for some kind of ‘mission accomplished’ moment to save Ukrainian and Russian lives: official neutrality for Ukraine, recognition of the fait accompli of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, and readjusted sovereignty status for the two long-contested Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine provinces. Washington shows no inclination to help him stand down….

The US does seem to want this war to continue unabated. What should appear to all to be at the very least troublesome is that the US is supporting democracy for Ukraine while at the same time enabling democracy to disintegrate and fascism to take a burrowing hold in its own country. Trump’s pink puffy hands have barely been slapped for the coup he incited on January 6, and half the country doesn’t seem to think January 6 was all that significant. The political party likely to assume full power in 2024 consists of a cabal of raving lunatics, Christo-fascists and hot-headed, Bible-thumping sociopaths, who deliriously alert the public about the danger of Jewish space lasers, ‘Gazpacho’ police and paedophile reptilian Satanists disguised as human politicians working in Congress against Trump, a heroic president who has been chosen by Jesus to put America back on the straight and narrow by re-legislating it a Christian theocratic state where we all can legally pack guns without permits, force women to travel to other countries to have abortions, deny civil rights to the LGBTQ community, crush what remains of trade unions, , permit White men to “stand their ground” and shoot Black men if they feel threatened (which forces us to consider the extent to which it matters if the victim of the reactively introduced and legislatively instituted mechanisms of the imperial justice system is innocent or guilty – the point is to create a sacrificial victim – most often a Black man – onto which the largely White community projects its fear and dissention, fine or fire teachers who discuss racism and slavery with their students, accept that structural racism does not exist in the United States, agree with the ethnonationalists that the ‘Great Replacement’ is underway and thus immigrants and migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America must be held in captivity at the border and not allowed to become US citizens, and make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote – if it sounds a lot like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale you would be right. It appears that this is what the Republicans are calling forth in their America First Utopia. And, by gum, it’s truly frightening!

‘Praise be!

‘Blessed be the fruit.’

‘May the Lord open.’

‘Under His Eye.’

A bit of an aside here. In 1980, when I appeared on Margaret Trudeau’s (yes, Justin’s mother) television show in Ottawa, it was five years before The Handmaid’s Tale was released, and I never thought I would ever be living in the United States under the fascist rule of the Republican Party led by Trump forty-two years later. Ms Atwood and I attended Victoria College (she was a decade ahead of me), University of Toronto, and I was too preoccupied with imitating the beat poets to appreciate the genius of her book of poems, Double Persephone. The Handmaid’s Tale was the inspiration for my book He Walks Among Us, which is about the evangelical Christian circle that surrounded Trump and still hails him as their Prince of Profits. It is chilling to watch the televised version of The Handmaid’s Tale and to compare it to what is going on in the US today, with a majority draft circulating inside the Supreme Court signalling that those feral-headed banshees in black robes are about to overturn Roe vs. Wade  despite the fact that 72 percent of US citizens continue to support the Roe v. Wade decision.

I picked up politics while stumbling through the psychedelic hippie vistas of the US counterculture at the age of 19, mostly from reading works of the Black Panthers and literature produced by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World or the Wobblies), where I was a member much later on for a brief period of time. Work I did in America Latina and the creation of Instituto McLaren (supported by the Partido de los Comunistas Mexicanos) gave me a better grasp of the structured assaults carried out in the so-called Third World by the world’s most deadly imperialist hegemon, the United States. And I’ve learned much from comrades who belong to the International Marxist Humanist Organization. But none of this prepared me for the world of 2022.

The United States is clearly as dangerous as it ever has been. Paul Street seems to agree with such a depiction when he writes that the

Amerikaner Fatherland Party (AFP) of Trump, DeSantis, Hawley, Cruz, Gosar, and Carlson accused Biden’s Supreme Court appointee of being part of the globalist paedophilia conspiracy. Conventional wisdom in the reigning US media-politics culture reasonably holds that this party will follow the usual historical pattern and take back Congress in the upcoming off-year mid-term elections. What the talking heads and pundits can’t say is that, along the historical way, the Republicans have become a fascist mob outfit ready, willing, and able to shred previously normative bourgeois electoral & rule of law democracy.

Are either the Democrats (with a few exceptions) or Republicans the kind of politicians we want to listen to – or that we can afford to listen to – when it comes to strategic foreign policy? Or do we believe that we will be saved by more ‘rational’ thinkers in the Pentagon who will ultimately save us from World War III in spite of the decisions made by the politicians in Congress who learned their trade from working the sideshows at the Ringling Brothers Circus, those who are constantly undermining some good projects proposed by Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and ‘The Squad’? Politicians in Washington, by and large, may be a bit more cautious when it comes to nuclear war strategy, but they are in bed with the arms manufacturers most of the way, since they depend on funding from lobbyists. Of course, at the same time, as leftists, we want to continue the struggle for civil and economic rights, and to fight for the ideals that guided Martin Luther King, W.E.B. Du Bois, bell hooks, Raya Dunayevskaya, Frantz Fanon, Grace Lee Boggs, Malcolm X, Eugene Debs, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Thomas Merton and continue to guide Dolores Huerta, Cornel West, Angela Davis and our socialist, anarchist and Marxist brothers and sisters around the world. So is supporting Ukraine tantamount to giving Putin no alternatives except nuclear war or a seat in the dock of The International Criminal Court in The Hague to be prosecuted for the international crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression?

How far should we go in supporting our beleaguered left-wingers under attack for pledging their allegiance to Ukraine? Will Germany and France veto the applications that Finland and Sweden are expected to submit to be part of NATO and change what could be a crucial political equation? If we condemn the US for compelling Cubans to endure the sickening horror of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (with its infamous torture prison for our designated enemies and well-stocked McDonalds burgers and Starbucks mocha lattes for the torturers), shouldn’t we object in kind to Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula? Isn’t America’s supposed commitment to democracy and human rights in Ukraine overwhelmingly overshadowed by the military-industrial complex and the profits to be made by the arms manufacturers? Isn’t this so whether the Republicans or Democrats are in power? Will sanctions ever be lifted on Venezuela and Cuba unless they shift to representative democracies with political parties controlled by the United States?

Paul Street claims that the United States has no interest in a new ‘century of peace.’ He writes that the Biden administration

hopes to tighten the screws on Putin no matter the cost for Ukrainians and Russians. Post-Cold War US policy towards Russia continues to emulate Allied policy towards Germany after WWI – a lovely historical role model. It’s the Hague for Putin or proceed to murder Ukraine, nothing in-between to save untold thousands if not millions of lives – this with the understanding that Washington’s war criminals must never face international prosecution and incarceration. It’s the Hague for the invasion of Ukraine and the crimes of Bucha and Mariupol but not for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the crimes of Fallujah, Nisour Square, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bola Boluk, and Fallujah.

Stanley Heller is in on the political frummel and wants us to consider what moral principles we are giving up in order to cede our position on Ukraine to the realists: ‘Realists want nations to respect great powers’ ‘spheres of influence,’ ‘national interests,’ the balance of power, etc. and rail against human rights, democracy, equality or other moral considerations as a major concern for foreign policy.’ Well, Stanley, how about respecting great powers when they have the strongest nuclear arsenal in the world’? That is certainly worth considering. Unless we have a death wish. Which some anti-realists clearly do.

These are questions that are percolating through the echo chambers of the left mediasphere and presently being debated among the left, tantalizing and enraging journalists and commentators who are as likely to throw a turtle punch as offer a handshake. Paul Mason believes Ukraine could win this war and avoid being turned into a Russian puppet regime stacked with compliant Ukrainian politicians in oversized grey suits, and fervently asks: ‘And what do we need to do to bring stability, rather than chaos, to a post-ceasefire Black Sea region?’ He raises a key issue related to the crisis when he maintains that

If winning now means a sovereign, democratic Ukraine, then progressives – ranging from Greens and liberals to social democrats, the trade unions and the radical left – have to start building the capacity of our counterparts in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus to make their own mark on the peace. At home, we need to find politicians who can do strategy – where strategy means not how to privatize Channel 4, or sink the Northern Ireland protocol, but the creation and maintenance of alliances and security agreements that can restabilize eastern Europe. Above all, we need politicians who believe in social progress. The 1941 Atlantic Charter, even in its archaic language, contains a vision still worth striving for: ‘The fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labour standards, economic advancement, and social security.’ Yet, construed in this way, the belief in strategies for social progress is something that has been missing in politics – certainly in US politics – except for those we would now dismiss as hopeless idealists.

How can we help Ukraine in its struggle for democracy when we are losing ours? When what we are professing violates our own political milieu and appears inimical to the direction our country is moving? What if Ukraine wins but ends up like Hungary, and Zelenskyy starts appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show? Have we become this cynical? Or again, does it all come down to a question of realpolitik? From saving the world from nuclear annihilation? Does realpolitik mandate a crippling cynicism? If so, how much? Cynicism began as a school of thought in ancient Greece, and its practitioners believed in a virtuous life that included rejecting personal possessions, power, and personal glory. It later assumed a negative connotation to mean an attitude of disbelief in human sincerity and decency. I do not believe realists are being forlorn or woeful when they warn us about what they perceive are the likely consequences of certain actions – based on patterns they have discerned in studying the outcomes of various political alignments and conflictual events. Do we allow the growth of ethnonationalism and white supremacy in the US to tamp down our revolutionary ideals and principles such that we choose not to apply them in assisting Ukraine? Do we then succumb to most of Putin’s demands – letting him keep Crimea and Donbas and relegating Ukraine to a buffer state between Russia and the West – for risk of nuclear war?

We have every reason to be suspicious of US imperial policy in Ukraine, which makes us listen very carefully to the cautious advice of Noam Chomsky, John Mearsheimer and others like George Kennan, Jack Matlock and Chas Freeman. But if we bring a long list of US war crimes to the table, we are accused of ‘whataboutism’ by the liberal-left. As Paul Street puts it,

Bring up these hypocrisies (as any morally and empirically consistent observer should) to your standard imperial Clinton-Obama-Albright Democratic Party liberal of the sort who now posts the Ukrainian flag on their social media accounts (and even perhaps one on their front porch or in their condo window), and you can expect to be accused of ‘leftist what-about-ism’ – of providing cover for Putin’s crimes by bringing up US and Western crimes.’

[…] At the same time, ‘what about-ism’ doesn’t do justice to the monumental scale of US/Western/NATO crimes. Putin’s conduct is horrific, helping (along with his earlier butcheries in Chechnya, Syria, and elsewhere), but his body count ranks nowhere near that of Uncle Sam’s war masters in the last and present century. He’s a minor league killer compared to monstrous agents of global death and destruction who have ruled the world from Washington since 1945. […] How can a US-American expect to be taken seriously opposing Russia’s misdeeds when he or she fails to confront and fight against their own country’s past, ongoing, and frankly much larger imperial misconduct?

Paul Mason seems to think that the West has been dragged unprepared into this conflict, whereas some leftists believe it was stage-managed by the US during the Donbas conflict in 2014.

These debates rage across the public sphere, and so they should. If we are to build a robust counterpublic sphere – one that embraces a critical, dialectical and historical materialist understanding of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tries to comprehend what would be the most appropriate response, we can afford to be angry, but we can’t resort to name-calling and make politically elitist assumptions that we have nothing to learn from different factions of the left. It should be luminously evident by now that partisan politics on the left can be as numbingly confounding – possibly even more so – as politics on the right.

However, performing our political positions in journals and magazines can become a neo-campist exercise, the effects of which can etherize us to the horrors of war, to what we can actually see – Ukrainian men, women and children being blown to smithereens, and Russian soldiers, acting as invaders, gunned down mercilessly. This needs to be solved by diplomatic dialogue – and urgently, out of range of the ‘invective and calumny’ of neo-campism – beyond what Achcar calls ‘the anti-imperialism of fools.’ Gilbert Achcar has some prudent advice in sorting through all the nuances of imperialism and sub-imperialism and lines of march circulating through the radical literature and beginning to taste like cold black coffee in a rusty tin cup:

Truly progressive positions – unlike red-painted apologetics for dictators – are determined as a function of the best interests of the peoples’ right to democratic self-determination, not out of knee-jerk opposition to anything an imperialist power does under whatever circumstances; anti-imperialists must ‘learn to think.’ Second: Progressive anti-imperialism requires opposing all imperialist states, not siding with some of them against others. Finally: Even in the exceptional cases when intervention by an imperialist power benefits an emancipatory popular movement – and even when it is the only option available to save such a movement from bloody suppression – progressive anti-imperialists must advocate complete distrust in the imperialist power and demand the restriction of its involvement to forms that limit its ability to impose its domination over those that it pretends to be rescuing.

Whatever discussion remains among progressive anti-imperialists who agree on the above principles is essentially about tactical matters. With the neo-campists, there is hardly any discussion possible: Invective and calumny are their usual modus operandi, in line with the tradition of their past century’s predecessors.

Understanding why this war occurred is in no way a justification for it. Putin’s justifications for his criminal invasion are eminently risible and potently dangerous, and need to be historicized and put under critical examination. When, at the turn of the century, leftists asked why the hijackers of 9/11 would want to attack the US, they were lambasted in the media for supporting the hijackers. It took much too long before media pundits recognized that Chalmers Johnson’s model of ‘blowback’ provided a more nuanced and accurate account of the September 11 terrorist attacks than Bush Jr.’s specious assertion that the terrorists simply ‘hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.’ We can, and should, support the Ukrainian people in their moment of need. At the same time, it is reasonable to assume that America’s support for Ukraine is not premised on what is best for Ukraine. It is a US proxy war with its own strategic objectives in support of a unipolar geopolitics with the US as the reigning hegemon. Still, we can, and I do, support the unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, and the right for Ukraine to be provided with the weapons it needs in order to defend its territory and its people. This can be done without siding with the imperatives of NATO. And we can, and I do, demand that Russia pay reparations for the damage that it has inflicted throughout Ukraine – in its cities, its suburbs, and its countryside, and I claim the right to do so without siding with the imperialist dictates from Washington.

When Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow expresses his full support of Putin’s war against Ukraine, even reading mechanically from a card all the justifications for war to Pope Francis during a Zoom meeting, we know that we are in serious trouble. According to Francis, ‘I listened and told him: I don’t understand anything about this,’ said the Pope. ‘Brother, we are not clerics of state; we cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus.’ ‘We are shepherds of the same holy people of God. That is why we must seek ways of peace.’ ‘The Patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy,’ the Pope said in an interview with Corriere Della Sera, an Italian daily newspaper. Do we hear in Francis’ remarks the echo of liberation theology? I, for one, hope so.

Krill, who appears to share Putin’s revanchist sentimentality for the Russian empire, and appears to entertain a slavish veneration of Putin, only adds to the war’s escalatory possibilities. Perhaps they both should join with Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro, Éric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and Donald Trump and start The Church of Kleptocratic Authoritarianism. What a magnificent charade that would be. Perhaps, as an opening hymn, they could begin by singing ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ from the movie Cabaret.

The sun on the meadow is summery warm.
The stag in the forest runs free.
But gather together to greet the storm.
Tomorrow belongs to me.

The branch of the linden is leafy and
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea.
But, somewhere, a glory awaits unseen.
Tomorrow belongs to me.

Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign
Your children have waited to see
The morning will come
When the world is mine
Tomorrow belongs to me
Tomorrow belongs to me
Tomorrow belongs to me
Tomorrow belongs to me

How magnificently fitting this imperial regretfulness! Did you bring the incense and the thurible? I left it on the kitchen counter with your egg casserole with salmon and tomato.

Putin: Wasn’t there a 2014 revolution – the Euromaidan revolution – that kicked out Ukraine’s puppet regime that I put in place? I get so confused sometimes.

Krill: God did not want that to happen, Vladimir. You know that God is always on your side.

Putin: Just make sure the Russian people are aware of that, Almighty Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, Holy Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Krill: You can count on that, Mr President!

Putin: And don’t let that Western Pontiff who resides in the Vatican convince you otherwise. 

Krill: Just as Professor Dugin says, there are multiple modernities, multiple truths, many different cosmovisions. Multiple truths! We decide which are fake and which are true – with the guidance of Jesus, of course.

Putin: Of course. And what is important for the Russian people to understand is that we are fighting in Ukraine on the basis of OUR truth. 

Krill: And, if this doesn’t work, we have a wide buffet of other options to choose from, don’t worry.

Putin: I like my truth served à la carte. 

Krill: I can arrange that. With God, all things are possible.

Well, we will certainly need God if the world is to survive the biggest European war since World War II. Last week, Putin issued the latest in a series of threats that alluded to his nuclear arsenal when he promised a ‘lightning-fast’ strike against any nation that intervened in Ukraine.

Dark Web Pentagon Senior Operative: Putin put his country’s nuclear forces on high alert on February 27. 

Biden: What are we doing to be prepared, General? 

General: Well, we are developing some doozy weapons, Mr President. 

Biden: Enough to deter the Russians, General?

General: No, Mr President. We’re not talking about deterrence. That’s old school. We’re all in for the counterforce option.

Biden: Counterforce option? What does that mean?

General: You old-timers used to call it ‘first strike.’

Biden: Are you crazy? We rejected that option. The Soviet Union would have retaliated, and it would have ended for both of us in ‘mutually assured destruction.’ We weren’t fools.

General: Yeah, but you would be fools now if you don’t let us take the Russians out right now. We have the weapons to do it. And we’re wasting precious time as we speak.

Biden: What are the risks?

Operative: Planetary omnicide. Or something like that. But what a show that would be, dang! Eat your heart out, Disney! And we’d take quite a few of those Ruskies with us!

The Federation of American Scientists reports that the US and Russia currently have some 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads pointed at each other. If only 300 of those Russian warheads got through to cities in the United States, ’77 million to 105 million people would be killed in the first afternoon.’ Helfand and Crist describe the scene:

In addition, the economic infrastructure of the United States would be gone. There would be no electric grid, internet, food distribution system, banking or public health system, or transportation network. In the months following, most of those who survived the initial attack would also die – from starvation, exposure, disease and radiation poisoning, the same study found. A US attack on Russia would produce the same destruction there, it said.

And the fires caused by these combined attacks would put millions of tons of soot into the upper atmosphere, blocking out the sun and dropping temperatures across the globe to levels not seen since the last ice age. Food production would crash, triggering a global famine that would destroy modern civilization, according to a study published in the journal…. In the 1983 movie WarGames, the supercomputer Joshua tries to win a simulation of a nuclear war and comes to a startling conclusion: ‘A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.’ Joshua was right. Let’s stop playing games with human survival and get rid of these weapons before they get rid of us.

Paul Mason raises the question: ‘If the sullen narcissist in the Kremlin is prepared to unleash nuclear winter and mass death on the western hemisphere, is there any principle worth defending at that price?’ We are talking about a threat to the entire planet. And this is no empty threat. Mason acknowledges the stakes when he writes: ‘It’s a much more alarming question than the one that confronted people in the 1930s. Hitler threatened to destroy Jews, Gypsies, communists and disabled people, but not the whole of humanity.’ Mason further notes: ‘Russian state media has switched from the narrative of hate speech and annihilation against Ukrainians, to hate speech and annihilation of the world. The state TV channels are showing wall-to-wall motion graphics of what a nuclear attack on Britain would look like.

So how does Mason break down the debate I have been encouraging throughout this column? The first group occupies ‘the fringes of the far left’ who are ‘people with a fully theorised view of international relations that supports the vision of Xi Jinping and Putin: for a world governed by totalitarian, state-owned capitalists, who deliver economic growth to the people in return for the total absence of human freedom and individuality. Among fascists, and the conservative ultra-right, there are numerous fully paid up proxies of the Kremlin.’ Among this group, Mason sees the neo-Stalinist left mobilising ‘against arms to Ukraine, sheltering behind the rhetoric of a pacifism they have never believed in. Meanwhile, the populist right will mobilise anger over fuel and food price rises. It will be a loud and dangerous pincer movement – triggered at the precise moment Putin’s military pincer movement in the Donbas fails.’ Additionally, Mason writes, ‘[t]here are millions of people who would run a mile from pro-Putin extremists, but who care less about Ukraine than about the cost of living; and who will readily buy the argument that “arms supplies only prolong the suffering,” because they fear nuclear escalation.’

So what are those who want to supply arms to Ukraine to do?  Mason is worth quoting at length:

First, that, as per all the textbooks of deterrence, the US and its allies need to spell out clear and devastating consequences should Putin mobilise for the occupation of Ukraine and raise the readiness of his nuclear forces.

Second, we need to state the limits of the West’s ambitions: we do not seek regime change, or a repeat of the economic plunder and humiliation Russia experienced in the 1990s. Nor do we seek – as in Liz Truss’s crazed speech at the Mansion House – to build a ‘global Nato’ – i.e., a global western military alliance to confront China simultaneously with Russia.

The third and most important task is to take the population with us. In the space of two decades Putin has moved his drama of urban devastation from Chechnya to Syria and now Ukraine. If he wins, Act IV will be played out in Eastern Europe, and Act V in your town. It will be your steelworks, your council flats, your nurseries flattened.

Mason sees the war in Ukraine as the battle over freedom, democracy and human rights for the entire world. While he clearly sees Putin as a threat, whether or not he sufficiently recognizes the dangers of US hegemony is another question.

Recently, some Russian state TV hosts tried to ‘comfort’ their audience because of what looked to them like the inevitability of a nuclear war erupting outside of Ukraine, involving a terminal clash between Europe and Russia. Margarita Simonyan, journalist and head of RT, told viewers that a nuclear war wouldn’t be so bad because ‘we’re all going to die someday.’

Some comfort.

Some have asked: Is war the just price we must pay for the minimal solidarity we have shown in our efforts to halt the generalized degradation of our humanity? Could this war be the result of our ecocidal and geocidal madness, the evolution of our necrotic imagination now capable of devising weapons of such intense heat and force that they are 300 times hotter than the temperature used to cremate human bodies, weapons that cause flash blindness and organs to rupture instantly, flesh and bones to disintegrate into tiny crystals composed of your body’s basic minerals? Weapons with the power of instant incineration that can transform you into a nuclear shadow in a split second, thanks to the intense thermonuclear radiation. If you are lucky and have surviving family members, they may wish to memorialize your life. Imagine that all that is left of you is the slab of concrete where your shadow is emblazoned, having been pried from the sidewalk by a mourning uncle (the same sidewalk along which you used to stroll during warm summer evenings to purchase your Haagen-Dazs ice cream on a stick) with the help of a chainsaw and angle grinder, hoisted into the cargo bed of a cousin’s pickup truck by a makeshift crane, and hauled to a graveyard where it sits upright, a monolithic monument to your life, or perhaps in the eyes of our masters of war, some dark harbinger of progress or for those more spiritually inclined, the revenge of Gaia.

Ask yourself: Does the possibility of death by nuke afford you some kind of ‘comfort’?

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Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.