"Flashpoint Ukraine: Don't Poke the Bear"
by Mike Whitney And Israel Shamir
"Question 1: For the last 4 years, Democrat leaders have blamed Russia for allegedly meddling in the 2016 elections. Now the Democrats - who control all three branches of government - have the power to reset US foreign policy and take a more hostile approach to Moscow. But will they?
At present, there are roughly 40,000 US-NATO troops massed along the Russian border conducting military exercises while scores of Russian tanks, artillery and an estimated 85,000 Russian troops are now located about 25 miles from Ukraine’s eastern border. Both armies are on hair-trigger alert and prepared for any sudden provocation. If the Ukrainian Army invades the Russian-speaking region of Ukraine (Donbas), Moscow will likely respond. So, will there be a conflagration in the Ukraine this spring and, if so, how will Putin respond? Will he limit the scope of his campaign to the Donbas or push onward to Kiev?
Israel Shamir: If the Russian army crosses the Ukrainian border, it won’t stop in the Donbas. The war will be brief and the Ukraine will be split into pieces. But will it happen? Russia’s totem animal, the Bear, is a strong and peaceful animal that is not easily aroused, but once provoked, it is unstoppable. Russian rulers have typically fit this image. They weren’t adventurous, but level-headed and prudent. Putin, who is the quintessential Russian ruler, is risk-averse. He won’t start a war he never wanted to begin with, but he will act decisively if he needs to do so. Consider 2014, after the Ukrainian coup: the lawful Ukrainian president Mr Yanukovich ran to Russia and asked Putin to help him regain power. At that time, the Ukrainian army was weak and Russia could have easily retaken the country without facing any significant resistance. But, surprisingly, Putin did not give the order to take Kiev.
Putin is unpredictable. He ordered the seizure of Crimea despite the counsel of his advisors. It was an unexpected move, and it worked like a charm. He also pummeled Georgia in 2008 after Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia. This was another surprise move that succeeded better than anyone could have imagined. If the Ukrainians try to retake Donbas, the Russian army will beat them badly and continue on to Kiev. The presence of NATO’s troops will not deter Putin.
As for the Democrats, they can push Kiev to attack, but they will end up losing Ukraine in the process. If the point is to poison relations between Russia and Europe, they can try to do so, but if they think the Russo-Ukrainian war is going to drag on, they’re mistaken. And if they think Putin won’t defend the Donbas, they’ve made a serious miscalculation.
Biden’s recent phone call to Putin suggests that the administration has decided not to launch a war after all. The unconfirmed report of two US ships turning away from the Black Sea fits this assessment. However, we cannot be sure about this since the Kremlin refused to agree to Biden’s offer for a meeting. The Kremlin’s response was a frosty “We shall study the proposal”. Russians feel that the summit proposal might be a trick aimed at buying time to strengthen their position. Bottom line: We cannot know certain how things will play out in the future.
Question 2: I have a hard time understanding what the Biden administration hopes to gain by provoking a war in the Ukraine. Seizing the Donbas will force the government to impose a costly, long-term military occupation that will be ferociously resisted by Russian-speaking people who live in the area. How does that benefit Washington?
I don’t think it does. I think the real objective is to provoke Putin into overreacting, thus, proving that Russia poses a threat to all of Europe. The only way Washington can persuade its EU allies that they should not engage in critical business transactions (like Nordstream) with Moscow, is if they can prove that Russia is an “external threat” to their collective security. Do you agree with this or do you think Washington has something to gain by launching a war in Ukraine?
Israel Shamir: What do you mean by ‘overreacting’? Putin is not threatening to nuke Washington or take over Brussels or storm Warsaw? But to solve the problem of Ukraine on such occasion would be entirely reasonable.
When the regime in Kiev began to prepare for war a few months ago, they thought it would be a repeat of 2015, where they attack Donbas, the Donbas suffers losses, and then the Russian army steps in to prevent their defeat. They saw it as a limited war with a good chance of regaining Donbas. But Moscow has indicated that they will respond to any unprovoked aggression using their full strength, thereby crushing the Ukrainian state. In other words, the Russian army won’t stop at the Donbas but will proceed to the western borders of Ukraine until the entire country is liberated. Is that ‘overreacting’?
Definitely not. The people of Ukraine would be saved from the nationalist, anti-Russian regime, and the people of Russia would be saved from a NATO base on their western flank. Hopefully the EU will understand this. As for the US, the Russians have already made up their minds; the United States is an enemy. There has been a tectonic shift in Russia, and that shift is the result of Russia’s weariness with the United States’ proxy assaults.
The US would like to see the Donbas reintegrated into the Ukrainian state because then they’d be praised as a ‘mighty defender of an East European country against Russia’. But then Russia would have permanent low-level war on its border. Either way, Russia’s relations with Europe would be poisoned and the EU would probably end up buying expensive liquefied gas from the US rather than instead the much cheaper Russian gas. Russia’s decision to launch a full-blown attack on the Ukraine has made the whole plan irrelevant. Putin will not allow it to happen.
The Ukrainians are flexible folks. At present, they submit to anti-Russian nationalist narrative, but if the Russian army were to come, the Ukrainians would quickly remember that they were co-founders of the USSR, brothers to Russians, and they would shake off the nightmarish nationalist rule. The Ukrainians are wonderful people, but they easily adapt to new rulers, be they the German Wehrmacht, the Polish landlords, the Petlyura Nationalists, or the Communists. They would adapt to a partnership with Russia, too. Similarly, the Russians would embrace the Ukrainians as they did in 1920 and in 1945.
Question 3: The Russian army would have little problem capturing the Capitol, but holding on to Kiev might be a different matter altogether. Let’s say, Russian troops are deployed to Kiev to maintain the peace while a provisional government is established in the run-up to free elections. What would the US response be? What would NATO’s response be? How would this maneuver be portrayed in the western media? Would it be portrayed as a “liberation” or an “occupation by a ruthless imperial power”? Would this help or hurt Moscow’s relations with its partners around the world and particularly Germany where Nordstream is still under construction?
And wouldn’t this scenario prompt the US Intel agencies to arm, train and fund disparate groups of far-right extremists who would carry out a protracted insurgency against Russian troops in Kiev? How is that in Russia’s interest? Why would Putin put himself in the same situation the US put itself in Afghanistan, where a poorly-armed, ragtag militia has made governance impossible forcing the US to pack-up and leave 20 years later. Is that what Putin wants?
Israel Shamir: The comparison with Afghanistan is absurd. Ukraine is a part of Russia that became independent the moment the Soviet Union collapsed. Ukrainians are Russians of a sort. They have the same religion, the same language, the same culture, and the same history. Yes, the CIA did try to arm the Ukrainian insurgency after WWII, but with little success. You could compare a takeover of Kiev with a takeover of Atlanta by Sherman.
Ukrainian independence and separation probably cannot be reversed right away, but instead of one big unwieldy state, Ukraine can be transformed into a few coherent independent units. Western Ukraine is likely to join Poland as an independent or semi-independent state. East and South Ukraine could become semi-independent under Russian umbrella, or join Russian Federation. And historical Ukraine around Poltava could try and go its own way. I think the Ukrainians would be happy to reunite with their mother state, or at least to become friendly with Moscow. There will be no need to deploy Russian troops in Kiev or elsewhere. There are enough Ukrainians to govern and control the situation and to deal with remaining extreme nationalists.
What would the US and NATO response be? How would this maneuver be portrayed in the western media? Probably the same as their response to Crimea takeover. They will be angry, unhappy, furious. The problem is they already are. They’ve already imposed sanctions on Russia and reinstalled the Iron Curtain. They’ve already done everything short of a military confrontation. Russia is so annoyed by it all, that she is beyond caring about another bout of sanctions.
I am certain that Russia won’t start a war in the Ukraine, but if Kiev does, the Russian army will topple the regime just like the US toppled regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other states. And, any attempt to establish US or NATO military bases in Ukraine will undoubtedly be seen as casus belli.
Russians think that a big war is unavoidable, so it’s probably better to have Ukraine under Moscow’s control before that war breaks out. The US is an enemy; that is the feeling in Russia. If the US wants to change that perception, it should act fast.
Question 4: Is Washington genuinely interested in Ukraine or is it just a staging-ground for its war on Russia?
Israel Shamir: Washington would like to initiate a low-intensity war between Ukraine and Russia, a long-lasting war that would drain Russian resources and kill Russian troops; a war that would divert Russia’s attention from other hotspots, like in Syria or Libya. This is the way in which the US is laying the groundwork for an even bigger confrontation with Russia in the future.
Putin has accepted the breakup of the USSR. He’s not trying to reconstruct the Soviet empire nor is he particularly interested in Ukraine. Twice he allowed Russia’s enemies to carry Ukraine away: in 2004 and in 2014. He has showed that he’d prefer to have as little to do with Ukraine as possible. Being a lawyer by education, Putin has a legal mind. He thought that Minsk Treaties were good enough a solution for all concerned. (The Minsk Treaty would “federalize” the Ukraine) He didn’t expect that Kiev would just ignore the treaties, but that’s what happened. Now he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’s not keen on annexing any part of Ukraine, but he might be forced to do so sooner or later.
In the last few weeks, US-Russian relations have deteriorated significantly. Russia is deeply offended by recent developments and will not go back to “business as usual”. We have entered uncharted waters and there is no way to predict what will happen next.
Question 5: No one in the United States benefits from a conflict with Russia, in fact, a military confrontation with Moscow poses a serious and, perhaps, existential threat to Russians and Americans alike. Still, the rush to war continues apace, mainly because the US military –with all of its millions of troops and high-tech weaponry – is in the hands of a foreign policy establishment that is determined to control the vast resources and growth-potential of Central Asia despite the casualties and destruction that strategy will undoubtedly cause.
The biggest obstacle to this plan is Russia, which is why – since the collapse of the Soviet Union – the US and NATO have made every effort to encircle Russia, deploy missile sites to its borders, conduct hostile military exercises on its perimeter, and arm and train Islamic extremists to fight in its provinces. (Chechnya) Now that Joe Biden has been elected president, I would expect the hostilities towards Russia will rapidly intensify in both Ukraine and Syria. Biden has already shown that he will do whatever he is told to do by the foreign policy “Borg”, which means that war with Russia might be unavoidable. Do you agree or disagree with this analysis?
Israel Shamir: There are forces that want to control and direct mankind. These forces use the US as their enforcer. The Trump-related part of the US elites want the US to be the main beneficiary of the process. The Biden-related part of the US elites is more globally-oriented. Russia is ready to adjust to some of their demands (vaccination, climate) in order to avoid a final showdown. On the other hand, we don’t completely know what these global elites really want. And why the sense of urgency? Why the lack of concern for the American people or the Russians or the Europeans? Perhaps Davos is the new center of power and they are simply upset by Putin’s disobedience?
What we can say for certain is that imperialists always seek world hegemony. Independent Russia presents a challenge to that plan. Perhaps, western elites think they can bring Russia into full compliance by brinkmanship and threatening war? Perhaps, what we’re seeing in the Ukraine is an attempt to browbeat Russia into obedience? The danger is that they will push things too far and start a war they can neither manage or contain. Putin remembers the fate of Saddam and Gadhafi. He’s not going to throw in the towel and back down. He’s not going to give up or give in.
To my American readers I’d say that the US is very strong and the people of the US can have a wonderful life even without world hegemony, in fact, hegemony is not in their interests at all. What they should seek is a strong nationalist policy that cares for the American people and avoids wasteful foreign wars."