KIEV, UKRAINE — Within three months of the ascendancy of Joseph Biden to the presidency of the United States, the world teeters on the edge of nuclear war, whether by design or accident, as Russia reports that the U.S. is placing considerable pressure on Ukraine to attack the independent republics of the Donbass for which Russia provides logistical support. The U.S. European Command has raised its alert status to the highest level and warned of a “potential imminent crisis.”
Mounting tension is an entirely foreseeable outcome of the sludge-like flow over the past four years of Democratic Party fables about Russia, RussiaGate, Ukraine, and U.S. national security, on behalf of the Incubus, a sordid network of military, defense and surveillance industries, militarized academe and think tanks, and complicit Western mainstream media.
In his first phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, U.S. President Joseph Biden affirmed his country’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s allegedly ongoing aggression in the Donbass and Crimea. Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, in a conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart, added his assurances of U.S. support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations (i.e., Ukraine’s ambition to acquire full membership in both NATO and the EU), which, if achieved, would add a further 1400 miles to the boundary between NATO and Russia and cement the encirclement of Russia.
In as many months as Biden has held the presidency the U.S. has shipped three consignments of arms to Ukraine, adding to the $2 billion of security assistance the U.S. has extended to Ukraine since 2014. The U.S. has deployed nuclear-capable B-1 bombers to Norway for the first time in NATO’s history. This year’s NATO war exercises include U.S.-led Rapid Trident and Sea Breeze, British-Ukrainian Cossack Mace and Warrior Watcher, Romanian-Ukrainian Riverine, and Polish-Ukrainian Three Swords and Silver Sabre.
A dangerous new joker in the pack is Turkey, relatively fresh from assisting Azerbaijan’s 2020 victory against Armenia in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, now participating in NATO-Ukrainian military exercises against Russia. This move threatens escalation of tensions between Moscow and Ankara in Turkey’s seeming bid with NATO to seal off the Black Sea from Russian presence, as part of which Ukraine hopes to establish two new military bases (with financial help from the U.K.), help steal the major Russian naval port of Sebastopol for Ukraine, and consolidate Turkish control over oil and gas deposits to which Turkey lays claim. Turkish frigates have joined U.S. and Ukrainian navies in the Black Sea since January.
The contribution of RussiaGate demonization
There were many solid grounds for an upswell of both establishment and public alarm as Donald Trump eked out electoral victory in 2016 and as he unfolded his agenda over the succeeding four years. His relations with Russia were not among them. Far more important and evidentiary was his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the threats of climate change. Not only did he repudiate evidence that climate change might well lead to the end of the human species within a generation or two, but he actively reversed weak countermeasures already in place. Worse, he malevolently sought to amplify the threat, among other things by boosting fossil fuel interests and doubling back on transition to lower fuel emissions from petroleum cars.
He exacerbated the shameless verticalization of wealth inequality in the U.S., obfuscating this with sordid appeals to racist and fascist instincts of his base in decayed, industrial wastelands vacated by a U.S.-globalized economy. Where capital accrues in private hands to a degree that it can compete against and corrupt the public sphere and — through disproportionate, anonymous advocacy, lobbying, campaign finance and bribery — undermine attempts to regulate corporate and plutocratic power, there is no meaningful democracy. Trump’s behavior towards the end of his period in office and apparent incitement of a violent coup d’etat, testify to an unhinged oligarchic impulse to narcissistic promotion of personal and class interest above all competing considerations, even above annihilation of the species.
As though none of these concerns provided sufficient political ammunition, the Democratic Party throughout much of Trump’s presidency allowed just one meme to drown out almost everything else: RussiaGate. Not only did this fable get little traction with the majority of people living in the real world, the RussiaGate narrative has proven to lie somewhere between disinformation and egregious hoax.
It was founded on at least three dubious chains of argument:
- A piece of opposition research cobbled together by a former MI6 agent and paid for by the Democratic Party (the “Steele dossier”);
- Perhaps the shallowest Intelligence Community Assessment ever published (the ICA of January 2016); this piece of theatre provided little to no actual evidence of significance, disavowed any claim to accuracy, but legitimized claims of a private contractor, CrowdStrike (hired by the DNC but with previous FBI links), for which the company later admitted it had no direct evidence, that DNC servers had been hacked by Russians;
- An FBI investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, that proceeded amidst increasing awareness of the problematic, deeply partisan character of the Steele dossier, which it deployed in the process of seeking FISA warrants to investigate a Trump adviser whom it knew to have been a CIA informant (information it tried to hide).
Did Trump and his campaign team have connections to Russians? Of course, some of them did. Yet a two-year-long investigation by a former FBI director, drawing on the assistance of over a dozen FBI agents, was unable to establish that there had been coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Its most significant indictments against Russians fell apart when challenged. Robert Mueller was barely able to establish obstruction because there had been no fundamental criminality whose investigation could be obstructed.
Those who received any punishment were charged with offenses that had little or nothing at all to do with the fundamental reason why the special counsel had been appointed. Donald Trump, in his campaign, had wisely recognized the advantages of building more positive relations between Russia and the U.S. (disincentivizing Sino-Russian bonding not the least of them). Under the cloud of RussiaGate suspicion fomented ceaselessly by the Democrats and their media allies, the only Russia-related measures that Trump took while in office undermined U.S.-Russia relations, recklessly plunging the world towards the nuclear abyss from a precipice admirably suited for none other than his successor, President Joe Biden.
The 2014 Ukraine coup
Trump had been roundly castigated, and impeached, for pressurizing a new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Trump’s likely rival, Joe Biden, for the 2020 election, in return for expediting U.S. arms support to Ukraine in its struggle against separatist republics of eastern Ukraine (the Donbass). Whatever its legality, Trump’s behavior certainly did not favor Russia. It could be argued that there was a stronger actual tie between Ukraine and President Biden than ever existed between former President Trump and Russia. Trump was unable even to interest Moscow or Russian President Vladimir Putin in a proposal for a Moscow Trump Tower. Biden left a much deeper impression on Ukraine.
In 2014 the Obama administration — in part through the offices of Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European affairs — supported a coup d’etat in Ukraine that, through persistent street demonstrations in which neo-Nazi militia played a key role, toppled Ukraine’s democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych. Although labeled pro-Russian by Western mainstream media, Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, advised in part by none other than key RussiaGate player Paul Manafort (later and for a brief period appointed chair of the Trump campaign in 2016), tilted towards acceptance of an agreement with the European Union that would have unquestionably cemented the EU as Ukraine’s major patron in rivalry with Russia.
Yanukovych fatefully switched direction from the EU in favor of Russia at the last moment (possibly because Russia was offering a more attractive, less patronizing, and ultimately less invasive deal), thus provoking the Maidan protests, U.S./EU (and Biden’s) egging them on, and Yanukovych’s departure. Protestors met with deadly resistance by State forces but there were also resistance snipers who shot protestors with a view to further inflaming international support in their favor.
In its initial deliberations, the emerging coup regime following the departure of Yanukovych expressed considerable hostility towards the influence of Russia, Russian language, Russian media, and Russian culture through many parts of southern and eastern Ukraine that were predominantly Russian speaking (just as Zelensky is doing once more in 2021). This would explain and possibly justify Russia’s concern for the welfare of the considerable population of Russian-speakers in Crimea, which had belonged to Russia (or the former Soviet Union) for over two hundred years and whose economy was built around Sebastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. That city has long been a major Russian naval center and one of Russia’s few major seaports, leased by Russia under treaty with Ukraine that allowed for the presence of several thousand Russian troops.
A threatening, anti-Russian government in Kiev guaranteed that Russia would protect its security interests and the interests of most of the Crimean population. This it did, but only after a referendum of the Crimean people and a subsequent formal request from Crimea to Russia that it be permitted to rejoin Russia. Reliable polls from both before and after the return of Crimea to Russia indicate consistently strong popular support for the measure in Crimea.
The Big Lie
Biden’s support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO contravened the firm promise given in 1990 to the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, by James Baker, secretary of state to George H.W. Bush, that in return for Soviet conceding of the unification of Germany, NATO would never extend further east of the new European behemoth (RT, 2017). As vice-president, Biden had visited Ukraine six times in seven years. Biden had long advocated that Ukraine, along with other post-Soviet Russian states, become a member of NATO. Before any other consideration, this casts Biden’s relations with the current Ukraine regime in a very problematic light, a possibly deadly one for the future of the human species.
Explanation requires a revisit to the Obama administration and then-Vice President Biden’s support for the 2014 coup in Kiev and his later stern demands, delivered even in the Ukrainian Rada itself, that the succeeding coup regime of President Petro Poroshenko apply itself to anti-corruption efforts. These have been somewhat ineffective. In the absence of any very senior prosecutions, critics have suggested that the more important function of the West’s campaign against corruption in Ukraine has been to establish a network of new institutions — whose legitimacy derives from western pressure and which undermine the country’s existing, if ponderous legal system — while providing scope to local power holders in the corruption matrix for blackmail.
Corruption and supposed efforts to reduce it have become a neoconservative weapon of choice with which to operate the controls on the funding sluice gates to acolytes of the U.S.-led international neoconservative empire. Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was offered a lucrative position on the board of Burisma Holdings, a natural gas company controlled by an oligarch, almost certainly because of his father’s prominence. The oligarch in question was Mykola Zlochevsky, former minister of natural resources under the allegedly “pro-Russian” Yanukovych. Trump administration figures claimed that Joe Biden had pressed the post-coup government of President Poroshenko to sack its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to discourage him from investigating Burisma. Burisma had been under scrutiny for alleged improper acquisition of licenses (unrelated to Hunter Biden’s position on the board). Biden and a group of U.S. allies were said to have urged Shokin’s ouster in 2015, on the grounds that he was turning a blind eye to corruption. Shokin has claimed that his actions as general prosecutor did not suit Biden’s interests and that Biden was motivated by his son’s connection to Burisma.
Poroshenko and Zelensky
Ukraine’s two presidents since the 2014 coup, Petro Poroshenko (2014 to 2019) and Volodymyr Zelensky (2019 to the present), each started with strong support that quickly waned. The country has scarcely improved. Gross National Product peaked in December 2013; unemployment has increased from 7% to over 10%; Ukraine remains the second poorest country in Europe per capita.
Corruption, the supposed key force behind popular support for the elections of both Poroshenko and Zelensky, continues to be rampant. Kiev’s policies of stand-off with Russia have been dramatically counter-productive and have deprived Ukraine of Crimea and control of major industrial areas of the Donbass. Some 14,000 lives have been taken, 1.4 million people displaced, and 3.5 million remain in need of humanitarian assistance.
With Russia’s development of Nord Stream 2, bitterly contested by the U.S., Ukraine stands to lose $3 billion a year in transit fees that with more prudent negotiation it might have hoped to retain. Kiev administrations have been unwilling to progress the Minsk Protocol, agreed in 2015 to end the struggle in the Donbass and signed by Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Under the agreements, Ukraine was required to pardon the participants of the conflict, carry out local elections, and recognize a de facto autonomy of the region in the Constitution. Russia was obliged to return its equipment and mercenaries to Ukraine, ensure that local military formations laid down arms, and cede to Ukraine control over its border with Russia.
Ukraine has complained that, as warfare is ongoing, elections are hardly possible and that fair elections are not achievable before it secures control of the border. Russia insists that amnesty should be granted in advance of the elections and before Ukraine regains control of the border, while Ukraine considers that an amnesty can happen only after these events and after public discussion. The Kiev administration has been wedded to a highly centralized vision and finds the idea of greater regional autonomy repugnant. It claims that Russia supports greater autonomy because that gives it greater control over the Donbass. It would be truer to say that Ukraine is an ethnically riven polity in which the dominant ethnicity does not have sufficient political will to risk taking the only measures that can yield a lasting peace.
Any indication that Poroshenko might move in the direction of Minsk provoked far-right paramilitary opposition. His successor, Zelensky, is a former comedian, a neoconservative cutout who achieved power on the basis not of actual policies but of the imaginary policies of his satirical show (aired on a channel owned by anti-Russian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky) — also the title of his political party, Servant of the People.
As Zelensky loses support (his party performed disastrously in local elections in November 2020 – it did not win a single mayoral race or even a majority in any regional parliament or city council), he has escalated action of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the Donbass (despite some ministerial appointments that appear pro-Russian), in an apparent bid to establish greater political legitimacy for his party in western Ukraine but at the cost of a steeply rising number of weekly ceasefire violations. He has continued to collaborate in joint actions with NATO and allied forces in military exercises along the Russian border that appear designed to provoke Russia (whose 4,000 troops mustered there remain insufficient for invasion, given the estimated total number of 100,000 NATO and Ukrainian troops participating in exercises during 2021).
In recent months he has introduced measures to sanction pro-Russian opposition leaders, shut down pro-Russian media outlets owned by opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, and restrict Russian language use, while he condemns opposition leaders who back a negotiated settlement with Moscow.
In March, Zelensky signed Presidential Decree No. 117/2021, declaring it was official Ukraine policy to take back Crimea. He approved plans to admit foreign troops for military exercises led by UN and NATO nations and asked NATO to monitor airspace across the border with Russia. His new military strategy emphasizes subjugation of Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea. In 2020, NATO designated Ukraine an “Enhanced Opportunity Partner,” giving it the same status as Georgia, Sweden, Finland, Australia and Jordan (Ritter, 2020), to promote the “partnership interoperability” initiative, which in effect means that NATO extends greater trust to Ukraine to follow NATO’s orders and interests.
Actual full membership in NATO is unlikely, given European opposition to this, the rift between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea, the persistence of corruption, and Ukraine’s dispute with Hungary over curbs on minority rights. Yet the lure is sufficient for Zelensky to offer Ukraine to NATO as a suitable battleground for possible nuclear war. Understandably, this enthusiasm for NATO is not shared by most Ukrainians.
Zelensky may believe, in the face of European opposition, that playing footstool to NATO aggression will secure full membership in NATO for Ukraine and NATO intervention in the Donbass to secure victory for the Armed Forces of Ukraine — despite the fact that Ukraine’s rift with Russia would need first to be resolved before full membership is possible under the conditions that must be met for membership, and even though direct NATO intervention would be tantamount to a declaration of war that could turn nuclear at any point. There is no conceivable advantage to the Ukraine, the U.S. or Russia in this scenario. But mad pursuit of idiotic objectives is de rigueur machismo among adherents to neoconservative ideology at the service of corporate and plutocratic power, much as it is for the politics of resistance to meaningful solutions to climate change.
Feature photo | Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits the war-hit Donbass region amid heightened tensions with Russia, April 9, 2021. UPPO via AP
Oliver Boyd-Barrett is Professor Emeritus at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, and at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is an expert on international media, news, and propaganda. His writings can be accessed by subscription at Substack.