Centrist Democracy Political Institute - Items filtered by date: July 2023
Thursday, 27 July 2023 20:01

The closing act on Ukraine

Last of 3 parts

ONE of the more somber assessments of America's behavior as a world hegemon comes from an eminent member of its establishment, Richard Hass, outgoing president of America's prestigious think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Having no official role in either political party, it nevertheless has unmatched expertise and connections in formulating foreign policy. The CFR is a microcosm of American hegemony, with its disciples and true believers coming mostly from a diverse segment of the upper crust of American society, including business, academia, government officials and the intelligence community. Their influence in shaping American discourse on foreign policy for the last 100 years is invaluable.

Thus, Haas's pronouncements that "the United States has become the most profound source of instability throughout the world" are serious indictments, not simple musings, in light of America's role as the world's lone hegemon and its impact on recent developments, particularly leading towards this third part of my column on the Ukraine war. "The closing act" could be a loose term, as it is pregnant with nuances. It could mean the end of the Ukraine war — the defeat of Ukraine and triumph of Russia or vice versa — or the perpetuation of a never-ending one. There is a precedent. The Korean War (1950-1953) is technically still going on, with no final peace treaty signed between the protagonists, North and South Korea — but simply an armistice agreement. This could be the template for the closure of the Russo-Ukraine war.

America's global role

Since the USSR's collapse ended the Cold War, the world has metamorphosed into a unipolar US-dominated construct — militarily and economically ascendant with considerable social and cultural influence. America broke away as a child of European monarchical traditions to evolve into a fiercely independent nation with a bias toward individual freedoms, translated as liberal capitalism and a free market economy, promoting itself as a beacon of democracy, providing leadership from WW2 onward, growing economically, rising with "the tide that lifts all boats," and enforcing its own imprint of order and the rule of law. But power concentrated, bereft of checks and balances, leads to abuse and misuse. Decision-making on world affairs became unilateral, solving mounting crises here and there to the exclusion of other less dominant powers.
But America's appreciation of its global role — eclipsed by its own hubris — lends itself to a paucity of diverse perspectives; thus, it is oblivious to the changing realities of geopolitics impelled by the emergence of other competing powers and worsened by the resentment of allies. Historian Paul Kennedy described this succinctly in the late 1980s as "imperial overstretch," when an empire dominating its era extends itself beyond its military and economic capabilities. We have precedents for this. The British Empire, for example, rose in the 16th century "where the sun never sets" on its global holdings and influence, reaching its peak in the early 20th century. By a similar token, America is overstretched!

A unipolar world

In establishing a world order, America's default response to any perceived deviation threatening or distracting its global role is to wage war, under whatever pretext, imposing its sense of order and the rule of law. This is perhaps the interpretation of Richard Haas' insights. Since the end of World War 2, America has started, been involved in, and intervened in more than two dozen conflicts, more than any other country in the world, thus earning for itself the sobriquet of the world's "warmonger" — all achieved purportedly to uphold democracy and preserve a way of life according to its tenets. But America's actuations and motivations are suspect.

The Vietnam War (1964-1975) used the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext for increased involvement. The eventual US withdrawal and defeat saw the two Vietnams unified under communist rule.

The Afghanistan War (2001-2021). Taliban terrorists harboring al-Qaida was the US's justification for its invasion after 3,000 were killed on September 1 at the World Trade Center. This righteous excuse for revenge cost the US $2.3 trillion and killed 200,000 civilians. Now the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan.

The Iraq War (2003-2011). Citing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the US invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. The war led to a protracted insurgency and sectarian violence, claiming 1.03 million civilian casualties in 20 years. The US leadership knew there were no WMDs prior to the invasion.

These three perfidious interventions are just samples of a dozen more cases, from Lebanon (1958) to the Central African Republic (2013-2014) to Ukraine (2022).

It can be argued that these wars and interventions were for a noble purpose. But also mixed among these motherhood statements above are geopolitical considerations involving US and Western economic interests, access to resources, and the hegemonic desire to exert influence and maintain global dominance, advancing specific political and military objectives.

Current US involvement —Ukraine's final act

At the summit in Lithuania, NATO evaluated the Ukraine war, setting the strategic direction it would take. Unsaid perhaps is the war fatigue setting in on all protagonists — with the US/NATO in a pissing contest with Russia on who can outlast and outsuffer who, playing chicken with the nuclear trigger.

One scenario sees Zelenskyy retaking occupied territories, particularly Crimea. This is going to be bloody, as Putin has now had the time to reinforce and fortify the only viable entrance for the armies of Ukraine — the Isthmus of Perekop, the strip of land connecting the peninsula to southern Ukraine.

Five to 7 kilometers across at its narrowest strip, this is the gateway to Crimea and, "from antiquity, was the site of furious battles that decided the fates of empires." This could be a veritable killing field unless the US and NATO provide what Zelensky demands — F-16 jets for air cover and the long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS).

The US's reluctance to place this advanced weaponry in the hands of Zelenskyy is perhaps due to two related concerns. American incongruous foreign policy has been to help Ukraine win the war but stop short of providing all logistics for this to happen. This is in the DNA of US foreign policy, as evidenced by its eight years in Iraq and 20 years in Afghanistan. America goes to war not to lose but not necessarily to win — puzzling!

With these new weapons, Zelenskyy and some Ukrainian generals may go rogue, raining these newly acquired cruise missiles on major Russian cities, giving Putin no option but to respond with his own tactical battlefield nukes. And all bets are off!

The alternative scenario is that Ukraine/US/NATO continue to change the dynamics, somehow convincing Putin that this war is unsustainable on the battlefields and on the home front, where economic sanctions continue to be tightened, hoping that all this chaos will go away through negotiated solutions. Ukraine may not get back 100 percent of its territory, but NATO membership and a Marshall-like reconstruction plan similar to that in post-World War 2 Europe can be incentivized.

Or just hope for a quick regime change in the Kremlin — the downfall of a weak Putin and his replacement by any of the Siloviki.

But again, hope is not a strategy.
Published in LML Polettiques
Thursday, 27 July 2023 18:27

Postscript on Ukraine: A contrarian view

AS intense as the skirmishes on the battlefield are the fights between legacy and social media to present the facts on the ground. This rivalry between the two types of media platforms shapes public opinion and influences the war narratives while the dynamics of the conflicts are evolving. For long, newspapers, television and radio have directed public discourse. Not anymore. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube provide real-time images, alternative perspectives and opinions by any Tom, Dick and Harry in possession of handheld internet devices, which can be uploaded. Therein lies the crucial difference: while traditional legacy platforms adhere to journalistic principles, fact-checking and are subject to editorial oversight but are relatively slow in propagation, the nature of social media's decentralized dissemination relies mostly on subjective and instant spread of information, challenging more often than not the narrative controlled by the legacy media. All of this relies on the personal biases of the purveyor of the news.

The Ukraine war fought in the media has partisans taking sides. From where one sits, one has the choice of who to root for. My columns have so far depicted Ukraine winning. This time, this column portrays the contrarian viewpoint. Ukraine is losing the war and its implications for NATO, particularly its main sponsor — America.

I draw from the blogs, podcasts and video clips of a certain Col. Douglas Macgregor and Scott Ritter, who both claim to be former US military and intelligence operatives and are widely followed on social media. But I mix this up with the assessment of John Mearsheimer, a noted American political scientist. I don't purport to go deep into the backgrounds and motivations of these people. But I compare their pronouncements against those of other platforms presented "as facts."

Instability caused by US/NATO

This is a takeoff from last week's column on CFR's Richard Haas's pronouncements that "the United States has become the most profound source of instability throughout the world." The Ukraine crisis could be traced to what America did in the early part of its ascendancy as the world's lone hegemon in a unipolar world after the end of the Cold War. Excerpts are cited from my columns of March 9, 2022, "Ukraine: Putin's war — a briefer" and "Closing act to Putin's war," March 16, 2022 — all written two months after the Ukraine invasion. After 17 months of the war, a different perspective on the war is developing.

All these started upon the dissolution of the USSR when Washington assured Gorbachev that NATO would move "not an inch eastward" with the withdrawal of the Russian troops from East Germany and the eventual German unification. NATO was not to expand into the ambit of Russian influence in the crumbling Warsaw Pact. At that point, there really was no longer any need for NATO. It won the Cold War. But NATO was more a business of arms and weaponry, influenced most by the military industrial congress complex (MICC) which marches to the beat of American hegemony whether the US government is run by GOP or Democrats. America reneged on that promise.

As I wrote back then, John Mearsheimer came up with a disturbing but logical conclusion negating the conventional wisdom that Putin and Russia bear the primary responsibility for the Ukraine crisis and the Russo-Ukraine war that long started with the Euromaidan movement protests, culminating in the Revolution of Dignity and eventual regime change in Ukraine and the ouster in 2014 of President Victor Yanukovych, who fled to Moscow. The CIA was believed to be heavily involved in fomenting these protests, and the subsequent Ukrainian governments were sympathetic to joining the EU and eventually NATO.

Putin considered the new Ukrainian government illegal. In response, Putin annexed Ukraine's southern peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and recognized the Russian-sponsored separatist states of Donetsk and Luhansk in the southeast, collectively known as the Donbas region. In 2016, the UN General Assembly condemned the annexation as "...the occupation of part of the territory of Ukraine — the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol."

With the help of Germany and France, a series of protocols called the Minsk Agreements were hammered out in 2014–2055, aimed at establishing a ceasefire and a political framework for resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. These were agreed to and signed with provisions to run for eight years. Looking back, Ukraine Presidents Poroshenko and Zelenskyy, French President Francois Holland, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch considered these agreements a sham. Its provisions were never going to be implemented but were designed to buy time for Ukraine to build its military capability. In fact, the US/NATO built training facilities in Western Ukraine in 2015 where battalion-sized Ukrainian forces were trained to NATO standards and sent to Donbas to fight.

Putin had been had! The US/NATO used diplomacy as a shield to build up Ukraine's military. By early February 2022, Russia had officially recognized the breakaway separatist Donbas region, declaring that the Minsk Agreements no longer existed. On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Status of the war

Seventeen months after the invasion, both protagonists have not gained the clear upper hand. But since the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, several weeks ago, things are coming to a head — events that may augur well for Russia. The much-heralded spring counterattack to retake Russian-occupied territories and Crimea seems to have petered out. Zelenskyy's demands for more advanced NATO war material could not be met, and Ukraine's NATO membership has been tabled for another time. This has now become a war of attrition, and this hiatus will work to the advantage of the home team rather than NATO. Putin can sit this one out while continuing to build his forces. Reportedly, they now have 750,000 men at arms, ramping up to a million. Ukraine, though having an excellent war machine but a smaller population, will deplete its manpower over time. It's a mathematical certainty.

And as Russia's cities are untouched, their production facilities are intact and are operating 24/7. There is no danger of Russia running out of ammo, drones, missiles, parts or equipment to fight a war. US President Biden recently admitted they're running out of logistics and couldn't transfer sorely needed materiel from other theaters. The US/NATO will not put boots on the ground, nor do they have the forces for conventional warfare.

Zelenskyy is in panic mode and may know Ukraine is losing. The reluctance of the US to supply cruise missiles may be a prudent move. In desperation, Zelenskyy may just go rogue, raining those missiles on Russian cities and dragging the US and NATO into a wider war, something Americans ignorant of the nuances of what's happening did not sign for. Supplying such weapons is an invitation to disaster.

The conundrum of why Russia moves cautiously and deliberately avoids major confrontation may be explained by the fact that it is confident of its eventual triumph by attrition, knowing full well that the US will not spill American blood in Ukraine. But this can change with dumb things happening with a desperate Zelenskyy.

This explains Putin's tolerance for Zelenskyy, allowing him to live. Putin needs the man to surrender all Ukrainian forces.

To be continued

Published in LML Polettiques
Second of 3 parts

THIS column is the second part of last week's "Wagner insurrection — business deal gone awry!" All these are just now coming to light two weeks after the event.

Looking back, both Putin and Prigozhin misinterpreted each other's bizarre moves. Prior to this debacle, it should have been clear to Putin that his game of pitting Wagner/Prigozhin against the Ministry of Defense (MoD)-Shoigu/Gerasimov would yield unintended consequences detrimental to all actors. Putin is a political survivor because he did not allow groups like Wagner to grow too large to become a threat; the same strategy was employed to prevent the siloviki, the oligarchs and the bureaucracy becoming too independent and powerful to challenge the centralized vertical power system that he has painstakingly built up over the past 23 years.

The rivalry between Wagner and the MoD came to a head when Wagner saw some successes that portrayed the MoD as incompetent — and incapable of winning this Ukraine war. Starving Wagner of war materiel resources, designed to rein in the group and sign contracts with the MoD, folding Wagner into the MoD by the July deadline — no doubt with a complicit Putin — was an irresponsible retaliatory measure.

This march to Moscow, a show of force by Prigozhin, was perhaps designed to force Putin's hand to resolve Wagner's dilemma in its favor. This march was not — at first — against Putin. Its direct targets were the MoD and the military bureaucracy, principally to establish a modus vivendi and extract some concessions. But with Prigozhin's arrogant public demand for a replacement of the MoD leadership, this altered the tenor of the whole exercise. In some imprecise logic, Prigozhin sees the participation of Wagner in Ukraine as a patriotic duty and his loyalty given freely to Putin — the man who really made him what he currently is, from a status of "caterer-restauranteur."

Putin's misinterpretation of Prigozhin's move with his knee-jerk, harsh harangue on June 24 rejected Prigozhin's credo, painting Prigozhin instead as a traitor, condemning the march as an affront to his authority and power and threatening criminal cases against him. Putin took the MoD's side. Bad move! Whereupon Prigozhin's declaration of "presenting a new Russian president" hinting of a regime change was an afterthought. The whole scenario was a caricature of a Keystone cop's series of deadly faux pas that exposed all sides' perfidy toward each other — with deadly consequences!

The aftermath

In retrospect, Putin's flaws were incipient even prior to Prigozhin's march. The autocrat was oblivious to the signs everywhere, hubris veiling his weakness, becoming transparent when his voice was not heard; no direct orders filtered down to the national guard, the police, special forces, or the army. Or if they were given, they were disregarded — an even more ominous breach. This was made obvious by the free passage of the mutineers toward Moscow, where they were unopposed along the route; except for a few skirmishes by helicopters of the Russian Armed Forces, only a token resistance was offered. In Moscow and the Kremlin itself, the elites and the billionaires, Putin's natural allies, were profoundly quiet. So, where were the hordes of Putin supporters?

In May 2023, according to the Russian media, 80 percent of Russians approved of Putin, a popularity level higher than the 77 percent bannered in his last election. By contrast, we saw on video the adoring crowds in Rostov-on-Don when the Wagner columns entered — like conquering heroes. Prigozhin's act inadvertently exposed Putin as the proverbial emperor with no clothes.

This will haunt Putin, irreversibly damaging his image of invincibility. The long-seething grievances by Prigozhin/Wagner encapsulated in that march exposed all of Putin's warts, except that the simple Prigozhin couldn't do a closure and was forced to accept a negotiated settlement, allowing Putin some wiggle room. With the shady help of Putin's other loyalist president, Lukashenko of Belarus, Prigozhin has been had; perhaps he was tricked into accepting a deal: 1) full immunity from charges and amnesty for Wagner fighters who joined the June 23-24 march; 2) a possibility for Prigozhin and Wagner's return to Africa; and 3) a promise to replace people at the Ministry of Defense — principally Gen. Sergei Shoigu. All these a vengeful Putin reneged on.

Wagner as a conglomerate

My last article depicted the Prigozhin/Wagner adventure as a business deal gone bad. With Prigozhin's difficulties in Ukraine, one of the demands was for Wagner to draw down its forces in Ukraine, cut its losses — as any good businessman does when faced with reversals — and relocate back to Africa and the Middle East, where Prigozhin may have the bulk of his wealth. But with what transpired and the sensitivity of Wagner as Russia's dubious instrument of foreign policy, there was no way Putin would allow Prigozhin to play a role. His exile in Belarus, if true, may be permanent — and there, permanently terminated.

Putin's revenge, to salvage whatever is left of his tattered aura, will have to be swift, total and deadly. A purge of Wagner supporters and Prigozhin's people is reportedly underway. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of Russia's military operations in Ukraine, has reportedly been arrested and detained. Surovikin is a highly decorated veteran of Russia's wars in Chechnya and Syria and has a reputation for ruthlessness in Ukraine, earning him the sobriquet "General Armageddon." Putin's long arm of reprisal has netted Wagner chiefs in Syria, now detained by Russian military police.

Unconfirmed reports are now filtering in that some of those Wagner leaders have been summarily executed; others recalled from overseas are facing a bleak future in the motherland.

An entr'acte

With this fiasco, the weak and pathetic Putin becomes doubly dangerous, as this wounded man in the next few intervals will have to compensate for his effeminate response to an open defiance by a subaltern — before the eyes of the world, but more humiliatingly, among the Kremlin's Brutuses, Cascas and Cassiuses, now sharpening their daggers, emboldened by the vulnerability of a wounded gladiator.

In a totalitarian setting, leadership and regime change are seldom gentleman's sports. And Putin's is no longer just the game in town. We have on the periphery less powerful men than Putin; nonetheless, their collective interests may no longer align with those of Russia's strongman. Their concerted or individual action before an enfeebled despot, burdened by a war in Ukraine, may be what is needed to topple him. In the next few months, more reversals will happen in the Ukraine theater, perhaps compelling Putin to cut Russia's losses — to survive. But his days may be numbered. It is no longer a win-win for him, and Ukraine will continue to be Russia's graveyard — and perhaps his, too. Either way, he is a dead man walking.


Looking back to December 1991, Gorbachev, an ally of Yeltsin, resigned the presidency of the Soviet Union, precipitating the dissolution of the USSR and the incipiency of Russia under Boris Yeltsin. It was not a bloody regime change. This could be a template for the four factions dominant in the Kremlin. One may emerge — bloodlessly to replace Putin.

To be continued on July 19, 2023
Published in LML Polettiques