The Evil Empire Isn’t Russia: It’s Fossil Fuel-Based Capitalism, Waging Apocalyptic War On Planet – OpEd


Since Russia invaded Ukraine 15 months ago, the West has been subjected to a pro-war propaganda campaign, on Ukraine’s behalf, on a scale not seen since the run-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.

I don’t mean to suggest in any way that we shouldn’t feel sympathy for the people of Ukraine, but the relentless reporting of their suffering, which dominated the news, to the exclusion of almost everything else, for several months after the war began, was so all-pervasive that it was difficult to recognize — or to remember — that, as is powerfully explained in ‘Why Are We in Ukraine?’, a major new article for Harper’s Magazine by Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne, the war didn’t happen because Vladimir Putin is a figure of pure evil, but because of over 30 years of provocation by the US.

Since the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, between 1989 and 1991, the US has sought to erase the reality that its relationship with Russia is, necessarily, one of two vast and different political entities, each bristling with nuclear weapons, and has, instead, increasingly regarded itself as the world’s sole superpower, entitled to use NATO to encroach further and further on Russian territory, despite Secretary of State James Baker, in February 1990, convincing Mikhail Gorbachev to give up East Germany by telling him that, if he did so, NATO would “not shift one inch eastward from its present position.”

In breaking that promise, as Schwarz and Layne explain, NATO expansion has been pursued relentlessly by every US administration since. As they describe it, ”In 1999, the Alliance added three former Warsaw Pact nations; in 2004, three more, in addition to three former Soviet republics and Slovenia. Since then, five more countries — the latest being Finland — have been pulled beneath NATO’s military, political, and nuclear umbrella,” and the US intensified Russia’s unease by “conduct[ing] massive military exercises in Lithuania and Poland — where it had established a permanent army headquarters — and, on Russia’s border, in Latvia and Estonia.”

In 2015, moreover, it was reported that the Pentagon was “reviewing and updating its contingency plans for armed conflict with Russia’ and, in likely contravention of a 1997 agreement between NATO and Moscow, the United States offered to station military equipment in the territories of its Eastern European NATO allies, a move that a Russian general called ‘the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO since the Cold War.’”

NATO expansion into Ukraine would be “apocalyptic”

On Ukraine, however, the unease caused by NATO’s encroachment has always been of a different magnitude. As Schwarz and Layne explain, “While Russians of every political stripe have judged Washington’s enfolding of Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies and its former Baltic Soviet republics into NATO as a threat, they have viewed the prospect of the alliance’s expansion into Ukraine as basically apocalyptic.”

As they proceed to explain, while Russia has “intense and fraught cultural, religious, economic, historical, and linguistic ties with Ukraine”, its “strategic concerns” were always “paramount.” They add that “Crimea (the majority of whose people are linguistically and culturally Russian, and have consistently demonstrated their wish to rejoin Russia) has been the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, since 1783. Since then, the peninsula has been Russia’s window onto the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the key to its southern defenses.”

Losing it to NATO would, therefore, be unthinkable.

When President Bush urged NATO “to put Ukraine and Georgia on the immediate path to NATO membership” at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy understood how dangerous it was, and derailed the proposal, but its significance had already been spelled out explicitly in a classified email to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from the US ambassador to Moscow, William J. Burns, who warned that ”Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).” NATO would be seen as “throwing down the strategic gauntlet,” he adding, concluding, “Today’s Russia will respond.”

After 2008, of course, despite the warnings, the path to war continued relentlessly, with, in 2014, the fall of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych (in which, as Schwarz and Layne describe it, “circumstantial evidence points to the United States semi-covertly promoting regime change by destabilizing Yanukovych”), and Russia’s retaliation, in which it “annexed Crimea and stepped up its support for Russian-speaking separatist rebels in the Donbas.”

In response, “NATO started training roughly ten thousand Ukrainian troops annually”, as part of an aim to secure its “full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions,” leading, by 2021, to a situation in which “Ukraine’s and NATO’s militaries had stepped up their coordination in joint exercises such as ‘Rapid Trident 21,’ which was led by the Ukrainian army with the participation of fifteen militaries and heralded by the Ukrainian general who co-directed it as intending to ‘improve the level of interoperability between units and headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the United States, and NATO partners.’”

A year before the war began, “Russia responded by amassing forces on Ukraine’s border with the intention — plainly and repeatedly stated — of arresting Ukraine’s NATO integration.” As Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated at a press conference on January 14, 2022, “the key to everything is the guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward,” and, just two days before the invasion, Vladimir Putin said, “We are categorically opposed to Ukraine joining NATO, because this poses a threat to us, and we have arguments to support this. I have repeatedly spoken about it.”

Once the invasion happened, however, all history was forgotten in the West as the narrative of an evil, unprovoked dictator was pumped out relentlessly, disguising what Schwarz and Layne describe as “a good deal of evidence” to suggest that “the [Biden] administration’s real — if only semi-acknowledged — objective is to topple Russia’s government,” and apparently airbrushing out of history the lessons of the Cold War: that this type of aggression is spectacularly unwise when confronting a nation armed with nuclear weapons.

War fatigue in Europe?

While the pro-war propaganda has been largely successful in the West, support for Russia’s definitive defeat had already waned by June 2022, when polling conducted for the European Council on Foreign Relations demonstrated that, across ten countries — Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the UK — support for Ukraine was high, but respondents were “split about the long-term goals,” divided “between a ‘Peace’ camp (35 per cent of people) that wants the war to end as soon as possible, and a ‘Justice’ camp that believes the more pressing goal is to punish Russia (22 per cent of people).”

By the first anniversary of the war, an Associated Press poll found that “less than half of Americans (48%) [were] in favour of providing weapons to Ukraine, down from 60% in May 2022,” while in Germany an Ipsos survey showed “support for sending weapons and/or air-defence systems to Ukraine” fell from 55% to 48% throughout 2022. In January this year, a poll by Forsa found that, as Unherd described it, “an astonishing 80% of Germans said that it was more important to end the conflict quickly with negotiations than for Ukraine to win.”

In response to this European demonstration of war fatigue, cheerleaders for endless, US-led war at the New York Timespublished an extraordinary response three weeks ago. In “The ‘Peace Dividend’ Is Over in Europe. Now Come the Hard Tradeoffs”, Patricia Cohen and Liz Alderman suggested that “[d]efending against an unpredictable Russia in years to come will mean bumping up against a strained social safety net and ambitious climate transition plans.”

Since the Cold War ended, they wrote, “trillions of dollars that had been dedicated to Cold War armies and weapons systems were gradually diverted to health care, housing and schools” throughout Europe. However, they suggested, “That era — when security took a back seat to trade and economic growth — abruptly ended with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.”

Kristalina Georgieva, the head of the International Monetary Fund, was quoted as saying, “The peace dividend is gone. Defense expenditures have to go up”, and, as Cohen and Alderman dutifully added, “The urgent need to combat a brutal and unpredictable Russia has forced European leaders to make excruciating budgetary decisions that will enormously affect peoples’ everyday lives. Do they spend more on howitzers or hospitals, tanks or teachers, rockets or roadways?”

Making clear that the US expects Europe to permanently increase its war spending, Cohen and Alderman added that these “sudden security demands, which will last well beyond an end to the war in Ukraine,” raise awkward questions for European leaders about how to continue to fund the “European social safety net”, in the words of Kenneth Rogoff, an economics professor at Harvard, as well as what Cohen and Alderman refer to as outlays “to avoid potentially disastrous climate change” (that word “potentially” being an unnecessary addition to their sentence).

With military spending across the EU and UK “estimated to rise between 53 and 65 percent” in coming years, the article’s authors explain that what this means is that “hundreds of billions of dollars that otherwise could have been used to, say, invest in bridge and highway repairs, child care, cancer research, refugee resettlement or public orchestras is expected to be redirected to the military.”

As they also explain, “the painful budgetary trade-offs or tax increases that will be required” to pay for this endless orgy of expanded militarism “have not yet trickled down to daily life,” breezily adding that “[m]uch of the belt-tightening last year that squeezed households was the result of skyrocketing energy prices and stinging inflation.”

The real war: capitalism vs. the planet

If it seems as farcical to you as it does to me that European populations will put up with demands from the US to drive ever more people into poverty to confront a military threat that shows no signs of wishing to reach out beyond Ukraine, then I hope that the peace movements that have been sidelined and demonized over the last 15 months will grow in strength.

After all, it’s not just the “cost of living crisis” that requires governments to care for their people; it’s also the costs of the “disastrous climate change” that is already with us, and that can’t be wished away.

Already this year, Spain has been wracked with ferocious droughts, with 28 percent less rainfall than expected between October and May, which will have a devastating impact on food supplies, and, as Euronews reported in March, “The era of ‘mega forest fires’ has [also] begun in Spain”, although, shamefully, the article added, “Is climate change to blame?,” as if there could be any other reason.

Meanwhile, devastating floods recently hit the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, caused by parts of the region receiving “half their average annual rainfall in just 36 hours”, as the Guardian explained, and further droughts, wildfires and floods will undoubtedly happen as we reach summer, and as the cooling La Niña weather pattern is replaced by the much hotter El Niño.

As research by the Copernicus Climate Change Service established last month, “widespread heatwaves led to Europe suffering its hottest summer on record in 2022, by a large margin”, while “[t]he heat, plus low rainfall, caused drought that affected more than a third of the continent at its peak, making it the driest year on record”, as the Guardian described it, adding, “Flows in almost two-thirds of Europe’s rivers were lower than average. High temperatures also meant that the carbon emissions from summer wildfires were the highest in 15 years and the European Alps lost record amounts of ice from glaciers.”

This is the real war, but it seems that most of us don’t want to look in the mirror and see that the enemy is ourselves, not some distant, demonized individual who “doesn’t share our values.”

Of course, we’re not directly to blame for extracting the fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — that, as the UN explains, “are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions.”

The blame for that lies directly with the fossil fuel companies themselves, which have known about the effect of their industry on runaway climate change since the 1970s and 1980s, but which hid the information and then persistenty lied about it, leading to the current situation, in which, as recent research from the University of Exeter suggests, two billion people could be “experiencing average annual temperatures above 29°C by 2030, a level at which very few communities have lived in the past”, as the Guardian described it, possibly leading to one billion climate refugees — if that is, chronic food shortages caused by increasing droughts, floods and monstrous heat don’t get us first. Whatever Putin’s crimes, they are surely exceeded by those of the oil company executives who have spent decades protecting their own financial interests while knowing that, in doing so, they threaten the lives of billions, and are knowingly making the planet inhospitable.

However, while the fossil fuel companies and their backers bear the brunt the blame, we — the mass of ordinary people — are queasily dependent on everything produced by the fossil fuel companies, including, to give just one example, the more than one billion cars (one for every seven humans on earth) that are currently pumping out their toxic fumes.

As John Vaillant, the great chronicler of fire in the age of climate change, explained in a recent article for Canada’s Globe and Mail, about the wildfires currently raging in Alberta, “Just imagine how many horses it would take to move a two-ton minivan from Toronto to Ottawa at highway speed. Thanks to superb engineering, we remain blissfully unaware of the violent explosions taking place under the minivan’s hood with every turn of the crankshaft. Thanks to disingenuous advertising and lax laws, we are equally oblivious to the 100 kilograms of CO2 trailing behind us on that single Toronto-to-Ottawa run.”

As he also explained, “A single six-cylinder minivan running at driving-to-school speed — 2,500 RPM — will generate around 10,000 combustions a minute, more than half a million per hour. That’s a lot of fires. Add them all up and you get tens of trillions of individual combustions. That, roughly speaking, is the number of fires humans make every day — uncountable as stars in the universe.” (For more, please check out John’s essential new bookFire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World).

And if you’re looking for another reason to call for a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine war — “back[ing] away from the precipice of nuclear annihilation and mov[ing] instead toward a negotiated settlement grounded in foreign policy realism”, as Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne describe it — please bear in mind that an estimated 6% of all global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the world’s militaries, and the industries that provide their equipment, according to Scientists for Global Responsibility.

The exact amount is unknown, because of a “large loophole” in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, a legacy of the US government securing “an automatic exemption from CO2 targets” for militaries as part of the Kyoto climate protocol in 1997, but as Neta C. Crawford, a political scientist at Oxford University, explained in her 2022 book, The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War: Charting the Rise and Fall of US Military Emissions, the US military is “the single largest institutional fossil fuel user in the world”, with a consumption that us “larger than the emissions of most countries.”

Imagine if, while were being bombarded with war propaganda, day after day last year, and are still being reminded of during most news programmes to this day, the broadcasters involved had devoted all that time and energy to the bigger war: the war that humanity is waging on the very sustainability of our existence on this miraculous planet.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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