When was the last time you remember Russian President Vladimir Putin directly threatening Finland and Sweden (should they ever join NATO) or putting his own nuclear forces into "special combat readiness," aka high alert? And if that didn't creep you out, well, think again. Since Putin made the surprising decision to order his military to invade Ukraine, we've been living in a geopolitical world not just on edge, but suddenly turned upside down. Everywhere, politics is being affected as right-wing Putin admirers, from Italy to the United States, including of course one Donald Trump, have had to begin walking back their overweening admiration for the Russian autocrat, lest they suffer political damage at home as the battlefronts in Ukraine grow fiercer.
How all this will play out politically, no one yet knows. Perhaps Joe Biden, too, stands to take a hit think of those grimly rising prices at the gas pump. Up for grabs is the future of domestic politics, whether in this country, Europe, or even for that matter Russia. There, antiwar crowds took to the streets, while popular actors and musicians denounced the invasion and even a rubber-stamp Russian parliamentarian tweeted his disapproval of Putin's action. ("I was voting for peace and not for war, and not for Kyiv to be bombed.") And that was just a hint of where events were heading, which was distinctly downhill.
As for those who stand to gain? You can count on one group, at least. The global versions of our own military-industrial complex are likely to be the true and possibly only winners from Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. Consider it a sign of the times that Germany, long hesitant to invest too much in its military, is now planning a "major increase" in what's called "defense spending" everywhere. In the U.S., "a growing chorus of pundits and policy analysts" is already advocating that yet more money go into the staggering U.S. "defense" budget and count on political support for that across the aisle in Washington. (What else is new?)
Now, with all of that and so much more in mind, step back for a moment with TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author most recently of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change, and consider the geopolitics of Planet Earth. Your future is in its grip. Tom
Would a "Cold" War Be the Best News Around?
Ukraine, Taiwan, and Other Flashpoints in a New Age of Geopolitics
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been widely described as the beginning of a new cold war, much like the old one in both its cast of characters and ideological nature. "In the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake freedom will prevail," President Biden asserted in a televised address to the nation the day Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. But while Russia and the West disagree on many issues of principle, this is not a replay of the Cold War. It's an all-too-geopolitical twenty-first-century struggle for advantage on a highly contested global chessboard. If comparisons are in order, think of this moment as more akin to the situation Europe confronted prior to World War I than in the aftermath of World War II.
Geopolitics the relentless struggle for control over foreign lands, ports, cities, mines, railroads, oil fields, and other sources of material and military might has governed the behavior of major powers for centuries. Think of Gibraltar, Pearl Harbor, the diamond mines of Africa, or the oil fields of the Middle East. Aspiring world powers, from the Roman Empire on, have always proceeded from the assumption that acquiring control over as many such places as possible by force if necessary was the surest path to greatness.
During the Cold War, it was considered uncouth in governing circles to openly express such blatantly utilitarian motives. Instead, both sides fabricated lofty ideological explanations for their intense rivalry. Even then, though, geopolitical considerations all too often prevailed. For example, the Truman Doctrine, that early exemplar of Cold War ideological ferocity, was devised to justify Washington's efforts to resist Soviet incursions in the Middle East, then a major source of oil for Europe (and of revenue for American oil firms).
Today, ideological appeals are still deployed by top officials to justify predatory military moves, but it's becoming ever more difficult to disguise the geopolitical intent of so much international behavior. Russia's assault on Ukraine is the most ruthless and conspicuous recent example, but hardly the only one. For years now, Washington has sought to counter China's rise by bolstering U.S. military strength in the western Pacific, prompting a variety of countermoves by Beijing. Other major powers, including India and Turkey, have also sought to extend their geopolitical reach. Not surprisingly, the risk of wars on such a global chessboard is likely to grow, which means understanding contemporary geopolitics becomes ever more important. Let's begin with Russia and its quest for military advantage.
Fighting for Position in the European Battlespace
Yes, Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his invasion in ideological terms by claiming that Ukraine was an artificial state unjustly detached from Russia. He's also denigrated the Ukrainian government as infiltrated by neo-Nazis still seeking to undo the Soviet Union's victory in World War II. These considerations seem to have grown more pervasive in Putin's mind as he assembled forces for an attack on Ukraine. Nevertheless, these should be viewed as an accumulation of grievances overlaying an all too hardcore set of geopolitical calculations.
From Putin's perspective, the origins of the Ukrainian conflict date back to the immediate post-Cold War years, when NATO, taking advantage of Russia's weakness at the time, relentlessly expanded eastward. In 1999, three former Soviet-allied states, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all previously members of the Warsaw Pact (Moscow's version of NATO), were incorporated into the alliance; in 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia were added, along with three former actual republics of the Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). For NATO, this staggering enlargement moved its own front lines of defense ever farther from its industrial heartlands along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Meanwhile, Russia's front lines shrank hundreds of miles closer to its borders, putting its own heartland at greater risk and generating deep anxiety among senior officials in Moscow, who began speaking out against what they saw as encirclement by hostile forces.
"I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe," Putin declared at a Munich Security Conference in 2007. "On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?"
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