Why Is the U.S. so Interested in Ukraine? The Conflict’s Long and Deep Conceptual Roots

Why is the United States so interested in Ukraine more than 7000 miles away?

The answer to that question goes to the conceptual taproot of the conflict. It lies much deeper than is commonly perceived and is connected with U.S. ambitions (like Nazi Germany’s) to control the entire world. The details are supplied in the April 2022 edition of Monthly Review (Vol. 73, No. 11) in the journal’s “Notes from the editors: Ukraine as the ‘Geopolitical Pivot’.”

Here’s what the editors say:

In 1904, Britain’s Halford Mackinder articulated the relevant and guiding geopolitical doctrine (later developed in Nazi Germany by Karl Haushofer as well as by John Spykman in the United States during the 1930s and 40s.)

The doctrine’s basic idea was that the domination of Eastern Europe (including Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and the western part of the Russian Federation) was the key to dominating the planet. Mackinder said in effect:  Who rules East Europe commands Eurasia. / Who rules Eurasia commands the rest of Asia and Africa. /Who rules those continents commands the World.

Since its original expression at the beginning of the last century, Mackinder’s doctrine has informed the strategies of all leading capitalist nations as they sought world domination – including Great Britain, Nazi Germany, and the United States. In its latter form, the doctrine is commonly referred to as “The Grand Strategy.”

It was further refined by U.S. planners such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Paul Wolfowitz. Following their advisement, U.S. presidents from Nixon to Biden have used it to guide their geopolitical policies.

The advisors’ clearest expression emerged in 1991, when then undersecretary of defense (appointed by George H.W. Bush) Paul Wolfowitz published his Defense Planning Guidance. There he wrote, “Our policy [after the fall of the Soviet Union] must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor.”

Towards achieving this end, Wolfowitz recognized a particular need to defang a weakened Russia which was then the strongest military power in Eurasia. Russia, he contended, must be quickly neutralized before it could recover from its post-Soviet reduction in status and power. The most effective avenue towards such nullification of Russian might would be to bring into the Western orbit the countries that had been part of Eastern Europe’s Warsaw Pact defense organization.

In making his case, Wolfowitz was echoing not only Mackinder, Haushofer, and Spykman, but the position of Truman advisor, George Kennan who in 1948 had written, 

“. . . we have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…. We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

Though adopted in practice by United States policy planners, Kennan’s strategy remained their unarticulated “quiet part,” because (following so closely upon World War II) it eerily echoed the ultimate goal of Nazi Germany’s aspirations to world domination.  

However, following the fall of the Soviets and its bruited “end of history,” it became fashionable for U.S. politicians to finally speak the quiet part aloud openly identifying America’s system as “imperialist,” “dominant,” and brooking no rivals.

In turn, Carter advisor Brzezinski’s own elaboration of The Strategy shaped U.S. policy vis a vis Russia for over three decades.

In pursuit of controlling Russia, Brzezinski was the one responsible for creating a quagmire in Afghanistan to trap the Soviet Union in an unwinnable war. Supported by Carter, he initiated the program that armed and trained the Mujahideen to confront the Soviets in “the graveyard of empires.”

The trap worked and its debilitating swamp became a key element contributing to the dissolution of the USSR (and to the disastrous events of 9/11 in the United States). Brzezinski considered it a giant step towards seizing control of Eastern Europe.

Bill Clinton took the next step. Contravening U.S. promises to Gorbachev not to move the alliance “one inch” eastward, the U.S. president proceeded to dismember Yugoslavia and decided to move the organization into the actual sphere of the former Soviet Union.

Subsequently (in 1997) Brzezinski produced his book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. There he argued that the U.S. had finally found itself in a position “for the first time ever (for) a non-Eurasian power” to become “the key arbiter of Eurasian power relations,” while at the same time “emerging as “the world’s paramount power.” In other words, because of the opening in Russia, the United States found itself poised to become the first and the last globally dominant empire.

For Brzezinski, assuming that role in Eurasia required further weakening Russia to deprive it of any pretension to being a world power. Such debilitation, he argued, depended on incorporating Ukraine (which shares a 1,200 mile border with Russia) into NATO as a kind of Damocles’ sword over the head of the geographically largest country in the world.

However, Brzezinski warned that the inclusion in question would inevitably be perceived by Russia as an existential threat – as an unacceptable crossing of a red line that would force Russia into an anti-hegemonic alliance with China and possibly Iran in a tripartite bloc.

A U.S. countermove, Brzezinski wrote, would involve gradually expanding NATO into countries formerly belonging to the Soviet Union. It would mean applying pressure on China by creating distracting problems for it in Hong Kong and Taiwan and by forging closer NATO ties with the regional powers Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

Nevertheless, the greatest stumbling block to such moves on the grand chessboard remained Ukraine. How could the U.S. gain its control without having Russia interpret the move as a death threat aimed at its breakup and without having China perceive Russia’s balkanization as destabilizing its own far western regions?

With those questions still unanswered, Washington continued to implement Brzezinski’s grand strategy. Over the past 30 years, it has moved ahead with the project of normalizing NATO expansion to include 15 previous Warsaw Pact members. In those countries, it placed troops (including U.S. divisions) while locating missile facilities in Poland and Romania. The final goal continued to be the incorporation of the crucial Ukraine prize. So, finally, in 2008 NATO formally announced its intention to admit that trophy as a member state.

Towards that end, the U.S. played a major role in provoking a coup d’état in the Ukraine capital. It replaced the country’s elected president Viktor Yanukovych, who though once favorable to the West sought economic help from Russia when the International Monetary fund proposed austerity conditionalities on its loans. That move was unacceptable to U.S. ambitions in Ukraine. So, using Neo-Nazi agents provocateurs, they had Yanukovych replaced with a more amenable hand-picked client.

The U.S.-supported coup led to uprisings of dissent in Ukraine’s Donbass region and to brutal repression by the replacement government. For instance, in Odessa, more than 40 resisters were burnt alive in a union hall at the hands of Ukraine’s Neo-Nazis. Such right-wing repression led the Donbass regions of Luhansk and Donetsk to break away from Ukraine and form two people’s republics.  

Additionally, even before the coup (in 1991) Crimea (whose citizens are predominantly Russian speaking) had become an autonomous republic within Ukraine. After the coup, a referendum had it voting to merge with Russia.      

Kyiv’s response to these secessions took the form of intense military operations against the breakaways. Since 2014, the resulting civil war has taken the lives of over 14,000 people and has created 2.5 million refugees most of whom have fled to Russia.

The conflict came to an apparent end with the signing of the Minsk Agreements of 2014-15. The accords were worked out between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany and endorsed by the UN Security Council. The pacts gave Luhansk and Donetsk the right to self-government while remaining in Ukraine. However, Kyiv ignored the agreements and pressed on with its Donbass offensive.

Russia replied by demanding that the Minsk Agreements be honored. It also insisted that Ukraine agree not to enter NATO and that the 130,00 Ukrainian troops then attacking Donbass cease their operations. All of these, Moscow said, were red lines which if crossed would require vigorous response.

NATO and Kyiv insisted on crossing all the lines just noted. Russia’s “special military operation” was the result.

Conclusion

So, there we have it. The Ukraine conflict has been over a century in the making.

In 1904, Mackinder saw its importance for world hegemons who themselves (from Great Britain and Nazi Germany to the United States of America) concurred with his assessment. Though recognizing the dangers of doing so, Kissinger, Brzezinski, and Wolfowitz embraced Mackinder’s viewpoint. They focused their Grand Strategy on the world’s Chessboard towards ultimately securing control of Ukraine. To that end, the presidents they advised following the breakup of the Soviet Union expanded NATO right up to Russia’s borders.   

In doing so, they insisted on crossing red lines repeatedly drawn by Russian leaders. U.S. support of a coup and the installation of a NATO friendly government in Kyiv caused alarm bells to ring in Moscow. So did a Neo-Nazi-led assault on dissenting Russian speakers in Ukraine’s Donbass region.

U.S. refusal to recognize and enter negotiations over Russia’s concerns on such matters represented the last straw.

All of that explains not only a desperate Russia’s “special military operation” against what it sees as a threat to its very existence, but why a U.S.-led NATO is pouring billions into the conflict.

It’s about the lynchpin of world domination. It’s about shoring up a vanishing U.S hegemony. It’s about America’s brooking no rivals. It’s about maintaining “full spectrum dominance” in a doomed unipolar world.

A World on Fire: The Establishment’s Counter-Revolution against Democracy

On November 21st, conservative pundit, David Brooks published a confusing op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Revolt against Populism.” At least for this reader, it generated an overwhelming sense of information entanglement and of confusion about making sense of the world Brooks described.

I’m referring on the one hand to the welter of detail supplied in his enumeration of countries rebelling against populism. (How is one to know enough to make sense of all of that?) On the other hand, my reference is to Brooks’ all-encompassing use of the term “populism.” For him everyone from Xi Jinping to Donald Trump seems to fit into that category. How is that possible?

The purpose of this reflection is first of all to answer that question: how to make sense of the term “populism.” Its second purpose is to use that clarified term to offer a brief framework explaining the current worldwide rebellion unfolding before our eyes.

Begin with that last point – the rebellion that Brooks describes as a revolt against populism. It’s everywhere. As the author notes, demonstrations and street riots have erupted in Hong Kong, Warsaw, Budapest, Istanbul and Moscow. Angry masses are currently protesting in Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Similar phenomena surface in Latin America’s “Pink Tide,” particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and Bolivia. Brooks also includes the “Yellow Vests” in France, Brexit in Great Britain, and Trumpism in the United States.

He might well have added venues like Algiers, Argentina, Egypt, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Iraq. And then, of course, there are the permanent populist revolts entrenched in China (comprising 20% of the world’s population) and Cuba – not to mention ISIS and al-Qaeda. Finally, Brooks might also have included populist rebellion against climate change in our own country – e.g. Standing Rock, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and School Strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg.

Yes, Brooks is right: the world is in flames; it’s “unsteady and ready to blow.”  

And what’s the cause of it all? Brooks gives two answers. For one, it’s a revolt against the revived and globalized form of laissez-faire capitalism that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. In the aftermath, with the Soviet Union in ruins, capitalist ideologues like Francis Fukuyama hastily declared the end of history and their own particular system definitively triumphant. As Margaret Thatcher put it there was no alternative.

However, far from being generally beneficial and inevitable, the emergent system of world-wide privatization, deregulated markets, and tax cuts for the rich alienated the masses. They experienced globalism as favoring a relatively small number of elites, while adversely impacting wage workers, rural populations and emerging middle classes. Neoliberalism proved to be culturally destructive as well.

In response to its austerity programs for the non-elite, people everywhere gravitated to populism. That’s the second explanation of the world’s turmoil identified by Brooks – a populism so ineffective that people are rebelling everywhere.

But it’s here that his deeper confusion appears. It comes from the author’s mixture of the term’s democratic meaning with neoliberalism’s undemocratic reaction precisely to that popular thrust. It comes from his refusal to face facts. In personal terms, Evo Morales Movement towards Socialism (MAS) represents a hugely effective populism; Donald Trump and the U.S. government is anti-populist.    

To get what I mean, first of all consider the definition of populism itself. Wikipedia defines the term as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

Of course (using Maslow’s hierarchy), the primary concerns of the people everywhere are always the same: food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, dignified work, and just wages. Once those needs have been met, secondary concerns emerge such as freedom of religion, of press, and the rights to assemble and protest. According to that understanding, you might just as well define populism as democracy, and the title of Brooks’ article as “The Revolt against Democracy.”

Contrary to the impression conveyed by Brooks, that revolt is primarily embodied precisely in his beloved Establishment’s invariable reaction to the democratic aspirations just listed. It’s always the same: sanctions, regime change, coup d’états, assassinations, and outright war waged by proxy or by direct attack. Popular support for such anti-democratic tactics (insofar as they are even sought) is achieved by appealing to the economic self-interest of the elite and to the primal prejudices of “the base.”

Favorite reactionary anti-democratic themes invoke patriotism, religion, racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia. Meanwhile, the genuine causes of popular misery – including unaffordable rents, inadequate wages, inescapable debt, widening gaps between rich and poor, privatized healthcare and education, a tattered social safety net, decaying or non-existent public transportation, ubiquitous political corruption, and endless war – are left unaddressed. To call such austerity measures “popular” simply muddies the waters making it more difficult to make sense of the world. And yet this is what Brooks and standard treatments of “populism” constantly imply and say.

Such sleight of hand enables mainstream pundits like David Brooks to falsely equate “populisms of the left” and “populisms of the right.” In the process, it empowers them to admit the failures of neoliberal capitalism, but to hastily add that leftwing populism is no better. As Brooks puts it: “But it’s also clear that when in power the populists can’t deliver goods. So now across the globe we’re seeing “a revolt against the populists themselves.” After all, Brooks claims, “Venezuela is an economic disaster” and in Bolivia “Evo Morales stands accused of trying to rig an election.”

However, Brooks’ declaration of populist failure doesn’t mention:

  • The crippling sanctions the United States has imposed on Venezuela
  • Nor those placed on China, Cuba (for more than 50 years!) and Nicaragua.
  • The fact that Morales’ populist policies in Bolivia had drastically raised the living standards of the country’s majority indigenous population
  • Or that those of populist Lula da Silva had done the same for the impoverished of Brazil
  • Or that China’s policies (with enormous popular support) have transformed it into the world’s most dynamic economic force lifting out of poverty fully 20% of the world’s population
  • Or that the latter’s “Belt and Road” foreign-aid initiative has made its political economy and populist policies the aspirational standard of the entire Global South – despite the contrary efforts of the U.S. and of the EU’s former colonial powers

Above all, Brooks’ overwhelming list and standardized false equivalency doesn’t recognize the historical pattern behind the explosive situation he describes. That pattern has the former colonial powers, and especially the United States, resisting democratic populism on every front. It does so according to the pattern which follows. Here is how I describe it in my recently published The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news:

  • Any country attempting to establish a populist economy favoring the poor majority
  • Will be accused of being illegitimate, communist, socialist, authoritarian, and/or a sponsor of terrorism.
  • It will be overthrown either directly by U.S. invasion
  • Or indirectly by right-wing (often terrorist) elements within the local population
  • To keep that country within the neoliberal orbit
  • So that the U.S. and its rich international allies might continue to use the country’s resources for its own enrichment
  • And for that of the local elite.

What I’m suggesting here is that historical pattern analysis just outlined goes much further towards pinpointing the original spark that has ignited the world’s conflagration and resulting disequilibrium than Brooks’ misleading description as a “Revolt against Populism.”

Underneath many, if not all of the revolts Brooks so overwhelmingly enumerates is the heavy hand of the United States and Europe’s displaced colonial powers. They are the consistently inveterate enemies of genuine populism concerned as it is with meeting basic human need. They are the advocates and sponsors of the world’s anti-democratic forces that have (with the help of establishment pundits like David Brooks) coopted the term to confuse us all.

In other words, there’s no need to be overwhelmed rather than inspired by the unfolding worldwide revolt against neoliberal austerity and laissez-faire capitalism. At least initially, it’s not necessary for us to know the details of every country’s history and political economy.

Instead, critical thinkers should simply remain cognizant of the nature of authentic populism and of the pattern just summarized. Then, when necessary, further reading and research can confirm or disconfirm the validity of the pattern’s particular application. In most cases, I predict, its heuristic value will be vindicated.