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Letter to the editor: a response
Notes on the crisis, Part I
Claire—We published a letter to the editor from a reader the other day. My response, below, is not comprehensive, and I don’t speak for all the Cosmopolitan Globalists; I speak for myself, but I hope he feels his concerns have been addressed. Substack won’t let me publish it all in one newsletter, so this is Part I: You should have the second part in five minutes.
Reader: The CG tone is becoming emotional on [the subject of Ukraine]. This is obviously understandable, as it’s all but impossible not to be moved by the bravery and spirit of the Ukrainians, and it is about as clear a case of good-guys-vs-bad-guys as could be imagined in our fallen world.
Claire: I agree. It is as clear a case of good-guys-vs-bad-guys as could be imagined in our fallen world.
Reader: I think that what the educated population of the West needs more than anything from a sophisticated publication at this moment is informed judgment.
Claire: Doing our best.
Reader: Here are some key issues I think it would be useful to consider:
Independent of Putin, any regional power that has sufficient military capability will try to prevent distant powers from stationing military forces on their border.
Claire: Will they? Why hasn’t France, say, tried to prevent us from stationing forces on its border? Or Poland? The United States has troops stationed in nearly 150 countries. I haven’t counted how many borders this represents, but clearly, it is not true that any regional power with sufficient military capability will try to prevent distant powers from stationing military forces on their border.
Russia objects to the presence of our military forces on its border because it views us as an enemy. It does not view us as an enemy because our military forces are on its border. This gets the causality wrong. Our forces are on its border because it views us as an enemy—and what’s more, it means to invade our allies.
Russia views us as an enemy because we’re an obstacle to Russian imperialism, first; and second, because it sees us as what we very frankly are: a revolutionary country whose ideas are an inherent threat to Russia’s system of governance.
The idea that this conflict is owed to NATO’s determination to encroach upon Russia’s borders is Russia’s talking point. It’s incoherent. NATO is a defensive alliance. The Kremlin knows perfectly well that NATO will not, like Napoleon or Hitler, march on to Moscow in an unprovoked and conventional war. Russia’s security is not threatened by NATO. The security of Russia’s neighbors, however—who are our longstanding, democratic allies—is gravely jeopardized by Russia.
We’re not a “distant power” stationing forces on “Russia’s border,” in any event. We’re members of the NATO alliance; the alliance comprises 30 countries of which only two are not in Europe. If Russia objects to having armed forces on its Western border, it should stop invading its neighbors. That would without a doubt result, quite quickly, in a demilitarized Europe. The evidence for this is that even when Russia was busily picking off its neighbors, one by one, much of Europe had trouble imagining why they needed to spend more on their militaries.
One more point. Our forces are on Russia’s Western border. If the relevant principle of international relations were, as you suggest, that “any regional power that has sufficient military capability will try to prevent distant powers from stationing military forces on their border,” wouldn’t you think Russia would be equally vexed by China’s drive to acquire military bases in Central Asia? (And vice-versa?) But neither party has invaded Tajikistan, say, in an access of rage over the proximity of the other’s forces to their borders. In fact, the Russian Far East has been stripped of its troops—Moscow moved all of the Eastern Military District forces to Belarus.
All of this is to accept a faulty premise, however, which is that in the year 2022, it truly matters whether forces are stationed closed to your national borders. Don’t misunderstand me; it does, a bit: If you plan a conventional invasion and occupation of a country—such as the one Russia is attempting in Ukraine—you do need to move a great many troops to the borders of that country. But in the age of submarines, flight, space travel, nuclear weapons, ICBMs, C-130 transports, cyber attacks, unrestricted information warfare, and the globalized economy, the proximity of our forces to Russia is chiefly of symbolic, not strategic, significance. US forces are in NATO countries to show that if Russia invades a NATO country, it will be invading all of NATO, and Article V would thereby be invoked. Our troops are not there as an invasion force—which you can see very readily via satellite, just as we saw that Russia’s were configured as an invasion force. They’re there as a tripwire. The threat our forces pose to Russia is this, and only this: They raise the risk to Russia of invading its neighbors.
Given the nature of modern war, the only way Russia could truly be safe from our military is through the dissolution of NATO and our complete disarmament. Even then, we would retain the knowledge that allowed us to build a military that can strike any corner of the earth; so in truth, the only way Russia could truly be safe from our military is by killing us all.
So yes, Russia does feel threatened by NATO, but not in the sense that Russia or you imply. Russia feels threatened because it wants its empire back, and NATO is standing in the way.
This seems a relevant moment to remind readers that dissolving NATO was precisely what Russia demanded in its ultimatum before it invaded Ukraine. It did not demand that Ukraine abstain from joining NATO, as many seem to think. Here are the so-caled treaties Russia issued on December 17:
Had we acceded to these demands, it would have meant the end of NATO—of what value is Article V if under pressure, we throw out members of the alliance? It would have meant the destruction of the post-Cold War order defined by the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter, the NATO–Russia Founding Act, and the Istanbul Commitments. Russia sought to dissolve NATO at gunpoint. This, not Ukraine’s prospective NATO membership, was the casus belli as they stated it.
Countries that view us as allies are generally happy to have our forces nearby.
Reader: Isn’t this the essence of the Monroe Doctrine, as an example?
Claire: No. First, the Monroe Doctrine—promulgated in 1823—antedated the age of submarines, air flight, space travel, nuclear weapons, ICBMs, cyber attacks, unrestricted information warfare, and the globalized economy. It was issued in the era of European colonialism, when Europe was under the control of the Holy Alliance. The United States—an unwelcome example of a successful democratic revolution—was a source of displeasure to that alliance.
Here is the text of Monroe’s statement, which only became a doctrine as opposed to a desire when Napoleon III invaded Mexico in 1862. Note that the very first sentence concerns the expansionist aims of the Russian Imperial Government, which at the time claimed sovereignty over the Pacific Northwest.
The context was the spasm of revolution in Latin America that saw Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico shake off their colonialist masters in Spain and Portugal. Obviously, the United States was on the side of the New World; our revolution was the inspiration for their revolutions. We worried that Europe—and particularly Czar Alexander I—would attempt to retake its old colonies or acquire new ones.
Consider the statement itself. It asserts that the New World is no longer subject to European colonization:
… The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.
The essence of the Monroe Doctrine, then, is not that “any regional power that has sufficient military capability will try to prevent distant powers from stationing military forces on their border.” (In fact, the United States didn’t at the time have such capabilities; it had neither the military nor the naval power to back up these words, which were widely ignored.) The essence of the Monroe Doctrine is that free and independent countries should not be colonized by autocratic European imperialists—and particularly not by demented and autocratic Russian Czars.
It’s realist-school and cynical and world-weary to suggest there’s no difference, really, between the United States and Russia, or that the United States would do just what Russia is doing in its position, but it isn’t true. If it were true, Ukraine would be indifferent to being invaded by Russia—it couldn’t be worse than becoming an American protectorate, right?—and the United States would now be raining rockets on Ottawa’s civilians, having in recent memory starved some four million Canadians to death.
Reader: It’s not 1995 anymore—does NATO really have the power to force Russia to accept this at a cost that we will actually bear? The last phrase is crucial, because Russia can make that very, very costly.
Claire: Who knows? This is war. It is inherently unpredictable. Yes, Russia could launch its nuclear weapons. Putin has threatened to do it. On the other hand, this would see Russia incinerated from the the Polish border to Vladivostok. Even if Putin is insane, his military knows perfectly well what a nuclear exchange would mean. I don’t think, frankly, that he will. I could be wrong. But if he and everyone in the launch chain command are that crazy, we can’t do much about it.
It’s obviously in NATO’s power to do precisely what we’ve done: Flatline the Russian economy and make invading Ukraine a far costlier proposition than Putin imagined. We can also make it clear that contrary to Putin’s belief, we are united and we will defend every inch of NATO.
So far, the costs to Russia have been far greater than the costs to NATO. We’ve collapsed the Russian economy; there’s a mad dash on for hard currency; Russia’s financial markets are closed; its websites are down; not even the oligarchs can fly over Western airspace, they’re now trying to sail their yachts to the Maldives, where I somehow suspect we’ll nonetheless find some way to confiscate their wealth. In Ukraine, all the websites are up. The water, banks, and electricity are working as normal.
Russia has overnight transformed Germany from a bunch of gas-guzzling pacifist nuclear-power-fearing vegans into something a bit more familiar to them, historically, and that cannot strike them as a good outcome. Germany still has the world’s best industry. I am sure a fully rearmed Germany was not a Russian war aim. Even Switzerland has frozen Putin’s assets. The whole free world has been mobilized. Together, we are not powerless. Together, we can impose far higher costs on Russia than Russia can impose on us.
Can Russia nuke us? Yes. But the combined firepower of NATO is vastly greater than Russia’s. In a conventional conflict, we win—and we win quickly. They know this. NATO Air Force could end this in 48 hours.
We won’t do it, because we’re afraid of Russia’s nuclear weapons, and it is right that we are: even a small risk of nuclear war is probably too much to take—although I strongly suspect we’ll be forced, in the end, to take that risk. But the West has nuclear weapons, too. Will the logic of deterrence and MAD hold up? I hope so. It has so far.
Can we bear the costs of not stopping Putin? Putin’s track record is clear: Every war he wins is followed by another war. He certainly won’t stop with Ukraine; read for yourself, below, what he envisions.
It is not whatsoever in the US interest for Europe to become an imperial Russian suzerainty. If you’re trying to understand what Russia wishes to accomplish, the Kremlin-aligned Russian media is the best place to start, and I commend to our readers’ attention, particularly, this article, “The Resolution of the Ukraine Question.” (“The Ukraine Question,” my God!) It was mistakenly published in the Kremlin-aligned media on the morning of February 26. It celebrates Russia’s victory and the collapse of the Ukrainian state within the anticipated two days.
It was, of course, swiftly taken down, but it’s archived, here. This is what Putin had in mind and what his state media was prepared to announce. It’s worth reading in full, so I’ll reproduce it all; the emphasis is mine.
A new world is being born before our eyes. Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has ushered in a new era—and in three dimensions at once. And of course, in the fourth, internal Russian. Here begins a new period both in ideology and in the very model of our socio-economic system—but this is worth talking about separately a little later.
Russia is restoring its unity—the tragedy of 1991, this terrible catastrophe in our history, its unnatural dislocation, has been overcome. Yes, at a great cost, yes, through the tragic events of a virtual civil war, because now brothers, separated by belonging to the Russian and Ukrainian armies, are still shooting at each other, but there will be no more Ukraine as anti-Russia.
Russia is restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together—in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarusians and Little Russians. If we had abandoned this, if we had allowed the temporary division to take hold for centuries, then we would not only betray the memory of our ancestors, but would also be cursed by our descendants for allowing the disintegration of the Russian land.
Vladimir Putin has assumed, without a drop of exaggeration, a historic responsibility by deciding not to leave the solution of the Ukrainian question to future generations. After all, the need to solve it would always remain the main problem for Russia—for two key reasons. And the issue of national security, that is, the creation of anti-Russia from Ukraine and an outpost for the West to put pressure on us, is only the second most important among them.
The first would always be the complex of a divided people, the complex of national humiliation—when the Russian house first lost part of its foundation (Kiev), and then was forced to come to terms with the existence of two states, not one, but two peoples. That is, either to abandon their history, agreeing with the insane versions that “only Ukraine is the real Russia,” or to gnash one’s teeth helplessly, remembering the times when “we lost Ukraine.”
Returning Ukraine, that is, turning it back to Russia, would be more and more difficult with every decade—recoding, de-Russification of Russians and inciting Ukrainian Little Russians against Russians would gain momentum. And in the event of the consolidation of the full geopolitical and military control of the West over Ukraine, its return to Russia would become completely impossible—it would have to fight for it with the Atlantic bloc.
Now this problem is gone—Ukraine has returned to Russia. This does not mean that its statehood will be liquidated, but it will be reorganized, re-established and returned to its natural state of part of the Russian world. Within what boundaries, in what form will the alliance with Russia be consolidated (through the CSTO and the Eurasian Union or the Union State of Russia and Belarus)? This will be decided after the end is put in the history of Ukraine as anti-Russia. In any case, the period of the split of the Russian people is coming to an end.
And here begins the second dimension of the coming new era—it concerns Russia’s relations with the West. Not even Russia, but the Russian world, that is, three states, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, acting in geopolitical terms as a single whole. These relations have entered a new stage—the West sees the return of Russia to its historical borders in Europe. And he is loudly indignant at this, although in the depths of his soul he must admit to himself that it could not be otherwise.
Did someone in the old European capitals, in Paris and Berlin, seriously believe that Moscow would give up Kyiv? That the Russians will forever be a divided people? And at the same time when Europe is uniting, when the German and French elites are trying to seize control of European integration from the Anglo-Saxons and assemble a united Europe? Forgetting that the unification of Europe became possible only thanks to the unification of Germany, which took place according to the good Russian (albeit not very smart) will. To swipe after that also on Russian lands is not even the height of ingratitude, but of geopolitical stupidity. The West as a whole, and even more so Europe in particular, did not have the strength to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, and even more so to take Ukraine for itself. In order not to understand this, one had to be just geopolitical fools.
More precisely, there was only one option: to bet on the further collapse of Russia, that is, the Russian Federation. But the fact that it did not work should have been clear twenty years ago. And already fifteen years ago, after Putin’s Munich speech, even the deaf could hear—Russia is returning.
Now the West is trying to punish Russia for the fact that it returned, for not justifying its plans to profit at its expense, for not allowing the expansion of the western space to the east. Seeking to punish us, the West thinks that relations with it are of vital importance to us. But this has not been the case for a long time—the world has changed, and this is well understood not only by Europeans, but also by the Anglo-Saxons who rule the West. No amount of Western pressure on Russia will lead to anything. There will be losses from the sublimation of confrontation on both sides, but Russia is ready for them morally and geopolitically. But for the West itself, an increase in the degree of confrontation incurs huge costs—and the main ones are not at all economic.
Europe, as part of the West, wanted autonomy—the German project of European integration does not make strategic sense while maintaining the Anglo-Saxon ideological, military and geopolitical control over the Old World. Yes, and it cannot be successful, because the Anglo-Saxons need a controlled Europe. But Europe needs autonomy for another reason as well—in case the States go into self-isolation (as a result of growing internal conflicts and contradictions) or focus on the Pacific region, where the geopolitical center of gravity is moving.
But the confrontation with Russia, into which the Anglo-Saxons are dragging Europe, deprives the Europeans of even the chance of independence, not to mention the fact that they are trying to force a break with China in the same way on Europe. If now the Atlanticists are happy that the “Russian threat” will unite the Western bloc, then in Berlin and Paris they cannot fail to understand that, having lost hope for autonomy, the European project will simply collapse in the medium term. That is why independent-minded Europeans are now completely uninterested in building a new iron curtain on their eastern borders—realizing that it will turn into a corral for Europe. Whose century (more precisely, half a millennium) of global leadership is over in any case—but various options for its future are still possible.
Because the construction of a new world order—and this is the third dimension of current events—is accelerating, and its contours are more and more clearly visible through the spreading cover of Anglo-Saxon globalization. A multipolar world has finally become a reality—the operation in Ukraine is not capable of rallying anyone but the West against Russia. Because the rest of the world sees and understands perfectly well—this is a conflict between Russia and the West, this is a response to the geopolitical expansion of the Atlanticists, this is Russia’s return of its historical space and its place in the world.
China and India, Latin America and Africa, the Islamic world and Southeast Asia—no one believes that the West leads the world order, much less sets the rules of the game. Russia has not only challenged the West, it has shown that the era of Western global domination can be considered completely and finally over. The new world will be built by all civilizations and centers of power, naturally, together with the West (united or not)—but not on its terms and not according to its rules.
What a catalogue of miscalculation. But what they’re playing for is clear, no?
Claire: What else is clear? Things are not happening as they planned. Russia badly underestimated both Ukraine’s will and capacity to resist—and ours.
Russian conscript prisoners of war have been interviewed on Ukrainian television, saying they were tricked into joining the battle. Russia is desperately trying to keep the war hidden from the Russian public—framing it as a Donbas operation—and in doing so, it has ceded the information war to Ukraine, which has galvanized morale and support behind Kyiv. Russia is a pariah, and not just among the “Anglo-Saxons.”
So. Can we afford it? Depends what “it” is. Ukraine’s Defense Minister has publicized this offer widely: “Russian soldier: Come out with a white flag and you will receive amnesty and 5,000,000 rubles for your equipment and weapon!” (That was worth about US$50,000 when he said it, but it’s sinking fast). Russian conscripts are paid about US$380 a month. Some 150,000 Russian troops were estimated to be on the Ukrainian border. Buying every one of them would be a ten billion dollar project.
We can afford that, yes. As you say, we’ve put much more than that on the credit card before.
I’ve written before that the division of the West is suicide. Neither the US, alone, nor Europe, alone, have the wealth, the military might, nor the population to counter the world’s authoritarian powers. “If liberal democracy falls in Europe, it will fail in the United States,” I wrote, “if it fails in the United States, it will fall in Europe. If either fails, the West will no longer exist.” I recommend everyone read that essay.
There is a corollary to this argument: Europe and the United States, firmly allied, are powerful enough to establish a global order in which liberal democracy might survive. Russia was counting on Western division. After all, they’ve certainly worked hard enough and spent enough money to foment it.
But fate can be strange. They’ve managed, instead, to inspire genuinely unprecedented Western unity. I mean “Western” in the large sense: Japan is with us. South Korea. Australia. Latin America. India will come along in due course, I think; it’s a democracy: I don’t think the Indian people will wish for long to stand with China.
We see it, now. We see two things. First: We hang together or we hang separately. Second: Our enemies do mean to see us hang.
Is there a guarantee we can achieve our objectives at “a cost we’re willing to pay?” Of course not. But it wasn’t our brilliant idea for Putin to invade Ukraine, was it?
I understand the nuclear risks well. But it remains the case that we guaranteed Ukraine’s security, and Ukraine is in this position because we convinced them to give up nuclear weapons.
Reader: Vivek’s article on SWIFT was a good example of explaining why various actions that feel good might not be in the interest of the US, but I don’t think went far enough. And where was this consideration when evaluating whether doing this, even in a limited way, while obviously in the interests of Ukraine, actually serves US interests?
Claire: Where was this consideration? I assume it was governing our calculations when we decided not to impose such sanctions in response to the 1999 Moscow apartment buildings (which Putin planned); the invasion and leveling of Chechnya; Russia’s ghastly mutation into the world’s largest organized crime network; the invasion of Georgia; the arctic land-grab; the complete destruction of Syria’s ancient cities; the scorched-earth war against Syrian civilians; the cover Russia gave to Assad’s use of chemical weapons; the coup in Moldova; Russia’s diplomatic support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions; green men popping up right and left in Europe; the seizure of the Crimean peninsula; the downing of MH17; the occupation of eastern Ukraine; the Anschluss in Belarus; the violence against Russia’s own population; the levied mass arrests; the interference in our elections; the interference in our allies’ elections; the anti-vax movement, nourished by Russia’s propaganda organs, that killed hundreds of thousands of our citizens. This list could be extended by paragraphs. Russia has been an intolerable menace for years to every significant US interest. Name me an interest. I’ll tell you what Russia’s done to undermine it.
One of the best articles I’ve read about Putin’s long game is this one, by Molly McKew, published in 2017. I agreed with her at the time. I believe she’s been amply vindicated by events. One administration after another failed to see, as she wrote,
the West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests. …
And her economical explanation is precisely correct:
To understand the shift underway in the world, and to stop being outmaneuvered, we first need to see the Russian state for what it really is. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. This freed the Russian security state from its last constraints. In 1991, there were around 800,000 official KGB agents in Russia. They spent a decade reorganizing themselves into the newly-minted FSB, expanding and absorbing other instruments of power, including criminal networks, other security services, economic interests, and parts of the political elite. They rejected the liberal, democratic Russia that President Boris Yeltsin was trying to build. …
… Russia does not aspire to be like us, or to make itself stronger than we are. Rather, its leaders want the West—and specifically NATO and America — to become weaker and more fractured until we are as broken as they perceive themselves to be. No reset can be successful, regardless the personality driving it, because Putin’s Russia requires the United States of America as its enemy.
No, no agreement to keep Ukraine out of NATO, no reset, no restraint, would have forestalled this war. The logic of Putin’s regime requires it. The regime and its strategists have written extensively of their view and their plans; it is all there for us to see; we just haven’t cared to look, or if we’ve looked, we haven’t been willing to believe. They view it as a war. A thing to be won—decisively.
Reader: I assume that the limited SWIFT ban was an attempt by the US government not to be seen as preventing this action, but doing it in a way that minimized damage to dollar primacy.
Claire: Good, that’s smart.
Reader: Where is the analysis of how US national debt at 130 percent of GDP makes this a vital US interest—far more important in cold-blooded terms than what happens in Ukraine. I wish the US had been more fiscally responsible over the past several decades, but it has not, and this has implications for what courses of action are rational today.
Dollar primacy will be assured if we win in Europe; it will be lost if we don’t.
Reader: I think that influential media figures calling for Putin's forcible removal—or in an obviously winking way, speculating on it—are extremely irresponsible when discussing a potentially unstable and paranoid autocrat in charge of a nuclear-armed power.
Claire: Let me suggest another perspective. Putin gravely misjudged both Ukraine’s willingness to fight and the West’s willingness to support it. He thought Ukrainians would accept their fate within a day or two, then the West would grumble a bit and pass toothless resolutions. It was a well-founded assessment, based on Western behavior over a period of more than a decade. His intelligence chiefs confirmed to him, having read our media, mainstream and social, that we couldn’t locate Ukraine on a map, and surely, they thought—indeed, I thought—that the West wouldn't care about Ukraine any more than it did about Syria. Here I am on February 25, talking to Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Michael Pregent, saying the world wouldn’t care. They said it would. They were right and I was wrong.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the people who report to Putin to read that Westerners are outraged by what they’re seeing—outraged to the point of recklessness. Just as we’re wondering if Putin is insane, he should be wondering if we’re insane. When journalists publicly call to put the West at grave risk by escalating the conflict, they may well be proposing an insane course of action, but that is not a bad thing. A touch of insanity improves our deterrence.
We don’t, of course, want to overdo it. We don’t want to convince him we’re poised to launch a first strike. But if he thinks we’re insane enough seriously to consider a no-fly zone? Good.
And if his generals grasp that we’d be very happy to do business with them as soon as they take care of business, Czar Paul I style? Good.
Continued in Part II.