We are living through a nightmare. The logic of war is escalation and demonisation. Each horrific event fuels the next, justifies retaliation, and righteous vengeance screams a descant in the headlines. Once a war starts, the bloody toothpaste is out of the tube, the eggs are smashed, and there is no putting them back together the way they were.
When Tariq Ali writes in the London Review of Books (24/3/22), “no one knows how this will end”, there are a number of possibilities; most very grim indeed.
1. It could escalate out of control into an open clash between NATO and Russia; and we stumble into a Third World War. This is openly discussed. The shadow of the mushroom cloud that has hovered in the back of our nightmares for most of our lives is bigger than ever, and beginning to preoccupy waking thoughts. The USA has 3,500 nuclear warheads. Russia has over 4,000. The “independent” UK Trident fleet is an auxiliary of the US and would fire when they did.
The explosive power of these warheads is many times those of the atomic prototypes dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Use of these weapons would be fast and devastating. Neither Russia nor the USA has a no first use policy, so each would be nervous of the other’s itchy trigger finger. Hundreds of millions would die in a matter of hours and human civilisation would not survive.
Its a moot point whether it would deserve to.
President Zelensky’s call for a No Fly Zone is an invitation to Armageddon. Journalists thinking it makes good emotional copy to promote it, need to get a grip on the scale of the fire they are playing with.
2. The conventional war bogs down into a long term stalemate; or a limited Russian tactical victory leads to no durable settlement, leading to an Eastern European version of Afghanistan in the 1980s. This is a scenario that Hillary Clinton and others project with some relish.
The current pattern of NATO powers fuelling the fire with weapons deliveries would continue. Snipers are being trained for this eventuality. The consequences of this for Ukraine would be to make it a permanent war zone.
The consequences for the rest of the world would make the current impact on oil, gas and bread prices spiral ever upwards – leading to successive waves of impoverishment and upheaval across the planet. This Briefing from No Cold War spells out just how devastating the US Sanctions regime will be for the Global South if they are not brought to an end quickly.
And the resources we need to invest in green transition are being diverted to arms budgets. Great news for Raytheon, Lockheed and BAE systems; a medium term death sentence for the rest of us.
3. A deal is done on the basis of Ukraine remaining outside NATO and ruling out deployment of missile systems on its land, no Russian occupation of Western Ukraine, recognition of the decision of the people of Crimea to join the Russian Federation and an autonomous arrangement for the Donbass.
This would recognise a number of realities. Russia does not have the forces to occupy Western Ukraine even if it wanted to. Ukraine is being used in a proxy war by NATO which it has nothing to gain from. The people of the Donbass and Crimea do not wish to be part of a nationalist Ukraine, even a neutral one. A settlement on these lines could begin the process of de-escalation and rebuilding, allow refugees to return to their homes and limit the damage to the rest of the world.
The scars would take a long time to heal, but this is probably the only basis on which they could even start to. Such a deal would be perceived as a betrayal by the Ukrainian far right and a defeat by the US, so they will try to prevent it in the first place and undermine it if signed. With feelings running as high as they are, they would be cutting with the grain unfortunately.
4. The Russian army loses its will to fight and pulls back in disarray, leading to forcible recapture of the Donbass and possibly even Crimea, NATO rampant right up to the Russian border, political repercussions within Russia and a colour revolution movement pushed by the US to consolidate its advantage and gain control of Russia’s vast fossil fuel resources via a docile and subordinate leadership; which may or may not involve Balkanisation of the country on the lines proposed by Dick Cheney in 1991.
Pro US oligarchs in office in Moscow would break their bloc with China, allowing the US to use its colossal military advantage (3,500 nuclear warheads to 350) to fight the conventional war in and around Chinese territory that is now an openly discussed project there. Steve Bannon argues that such a war would have to be fought by 2024. Former Trump Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defence Eldrige Colby, who crafted Trump’s 2018 Defence strategy argues, in his book, The Strategy of Denial, for a “limited” conventional war centred on Taiwan.
Colby’s calculation is that such a war would damage the US economy by 10% but the Chinese by 40%. Therefore, the USA “wins”. The millions of people who would die don’t get much attention: collateral damage.
The current state of the war on the ground – Russian withdrawal from around Kyiv and consolidation in the East and South – and the limited progress in peace negotiations, do not give a clear indication of how things will go, but whatever is going to happen looks like a long and gruesome slog.
The best hope is a settlement along the lines in 3) the outlines of which are being discussed in the peace talks; and the sooner the better.