The Power Pentagon Redux
P. Cockburn (lead foreign correspondent at Counter Punch) says Putin into Donbas is like Saddam into Kuwait (https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/02/23/putins-advance-into-ukraine-compares-with-saddam-husseins-invasion-of-kuwait-a-disaster-for-russia/). I think it more like Hitler into the Rhineland in 1936, both as re-occupation or “recovery” of “homeland” territory, and for coal, minerals and industry (I spell it out in ’The Power Pentagon’, below).
I expect the EU and NATO Allies will do as much for Ukraine (regarding Russia) as their predecessors did for Poland in 1939-1945. I’m sure Putin thinks the same. Stalin starved Ukrainians to death (~3M) between 1932-1933. Hitler, between 1941-1944, shot (mainly) and gassed (also) Ukrainian Jews (mainly), many civilians (in reprisals, or just to clear territory, often herded onto buildings set on fire with escapees machine gunned, see the movie ‘Come and See’), antifascist partisans (shot on capture), and starved Soviet war prisoners to death, for a total of at least 1.6M (battle field deaths of soldiers not included).
So neither the German Nazis nor the Communist Russians are remembered too fondly as “liberators” (the Nazis in 1941, from the Russians/NKVD; the Red Army in 1943-1945, from the Nazi SS and Order Police and Ukrainian fascist partisans). Only for Jews were the Soviets better than the Nazi’s in the Ukraine, but still far from “good” (especially if they were suspected by the NKVD of being Polish intelligentsia or having any “political” past; and some of those Ukrainian Jews of 1945+ had somehow survived both the Holodomor as well as the Holocaust-by-bullets, but there weren’t too many Jews left in Ukraine).
Since German Fascism and militarism seem to have been stamped out long ago, and Stalin/USSR ruled Ukraine from !945 to 1991, and few Ukrainian Jews remained after 1945, I suspect most Ukrainians (Orthodox Christians) “remember” their last century of history with a jaundiced eye to the USSR and now Putin’s Russia, and the most extreme of such attitudes is held by the “Ukrainian Nazis” (a legacy of the antisemitic Ukrainian collaborationists with Nazis 1941-1945), but I can’t imagine theirs is a majority bias in today’s Ukraine, who I’m guessing would have liked to be part of NATO as “insurance” against Russia, but would be happy to settle into a stance like that of Finland or Switzerland: independent and yet “safe”.
At the moment I am in the last pages of Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, ‘Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin’. The history of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine between 1932 and 1945 form a very large part of this book. It was in these three countries that the overlap in mass killings by the Nazis and Stalin was most intense and massive and prolonged; between 1939 and 1941 it was cooperative (Molotov-Ribbentrop Poland), from 1941 to 1945 it was antagonistic in separate zones of control that shifted back and forth (1941-1943 Nazi advance from MB Line in Poland to Stalingrad, 1943-1945 Red Army and NKVD advance from Stalingrad-Moscow line to Berlin).
Prior to 1939, the Soviets had perpetrated the Holodomor starvation (forced collectivization of agriculture, 1932-1933) that was mostly focused in the Ukraine, and then the Great Terror purges of 1937-1938 in the USSR, which also had many Ukrainian victims.
The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) were also in the center of these “bloodlands” (like Poland, Belarus and Ukraine), and suffered relatively equally, but total numbers of victims for them were smaller because they had smaller populations.
People in those countries today are quite aware of this history, and it is not difficult to understand their politics and foreign relations as regards the West (Poland’s allies: England, France, and later the U.S., did NOT send troops into Poland and the “bloodlands” during 1939-1945), and NATO (whose nations have pledged NOT to send troops into the Ukraine), and as regards Russia. The Melian Debate (in Thucydides) remains our template of international relations and “solidarity.”
Putin, as a child of the USSR who was well placed to cash in when the game changed in 1991 (and making money and becoming a capitalist oligarch was the rage, which it still is for some), has nevertheless retained the 1930s Stalinist memory of fear of encirclement and invasion; in the 1930s by Germany, Poland and Japan, now updated by Putin to NATO and the U.S. In both cases a fear of the Soviet/Russian sphere of influence and state and economic system collapsing.
The modern “Russian” fear of encirclement and invasion has some validity in that the US-led NATO along with the EU have been moving “in” and absorbing former EAST BLOC states, which “Russia” had sought control of since the 1930s (and had from 1945 to 1989-1991) and those former satellites, borderlands, and buffer zone states have little reason to retain warm memories of the years “behind the Iron Curtain,” so might not be entirely benign neighbors so close to Moscow, as NATO states; the “buffer” would be entirely gone.
I wrote the ’The Power Pentagon’ on 22 February 2022, before the shooting stated in Ukraine itself (beyond Donbas), and I still think the analysis of Putin’s motives is accurate and useful. But, I was also aiming at other global concerns.
The Power Pentagon
Yesterday (21 February 2022), Vladimir Putin, the Russian Premier, recognized the separatist Donbas regions of Ukraine as independent states, and ordered Russian troops into them to forestall a Ukrainian invasion to reassert its sovereignty there.
Why? Putin’s action is a defensive threat display to resist the steady encroachment by the US-dominated NATO political alliance into, and diminution of, Russia’s western sphere of influence in the external borderlands and historically sought-after buffer zones against German invasions (and now “German” equates to Western European and Anglo-American); and it is a reaction driven by the fear of ultimate inaccessibility to the Baltic Sea for Russian naval forces, in the north, and the Azov Sea and Black Sea (and from there to the Mediterranean and the Levant) in the south.
The Donbas is comprised of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine and is the very easternmost tip of that country, lying just above the Azov Sea, which sea is to the northeast of the Crimean Peninsula that juts south into the Black Sea. The Donbas has a rich coal basin that has supported the development of heavy industry such as coal mining and metallurgy since the 19th century (the word Donbas is a portmanteau formed from Donets Basin, an abbreviation of Donets Coal Basin).
Crimea was taken from the Ottoman Empire in 1783 and annexed to the Russian Empire, later being attached to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the existence of the U.S.S.R (1917-1991), and continuing as a region of independent Ukraine from 1991 to 2014, until Russia occupied and then annexed Crimea during the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014.
Both the Donbas and Crimea have large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations, and those people favor annexation with the Russian state. Donbas has 57% ethnic Ukrainian and 38% ethnic Russian people, but with ~72% of them identifying as Russian-speaking. The proportion of native Russian-speakers is higher than ethnic Russians in Donbas because some ethnic Ukrainians and other nationalities also indicate Russian as their mother tongue. Crimea had 77% Russian native speakers according to a 2001 Ukrainian census, and 84% Russian native speakers according to a 2014 Russian census.
The Donbas and Crimea were major targets of sought-for permanent conquest by Hitler’s invasion of Russia (launched on 22 June 1941) precisely for their fossil fuel mineral wealth and heavy industrial infrastructure, and their maritime avenues of accessibility southwest to the Mediterranean and the Levant, and land avenues of accessibility east and southeast to the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf.
What I see in Putin’s action of 21 February is another example of the geo-politics (or imperialism) that I call the Power Pentagon. A Power Pentagon is the following closed cycle of ego-driven ambition for personal power:
fossil fuel —> economic power —> military power —> political power —> war power —> fossil fuel.
The continuing existence of Power Pentagons as the foundation of our international relations is the reason that we are not making, nor will make, the socio-economic alterations to our civilization needed to effectively slow the advance of Global Warming Climate Change (GWCC), and to arrive at a stable balance between the workings of our industrialized civilization with the cycles of Nature.
Fossil fuels enable combustion-based energy-intensive industrialization that creates economic power (“prosperity,” convenience, things, “wealth”) that in turn can build up military technology and military forces, whose threat potential creates political power and thus foreign political influence, which in its sharpest form is formidable war-making capability that can be used to acquire more energy resources for its own cyclic enlargement as well as to deny access to fossil fuel and mineral resources to rival Power Pentagons, which are thus diminished and dominated.
This is the story of the rise and fall of empires old and new, and of the inflation and bursting collapse of the egos of potentates and ruling classes.
Because GWCC is a planetary complex of geo-physical phenomena it will require a globally cooperative, integrated and permanently sustained response from humanity, if it is actually to be slowed and eventually stabilized. The obvious image for this desired future state of human affairs would be World Eco-Socialism: a world socialism powered with “green” energy (infrastructure not emitting greenhouse gases, toxic wastes, and pollutants), and with both poverty and extreme wealth made history.
For any such green utopian reformulation of human civilization to occur, it will be necessary for us humans to remove the limitations we place on our own species’s societal development by remaining mired in the fractious international politics of the clashes of Power Pentagons — “the Great Game” — which has been the case since long before the days of Lawrence of Arabia.
I have no idea how the grand consensus needed for joining together globally to make that civilizational advancement can be achieved contemporaneously in the minds of “all” people worldwide. But without it I see no effective action being taken in response to GWCC, and hence a steady decay of planetary habitability and environmental purity, of international political stability, and of personal quality of life.
A first tiny step in the direction of that grand consensus would be not seeing yourself as a partisan for “our good” Power Pentagon at war with “their bad” ones, however you define “us” and “them.” All these cycles of ambition for personal power and for exclusionary economic domination are bad because they are exploitative political machinations that multiply and destructively divide human society while unavoidably merging into that one vast thermodynamic catastrophe we call Global Warming Climate Change.
It is easy to see the problem as I have stated it here to be so infinitely multi-faceted with human concerns and conflicts and obduracy, that it is insurmountable and our human species is “doomed.” But that is no excuse for stopping any of the myriad of individual efforts people are making for improving human society. Calling things by their proper names — our tiny first step — may lead to some justifiable pessimism, but more importantly it anchors the mind in realistic critical thinking, which is essential for any worthwhile human endeavor to proceed with the best chance of success.
Today it is the Donbas, perhaps next time it will be the South China Sea, or back again to the Middle East, or regions of Africa or South America, but in any case all our conflicts are rooted in our contentious joint tenancy of this single beautiful planet. We have to overcome always forgetting about the long-term essential that unites us, by continuously being distracted by the serial immediate that divides us. Willful unforced unity as our best selves, however impossible and ridiculously utopian that idea may seem, is the world paradigm we need to ensure our enduring and fulfilling survival.