Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact 1939, and the Russian-German War 1941-1945

World War II began 80 years ago, on 1 September 1939. The following commentary is at heart a critique of ideologically-driven historical revisionism, which distorts the the truth and promotes falsehoods, and is thus a disservice to the public.

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The article by Jacques R. Pauwels, “The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939: Myth and Reality” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/08/26/the-hitler-stalin-pact-of-august-23-1939-myth-and-reality/) appeared on CounterPunch on 26 August 2019. The article described many interesting details of the political maneuverings, prior to 22 June 1941, by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Russian regime, and the British, French and Polish governments, to either protect themselves from Hitler’s evident planned aggressions, or abet and take anti-communist advantage of them. Pauwels is an enthusiastic partisan of the Russian policy of that time: “The notion that the Hitler-Stalin Pact triggered the Second World War is worse than a myth, it is an outright lie. The opposite is true: the pact was precondition for the happy outcome of the Armageddon of 1939-1945, that is, the defeat of Nazi Germany.” While an interesting article, I did not like Pauwels’s portrayal of events for the following reasons.

I never believed in Stalin’s goodness nor his infallibility, as Pauwels seems to (though a Belgian-Canadian, Pauwels is clearly an anti-“Atlanticist” ‘Communisant,’ of the type so accurately criticized by Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron and Tony Judt). I have read “Let History Judge” (Roy Medvedev), “Russia At War” (Alexander Werth), and other samizadt literature, and I think Pauwels was way too glib glossing over Stalin’s policies on: starving the Kulaks (forced collectivization in the Ukraine, 1932-1933, which Pauwels essentially denies), purging the Red Army in 1937-1938 (eliminating many capable professionals from the officer corps, and replacing them with incompetent Stalinist lackeys), and Stalin’s insistence (in 1941) that the Red Army position themselves right up to the legal limit of Russia’s western border (and/or frontline positions in occupied territories), ‘to defend every inch of Russian soil,’ instead of deploying defensive positions in depth (as the Red Army generals pleaded with Stalin to do) to be able to absorb and erode the expected Nazi mechanized army and air force invasion. These last two stupidities nearly cost Russia the war in 1941, and it was a scramble to move surviving troops (many killed, imprisoned and overrun by the invading German forces in June 1941) and industries east for regrouping.

I can easily believe that Soviet Russia did some planning in this regard prior to June 1941, but not nearly enough and not the prescient strategy that Pauwels would have you believe. Pauwels even mentions “Let History Judge,” but he certainly didn’t use it. Also, Stalin fobbed off (ignored) the incredible spying coup (the greatest ever perhaps, in this case lifting the detailed Nazi plan and schedule for the June 1941 invasion of Russia, from the German ambassador in Japan) given him by Richard Sorge’s spy ring in Japan, and even did zero to try to extract the members of that spy ring (by a prisoner exchange? diplomacy? even just a pro forma request for clemency?) from their sad executions by the Japanese military, by hanging in 1944.

Another problem with Pauwels Stalinist revisionism is that he portrays the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 (Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, 23 August 1939) as a principled diplomatic strategy by Russia to buy time to prepare for the expected eventual Nazi invasion – since Britain and France refused to form a defensive alliance with Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany. The pact was an agreement between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia not to make war on each other, and it contained secret protocols detailing the limits of the Polish territories Hitler (in western Poland) and Stalin (in eastern Poland) intended to occupy when they started the war, on 1 September 1939. For Nazi Germany the goal of this pact was to secure its Eastern Front while it would prosecute war to the west, on France, England, Holland, Belgium and Norway; for Russia the goal of the pact was to buy time before having to deal with eventual Nazi aggression, but also to enable Stalin’s imperialist ambitions regarding Poland. The Non-Aggression Pact of 23 August 1939 opened the door to World War II, contrary to Pauwels’ revisionist assertion.

Stalin’s Red Army sweep into eastern Poland on 1 September 1939 [actually 17 September 1941] was anything but an unfortunately necessary, principled as possible (to the Poles) occupation to set up a defensive buffer between Germany and Russia; it was bloody murder. Part of the secret protocols of the 1939 pact was an agreement to exchange political dissidents who had fled from the two dictatorships: German Communists who had fled to Russia, and Russian fascists and anti-communists who had fled to Nazi Germany. These dissidents were marked for death.

In the samizadt literature I have read (in the 1980s), including Roy Medvedev’s “Let History Judge,” the execution of these 150 German Communists is described. It occurred at a shipyard or large factory in Poland. The German Communists originally harbored by the Russian Revolution had been corralled by the NKVD (Russia’s secret police), and at this prisoner exchange first had their Communist Party cards confiscated. Then they were individually inspected and identified (as the fugitives sought) by the Gestapo, while the NKVD similarly inspected and identified fugitive Russian anti-communists that Germany had harbored and now the Gestapo was returning to Stalinist Russia, in this secretive prisoner exchange. Once the exchange was complete, the Gestapo and the NKVD shot their prisoners. The reason the NKVD confiscated the German Communists’s party cards (expelling these Germans from the Communist Party) was to prevent fascists from executing communists — that was the extent of principle here. Apparently the bodies were burned in furnaces at this industrial plant. That, and the execution of the Polish Army officer corps (by one Red Army colonel – later highly decorated – shooting the Polish men in the back of the head every few minutes for weeks, while Red Army troops mustered them in and disposed of the bodies in the Katyn Forrest) was the essence of the “secret protocols” of the 1939 pact. Pauwels is silent on all this.

Pauwels’ story of 1934-1941 is far too neat and pro-Stalinist ideologically pure to accurately reflect the reality of those times. Without doubt, though Stalin was a crushing amoral and sadistic dictator, there was signifiant group policy-making occurring among the Soviet elite during the Russian-German War — mainly regarding military campaigns (which included civilian mobilization and control) — coordination between military people like Georgy Zhukov, political (commissar) people like Nikita Khrushchev, and the internal security and all-around coercion people (NKVD) like Lavrentiy Beria; and such coordination within the Soviet elite resulted in many of the good moves against the Nazis, and recovery from Stalin’s dictatorial blunders where possible.

Also, in real life, human planning is never perfect, chaos always introduces disruptions especially in large fast-moving situations like modern mechanized warfare of continental dimensions. This element of chaos means that for both the Nazis and the Soviets their campaigns (military and political) were punctuated by unforeseen events, sometimes big and often small, sometimes beneficial and sometimes catastrophic. No one is always ever fully “in control.” So the “end result” was an outcome derived from an initial plan that embodied an ideology — neither as well thought-out as subsequent ideological partisans would claim — that had flowed from dictatorial cunning and delusion, was brutally massaged through group “dough kneading and pounding” coordination, and then shredded and flacked by the shrapnel of war-time chaos, leading to uncountable numbers of hasty improvisations in the field at all levels from the Generalissimo down to the Good Soldiers Schweik. That “end result” was a near pyrrhic victory for Soviet Russia (and I agree probably the greatest feat of arms in human history), and a devastating defeat for Nazi Germany and the German people in 1945.

What I dislike about Pauwels’ version of WWII history (on the Eastern Front, at least 80% of the European War in my estimation), besides its ideologically-driven inaccuracy, is that it comes across as an apologia of the “wisdom” of great far-sighted deep-thinking and keen-planning political leadership (that one is partisan to), and so justifies the immense suffering that actually occurs as a consequence of the self-serving careerism of such power elites, who always ensure they are insulated from the karma they unleash on their people (except if they lose their wars badly enough to end up being captured, facing a war crimes tribunal, and executed).

I prefer historians who detail the full spectrum of reality’s unfolding: the palace intrigues (important people in high places making plans for us all to fit in as cogs and fodder), fumbled and jumbled by group planning and implementation (courtiers and mandarins filtering the emperor’s dictates and fantasies), which are aided and/or shredded by chaotic eruptions (“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”) especially in the dynamic instability of wartime. Such realistic histories help us — as survivors for the moment — see “how we got here,” and can help us learn to leave bigger margins for error, the unexpected, as well as undisclosed elite criminality, in our collective social and political planning.

There’s no doubt that during those early decades of the 20th century that Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative Party associates were primarily concerned to maintain and protect the British capitalist class system — money; that Hitler and Stalin were each avid to expand and consolidate their dictatorial national control — power; that Poland’s leadership was more delusional than realistic about Polish military power and its international political leverage, and anti-semitism was ripe among the Catholic populace (though that did not justify the bloody destruction of Poland by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the latter clearly acting on more than just realpolitik to establish a defensive buffer); and that the United States was popularly allergic to European power struggles (its white supremacy types favoring the Nazis, and its working/depression underclass favoring the Communists), while its corporate elite was politically and financially supportive of the Nazi regime both for its money-making and Russian Communist-eradicating potential.

The course and outcome of the European War of 1939-1945 (or 1914-1945, if you prefer) was no subtly elegant political dance and clean-cut military masterstroke of Soviet planning, as Pauwels paints, but the mashing together of the all the schemes — whose perpetrators Pauwels identifies — and their haphazard disruptions by wartime chaos: luck.

The tragedy of human affairs, especially as regards war and politics, is that we have learned nothing since Thucydides spelled it all out 2,430 years ago in his “History Of The Peloponnesian War.” No historian since has surpassed him; and people worldwide still suffer the same types of tragedies and atrocities that Thucydides described in antiquity, because human civilization continues to perpetrate them.

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After I wrote the essay above (and sent an earlier draft to Counterpunch) a much more authoritative and much more detailed article on the subject, by Louis Proyect and Pawel Szelegieniec, was published by Counterpunch; I recommend it.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact, Reconsidered
30 August 2019
https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/08/30/the-hitler-stalin-pact-reconsidered/

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For an explanation of my earlier characterization of Pauwels as (in my opinion) “an anti-‘Atlanticist’ ‘Communisant,’ of the type so accurately criticized by Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron and Tony Judt,” see the section “Raymond Aron and the Paris Intellectuals of the 1950s” in my 2011 article

Political Belief And Self Image: Aron, OWS, And Libya
7 November 2011
http://www.swans.com/library/art17/mgarci31.html

In fact, here is that section.

Raymond Aron and the Paris Intellectuals of the 1950s

The Opium of the Intellectuals, by Raymond Aron, was published in France in 1955. This book is a sociological study of the mid 20th century intelligentsia, and a polemic against ideological fanaticism. Aron opposed the pro-Soviet views of the French intelligentsia, as exhibited by prominent personalities like Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The crux of Aron’s argument was that Soviet-style communism was not in the interests of the French public because as a 19th century conception of the organization of an industrial society it was outmoded for 20th century France, and as a political system it was devoid of the personal liberties, especially of political free speech, prized by the fractious French.

Aron advocated “politics” in place of “revolution” as the means of changing French society, arguing that a modern industrialized state would progress toward a more just political economy, more swiftly and with far fewer personal tragedies, through reformism rather than violent revolution. Aron illustrated this by comparing the lag in socioeconomic development and the achievement of political stability in France in comparison to that of England during the century from 1789 (the French Revolution to the Third Republic).

Aron’s criticism of the legitimacy of the pro-communist belief of his contemporaries was not aimed at members of the Communist Parties in Europe (the true believers), but at the “communisants,” the French fellow-travelers who did not join the Communist Party in France, nor relocate to Communist countries, but condemned post-war American influence in Europe (“Atlanticism”), praised Marxist ideology, and never criticized the Soviet Union nor its actions in Eastern Europe.

“Seeking to explain the attitude of the intellectuals, merciless toward the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they were committed in the name of the proper doctrines, I soon came across the sacred words Left, Revolution, Proletariat.” (The Opium of the Intellectuals)

It is possible to interpret the communisant attitude, which Aron criticized, as a defense of wounded pride. The Fall of France (1940) was not just a national catastrophe along the material dimensions of military and economic power, political independence, and social cohesion, but a psychological catastrophe as well. The humiliation imposed on the German people by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was avenged twenty-one years later when France was placed under the control of a German Occupation and a collaborationist Vichy Government for over four years, a period we can bracket from the occupation of Paris to its liberation: June 14, 1940, to August 25, 1944.

The liberation of France began with the invasion of Europe by Allied forces, landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and was completed by the end of World War II in Europe on May 8, 1945. Resistance organizations had formed themselves in every occupied country, and many of these irregular anti-Nazi fighters and agents were Communists. Immediately after WWII, the Communist parties of Western Europe had a well-deserved prestige because of the many risks taken and sacrifices made by Communist members of the Resistance.

Anyone from a country that had been occupied by the Germans, seeking some source of national pride to counter the humiliation of the occupation years, could at least look back and point to his country’s partisans.

The physical and economic ruin of Europe after WWII left the United States as the leading world power, and it applied its wealth to the rebuilding of Western Europe out of a mixture of motives: sympathy and goodwill, commercial self-interest, and a competition with the Soviet Union for political power: anti-communism. A major effort combining all these motivations was the Marshall Plan, which cycled $13B though Europe during the four years beginning in April 1948 (the U.S. had already contributed $12B in aid to Europe between the end of WWII and 1948).

Anyone who has suffered a calamity and then receives charity (which often has strings attached) can feel grateful up to the point where relief becomes overshadowed by resentment because of a growing sense of humiliation over one’s dependency. So it was with some Europeans in the early 1950s, when the United States and the Soviet Union locked horns in their Cold War and used Europe, Germany in particular, as their field of contention.

The Greek Civil War between the US-backed government and the Greek Communist Party lasted from March 1946 to October 1949. This was the beginning of US military assistance applied against the anti-Nazi partisans of the Occupation years. The Berlin Blockade, which was relieved by a NATO airlift, occurred between June 24, 1948, and May 12, 1949. Stalin died on March 5, 1953, and thwarted proletarian expectations erupted as the Uprising in East Germany on June 17, 1953. The Western European Union was founded on October 23, 1954, with the first inclusion of an independent West German state (the Federal Republic of Germany) into an economic and defense association of Atlantic Alliance (NATO) European nations, and which allowed the FRG to industrialize without restriction, and rearm. The Hungarian Uprising occurred during October 23 to November 10, 1956. Both the East German and Hungarian uprisings were ruthlessly suppressed by the Red Army and local paramilitary police troops.

In societies where there is wide public appreciation of their men and women of letters, the intellectuals belong to the elite class that interprets the nation to itself. The French intellectuals of the immediate postwar period were sensitive to the popular desire for a recovery of national pride, and also very sensitive to their own loss of importance in shaping the political narrative of their time. The centers of power affecting daily life throughout Europe were no longer Paris, London, and Berlin, but Moscow and Washington, D.C.

That the relatively unsophisticated Americans should have such wealth that they could act like a Salvation Army for derelict Western European nations; that they should have such military power that they could align their propped-up European charity cases like pawns in a geostrategic chess game with the Soviet Union; that America would gleefully spin the gears and pull the levers of politics in Western Europe and around the globe without the least thought to the wounded self-regard of France, or to the interpretations of history-in-the-making from one of the most brilliant sources of such narration in Western Civilization since the Enlightenment — the French intelligentsia — was galling to distraction, and shaped the pro-Soviet anti-Atlanticist orientation of a French intelligentsia seeking redemption and relevance.

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Will a Russo-American Nuclear War Happen (Soon)?

(1 September 2008; still topical on 9 August 2017)

Introduction

The first, and also previous, nuclear war consisted of two atomic bomb attacks that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, on August 6 and August 9 of 1945. These attacks by the United States of America against an utterly defeated and prostrate Japan occurred in the last month of the Pacific War (which occurred between December 7, 1941 to August 15, 1945 for the USA) and were demonstrations of remorseless American power intended to deflate the triumphant spirit of a Soviet Union victorious against Nazi Germany (May 8, 1945), and to check the Soviet leadership from advancing its forces into Japan (despite being implored to do so by the Allies at the Yalta Conference six months earlier).

Tsarist Russia had lost its 1904-1905 war with Imperial Japan for control of Manchuria (northern China) and Korea, both of which Japan occupied until 1945. During World War 1 (1914-1918) and the Russian Civil War (1917-1923), a dozen nations invaded Russia, occupying many regions and fielding troops that supported the pro-tsarist, anti-Bolshevik White forces between 1918 and 1920. Japan supplied 37 percent of the troops in this Allied Intervention, 70,000 of the 188,000 total and by far the single largest contingent; they were all deployed in the Vladivostok (northwestern Pacific) region and were the last to leave, in 1922. A series of Soviet-Japanese border wars occurred between 1938-1945, primarily a 1938 war along the Siberian-Manchurian border (western-eastern) just northeast of Korea, a 1939 war along the Mongolian-Manchurian border (eastern-western), northwest of Korea, and the Russian invasion of Manchuria on August 8, 1945.

With the demise of the Japanese Empire, the Russians and Chinese consolidated their adjoining domains of control spanning the Eurasian landmass east of the Baltic and north of the Black Sea, Caucasus and Himalayas, for over four decades until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Over the last twenty years, the United States has actively sought to encircle Russia with military forces implanted in client states that are former Soviet Republics or Eastern European Socialist Republics, now independent, whose compliance has been bought. A similar policy applies to China and its surrounding south and central Asian states. This US policy is often personified by Zbigniew Brzezinski (the Carter Administration National Security Advisor credited with funding the advanced militarization of the Afghani mujahideen that included Osama Bin Laden), who characterizes it as geostrategic dominance radiating from the control of Caucasus and Central Asian republics, several rich in oil.

In recent weeks, US commentators (e.g., P. C. Roberts and W. S. Lind) on Russia’s intervention into the Republic of Georgia (a US client state in the South Caucasus Mountains) to reverse the Georgian invasion of breakaway region South Ossetia, believe the blundering belligerence of US policy toward Russia could escalate to the point of armed confrontation, and this would erupt into a nuclear war.

The logic assumed is that the U.S. would have to rely on missile-borne tactical nuclear warheads launched by air and naval forces to counter Russian troops and armor in the Caucasus, since the U.S. is too distant to transport its troops quickly, and many of them are bogged down in Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows, maybe also Iran by that time. The Russians could be assumed to use their tactical nuclear weapons to compensate for their possible disadvantage of having less technically sophisticated weapons systems relative to the ”smart bomb” precision-guided munitions and “stealth” delivery vehicles of the US military. Once a shooting war starts, the natural tendency is to reach for your biggest guns and fire away before the other guy can clear his holster.

So, is a new nuclear war possible? Let’s muse on this. After all, the time necessary for rationality to work its good is only available before the shoot-out, or after the killing is done and the survivors are ready to move on to the burials.

The purpose of war is to increase your degree of control OVER OTHERS. This is usually equated to having acquired greater political and military power. This is true even if the war is conducted as nothing beyond brigandage and piracy: plunder, profit and wealth are seen as increasing your power to control events. Using this metric, it is easy to judge if you have won or lost a war.

We proceed by inquiring about the psychological and technical enabling factors, and the political and diplomatic restraining factors for the outbreak of a nuclear war:

1, psychology: are the prospective belligerents easily inclined to war?

2, technology: are their military establishments ready for nuclear combat?

3, politics: can the ruling class be assured of maintaining control of its own population?, could there be a revolution if the war fares badly?

4, diplomacy: is the potential estrangement of and isolation from European states, and other allies, a significant restraint?; is it possible that in a mid-war or post-war weakened condition your state becomes unable to control new rebellions by imperial subject states, or to stop encroachments into your domain of influence by imperial rivals?

We can contract the previous four major questions in these two: have we identified all possible contingencies and devised alternative plans for each?, does the cost-benefit ratio for the war outweigh that of diplomatic alternatives, and after what period of time? We consider the four factors in turn.

Psychology: Remembering World War Two

It is important to know that the overwhelming fraction of the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany was provided by the Soviet Union (Russia and its union of socialist republics), and they suffered the greatest losses as a result. Consider the following numbers. The combined 1939 population of the fifty-five countries involved in World War Two (WW2) was 1.962 billion; the total number of war dead was 72.8 million, which was 3.7 percent of the 1939 population of participants. Of course, many of these countries bore only a slight to moderate burden in carrying on the war, while a small number provided the greatest efforts and made the greatest sacrifices (see “World War II casualties” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties).

The combined human losses of the Soviet Union, China, Germany and Japan were just under 73 percent of the total deaths for WW2. The Asian theater of WW2 was essentially the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, while the European theater of WW2 was essentially the Russo-German War of 1941-1945.

Let us look at the impact of WW2 on five selected countries, by using three ratios for each country, where these ratios are defined as follows.

Country:

the percentage of its 1939 population killed in WW2;
the ratio of its 1939 population to the 1.962 billion WW2 participants;
the ratio of its WW2 dead to the total WW2 dead;
(all ratios below are expressed as percents).

Soviet Union: 13.7; 8.6; 31.7.

China: 3.9; 26.4; 27.5.

Germany: 10.5; 3.6; 10.

Japan: 3.8; 3.6; 3.7.

USA: 0.3; 6.7; 0.6.

The Soviet Union lost nearly 14 percent of its population (every 7th person) in the war, and this mortality amounted to almost one third of the entire WW2 dead. China was three times as populous as the Soviet Union, so its loss of nearly 4 percent of its people (every 26th person) amounted to over one quarter of the entire WW2 dead. Germany lost over a tenth of its population (every 10th person), which amounted to 10 percent of the WW2 dead; and Japan’s loss of just under 4 percent of its people (every 26th person) amounted to nearly 4 percent of the WW2 dead.

Notice that the United States’ WW2 dead amounts to a fifty-fifth (1/55) of the Soviet total, and the 1939 national populations were comparable, the Soviet population being 29 percent higher. It would be very beneficial to the world if Americans, commemorating their Memorial and Veterans’ Days, would try imagining their feelings if they had suffered war as deeply as the Soviet people (every 7th person instead of every 172nd person lost). Now, we never trivialize the real pain of war veterans, their relatives and and friends, however small a portion of a nation’s population they may happen to be. But, clearly, the impact of a WW2 experience like that of the Soviets will imprint a dread of war far more deeply into the national consciousness than a WW2 experience like that of the United States.

Another interesting numerical result is that the combined losses of Germany and Japan amount to only 13.7 percent of the WW2 dead, and the combined population of these two Axis powers amounted to only 7.2 percent of the WW2 participating population. Advanced industrialized nations hell-bent on war can drag in a multitude of victims vastly more numerous than themselves. A reasonable assumption for today is that the state planners and popular historical memories in both Russia and China viscerally appreciate the importance of this point, but that it may be dimly perceived in US popular imagination, and even dismissed by US policy-makers. This is probably the type of caution introduced by European allies when the U.S. engages them in multilateral diplomacy and planning, and which is so annoying to US unilateralists.

So, the U.S. may have a more casual attitude about bellicose posturing and nuclear war threatening bravado, while the Russians and Chinese are likely to be very circumspect and deliberate about threatening nuclear war; if they do, pay attention!

Technology: The Military Is A Hungry Robot

The US military is a brainless stomach that always wishes to be fed, it is the very definition of fiscal cancer. It has no other goal beyond immediate ingestion of capital drained from the US treasury, so all its pronouncements, papers, studies, proposals and testimony are devoid of meaning beyond their role as advertisements aimed at the audience of policy-makers heading the capitalist, government and propaganda ministries of the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). The purpose of these advertisements is to induce as many of these directorate-class individuals as possible to put their influence behind the many schemes for larding the military. So, we can expect any part of the military that sees initiating a nuclear war as an instant benefit to itself by calling its services into action, to lobby for it. A brainless stomach has no concept of consequences, or of others. “More” fills the conceptual space, and all the frenzied, convoluted babble is a drone of incantations intended to materialize that “more.”

While the hardware for nuclear war is complex, both the US and Russian military establishments have decades of experience with it, and they have maintained their training. These military forces could use their nuclear weapons as ordered without a significant number of technical or personnel failures. Some of the warheads launched might be duds, in that their detonation would be flawed and their full explosive yield would be unrealized; and some of the personnel might crack under the pressure of actual combat — either as a blind panic or an intentional rebellion — and fail at their posts. However, we can expect a low incidence of such failure in either the U.S. or Russian forces.

This is unfortunate from the point of view of preventing nuclear war. We now know that “a guy named Arkhipov saved the world” during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “During a naval skirmish between an American destroyer and a Soviet B-59 submarine off Cuba on Oct 27, 1962,” where “the destroyer dropped depth charges near the submarine to try to force it to surface, not knowing it had a nuclear-tipped torpedo…that the submarine was authorised to fire it if three officers agreed. The officers began a fierce, shouting debate over whether to sink the ship. Two of them said yes and the other said no.”

This was no failure of Russian military training (which like that in the arts and sciences is of unparalleled rigor), but instead the operation of vivid historical consciousness. I fear that the culture of the United States is so shallow and immature that thorough military training can transform any callow youth into a robot soldier attuned to his or her assigned functions, and unlikely to have the psychological depth and historical consciousness to question orders and training under conditions of extreme danger, urgency and confusion, or to recognize moments of pivotal importance.

Military establishments are intended to be robotic performers, reliable agents implementing commands abstracted and codified from the political directives of the national leadership. So, we should assume that by far the best way to prevent the military from proceeding with a nuclear war is by influencing the policy that it operates under, so that it is one of restraint.

Still, let me make a direct plea to any US soldier or sailor who finds themselves charged with launching a nuclear weapon: don’t do it, mutiny, revolt. Think, the more and sooner the better. Be Arkhipov. I think the Russians will be more restrained than the Americans about first use, but will have zero hesitation about second use.

Politics: Popular Loyalty Or Popular Revolt?

Because Russia is a lesser power than the United States, and because of the many and obvious provocations made by the US against Russia as part of its encirclement strategy, as well as the shameless advantage US capitalism took of Russia during the immediate post-soviet period of political fragmentation and economic reorganization, the Russian people will have no trouble supporting their government regardless of how any potential war with the U.S. transpires; they will always see themselves as the defenders, not the aggressors. This will be especially true if the U.S. fires first, which it delights in boasting it feels free to do; and we can be sure that if Russia does fire the first nuclear shot, it will be an evidently defensive preemptive strike. The expectation of popular loyalty, won by the robust revival of the Russian economy under Vladimir Putin’s administration, as well as a reaction to US belligerence, frees the Russian leadership of any fear about revolution erupting in reaction to possible reverses in a potential Russo-US war, even a nuclear one. Russia is united.

The US public is unprepared for the sacrifices attendant to a nuclear war, no matter how “tactical” and “limited.” Every nuclear munition carries the destructive power of many conventional bombs or cannons, and shot for shot every fall of a nuclear munition will produce proportionately many more casualties. US soldiers and sailors will fill coffins or dematerialize at rates not experienced since the Civil War. The American public has been protected, shielded and distracted from the impact of war, especially since the Vietnam War, but the number of casualties to be expected from even a limited tactical nuclear war would be impossible to hide (as the casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are hidden today), and the mollycoddled American viewing public would be traumatized on apprehending the magnitude and pace of the carnage.

The reactions to this fright would be varied, but in all cases they would contribute to the agitation of the public, a loss of placidity and thus an increased difficulty of social control. This triggers the primary anxiety of the ruling class. It is nearly inconceivable that US public agitation over the number of military casualties from a foreign nuclear war would rise to the same intensity as the Parisian public’s agitation about starvation in 1789, but the great fear of the US ruling class would be that it had become of the same type. Today’s paycheck-dependent US Americans are disunited by their fearful prejudices and diminishing expectations in an eroding economy, while the Russian people are experiencing historically significant economic growth and political stability. At what point of disaffection would the US public unite into storming its own Bastilles, at what level of unsatisfied wants — in a population indoctrinated to be self-governed by wants — would the US public acquire the motivational rage of a Cindy Sheehan and become the 21st century sans-culottes whose pikes were now the subject of the 2nd amendment?

We should not let such florid rhetoric carry us on flights of fancy of Phil Gramm (‘let them whine for cake’) types arriving at their Sidney Carton moment, but neither should we underestimate the potential for outbreaks of real social unrest in the U.S. as a consequence of losing people to a nuclear war of imperialistic hubris.

Diplomacy: Consolidating Conquest, Or Chaotic Collapse?

The imperialist imagination sees conquest as the method of consolidating power. The emperor projects a conception of order onto the world, and then seeks to subject each actual state and population into fulfilling an assigned role. Every country is a tile that fits into the grand mosaic of the imagined empire, adding its unique hue to the overall image and easing the interconnectedness of all others into a consolidated structure. Conquest is accomplished by force, bribery or inequitable alliance.

However, every tile of the world mosaic has its own conception of itself and its role in the world, so there is always opposition to empire. Most people call this freedom.

Imperialistic thinking assumes that power, the ability of superior force to hold sway, is the only dimension along which international relations operate. It ignores chaos, the ability of nature and reality to erupt with surprises, and entropy, the tendency of all structure to dissipate, as other dimensions of international relations. It is impossible to predict all possible outcomes of present situations, so it is impossible to devise perfect systems of control. While we are always free to take action, we can never be certain of all its possible consequences. Aside from our common-sense plans for managing the practicalities of our lives, the overall contingency plan that comes closest to perfection is to “go with the flow.” This is zen. The only thing we can ever really control is our own behavior. Because all known previous empires have collapsed, chaos and entropy being prominent in their demise, we can anticipate a similar fate for the American empire.

The Russian economy is booming in part because Russia is a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe. Russia is also a leading supplier of military and nuclear power technology. Many people easily ascribe the various conflicts occurring in Eurasia to rivalries over the control of oil and gas fields and the routing of pipelines. China’s exploding economy would love to plunge its straw — direct trans-border pipelines — into Iran’s oil pools and drain them without interference; Iran would love China to monetize its oil bonanza, so it wants to power itself with nuclear energy to maximize its oil profits. Russia is eager to supply Iran the nuclear power technology it wants, because it is a profitable business venture, and because they want the security of controlling the fuel cycle of a close neighbor, for the purpose of nonproliferation (of nuclear weapons).

However, these logical commercial synergies fail the most important acceptance criterion of US capitalism, “what’s in it for me?” The U.S. would prefer a compliant Iran drained to its benefit, such as in the days of the Shah, it would prefer Central Asian oil to flow south through Afghanistan and east through the Caucasus, Black Sea and Turkey, and it would prefer Europe to limit its energy dependency on Russia. It is not just a matter of increasing the oil supplied to the U.S., it is about throttling the sources of Russia’s and China’s growing economic power; it is about control.

We can expect the Europeans to try soothing the neo-con fevered Bush Administration, quietly behind closed embassy doors, from working itself into a rabid lather for nuclear war with Russia, initially in the Caucasus. This will have some influence, because the failure of Europe to join in a diplomatic demonization campaign against Russia, like the earlier campaigns against Iraq, would make it more difficult for the U.S. to proceed to war. Also, the U.S. is mindful that were it to be seriously weakened by a unilateral nuclear war with Russia, an unscathed Europe would easily step into control of its empire. After all, this is what Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman did to Winston Churchill’s British empire.

Also, Europe would worry that a nuclear war in the Caucasus might spread, war usually does when one side becomes desperate. If Russia were being “bombed back to the stone age” it would most certainly bomb the US bases in the Central Asian republics along its southern border. These would be legitimate military targets, and would no doubt be actively involved in the US war against Russia (why else are they there?). This would draw the Central Asian republics into the war and probably topple their ruling classes, which Russia would see as their just deserts. A similar catastrophe might happen to Poland and other Eastern European states hosting US missile systems. For Europe, the thought of the disruption of their oil supplies from Russia and Central Asia, along with the possibility of sustaining casualties from nuclear bombardment, should be enough to propel them into vigorous and sustained diplomatic action to restrain US belligerency. They will probably say all manner of nasty things about Russia, to mollify their infantile US emperor, and do as little as possible to disrupt their existing commercial arrangements with Russia.

Analogous to the situation of the US public, if Europe and American “allies” were to suffer directly and severely from the war, they might unite in revolt and then use their military forces against the U.S., or Russia, or both as they guessed would offer the best relief. What is that level of “direct and severe suffering” that would trigger a European military response? Good question.

There are many other possibilities for mischief once the US is embroiled in a nuclear war and inattentive to its empire. Other nations could decide it was an opportune time to settle their own scores with each other, independent of the US-Russia war. China and India fought a border war in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is believed to have erupted because the U.S. was completely preoccupied elsewhere. One can imagine Israel finding it opportune to accelerate its liquidation of the Palestinians, expand into Lebanon, attack Iran or a variety of its neighbors, or all of these, while the US was absorbed in a nuclear war radiating from the Caucasus.

Of course, a restraining consideration here is that the U.S. might not be capable or willing to assist and even fund Israel during the course of its own major war with Russia, unless Israel were a full-fledged partner in that war. If Israel were so blinded by its own ambition that it did join the war against Russia, then Russian arms would quickly and forcefully be turned against it, and this would almost certainly be joined by military actions from many states in the Middle East. The intelligent course for Israel would be to stay out of a US war against Russia (which will really look dirty to the US public as they see their own forces being nuked), but even then it might have to accept a diminished level of support from its great protector, and consequently a more successful opposition from its many subjects and neighbors.

Conclusion

Once the chaotic dimension of reality is realized, it becomes easy to envision any number of disastrous developments for each of the initial combatants, and even the initial bystanders. From any perspective, it is easier to imagine a negative cost-benefit ratio to this war than a positive outcome. For this reason, I think it less likely to occur. However, one must not underestimate the stupidity of imperialists, if war does break out then I think the Russians will have a clearer view of how to proceed, and this will mean painful losses for the U.S., its allies and enablers.

The great fallacy of the imperialistic mind is that the threat of destruction is equated with the power to control. Control is an illusion, chaos is the reality. A successful warrior dances with chaos, and success means simply that one is still alive.

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Originally published as:

Will a Russo-American Nuclear War Happen (Soon)?
1 September 2008
https://www.counterpunch.org/2008/09/01/will-a-russo-american-nuclear-war-happen-soon/

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