The Ukrainian summer offensive has failed to launch, and the Nato powers are losing confidence. But how did some convince themselves of the fantasy of a war of good against fascism – and what will they think next, asks David Jamieson?
Blue and yellow is out of fashion this season. Summer 2023 is Barbie pink, of course, and we don’t talk so much about Ukraine anymore. The week ending Sunday 20 August was the last of the big push in the Ukrainian Summer offensive, at least according to President Zelensky at its outset. Yet its passing went little remarked upon.
The apparent failure of the offensive – much trailed in the Western press, with parades of advanced arms including German tanks – has led to a swarm of anti-Kyiv messaging from US officials, placed in leading Atlanticist journals. The Washington Post carries complaints from such unnamed officials that Ukraine backed out of an agreed strategy that would involve “major casualties” on the Ukrainian side. Likewise, the New York Times warns: “American officials say they fear that Ukraine has become casualty averse”.
Western confidence has reached a new ebb. Those weeks in the first half of 2022 when Ukrainian flags were raised over town councils across the west, and politicians, journalists, pop stars and other worthies swore fidelity to the re-conquest of Crimea, and other places they had only just learned the names of, seem a distant memory.
The wildly popular credo then – in every mainstream and even most marginal media outlets – was out and proud proxy war (Ukrainian bodies and western bullets), sanctions on the Russian people and the stigmatisation of Russian culture and history, until Ukraine’s 1991 borders were restored, and the invaded country joined the western world proper – including the EU and Nato.
In addition, hitherto widely circulated understandings of modern history in eastern Europe and the Caucasus were now unrepeatable. The record of Nato expansion, brinksmanship with Russia and the fostering of local allies in various countries – not least Ukraine – was suddenly deemed conspiracy theory and disinformation.
This meant that respected academics, like John Mearsheimer, had to be quickly excluded from the parameters of acceptable debate. No Putin-sympathiser (and no peacenik either), Mearsheimer is a partisan of the west. But he noted with too much poignancy the predicament that the west had placed Ukraine in, by leading her “down the primrose path” of Natoisation, without the protection of Nato membership.
The Bucharest Summit of 2008 had offered both Georgia and Ukraine eventual entry to the club – a clear threat to Russia, which bordered both states. Inside the Kremlin, hardliners were empowered to argue their case: Russia should act now to create buffer zones against the military alliance, before Article 5 (the Nato provision for mutual defence of full members), made this impossible. At stake was Russia’s access to the Mediterranean via the Black Sea, and much else, amounting to the country’s continued status as a world force.
The first explosion came in Georgia that very year, and Russia duly constructed a loyal statelet on its border. The technique was not new. Russia had witnessed it with the Nato annexation of Kosovo, which they hoped would hold Russian ally Serbia in check.
Undeterred, Nato and the EU continued to press its influence in Ukraine. When the backlash came, with the Russian annexation of Crimea, and sponsorship of separatist forces in the east of the country, it would of course be Ukraine and not the big Nato powers in the firing line. While Nato buildup in Ukraine would accelerate after the events of 2014, any moves towards Ukrainian membership of Nato, and thus protection under Article 5, would not. Thus, the image of the present war existed in a trace diplomatic outline from 2008 onwards. The west was prepared to fight Russia, but at a distance, and from behind regional allies.
In truth, few who would become born-again Ukrainian irridentist nationalists in 2022 even knew this was going on. When Nato strategy and Ukrainian national self-determination were eagerly conflated in 2022, this was accepted uncritically. Nato became a ‘defensive alliance’ against Russia, despite its decades-long record as a prosecutor of aggressive wars in Asia and Africa, against countries which do not threaten any Nato member.
For those of us critical of the proxy war, the danger of a long, drawn-out attrition was at the forefront of our minds. The war was always going to be waged on Ukrainian soil, at the expense, principally, of Ukrainian lives, settlements, and industries. A trench-bound slog, benefitting defenders rather than attackers, naturally favoured Russia, which was holding on to territory in the south and east of the country – what it clearly views as its new anti-Nato buffer region.
We also understood, as did callous Nato planners, that Russia’s superiority in manpower and industrial productivity meant that it could not be dealt a knock-out military punch. There was no prospect of Ukraine invading Russia and overthrowing the Russian state.
But this leaves a question. Why were so many in the west desperate to believe in the fairy story of a Nato war for democracy against ‘fascism’? Why did they need this story of redemption in a struggle against evil?
To be clear the new mythology wasn’t required by Ukrainians, those actually fighting the war. True, the volunteers and, increasingly, press-ganged conscripts of the Ukrainian armed forces have their own nationalist ideologies, some of them composed of quite dangerous racialist bromides (historical revision of the Holocaust and WW2 being lamentably close to mainstream). But ideology is besides the point: Ukrainian soldiers had few options – none of them good – from the time of the Russian invasion onwards. They could do little else than resist an invasion of their country that brought Russia forces close to Kyiv in the early weeks of the war.
But at the other end of Europe, and across the Atlantic ocean, nothing compelled westerners to take such an irresponsible and destructive view of a war that called desperately for peace. So, what need did it serve – this phantasm of righteous western struggle against an otherworldly, indescribable evil? Time and again we heard that Russia was motivated purely by ‘imperialism’ as if this were an explanation for anything (one of those answers that begs the question: ‘and what’s the motivation for that?’). Just as often, we heard that Nato was purely a defensive alliance, which had made no encroachments against Russia – a feeble bit of propaganda in the face of all available evidence.
The answer to this question – why a section of the western public (largely a more affluent, formally educated and culturally influential portion) needed this ideology – is important, for at least two reasons. First, because they still seek to stand in the way of peace talks.
Second, because the reaction to Nato’s anticipated abandonment of the crusade could help condition attitudes to foreign policy in the west for the coming era of emergent multi-polarity. Some western officials are already privately admitting that a complete reconquest of Ukraine is off the cards. If this attitude is made public, expect howls against betrayal from ideological outriders. What form might this take: yet more paranoia, a lust for revenge against states who won’t toe the western line?
It is often said, and true, that we are watching the world change. The shifts are visible every where from the Middle East and Africa to Latin America and the South China Sea. But new ideological formations are also being born. New ideas about civilisational conflict, mystical evils and cultural phenotypes. Liberal warmongering is a bestial creed, mutating before our eyes.