Wars and their escalation—the mass destruction of human life that is almost invariably accompanied by destruction of the natural world—happen because preparations for war bring leaders ever closer to the brink.
A new war, a new alibi. When we think about our latest war—the one that began with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just six months after our Afghan War ended so catastrophically—there is a hidden benefit. As long as American minds are on Ukraine, we are not thinking about planetary climate disruption. This technique of distraction obeys the familiar mechanism that psychologists have called displacement. An apparently new thought and feeling becomes the substitute for harder thoughts and feelings you very much want to avoid.
Every news story about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s latest demand for American or European weaponry also serves another function: the displacement of a story about, say, the Canadian fires which this summer destroyed a forest wilderness the size of the state of Alabama and 1,000 of which are still burning as this article goes to press. Of course, there is always the horrific possibility that Ukraine could pass from a “contained” to a nuclear war, as out of control as those Canadian fires. Yet we are regularly assured that the conflict, close to the heart of Europe, is under careful supervision. The war has a neatly framed villain (Vladimir Putin) and—thanks to both the U.S. and NATO—a great many good people containing him. What could possibly go wrong?
A fantasy has taken root among well-meaning liberals. Ukraine, they believe, is the “good war” people like them have been searching for since 1945. “This is our Spain,” young enthusiasts have been heard to say, referring to the Spanish Republican war against fascism. In Ukraine in the early 2020s, unlike Spain in the late 1930s, the Atlantic democracies will not falter but will go on “as long as it takes.” Also, the climate cause will be assisted along the way, since Russia is a large supplier of natural gas and oil, and the world needs to unhook itself from both.
No less irresponsible has been the choice to perpetuate the war habit even as we recognize the inseparable role wars have always played in the destruction of the planet.
That theory got tested a year ago, with the underwater sabotage of Russia’s Nordstream natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland all welcomed that environmental disaster. In an eventually deleted message the former Polish foreign minister and war advocate Radislaw Sikorski tweeted thanks to the U.S. for what he took to be a transparently American operation. The American media, however, treated the attack as an imponderable mystery, some reports even suggesting that Russia might have destroyed its own invaluable pipeline for reasons yet to be fathomed. Then, in a February 2023 article, the independent investigative reporter Seymour Hersh traced the attack to the U.S., and later Western reports would come halfway to his conclusion by assigning credit to Ukraine, or a pro-Ukrainian group. As of late summer, all reporting on the Nordstream disaster seems to have stopped. What has not stopped is the killing. The numbers of dead and wounded in the Ukraine war are now estimated at nearly half a million, with no end in sight.
The Nordstream wreck was only one attention-getting catastrophe within the greater horror that a war always is. An act of industrial sabotage on a vast scale, it was also an act of environmental terrorism, causing the largest methane leak in the history of the planet. According to a report in Forbes, “The subsequent increase in greenhouse gases… was equivalent to as much as 32% of Denmark’s annual emissions.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was an illegal and immoral act, but the adjective that usually follows illegal and immoral is “unprovoked.” In truth, this war was provoked. A contributing cause, impossible to ignore, was the eastward extension of NATO, always moving closer to the western borders of Russia, in the years from 1991 to 2022. That expansion was gradual but relentless. Consider the look of such a policy to the country—no longer Communist and barely a great power—which, in 2013, American leaders again began to describe as an adversary.
With the end of the Cold War in 1991 (the very global conflict that gave NATO its reason for being), the eastward projection of the alliance accelerated dramatically. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all former members of the Soviet bloc, were brought into NATO in 1999; and 2004 witnessed an even richer harvest of former satellites of the USSR: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, all either near to or bordering on Russia. Then came the Bucharest Summit Declaration of April 2008: Georgia and Ukraine, the NATO heads of state announced, would be given the opportunity to apply for membership at some future date. If you want to know why Putin and his advisers might have considered this a security concern for Russia, look at a map.
The United States has supported Ukraine with copious donations of weapons, troop-trainers, and logistical and technical advisers left to work the interoperable targeting equipment we “share” with that country. Between 2014 and 2022, NATO drilled at least 10,000 Ukrainian troops per year in advanced methods of warfare. In the war itself, weapons supplies have climbed steadily from Stinger and Javelin missiles to Abrams tanks (whose greenhouse-gas environmental footprint is 0.6 miles per gallon of gas, or 300 gallons every eight hours of use), to cluster bombs, and most recently the promise of F-16s.
All this has put fresh wind in the sails of the weapons manufacturers of the American military-industrial-congressional complex. In May 2022, the CEO of Lockheed Martin thanked President Biden personally for his kindness. F-16s, after all, are big money-makers. As for the additional fuel that ordinary Ukrainians require, it is now being sequestered underground by Ukrainian commodities traders at enormous environmental risk.
Wars and their escalation—the mass destruction of human life that is almost invariably accompanied by destruction of the natural world—happen because preparations for war bring leaders ever closer to the brink. So close, in fact, that it feels natural to go on. That was certainly the case with Russia, Ukraine, and NATO, and the escalation that followed. Examples of such escalation are indeed the rule, not the exception in time of war.
Think of the invention, testing, and strategic planning that led to the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In Jon Else’s extraordinary documentaryThe Day After Trinity, the physicist Freeman Dyson offered a sober analysis of the momentum driving the decision to use the bomb:
“Why did the bomb get dropped on people at Hiroshima? I would say: It’s almost inevitable that it would have happened—simply because all the bureaucratic apparatus existed by that time to do it. The air force was ready and waiting. There had been prepared big airfields in the island of Tinian in the Pacific from which you could operate. The whole machinery was ready.”
In the same sense, all the apparatus was in place for the war in Ukraine. Joe Biden, a conventional cold warrior, has always had a temperament rather like that of President Harry Truman. The Biden of 2023, like the Truman of 1945, comes across as impulsive, not deliberate. He likes to pop off, thinks he is appreciated for taking risks, and fancies himself particularly good under pressure. This state of mind partly accounts for his decision to label Vladimir Putin a “war criminal”: never mind that such a description would apply with equal truth to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for launching the invasion of Iraq in 2003—a war that Biden, as chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, supported unreservedly. His insistence that “this man [Putin] cannot remain in power for god’s sake” and his belief (as of mid-July 2023) that “Putin has already lost the war” exhibit the same pattern of effusive moralism accompanied by a denial of inconvenient facts.
A different perspective was offered by Anatol Lieven at the Responsible Statecraft website:
“We are repeatedly told that the war in Ukraine is a war to defend democracy and help secure it across the world. Our American, French, and British ancestors (and even the Russians, from March to October 1917) were also told the same about the Allied side in the First World War. It did not quite work out that way, and nothing guarantees that it will happen that way in Ukraine.”
In the case of Ukraine, such false hopes have been pushed far more freely by the media than by the military. War is a drug, and they have chosen to be the dealers.
The Media Airbrush
War propaganda can be delivered in picturesque as well as popular ways. A prime example of the former approach was Roger Cohen’s August 6 front-page New York Times story, “Putin’s Forever War,” based on a recent visit. (“I spent a month in Russia.”) The apologetic intent here is underscored in the headline, which picks up an epithet once applied to the disastrous American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and slyly transfers it to Russia. The coverage is all in the same key, over six full pages of the paper Times, bulked out with color photographs of cheerleaders, churches, dank stairways, military processions, statues, tombs, and models on a fashion shoot.
From the start, Cohen adopts the voice of a prophetic observer of a new war, even as he makes it sound a good deal like the old war with the Soviet Union. “Along the way,” he writes,
“I encountered fear and fervid bellicosity, as well as stubborn patience to see out a long war. I found that Homo sovieticus, far from dying out, has lived on in modified form, along with habits of subservience. So with the aid of relentless propaganda on state television, the old Putin playbook—money, mythmaking, and menace of murder—has just about held.”
The name Putin appears with great regularity as the article proceeds, doing extra duty for the historical analysis and exposition that are mostly absent.
“I first visited Moscow,” writes Cohen, “four decades ago, when it was a city devoid of primary colors eking out existence in the penury of Communism.” But Moscow has changed and the reason is Putin: “He opened Russia, only to slam it shut to the West; he also modernized it, while leaving the thread to Russia’s past unbroken.” So here, as in many Western accounts, the problem turns out to be not just Putin but the fact that he embodies a backward, naturally vengeful, country and its irretrievable past. The people of Russia are lost and—a few courageous dissidents excepted—they are given over to primitivism, hopeless nostalgia, and of course aggression. Putin is their epitome.
He “governs from the shadows”—no point in skipping the vampire trope—“unlike Stalin, whose portrait was everywhere. There is no cult of the leader of the kind Fascist systems favored. Yet mystery has its own magnetism. The reach of Mr. Putin’s power touches all.” There is, in other words, a cult of personality without either the personality or the display that belong to such a cult: “Putinism is a postmodern compilation of contradictions. It combines mawkish Soviet nostalgia with Mafia capitalism, devotion to the Orthodox Church with the spread of broken families.” It did not take a month in Russia to write those sentences. A day at TheNew York Times would have sufficed.
The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally emerges as the hero of this story. Nowhere quoted, however, is the Gorbachev who, between 2004 and 2018, contributed eight op-eds to TheNew York Times, the sixth of which focused on climate change and the eighth on the perilous renewal of a nuclear arms race. Gorbachev was deeply troubled by George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (which Putin called a “mistake”) and Donald Trump’s similar decision to pull out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Does anyone doubt that Gorbachev would have been equally disturbed by the Biden administration’s virtual severance of diplomatic relations with Russia?
In an October 25, 2018, op-ed, Gorbachev summed up the American tendency throughout the preceding two decades: “The United States has in effect taken the initiative in destroying the entire system of international treaties and accords that served as the underlying foundation for peace and security following World War II.” Notice that the bellicose American “initiative” began well before the ascent of Vladimir Putin and, according to Gorbachev, it possessed—like the expansion of NATO—a dynamism that operated independently of developments inside Russia.
Return to Earth
The major news of the summer, besides the apparent lack of success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, has been Russia’s sudden cancellation of the Black Sea grain deal—a decision prompted in some measure by a July 17 Ukrainian drone attack on the Kerch Bridge. This is the bridge that has served to connect Russia to Crimea, after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014; and the drone strike was part of a continuing Ukrainian-NATO effort to undermine—by sanctions, among other means—Russia’s export of its own grain. A typical Western media report about these developments in TheWashington Post declined to associate the two events; as if the Ukrainian attack had occurred by coincidence just “hours before” the Russian termination of the deal and its own attacks on Ukrainian grain storage facilities. The events are referred to as “twin developments,” and that is all.
In a recent article at TomDispatch, Michael Klare recalled the public shame that never properly attached to U.S. energy companies for “choosing to perpetuate practices known to accelerate climate change and global devastation. Among the most egregious, the decision of top executives of the ExxonMobil Corporation—the world’s largest and wealthiest privately-owned oil company—to continue pumping oil and gas for endless decades after their scientists warned them about the risks of global warming.”
Such environmental indifference, as Klare rightly notes, persisted long after the reality of climate disruption was recognized by the polluters. No less irresponsible has been the choice to perpetuate the war habit even as we recognize the inseparable role wars have always played in the destruction of the planet. The Ukraine war was launched by Russia in an exertion of brutal short-term opportunism, but it was also provoked by the United States as one of a long series of wars and regime-change operations that were meant to give the U.S. uncontested leadership of a unipolar world.
All of us now inhabit a war planet threatened in other devastating ways as well. Our escape will not be achieved through a new “norms-based” international order in which NATO, with the U.S. at the helm, replaces the United Nations as the global authority presiding over war and peace. The “next war on the horizon,” whether in the Baltic Sea, the Persian Gulf, or Taiwan, is a matter of grave interest to the citizens on all those horizons who may want anything but to serve as its field of exercise. Meanwhile, the lesson for the United States should be simple enough: The survival of the planet cannot wait for the world’s last superpower to complete our endless business of war.