Preparing for the Next War: Subordination, escalation and the Battle for Ukraine

It has been one year since the full Russian invasion dramatically escalated the war in Ukraine, and an end to the fighting has never seemed further away. The illegal and brutal invasion has been met with staunch resistance from Ukrainians, aided immensely by support from powerful interests with their own agendas quite distinct from the people whose lives have been ruined by the war, especially the United States. Yesterday, President Biden made a surprise visit to Ukraine—his first since the invasion—whereupon the smiling gray void delivered the message ‘We’re with you as long as it takes’. Indeed, the possibility of a diplomatically achieved end to the war appears essentially impossible considering the Ukrainian government’s continued US-backed pronouncements that it will not surrender a single metre of land—including the annexed Crimea—to achieve peace. The embattled nation’s most belligerent supporters seem firmly committed to fight to the last Ukrainian.

In 2022, the Pentagon spent US $62.3 billion on Ukraine, providing it with a vast amount of weapons, ammunition, training, logistics, supplies and salaries in what amounts to a tremendous feast for weapons companies. For comparison, in 2023 the White House has budgeted about $44 billion for various government agencies to combat climate change on a national and global level. Part of this budget includes almost $1 billion in climate aid to help the poorest countries transition to clean energy and make adaptations.

Western public opinion appears to be highly supportive of providing military support to Ukraine. Part of the reason for this high level of support comes as the conflict is framed in the terms of culture war, overlaying and merging with the geopolitical level. As Simon Cooper notes, it is clear that the desire to support a ‘victim’ against a ‘bully’, to create a ‘safe space’ free from ‘trauma’, and other such framings that structure the way contemporary progressives understands, are being mobilised to frame the war. He wrote: ‘The United States and allies are defending an idealised Ukraine—a community of openness, tolerance, human rights, youthful democracy and so on—in a projection of progressive fantasies onto a territorial conflict’.

The West frames its unified support for the military backing of Ukraine as a bold and powerful projection of power. Putin made the same claim yesterday, albeit from the opposite side, saying that the United States is seeking a complete overhaul of the post-Second World War security structure in favour of ‘an American-style world where there is only one master’. Yet both positions greatly overestimate the strength of the United States, whose power has been crumbling for decades and whose global hegemony is not returning in any meaningful way. Even on a purely military level, the United States is floundering. Recall that in Afghanistan, the ‘greatest military on earth’ spent 20 years and $2.3 trillion dollars to replace the Taliban with the Taliban. As I observed last year, the war in Ukraine does not reveal the United States’s unbridled power, but rather the extent of its imperial decay, and especially its faltering domination of cybernetic capitalism.

This leads to questions that are hard to raise given the constraints of public debate in the rich world. Why are the United States and its allies so supportive of the war? Given its track record of supporting dictators, funding wars and invading countries, epitomised by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (incidentally, the 20-year anniversary of the latter is on 20 March 2023), we can safely assume it is not principally concerned about the welfare of the Ukrainian people. Rather, its agenda comes not from its strength, but from its weakness. In short: the United States and its allies are backing Ukraine to the hilt in order to further subordinate Europe to NATO in preparation for possible war with the rapidly rising power in the east, China.

The current arc of this strategy goes back at least a decade, to an announcement that Barack Obama made while on a one-and-a-half day tour of Australia back in 2011. He announced the pivot to the ‘Asia-Pacific’ as a direct military-led challenge to China’s growing influence in the region. Amid a forgettable speech full of empty liberal bombast, he said, ‘Let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in’.

At that time, the United States was in the full thrust of qualitatively easing its way around the ravages of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), pumping immense amounts of money into stock markets, which drastically increased inequality. This served to accelerate the rot that would lead to the backlash against the Democratic Party’s visionless hypocrisies. Simultaneously, a major part of China’s response to the GFC consisted of a version of Keynesian deficit spending to fund an immense building spree; in just two years it poured more cement than the United States did in the entire twentieth century. In 2013, it went further by launching the Belt and Road Initiative, its global infrastructure development strategy which sought to export its industrial over-capacity and extend a kind of trade-based model of globalisation—a distinct variation from the litany of failures of the Washington Consensus, and one that has been largely welcomed by much of the poorer world.

Obama’s staunch determination to put a broken system back together enabled the rise of his Orange Legacy. Trump immediately scrapped Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a large-scale ambit to encircle and exclude China via a free trade network run on US corporate-supremacist lines. Rather than pursue this globalist project, Trump preferred to confront ‘China’—which must be read with his obnoxious accent—with a trade war run on nationalist lines (also with a US corporate-supremacist bent). After many EU countries refused to ban Huawei from creating their 5G infrastructure, Trump sanctioned various foreign companies selling computer chips built by the Chinese tech company. His regime sought to subordinate Europe by actively supporting Brexit and other Euro-sceptic forces, and used trade as a weapon against the EU. A key example of this was the imposition of hefty tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from the EU. Tellingly, he did this on the basis of the World Trade Organisation’s Article XXI—the ‘national security clause’—not via the usual GATT mechanisms.

Through the financialised efforts of the United States and China’s concrete strategy, both managed to push back the structural crisis revealed for a moment by the GFC. Both strategies could only temporary defer the deeper crisis, however: there is only so much cement that can be poured and only so much money that can be fabricated. The COVID crisis pulled both strategies undone, with China’s material growth slowing sharply and its supply-lines chronically disrupted. The US Federal Reserve pumped immense amounts of money into the system, essentially replicating the qualitative easing trick of the GFC, but on a far greater scale, with all the extreme distortions of intensifying inequality. This continued until the return of inflation, whereupon the tap of seemingly infinite free money was closed, with whatever unknowns to follow. The Russian invasion of Ukraine came amid this moment of extreme weakness of US-led global financial systems.

As seen from Washington, a future confrontation with China requires a subordinate Europe. Again, this is due to the relative weakness of the United States, not because of its immense power. A glimpse at the US disapproval of independent European foreign policy can be seen in their contempt for, and active undermining of, the Minsk agreements. Drafted back in 2014–15, these agreements between Ukraine and Russia sought to achieve a ceasefire in the Donbas, with negotiations being facilitated by France and Germany. The exclusion of the United States from this intra-European peace process, along with its concerns over Germany’s deepening economic relations with China, caused much angst in Washington. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has, for now, helped the United States achieve its goal of tightening NATO supremacy against any internal EU unity and the possibility that it might chart a different course or have any kind of independent foreign policy.

The United States has worked to subordinate its advanced industrial allies in Western Europe while simultaneously strengthening the Eastern European frontline states. Poland’s right-wing populist Law and Justice government’s extremely cosy relationship with Washington has seen Germany suggesting that it could be the third pillar of the EU, joining the financial-industrial heft of Germany and nuclear-military power France’s petit global empire. Such a suggestion is unlikely to be accepted by France; nor does Poland need it, at least while the United States showers them with support.

The most dramatic example of the US attempt to subordinate Europe was its covert destruction of the Nord Stream Pipeline in September. Despite mainstream media calling it a ‘mystery’, there is little doubt as to the United States’s responsibility for the attack. The complexity of the sabotage—which requiring divers to descend 80 metres beneath the Baltic Sea with an immense load of explosives in just a couple of hours in order to avoid detection—could only be done by one of the most sophisticated militaries on the planet. The point of this covert attack on an ally’s critical infrastructure was to prevent Germany from having the option of withdrawing full support for the war in Ukraine. The US violently removed the possibility of Germany withdrawing unequivocal support for Ukraine in exchange for allowing people affordable warmth, or sanction-stalled industries energy. The United States, meanwhile, sends ships of liquefied gas at quadruple the price of what Russia was offering through the pipeline. The fact that it was reduced to such a desperate, and in the long term almost certainly counterproductive move shows its weakness.

The predominance of pro-war sentiment in the West, with many progressives lining up with neocons in praise of the escalation game, serves to obscure how divided world opinion is over the conflict, and more importantly, over the US world order. Outside the rich bubble, it is enlightening to look at the political economy of the sanctions against Russia, and especially how highly uneven their application is. Countries leading sanctions charge include a very predictable ‘Coalition of the Willing’: the ever belligerent Anglosphere (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand); the anti-China east Asian states (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore); and the subordinate EU plus Switzerland. Meanwhile, the rest of the world—which is to say, the majority of the world—refused to sanction Russia. This included nine out of the ten most populous countries on the planet. Even NATO ally Türkiye refused to join in on the sanctions. While the majority of countries rightly condemn the Russian invasion, they see little point in making costly sacrifices to uphold the US-led ‘rules-based international order’. This clearly shows just how little control the United States now has over global opinion.

All the while, the United States continues to make preparations for war with China, both via further intensifications of its trade and intellectual property war and via conventional militaristic efforts. And in a number of key ways, it is already losing, with the Defense Department predicting its inability to defeat the larger and more modern Chinese navy in a home theatre. The US navy has just announced that it will conduct test launches of hypersonic weapons from the USS Zumwalk—the brutalist stealth destroyer in the image above—in late 2025. This is a belated attempt to close the gap with China, which last year tested its YJ-21 hypersonic anti-ship missile that can, according to the official Weibo account of the People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force, travel at Mach 10—that’s ten times the speed of sound, or 3,400 metres per second—making it functionally impossible to defend against. The sheer kinetic energy of such missiles means that even if they didn’t contain explosive warheads—which they do—they could cause devastating damage to anything they hit.

The ABC recently published a two-part consideration of what a US–China war could look like and what its consequences could be for Australia. The article correctly noted that these are urgent considerations that require extensive public debate, with Clinton Fernandes making the crucial point that any decision as to our involvement in such a war should be an independent and sovereign one with parliamentary authorisation, not a war by automatic foreign decree. Most of the commentators the ABC interviewed drew comparisons with Second World War naval battles. Yet the Mach 10 missiles can stand in for the radical differences between a potential US–China war and the historical precedent set seventy years ago. The qualitative break in the technosciences that began in the Second World War has intensified greatly. As the new epoch was opened by nuclear blasts in New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so too this spectre of nuclear war is nearer now than ever before. Add to this hypersonic weapons, lethal drones, modernised nuclear weapons and other forms of cybernetic warfare, and the possibilities for violence are much greater and even less predictable than ever before.

Even outside the possibility of full-scale US–China war, the threat of increasing proxy and asymmetrical wars is also intensifying, and will continue to do so as the climate deteriorates. As John Hinkson has noted, with ‘the emerging dangers of social disintegration, and the real prospect of guerilla warfare spreading from one region to another,’ the threat of nuclear disaster escalates sharply, largely due to the amount of nuclear waste stored in many sites across Russia, Ukraine and Europe. This is further exacerbated by the extreme corruption of the Ukrainian state, with many of the arms delivered disappearing into various black markets/operations. Even the Pentagon’s Inspector General has admitted that they are unable to properly monitor the flow of weapons and money into Ukraine in line with the Department of Defense’s policies. It is quite reasonable to suspect that some of these weapons will haunt the world for decades to come.

What does all this mean for Australia? One thing is clear: much as the United States is using the Russian invasion of Ukraine to subordinate Europe in an attempt to better confront China, so too must Australia be kept as a sub-imperial state. Australia seems quite content with its thoroughly subordinate status, with neither major party having any appetite for independent foreign policy. Yet before we continue to aggressively and blindly march into an unwinnable war, we need to consider more deeply the possible prospects of such a conflict, including that such a war could result in the end of Australia as a British settler-colonial state. Moreover, such a war, should it go nuclear, could end life as we know it.

Given these absurdities, the most sane pathway would be to become an independent voice for global disarmament on the world stage, actively working towards a more just and sustainable world order. Or, at the minimum, we should at least join the majority of the world in getting off the United States’s sinking ship.

Neither Their War Nor Their Peace: After Ukraine, might a multipolar world emerge?

Clinton Fernandes, Dec 2022

Even before the invasion, extreme weather and the pandemic had resulted in higher shipping costs, energy price inflation, labour shortages, and rising food prices.

About the author

Timothy Erik Ström

Timothy Erik Ström is the editor of Arena Online. He is the author of the forthcoming book Cybernetic Capitalism (Verso), and his collected writings can be found at his website: The Sorcerer’s Apparatus.

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