Ukraine, MH17 and the Struggle for Europe

Alastair Crooke

Valdai Discussion Club, 30 July 2014

Immanuel Wallerstein refers here to two major articles, one an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, and the other, a major story in Germany’s Der Spiegel.  Both share a common theme:The German-American Breakup. Both, Wallerstein writes, are pessimistic that the unprecedented breach can be swiftly, if ever, repaired. The Der Spiegel piece, published on the same day, has as its headline: Germany’s Choice: Will It Be America or Russia? One section of this latter article is entitledThe Last Straw.

The ‘last straw’ of course refers to Germany’s inability to shake itself free of America’s Deep State: in this case its security Deep State. (Susan Rice peremptorily told German officials that America would not even extend any “no-spying” guarantee – beyond that of Merkel herself.)  As Professor Hendrickson has noted “[the spying saga] showed [to Germans] that the U.S. national security apparatus is no less voracious than the Stasi in seeking to penetrate the deeper recesses of the human soul. It wants it all; worse, it thinks that ‘wanting it all’ is perfectly normal”.

The spying episode however is merely the tip of a much bigger iceberg (for Germans).  The iceberg itself is that the post-war dispensation of America’s insertion into Europe via NATO – effectively took (and still takes) – security issues off the table for the European Union.  EU security policy, in effect, is NATO policy: which is to say US policy.

It might seem that for the EU there is simply no alternative:  the EU could never – with its 28 member states, and its East European neo-liberal implant – come up with an alternative security structure, absent the United States. But an alternative is there (although it is not one to be said aloud in front of the children): “If it had no other alternative, Germany could close its eyes, tap its slippers three times, and reconstitute the old European Concert [of powers] in short order, with nary an American soldier or airman in sight”, Hendrickson argues.  Its central axis of Europe would be less that of France and Germany,  but more Russia and Germany (especially given the UK’s present schizophrenia about its future political orientation, and France’s political debilitation).

What has this to do with MH17 and Ukraine?  Well … quite a lot:  after noting the articles seeing a German-US ‘break-up’ to be a major issue, Wallerstein writes that:

“The basic problem is that the United States is, and has been for some time, in geopolitical decline. It doesn’t like this. It doesn’t really accept this. It surely doesn’t know how to handle it, that is, minimize the losses to the United States. So it keeps trying to restore what is unrestorable – U.S. “leadership” (read: hegemony) in the world-system. This makes the United States a very dangerous actor. No small number of political agents in the United States is calling for some sort of decisive “action” – whatever that could possibly mean. And U.S. elections may depend in large part on how U.S. political actors play this game.

That is what Europeans in general, and now Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in particular, are realizing. The United States has become a very unreliable ‘partner’. So even those in Germany and elsewhere in Europe who are nostalgic for the warm embrace of the “free world” are reluctantly joining the less nostalgic others in deciding how they can survive geopolitically without the United States. And this is pushing them into the logical alternative, a European tent that includes Russia”.

As the Germans and the Europeans in general, move inexorably in this direction, they have their hesitations. If they can no longer trust the United States, could they really trust Russia? And, more importantly, could they make a deal with the Russians that the Russians would find it worthwhile and necessary to observe? You can bet that this is what is being discussed in the inner circles of the German government today, and not how to repair the irreparable breach of trust with the United States.

Influential figures in America fear this prospect deeply:  it has taken on the quality of being seen as an existential point of inflection that will determine America’s destiny, one way or another, as a global leader.  And Putin plainly understands the stakes: throughout the Ukrainian crisis, he has focused, above all, on courting European support.  So when MH17 is brought down (by persons as yet unknown – see here and here), it is (as they say), seen by American politicians in terms of ‘every crisis also having its opportunity’.

The stoking of emotional heart-wrench, and the western media’s depicting of the militias, and by extension Putin, as barbarians inhumanly callous at the loss of the airliner and civilian life, of course, is intended precisely to close-off German options – and to leave Merkel with no option but to support ‘level three’ sanctions on Russia.  John Kerry’s rounds of US Sunday TV chat shows to hype a humanitarian ‘outrage’ at Putin’s moral cynicism and irresponsibility sends the critical message to the German (and European) people that ‘you cannot trust the morally-derelict Putin or Russia’.

Just to make it absolutely plain what this effort is all about, Zbigniew Brzezinski also took to the TV chat shows – in parallel to Kerry – challenging Europe’s leaders to “stand up to Putin”. He wonders if “Europe wants to become a satellite” and worries about “a moment of decisive significance for the future of the system – of the world system”.  (Kerry cited no hard evidence to implicate the Donbass militias or Russia in the aircraft’s downing however – and much of the militia’s supposed outrages were exaggerated for their emotional value: see here)

And the Wall Street Journal in a front page tap on Angela Merkel’s shoulder – reminding her to vote ‘yes’ on the next ‘Level-3’ round of Russia sanctions – warned that “Deutsche Bank’s giant U.S. operations suffer from a litany of serious problems, including shoddy financial reporting, inadequate auditing and oversight and weak technology systems.”  This ‘hint’ follows in the wake of the $9 billion ‘fine’ imposed by the US authorities on the French BNP bank, ostensibly for financing trade with Iran, but reportedly intended to punish France for refusing to cancel the Mistral contract with Russia. (Deutsche Bank is reported to have a total derivative exposure that amounts to just about $75 trillion (repeat trillion), which is about 100 times greater than the €522 billion in deposits the bank holds, or five times greater than the entire GDP of Europe.)

There are two ‘realities’ that flow from all this:  Firstly, that Kerry’s rounds of the TV studios probably have so muddied and emotionalized public perceptions that any outcome – whatever that investigative outcome might be – will not change American settled opinion.  See this month’s extraordinarily jaundiced cover of Newsweek for evidence of the impossibility of any subsequent objective analysis of what happened being a viable option.

Secondly, it will not have changed President Putin’s Ukraine calculus (or policy). For all the stories, questioning “Can Putin Survive?”, one simply has to look to recent polls for the answer: he has 83% approval ratings; whereas the US leadership enjoys the approval of just 4% of Russians: atlanticists in Russia have lost their entire constituency.

Why then, has Russia begun to offer a different official narrative on the MH17 loss, and backed it up with evidence from recordings taken off the ATC radar screens? These recordings showed that there had been a Ukrainian aircraft in close proximity to MH17 at the time of its disappearance (contrary to what Kiev claimed).  The Russian military also produced satellite imagery showing the positions of Ukrainian SA11s in the locality to the site of the Boeing 777’s disappearance (also contrary to what Kiev and Washington claimed). Russian officials – including the Deputy Defense Minister – however did not, in contrast to Kerry, seek to speculate on who or what had caused the airliner to crash, but rather posed ten searching questions about the circumstances of the airliner’s disappearance, for which they sought answers.

In response, the US was pushed into offering an intelligence backgrounder to the press which was of a very different tone to Kerry’s Sunday blitz of the talk shows:  far from backing up his Sunday bluster, the briefers ‘walked-back’ the Secretary of State’s stitched together circumstantial evidence around the repeated refrain of “we know”.  The briefers did not try to address the ten Russian questions, but rather US intelligence officials said they did not know who fired the missile, or whether any Russian operatives were present at the missile launch. They were not certain that the missile crew was trained in Russia, although they described a stepped-up campaign in recent weeks by Russia to arm and train the rebels, which they say has continued, even after the downing of MH17.  In terms of who fired the missile, “we don’t know a name, we don’t know a rank and we’re not even 100 percent sure of a nationality,” one official said, adding at another point, “There is not going to be a Perry Mason moment here.”  They even said that that had been unaware of any SA-11 missiles being in the hands of the Donbass armed forces before the MH17 downing.

So what is the point of this Russian effort to get the facts out – if, inevitably, the media will rubbish them – unless they conform to fixed preconceptions?  The answer is that the battle for the facts is the struggle for the confidence of the German leadership (as well as some other Europeans, including France, Italy and Austria).  Russia has conveyed privately all of its evidenceto Europe.  Will Kerry’s ploy succeed in eviscerating all German options – other than that of having to follow America’s lead?  Time will tell.  But, if it transpires that the US is perceived as having stovepiped Europe into level-3 sanctions and to the brink of conflict with Russia on flimsy circumstantial evidence, this will weigh heavily with a German leadership that – as Wallerstein already noted – sees the US now as dangerously unguided and incoherent in its foreign policy.

European leaders would (I guess) largely agree with Peter Lee when he writes, that “sanctions [on Russia] have become and end in themselves for the United States [and that] my outsider’s impression is that the US foreign policy for Russia has been pretty much captured by doctrinaire anti-Russians in a diplomatic and military deep state that pretty much permeates and survives every incoming administration”.  It is not surprising that Europeans ask to where will escalating sanctions take us?  What is the end game?  Sanctions will hollow out the significant European trade with Russia, and will leave European economies open and vulnerable to US commercial interests. That the American establishment sees sanctions as an end itself – sees ‘breaking’ and humiliating Putin – as an end in itself is a truly frightening prospect.
Is there a prospect that Putin will back down?  How can he?  The Ukraine falling entirely into hostile, anti-Russian, pro-NATO hands would be an existential threat.  And why should he?  In July, some parts of the federalists in Donetsk, (those aligned with the Ukrainian oligarch Akhmetov), attempted an internal coup against the Donbass militants.  They had made a secret deal with Poroshenko’s people, and were on the brink of yielding control over Donetsk to Kiev – when the plan was exposed and all participants purged.  In parallel with this, following the retreat from the city of Slavyansk, the Donbass military forces were not only successful in breaking an attempted encirclement by the Ukrainian army, but then went on to sandwich the Ukrainian forces between the Novorossian forces and the Russian border, inflicting a major defeat on Kiev.

As a consequence of the failed Donetsk coup and the military defeat inflicted on Kiev’s forces, a military and political alliance has been forming in East Ukraine, where (former Presidential candidate) Oleg Tsaryov’s group is starting to play a real political role, whilst the military, led by Strelkov, lays the groundwork for the return to the idea of ‘larger Novorossia’ composed not just of two, but of seven to eight regions. This only became possible after the July defeats for Kiev.  In short, Putin has real cards to play both militarily and politically.  The Russian parliament has been recalled from holiday in order to debate an important Ukrainian new initiative (no further details given yet). We must wait and see.

Finally, does Putin’s European ‘play’ preclude a consolidation of the alliance with China?  We think not. We see the two initiatives linked through the notion of re-shaping the global order.

Leave a Reply