Britain used to have an empire. At its height, having surrendered North America, Britain still owned India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Australia, Malaysia, Egypt, a fair slice of Africa, and various other bits and pieces like Malta. In number and extent it was the greatest empire the world has ever seen, making the Roman empire look rather trivial. It is now a distant memory.
Britain’s retreat from empire reached a tipping point when Egypt’s new socialist President Abdel Nassar nationalised the Suez Canal. Would Britain, still a military power, invade? As a British military commander at the time put it “of course we can take the Suez, but what are we going to do with it once we have it?” Britain didn’t invade and tacitly accepted that the empire was now merely the ‘Commonwealth’ and Britain itself was an island of the coast of Europe (although there are some who think of Britain as an island of the coast of Ireland!) The Suez became known as Britain’s ‘empire moment’.
If the Suez Canal was Britain’s ‘empire moment’ then Novorussia is North America’s. ‘Novorussia’ is the term used by the rebel forces in East Ukraine for their new republic. It is an emotive term laden with historical meaning, and likely also an appeal to their Russian brethren further east. It is also where America’s imperial ambitions have been forcibly halted.
|East Ukraine proving a headache for the American empire|
From the perspective of empire things have been going rather well in Ukraine. The USA orchestrated the violent overthrow of a democratically elected pro-Russian President and dictated, at least in part, who should be in the new government. That President is now screaming for foreign military aid providing a pretext for expanding NATO directly to Russia’s border and threatening her Black Sea fleet which is based in Crimea. Ukraine is now in debt to the International Monetary Fund having turned down a more favourable financial offer from Russia. On the IMF’s role in subjugating the finances of sovereign nations see here. Financially Ukraine is in deep trouble and liable to be tied into an unsustainable cycle of debt, and thus forced to surrender much of its economic and domestic its sovereignty.
For example, as a condition of this aid, Ukraine is now obliged to allow genetically modified crops and big biotech into the heart of what was the best grain producing area in Russia (what is now called Ukraine used belong to Russia and was formerly an administrative district within the USSR). Monsanto has opened its first office in Kiev. Political dissent in Ukraine is being ruthlessly suppressed. The whole fracas has enabled the US to drive a wedge between Russia and the EU, and enabled punitive economic sanctions to be levied on Russia in an attempt to impoverish and destabilise that country. But, like Egypt, and like Nancy Reagan, sometimes people ‘just say no’. That’s what happened in Crimea and East Ukraine.
In Crimea people voted to stay with Russia. Contrary to the hyperbole being peddled by respected news organisations in the West, Russia did not invade Crimea. Russia was already there having a long standing agreement with Ukraine for the stationing of up to 25,000 troops and the basing of their Black Sea Fleet. Crimea voted to stay with Russia so Russia, citing the Kosovo precedent, simply stayed. Where Crimea changed to Russian hands without a shot, rebel uprisings in Donbass / Donetsk / Lugansk immediately sparked a civil war between Russian aligned separatists and the central government in Ukraine.
Let’s be clear that this was an indigenous uprising. If this uprising was a Russian invasion then Russian tanks would have rolled into Kiev weeks ago. While the rebels seem to have acquired some kit and probably some expertise from the Russian side, their rebellion would have been short lived without a large measure of popular support. The Western media portrayal of the conflict as Russian aggression is thus essentially a fairy tale.
It is worthy of note that since the hostilities began perhaps a million people have fled to Russia, but not to Ukraine. Meanwhile US Senator John McCain has complained the Ukraine has not gone far enough and cited their dropping cluster munitions on houses in dissenting areas as a reason for expanding military aid. All this war talk naturally serves the interests of the US industrial complex which badly needs to re-start the cold war if it is to persuade Congress to hand over further billions while their country faces third world levels of poverty and starvation – more people than live in Australia currently face ‘food insecurity’ and at least as many are homeless.
Meanwhile Russia has played a careful hand; providing enough assistance to the rebels to stave off an ethnic cleansing campaign from Kiev on the one hand, while on the other, avoiding being drawn into a bleeding war with Ukraine or direct confrontation with NATO.
So let’s pan back for a minute and take a larger view. The United States spends as much on its military as all of the rest of the world combined spend on theirs. It outspends Russia seven to one. Russia has one aircraft carrier. The US has ten aircraft carrier naval battle groups. Russia did not orchestrate a coup in Mexico. The US did orchestrate a coup in Ukraine. Russia does not have early warning missile radars in Cuba. The US does have early warning missile radars in Poland. Russia has not down sold its significant financial assets purchased from the US. The US has waged economic war on Russia. Faced with these odds Russia was supposed to crumble, abandon East Ukraine to the ravages of undisciplined nationalist Ukrainian forces, apologise for defending its interests, give up its historic ownership of Crimea, and shift its Black Sea navy somewhere else. Um, like, in what universe?
The US still appears invincible. The former Soviet East European states now lie largely within the Western sphere. In Ukraine the high tide of American empire laps at Russia’s shore. But in the nineteenth century Britain also appeared invincible. The US has learned very little from the British colonial experience. To paraphrase a quote from Winston Churchill – “there are three axioms of war - do not fight a war on two fronts, do not mess with the Arabs, and do not invade Russia in winter.” Currently the US, directly or by proxy, is doing all three. Two events should give us pause.
First it was widely reported that the USS Donald Cook was buzzed by a Russian SU-24 strategic bomber/interceptor. The USS Donald Cook is the most advanced air warfare destroyer in the US navy. Not widely reported was that fact that the Russian aircraft was unarmed, save for an electronic warfare device that shut down the Aegis radar and missile guidance system on the Cook leaving them defenseless. The Russian pilots then did twelve simulated attack runs. The Cook returned to the nearest port. Aegis is the most advanced radar/missile system in the Western World, and is the one which is being purchased at great cost by Australia.
The other event is the retreat of up to 5000 Ukrainian troops from Debaltseve. The strategic significance of this is hard to overstate. The capture of this transport hub joins up the territories captured by the various rebel commanders and enables the creation of an economically viable territory. Put bluntly, the US/NATO/Ukrainian side was decisively beaten. Novorussia is now a fact.
Where to from here? Will the US finance an ongoing proxy war in Ukraine? Will Ukraine be offered NATO membership? Will US mercenaries operate under Ukrainian command? What pretext will be found to continue to impose further economic warfare (sanctions) on Russia? Will the penny finally drop that US weapon systems are about bleeding the public purse whereas Russian ones are about winning wars? How far is the EU willing to go as America’s proxy when it comes to provoking Russia? What future for the people of Ukraine, Crimea, and Novorussia?
All these questions I cannot answer but I will make one prediction. The retreat from Debaltseve will one day be seen by historians as America’s ‘empire moment’. It is not a perfect comparison. When Nasser nationalised the Suez the British Empire was already largely defunct and Britain simply recognised that fact. Today the American empire is at the height of its global reach. I predict however that Debaltseve is the turning point, the high tide mark, at which the expansion of the American empire stops and from which it recedes.
There is however one last and important difference. When the British Empire receded it left behind functioning states with capable administrations and an educated ruling class. There is a joke in Asia that the lucky countries (Malaysia and Singapore) got colonized by the Brits, the unlucky ones (Vietnam, Indonesia) got colonised by the Dutch or French. As the American empire recedes it will leave behind failed states (Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq), civil wars (Syria, Ukraine), and broken dreams.