"The U.S. & Russia Are Testing Each Other’s Red Lines"
Gilbert Doctorow (February 16, 2023)
Gilbert Doctorow discusses how the U.S. and Russia are testing each other’s red lines in a bid to avoid Doomsday. Russia felt existentially threatened and thus needed to push back U.S. and NATO presence in Ukraine. The war is also existential for the U.S. Both sides seek to prolong the war. The most depressing thing is that everything Gilbert disliked about the Soviet Union has now moved to the United States.
Geopolitics & Empire:
Geopolitics & Empire is joined by Brussels based political analyst Gilbert Doctorow. Welcome to Geopolitics & Empire, Gilbert.
Thanks for having me.
Geopolitics & Empire:
I’ve been enjoying your work for many years, so it’s a pleasure to finally speak with you and here on Geopolitics & Empire, I like to get right to the heart of the matter and jump straight into the fray and examine the existential issues and you’ve recently been writing about the coming existential threats. You discussed Russia revising their nuclear plans in light of fears the US via Ukraine targets Crimea and heartland Russia, these plans for sea counterstrikes against US military instillation in Europe and in the continental US using hypersonic missiles and you point out that a panelist on Russian TV for the threat of counterstrikes in Europe and the US to made public and explicit so that no one is in doubt about what to expect from the Kremlin. You also wrote that, “The Russians are stripping away the fiction of a proxy war and revealing the cobelligerent status of the US and its NATO allies in preparation for a kinetic war with NATO.”
And your conclusion in your recent piece, freaking me out, you write, “Back in 1937, there were Jews in Berlin who decided they could ride out the storm and stay put, there were others that took the first boats out to England, to the US, to South America. All of us in the Northern Hemisphere now may be facing the same existential choice,” and apart from what you’ve pointed out, I am seeing many similar signals, reports, and movements to back up what your possible vision of the future. And so could you give us your breakdown of the Ukraine war and this East versus West proxy war, which is basically a World War 3 scenario, could you tell us from your vantage point what’s going on?
First of all, there is a lot of mirror imagery here between what the Russians are doing and the United States are doing. In the United States, they don’t see this, there is a condescension towards Russia, a condescension towards most of the world, and in Washington, they cannot simply take in the fact that the Russians could be playing them the same way they think they’re playing the Russians. What do I have in mind? Both sides have been playing what is commonly described as turning up the temperature on the frog in a pot. That is to say both sides have been doing baby steps, incremental escalation of the sort that they’re testing the red lines of the other side and as for the United States, they don’t see the Russians are doing this. But I assure you they are and what is behind it on both sides is a caution not to do something dramatic.
The Russians have from the very start, for a variety of reasons, have avoided the American way of war of shock and awe, devastating the enemy and then proceeding to clean up. Of course, that shock and awe and easy cleanup was done is in recent by the United States against third-rate military powers, whether it’s Iraq or any of the smaller countries that the United States has devastated, and there’ve been many of them in the last 20 years, they were never peer to peer fights. What we see now in the case of Russia and Ukraine can be described as a peer to peer combat. Ukraine, after all, may be three times smaller than Russia, but none the less, it is packed with weapons and they had built over the last eight years very competently defense trenches and fortifications on the border, at the point of demarcation with the Donbas to ensure that they would be well protected in case the Russians came up to the line and started striking them.
So the Ukrainians have, what was called, the second largest military in Europe and the United States was very happy to pit them against the Russians or to provoke the Russians into attacking them very much as the United States hoped and nearly succeeded in destroying the Iranians and the Iraqis some time ago, feeding both sides, in that case with military aid, and letting them slaughter one another. And there the Russians didn’t need any help with munitions and with equipment, they’ve be doing quite well on their own, thank you. But the Ukrainians were being fed every imaginable kind of destruction and support discipline by American and British primarily, instructors over a period. So you had the potential for a very dramatic fight between these two major European countries egged on by the United States.
And it has been widely assumed that the existential nature of the war pertained to Russia, after all this was stated by Vladimir Putin himself that Russia will come up and will fight for its national interests when it feels challenges in an existential way as the continuing arms deliveries due to Ukraine had been changing the security situation of Russia. In defacto, Ukraine had by the time of the outbreak it of this war achieved the equivalent of NATO status, NATO membership status in terms of the military support it had been receiving. So from the standpoint of Moscow, the need was there to turn back the American and NATO support for Ukraine to move back, to push back the American and NATO presence at its borders and to stymie the plans, which the Russians were well aware about, to install in Ukraine missile systems which could conceivably reach Moscow in seven, eight minutes and left no decision time for leaders in the Kremlin to take action, essentially giving the United States, and through Ukraine, a first strike capability on Russia.
So we know that from the Russian side this was, from the very beginning and before the beginning of this, went back to the discussions which Russia held with United States and with NATO in December of 2021. It was described as existential, but it has been assumed by most everyone that United States, this was a conflict of… it was optional, a conflict which would be played out by proxy, by cat’s paw, the Ukraine being the cat’s paw, and that at any time, United States could walk away from it. I have been reading some very interesting commentary by a French historian the last few days, which forces [inaudible 00:09:32] to persuade you and listeners to this program that the war is existential to the United States as well. And it’s precisely for that reason that this conflict is so dangerous and runs the risk of escalating into a nuclear exchange.
The other fact that should be bought in as we try to size up what the conflict is and how it differs from what conflicts we’ve had in the past between, what used to be said, superpowers from the 1990s Russia was no longer a superpower, but Russia had remained a preeminent nuclear power, which is highly relevant to our considerations of will we survive or not this current conflict. There have been, since the start of the Cold War, a whole series of proxy wars. Everyone knows it’s called a proxy war but people have short memories. The first proxy war in the Cold War was the Korean War. The war in Vietnam was a proxy war between the superpowers. In some ways the both sides came as close to being cobelligerents in that war as we see today with NATO supposedly holding back and crossing red lines to [inaudible 00:11:06]. But that’s all how you want to read those red lines and how you want to understand the promises that the West has been giving to Ukraine.
Well [inaudible 00:11:19] there’s a slight side remark, the Russians freely admit that in the Vietnam War they had pilots and jets fighting on the Vietnam side, they had navy fighting on the Vietnam side. So if we looked at what’s the United States NATO are doing today in Ukraine, it is not greatly different from proxy wars that took place, including the Vietnam War. If you look at the wars in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the war in Libya, the war in Syria, these all were described as proxy wars.
So what’s different now and why should we be alarmed? The difference is that all of us preceding proxy wars Cold War 1 and in Cold War 2 were taking place in third countries. The present proxy war is taking place on the territory of the Russian Federation. Now there are some people they dispute that, but from the Russian standpoint, from the standpoint of Russian law, Crimea, the two Donbas republics now are regions of the Russian Federation. South Zaporizhzhia and Kherson [inaudible 00:12:45] these territories, formally part of the Ukraine, are not under Russian law, parts of the Russian Federation, and that is where the fighting is going on. So from a standpoint of the Russians, this is home territory and it is very dramatic. All of that complicates the defining of a resolution.
Now, there are many people on the sidelines here in the West and particular who are saying, “Oh, we should push the peace.” But the United States and NATO are looking for a long war to weaken the Russians. This has been said explicitly by Austin, the head of the Pentagon, Ministry of Defense of the United States, and it is assumed to be so. But on a closer inspection, things get more complicated. The Russians are also interested in a long war. Now they don’t say that, but when you look at their behavior, they are crushing, grinding into dust the Ukrainian military forces, whether it’s 150,000 Ukrainians killed, a little bit fewer, a little bit more, basically the fighting forces of Ukraine are being destroyed, Ukraine is being demilitarized, which was stated as the objective by Mr. Putin from the outset while we stand and watch.
The border is slowly moving westward, there were two departures from this general rule that we don’t know about back in September, a bit earlier, the Russians lost a very thinly guarded and protected part of the the Kherson regions, which were overrun by Ukrainian forces who drove then back, that was a temporary defeat, receiving defeat for the Russians. But today the Russians are moving inch by inch forward in the Donbas with the prospect of, in a certain period of time, whether it’s a weeks or months, retaking or taking the entire Donbas region.
And what do I mean by taking? The Russians held referendum in the Donbas, and this goes back to last September, at a time when Russia and the forces aligned to Russia, the local militias in these two oblasts -- they're called provinces in Ukraine -- only held about half of each, the rest was held on the other side of the line of demarcation by Ukrainian forces. There was a brief period of time in 2014 when pro Russian forces, local militias in Donbas, in Donetsk republic went to the middle of the republic and held an area for 85 days that became famous in the same way that remember the Alamo is famous to the United States, that is Slavyansk. The Russians are moving in that direction to recapture Slavyansk and since it is a critical central point in the Donetsk oblast, capture of that would inevitably bring them to control the whole Donbas. They’re moving that way.
Geopolitics & Empire:
This sort of brings me to another question, and you reference Emmanuel Todd, the French historian and thinker, whose interviews I’ve also been watching and I think he’s correct and you are correct and you also mentioned in a piece you wrote related to, I think it’s important what you point out to be listening to Russian media and sources to see they are thinking, and you mentioned a high level talk show moderated by Vyacheslav Nikonov, grandson of the communist leader Molotov where he states that he gives no weight to Biden and the Biden Administration as leaders and the strings are being pulled by the deep state, which absolutely requires that the US be at war and that they have no wish to see an early end to the conflict, and this has been my view as an American and as a European citizen, I view that Washington historically has been very aggressive and that they not only want to prolong conflict, but actually there are maybe some crazies in Brussels or Washington that would provoke Russia into initiating World War 3 proper.
At the same time, I would agree with you that on the Russian side they also to prolong the war for various reasons that are usual to governments to bolster their economy, to distract from errors, but you also mentioned the Scott Ritters and Douglas McGregors of this world, I’ve had Scott Ritter on this program maybe two years ago, and even back then before this war started he said we were still under the Biden Administration under the nuclear specter and the Scott Ritters and McGregors speak as if the war is just about over and the Ukrainian capitulation may be expected in a couple of of weeks, but this is sort of what you were getting at, where do you see things going from here, will this war just drag on for years, become sort of a Yugoslavia? Will the eastern part of Ukraine become sort of like the Korean demilitarized zone or will someone keep pushing until we cross some nuclear red line?
Well, before I answer your very specific questions, I’d like to deal with something as in the very start of the year marks now and to say explicitly where the strengths of my analysis are and where I do not pretend to have expertise. In criticizing McGregor and Scott Ritter, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, I make no claims to military expertise. Anyone who is looking for military predictions in my writings is looking in the wrong place. What I bring to the table is something different, I say this because it’s very easy to be contemptuous of people who do not have the same expertise that you have and to claim a disproportionate weight to what you bring to the table. I try to avoid that and also when I give interviews, I only give interviews to answer questions where I feel I have a unique contribution to make as [inaudible 00:20:13] expertise.
And from where do I derive this unique contribution? It is am I a fluent Russian speaker, I follow the Russian media very closely daily, and I catch things on the fly. People say, “Oh, where’s a link to what you’re saying?” And this happened today, someone asked me, “Please and I’ll have it translated on Google.” I said, “My friend, I’m listening to Russia 24, which is a news program and they do not have video clips, and there’s nothing that you can take down and translate, I catch it on the fly and you have to take my word for it that’s what I heard.” Another aspect of the same question is what am I pretending to do? I am not a Putin stooge. I am not an advocate for Russian positions. I am an interpreter of Russian positions.
The thing that’s missing and it’s woeful, it’s tragic because of the race to shut down Russian sources of information and to control completely European and American audiences so they only have available the [anti-]Russian narrative. It has been very successful, but it’s also extremely dangerous because not only the general American audience, but even the people at the top don’t know what the other side is saying. In the last few days I’ve be useful or maybe interesting exchange of emails with a lieutenant colonel from the United States who is, obviously, working in a think tank and following the daily military action on the ground. But he doesn’t know Russian and he doesn’t have a clue to what the other side is thinking or planning. That is a terrible lack of information and I tried my best to fill this void.
So I watch programs which I know are authoritative, which I know are setting out the thinking of Russian political, business, and social elites, and even cultural elites because some people who represent the creative classes in Russia, artistic classes also are invited to these talk shows. And this is important because, again, they’re very simplified, Russia has 146 million people, it has a very centralized government, it always has for the last 500 years, for obvious reasons, what I learned when I was an undergraduate in psychology courses that a cat has a cat’s character because of the cat’s body. And so it with Russia, Russia has its national character and it’s high centralization of revenue because it has the body it has: the world’s largest country which would fall apart if it didn’t have strong central leadership. So we can talk politics and democracy and decentralization, all of these things, but I’d say coming back to what Russia is, it is what it is for specific concrete reasons that one can point to, and not to individuals.
The contribution that I’m making, as I said, is to set out the thinking of these elites because they establish the limitations on what a man like Mr. Putin can do. Now the statesman likes to speak about this authoritarian government, it takes me back to what used to be said about the Soviet Union and how totalitarian they are, which was fine if you were sitting in Cambridge, Massachusetts and sitting in your study hall and thinking over a cup of coffee of how this totalitarianism should work. It looked very different when you spend time on the ground in Moscow, as I did, and you looked at the infighting between, when I was there in the 1980s and 1990s, or 1970s, of the fighting that went on between the ministries. It was anything but perfect top-down run state and so it is today.
Mr. Putin is a politician and a politician works within certain parameters, what is accepted by the people who support him and this partly the people on the street, but it’s more directly the people who are all around him in the Kremlin and in political circle in Moscow, and these are the ones who are the talking heads on his shoulders. They are academics, they are deans at Moscow University in think tanks, they are members of the Duma, they are members of the upper house of the Russian Legislature, they are responsible people, they are not fools, and Mr. Nikonov is a case and point. There are very few fools at that level in Russian society, just as they’re relatively few fools, and people may question this, the similar level in Washington DC, the problem lies elsewhere, in values and in comprehension, but not in the IQ measures.
Geopolitics & Empire:
You mentioned authoritarianism and I have to keep pointing out, myself, again, as a Croatian American that we’re seeing in the West now totalitarianism come to fruition. People like myself and others, we’re having our financial accounts shut off, I’m banned from PayPal just for having conversations like this. Where is the liberty and the democracy? German journalist Alina Lipp had her bank account frozen as well as her parent’s bank account, who have nothing to do with anything and in a few minutes that we have left, any thoughts on that or any other points that you wanted to bring home?
Well, I am a Russia specialist and I’ve been in this business since 1965, since I was still an undergraduate in that year. I traveled to the Soviet Union, my first trip there was back in 1965 [inaudible 00:26:42]. I traveled expensively to Russia between 1975 and 1980, that is the period of when Brezhnev [inaudible]. That was the high and the low point of Soviet Government. I understood very well what it meant to be living in a authoritarian or totalitarian state. It was very unpleasant, you had to be very careful what you said and with whom. You had to be very careful whether the people at the next table in the restaurant weren’t looking at you too closely listening to you.
For me the most depressing thing about the last 20 years is to find that everything that I disliked and I found so awful about the Soviet Union has now moved to the United States. The United States has not gone all the way, of course, and you are fortunate, in a way, to have had such limited deprivation of income compared to what was experienced by a close colleague in Canada, a retired Canadian diplomat who spent time and he had never seen Moscow and who had a very influential blog. He was visited by the Canadian Intelligence Services, they told him that if he kept this up, his pension would be terminated and his life savings would be confiscated. He very wisely threw in the towel. In Canada with all those Ukrainian Bandera kids, grandkids, it is much more difficult place to find freedom of speech than United States is. So in a sense, let us be fair to Uncle Sam in a period of relative repression, still freedom of speech manages to hold on in the States.
It’s also true here in Europe, but not in public space, not in newspapers which follows the dictates of Washington the state department with knee-jerk reaction, that’s all that’s all there is now.
Geopolitics & Empire:
Any thoughts what we can do? I think one of the most basic things is continuing this conversation such that we’re having and so any final thought for us then?
Yes, my hope is, and this was in that very same article that you were alluding to before which I explained how very dangerous the situation around us is and how a escalation to a major war, not necessarily a nuclear war, but the article was criticized and people said, “There’s a nuclear war, then we’ll have a nuclear winter and it doesn’t make any difference if you head to the Southern Hemisphere.” Well, of course, that thesis is a thesis and nothing else, a hypothesis, but the more important overriding issue is will it become nuclear? Not necessarily, the Russians have, and I think the United States also has weapon systems that are devastating and are conventional. Like I said, Russia it’s their hypersonic missiles, everybody talks about they’re evading air defenses, nobody talks about the physics of those missiles, which are taking the simple rules of physics of mass times velocity and the impact of those missiles is just short of nuclear.
So it’s not necessary to go to nuclear war in what looks like a total war between United States and Russia. In that context, it makes sense to look for a bolt hole or an escape hatch to place like Argentina. However, I hope it doesn’t come to that and this audience, which you address, has some chance of preventing it if they get out of their seats and exercise their civil rights, that’s all that has to be done.
I’m very happy to say that even in Germany, which is not known for courage particularly in the political domain, there will be on the 25th of February a demonstration at the Brandenburg Gates calling upon Olaf Scholzs to stop sending tanks and to start negotiating a peaceful settlement with the Russians and the Ukrainians. That is a left-right combination that is issued a manifest for peace, on the left is [inaudible 00:31:46] headed by Sacra [inaudible 00:31:48] a remarkable parliamentarian, a hell of a speaker, and a heart hearted devoted to peace. On the right, what the American newspapers extreme right, we have the alternative introduction who are vilified in mainstream media but you have expressing some very common sense measures to save Europe and save themselves by reverting to a song dates from the early 1950s, “Go home, we’ll let you go home Americans.” So there is a chance simply by exercising perfectly legal rights to demonstrate and to express your opinions to do something to save us all and I do hope your audience will take that to heart.
Geopolitics & Empire:
You’re leaving us with some optimism, which is good and also, I think, separately, in New York, I don’t know if it’s already happened or it’s happening these days, the Rage Against the War Machine Conference events, Ron Paul and may other will be speaking there against what’s going on Ukraine and everyone be sure to follow Gilbert’s blog, links will be in the description, Gilbertdoctorow.com. Thank you for being on Geopolitics & Empire, Gilbert.
Well, thanks for having me.