Biden’s Reluctant Half-Steps

  • The reluctant half measures of Biden both domestically and in regards to Ukraine
  • What the call for “negotiations” in Ukraine really means
  • The similarity of the position of much of the US capitalist class, the Western “peace and justice” left and even most of the Western socialist left
  • The precondition for workers unity: a serious struggle against chauvinism

Ukraine troops forced to hunker down in the trenches. This form of war does not favor Ukraine.

They have our position fixed, they know where we are,” said [Ukrainian] Sgt. Anatoly Vykhovanets. “It’s like we are in the palm of their hand,”’ reported the NY Times in mid May. As the NY Times explains, “The artillery capability of the two armies near Pryvillia is… lopsided in Russia’s favor…” This is why Zelensky has been campaigning for months for the US to send heavy weaponry. As long as nearly two months ago, he was in Washington DC saying “Ukraine needs weapons supplies. We need heavy artillery, armored vehicles, air defense systems and combat aircraft. Anything to repel Russian forces and stop their war crimes.”

Biden speaking at the University of Delaware.

Biden Foreign Policy Mimics Domestic Polity
But the Biden administration has been reluctant to send the heavy artillery. Biden’s approach seems similar to his domestic policies. Domestically, Biden wants to prevent the advance of the forces of overt and violent bigotry that have captured the Republican Party. He wants to return to the days when the Republicans and Democrats worked together as both rivals and partners. On Monday, May 30, Biden spoke at the graduation ceremony at the University of Delaware. He spoke against “violence” and the forces of “evil”, but never does anything serious against it nor is he ever explicit that it is the Republican Party that represents those forces.

Internationally, Biden wants to return to the days when there was a rivalry but also a partnership between US and Russian imperialism. We saw that during the days of the Syrian war, when the two powers collaborated to help keep Assad in power. Putin did so overtly, while the US was slightly more covert by concentrating its fire on the Islamic State and prohibiting the rebel army from attacking Assad’s forces.

Medium Range” vs. “Long Range” Rocket Systems
On May 32, Biden announced that his administration would be sending Ukraine “medium range” rockets, capable of targeting a point 50 miles away. Up until now, the US has provided Ukraine with the M777 howitzers that have a range of a mere 18 miles. In the flat, wide open plains of Donbas, this left Ukraine forces as sitting ducks for Russian artillery.

However, the US will not send Ukraine the longest range rocket systems. Supposedly, that is because Biden doesn’t want Ukraine to attack Russia inside of the Russian border. This is out of fear that the war could widen. However, Zelensky has already pledged that he won’t use any weapons systems for that purpose and he will have to stick to that pledge if he wants to continue receiving US arms.

In other words, Biden is taking one reluctant half-step after another. It would have been far easier for Ukraine to prevent the advance of Russian forces further into Luhansk than to dislodge them now that they are there.

Ukraine-Russian peace talks, but “peace” on what terms?

Not Contributing to Peace Talks”
The response of the Putin administration is to complain “Such deliveries do not contribute to … the Ukrainian leadership’s willingness to resume peace talks.” By “peace talks” Moscow spokesman Dmitry Peskov means negotiating how much more territory Moscow is allowed to seize. Will it be what it has already (most of Luhansk plus the entire coast down to Crimea), or will they give back some of their ill gotten gains… or will they be able to seize even more?

U.S. Capitalist Strategists
Putin is encouraged in his aims of seizing as much territory as possible by the talk in the US media about such “negotiations” and in effect Ukraine having to concede more territory than Putin took in 2014. An article in Foreign Affairs, for example, proposed that “The West might consider a peace deal that leaves Russian proxies in charge of parts of the Donbas…” Even more significant is an article in the same journal by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He asked: “Will Ukraine seek to recover all the territory it has lost in the past two months? Will it require that Russian forces withdraw completely from the Donbas and Crimea?” And he replied: “The United States, the EU, and NATO need to discuss such questions with one another and with Ukraine now. Western goals will inevitably be influenced by what happens on the ground, but what happens on the ground should not determine those goals; instead, policy aims should influence what is sought on the ground. To be sure, the Ukrainians have every right to define their war aims. But so do the United States and Europe.” Haass in effect proposes “a stalemate…. [in which] Ukraine clawed back some [emphasis added] of what Russia has gained over the past two months but if neither Ukraine nor Russia were able to achieve decisive military progress.”

The Haass article was published in mid April. Since then Russia has made further gains (Mariupol and now Severodonetsk). So that “some” that Russia would retain would be even greater. Biden’s hesitancy has added to this.

Map of what Russia has captured as of June 1. The calls from the U.S. for a “negotiated settlement” can only mean that Ukraine must accept Putin keeping at least part of this.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration as well as other U.S. foreign policy “experts” continue to talk out of both sides of their mouth. On the one hand, they say that it’s up to Ukraine to decide what is acceptable. Since Zelensky has made it clear that the only thing that is acceptable is to drive Russia out of the country, this can only mean accepting defeat of the invasion. On the other hand, the US representatives continue to talk about negotiations and a negotiated settlement and that being in the U.S. interests. But since Putin has made clear his intent to capture at least a significant portion of Ukraine territory and his refusal to accept anything less than that unless militarily forced to do so, this talk by Biden and the US “experts” can only mean pressuring Zelensky to accept Russia keeping at least part of what it’s captured since the invasion.

“It doesn’t make sense that Russia and Ukraine aren’t sitting down and working out some kind of an agreement. If they don’t do it soon, there will be nothing left but death, destruction, and carnage. This is a war that never should have happened, but it did.The solution can never be as good as it would have been before the shooting started, but there is a solution, and it should be figured out now—not later—when everyone will be DEAD” wrote Putin’s puppet Donald Trump. How is his position any different from that of the majority of the Western left?

The Western Mainstream Left
These proposals from top strategists for US capitalism are imitated by many on the “left”, from Code Pink to the influential left journal Counterpunch, which carried an article by Professor Richard Rubenstein claiming that “Biden and his team now want the war to continue for several months at least…” He accuses both Biden and Zelensky of wanting to prolong the war and implies that they should be willing to cede additional territory to Russia. Note that Rubenstein is not some extreme left lacking any influence; he is a respected professor with influence in academia. (As for the “socialist” left in the West, most of them go even further, implying or openly claiming that this was a war for which NATO bears at least 50% of the responsibility. It is fortunate that they lack any influence whatsoever.)

After Putin, What?
In addition to concern about spreading the war, top US strategists are also concerned that a total defeat for Putin could lead to the demise of his regime and what could come after it. Putin has been in office since 2010. (Because of constitutional requirements, he was only prime minister from 2008-2012, but he was still the real power behind the throne during those years.) He spent those 22 years playing off one ally/potential rival against another, ensuring that nobody could consolidate enough of a following to challenge him. When he goes, there will be a power struggle and there is no guarantee that it won’t be bloody, causing the near collapse of the Russian state. Following Ukraine’s 1992 separation from Russia, the US policy was to facilitate Russia’s repatriation of the nuclear war heads that remained in Ukraine. That was because the US was concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. If Russia started to fragment, there would be nuclear weapons spread all over that giant land mass, probably some under the control of different oligarchs or regional rulers. US strategists must be considering that nightmare scenario, so their interests in preventing or limiting Russian expansion in Ukraine must be balanced by a concern to prevent the dissolution of the Russian state, which means in practice not weakening Putin to the point where he is overthrown.

But Biden’s reluctant half-measures will resolve nothing. If Putin is unable to retain any significant portion of his present territorial gains, he is likely to face a very uncertain future at home, and the fragmentation of Russia will threaten. If he retains any significant portion, then a lower grade war will continue – something similar to what is happening in Palestine’s West Bank, but many times more intense and threatening. Not only that, but it would likely mean an even greater increase in the far right anti-Russian nationalist forces in Ukraine. That would further weaken whatever remains of capitalist democracy in that country.

What is the alternative?
Some socialists take the position of in effect “neither Zelensky nor Putin; for unity of workers in Ukraine and Russia.” That sounds good in the general sense, but we have to start from the concrete, and this same Western left has made no attempt to contact or listen to the left in Ukraine. If they had, they would know about the situation as described by left Ukrainian union organizer Artem Tidva, who explained in an interview with Oaklandsocialist: “Before the war started we had a lot cooperation [between Ukrainian and Russian unions].” Since the invasion “some of them are trying to be neutral, but (at the same time) organizing some events, like against NATO invasion in Ukraine. So it’s really weird to hear. For us something like this from people who didn’t say anything about intervention of their country in our country.”

Ukraine’s Sozialny Rukh – Social Movement – in action. The Western left must listen to and take into account what the left in Ukraine is saying.

Calling for unity between Russian and Ukrainian workers without calling for a struggle against Great Russian chauvinism within Russia is like calling for unity between white and black workers in the US without calling for a struggle against racism within the white working class. It means in practice accepting the oppression of the oppressed. And, like it or not, just as the defeat of the US’s invasion of Vietnam led to the end of US workers’ support for that invasion, the precondition for the end of Great Russian chauvinism within the Russian working class is the military defeat of Russia’s invasion. Biden and US capitalist strategists, the “peace and justice” left, and even most of the socialist left in the West are all reluctant to take or support the necessary steps for that.

Biden speaking at the University of Delaware.

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