As world tensions heighten over Ukraine, some fear this crisis might grow into a great geopolitical catastrophe. Certainly it could. But few recognize there is an even greater matter of conflict brewing between the US and Russia. It could quickly outpace the already-dangerous Ukraine war.
Consider the following statement about the war:
“This is not about Ukraine at all, but the world order,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that, referencing the war.
Oxford University professor Peter Frankopan in The Spectator for March 4, 2023 cited that statement by Lavrov. It was made a month after the invasion. Now it has become a point that’s been virtually lost in the subsequent mish-mash of conflicting news reports on every side of the still ongoing Ukraine conflict.
Lavrov’s “world order” term equates to an issue that many refer to as American hegemony.
To understand where the “world order” issue might take us, let’s first look at the already immediate dangers of the Ukraine conflict.
Often we are reminded that Vladimir Putin famously alleged that the demise of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” NBC News reported it back in April 2005.
Now it can be debated whether Putin has initiated a great geopolitical catastrophe of his own by invading Ukraine in February 2022. There is obvious irony in that thought.
History will ultimately judge whether the Ukraine war will grow to be the greatest tragedy of the 21st century. Meanwhile, there is a practical reason to believe that the Ukraine conflict could even take on a much greater proportion than that.
If you take a serious look at the ultimate risk involved, you can see a distinct a possibility that the Ukraine conflict could become the greatest geopolitical catastrophe ever seen. The risk is that high if the war extends into a long war and to a direct nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia. A resulting nuclear catastrophe could lead to an insurmountable disruption of world civilization. I’ll show how that’s a quantifiable risk.
In a game of Russian roulette there is also a risk. There is a finite chance that you could kill yourself. It is improbable though. The odds from one pull of the trigger are against it. But who among us would bet on the improbable and pick up a revolver and take the chance? Why not? After all, the odds of survival are in your favor. But there is something else involved.
The additional factor here is of course one of risk/benefit. If you could somehow avert a worse and certain fate by agreeing to a trigger pull in Russian roulette, the risk might be worth it. The benefit would outweigh the risk. Otherwise it would be a foolish move.
Now we are actually facing a game of Russian roulette in Ukraine. That’s not just an off-the-cuff allegation. It’s the product of a scientific risk analysis conducted by Dr. Martin Hellman. He is Adjunct Senior Fellow for Nuclear Risk Analysis at the Federation of American Scientists. Hellman’s been involved in scientific analysis of this issue going back at least 15 years.
Dr. Hellman now scientifically estimates: “So long as the war in Ukraine drags on, we are playing Russian roulette with the whole world about once a year.” Mathematically the odds of catastrophe are about 17 percent.
In addition to Hellman’s position with FAS, he is also a Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and winner of the million dollar ACM Turing Award, said to be the Nobel Prize for computing.
Given the risk explained by Hellman, is there an offsetting benefit? Is there anything that makes that nuclear risk acceptable?
A recent Rand report titled “Avoiding a Long War” suggests there is not. The gist of the report is roughly, (1) the war to protect and recover Ukrainian territories is supporting extreme tensions between nuclear superpowers, (2) the war has no direct and tangible benefit for Americans, and (3) priority should be given to ceasing hostilities over sending more weaponry.
That hardly seems offsetting to pulling the revolver’s trigger once each year every year while the war rages on. But despite the absence of a practical benefit, a February 6, 2023 Gallup pole reports, “Americans Still Stand by Ukraine,” Republicans 53 percent, Democrats 81 percent. “Ending the war quickly, even if it allows Russia to keep territory?” That gets only minority support. Republicans 41 percent, Democrats 18 percent.
But where’s the benefit for Americans? I can’t identify one, at least not for the general public. It could be that it is beneficial for others.
Hellman’s conclusion suggests it’s more likely you’ll experience a nuclear catastrophe in the next year than the odds that your house will burn down. Yet homeowners readily buy fire insurance while caring or knowing little of the greater nuclear risk and indeed they mostly advocate taking that risk.
So here is a paradox: If there is no apparent benefit for Americans, why do they so heartily support fueling the fire of war by sending over more and bigger weaponry? Russia’s unjustified aggression against Ukraine is clear. It is also clear there is no positive correlation between sending more weapons and reducing the Ukrainian deaths and destruction. Indeed it is having an opposite effect. What explains all this?
It was already last November that General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that he couldn’t foresee a military victory in Ukraine by anybody. Somehow America’s public doesn’t believe that. How could that be?
Is it media influence? My observation of our media is that the mainstream message is highly emotionalized. Certainly it is easy to have compassion for the unforgivable fate of the Ukrainians. But concluding that more war, more killing, and more destruction will change that just isn’t rational.
Instead, the media message I’ve seen largely plays upon abstract concepts such as preserving Ukraine’s democracy, and helping her people to stay free. Mainstream media portray those abstractions with emotionality, and that catches on with audiences — and it spreads.
How could that happen?
Recently I saw a book by a retired Canadian clinical psychologist, Dr. Bruce Hutchison, that seems to hit this squarely on the head. It’s titled Emotions Don’t Think: Emotional Contagion in a Time of Turmoil. And that’s exactly how I perceive what’s happening vis-a-vis Ukraine. But the emotions connected to the Ukraine war are to a great extent negative emotions. They allow people to accept and support the current risk of a nuclear confrontation — without the consequences of that risk even registering with them. Hutchison calls the propagation of such emotions “toxic emotional contagion.” He says they typically involve the emotions of fear and hate.
Lamentably, rational thoughts are not spreading about future carnage and destruction from a continuing war or of its futility. Instead, Americans have been swept away with apparently politically engineered emotions, and that sadly is permitting more carnage and destruction. “Emotions don’t think,” as Hutchison puts it.
“When President Biden made a secret trip Monday to Ukraine marking the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he declared that the United States is going to back Ukraine as long as it takes.” That’s what NPR reported on February 20, 2023.
So, it’s more war and emotion, less thinking ahead.
But, still, what about Putin’s ominous but oft-quoted statement that the loss of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of its century? Isn’t that a real threat of territorial expansion?
That quote seems usually to be cited exactly for the purpose of arousing toxic emotions: fears of a territorially adventuresome Putin. It invokes images that are almost archetypical in the minds of many — that of Hitler’s march across Europe and the old domino theory of the Vietnam era. They can elicit a scary emotion that can be contagious.
However, less often seen is Putin’s remark, “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains” That was reported in the New York Times on February 20, 2000.The remark sort of kills the implied scary emotion of the other Putin quote.
But now what about the potentially larger issue, the challenge to American dominance in the world? Whether you call it “world order” or “American hegemony,” Russia is not alone in its dissatisfaction with that status quo.
So now what about Frankopan’s citation from Lavrov? “This is not about Ukraine at all, but the world order”
More recent statements seem to affirm: that is Russia’s bottom-line objective:
“Russia’s upcoming new foreign policy concept will focus on terminating the West’s monopoly in international affairs, the country’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday.” February 16, 2023, Xinhua
“The Russian president said his country is opposed to the emergence of a unipolar world that revolves around Washington’s interests.” February 20, 2023, RT
Given all that, hasn’t the US been lured into spending well over $100 billion on the wrong issue, Ukraine? Couldn’t international unease over America’s strong international role emerge as a far greater problem, indeed the main concern? Why would our government be pouring so many resources into Ukraine when it is not the prime issue?
Frankopan has an answer: “In its most blunt terms, the war has served as a moment of one of the greatest transfers of wealth in history…”
He even names names: “There have been big winners, such as shareholders in the five oil giants — BP, Shell, Exxon, Chevron, and Total Energies — who reported combined profits of $200 billion last year. The fossil fuel-producing states of OPEC also had eye-watering revenues, reaching $850 billion last year. But the price rise of LNG has meant countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh have suffered blackouts, which in turn cut productivity. This has paved the way for social unrest and political volatility — as well as increasing a global sense of resentment towards the West.”
The above doesn’t even account for other big winners, the large US defense contractors with their huge profits.
All together, the Ukraine war has been a bonanza for an elite few. But not for the average American that must pay the taxes and bear the debt for all the related appropriations enacted by Congress and signed by the president.
Doesn’t that bonanza for elites create vested interests in politically protecting the supportive legislation? And wouldn’t that involve paying large fees to lobbyists who cater to the needs of politicians, including contributions to campaign funds and supporting pet interests of politicians? Who’s going to want to pull back on our lavish support for Ukraine?
Given the momentum of the tragic and senseless Ukraine war it is hard to foresee anything changing to favor the common good. The matter is largely out of our hands.
And doesn’t that leave us all like lemmings heading for the proverbial cliff?
William Dunkerley is a media business analyst who has specialized in work with post-communist countries. He is author of Ukraine in the Crosshairs, several other related books, and many articles and reports. He is based in New Britain, Connecticut.