Ukraine's inconvenient truth

Image: Mathias Reding


History helps to understand the trap that the “West” fell into by giving rise to the crisis in Ukraine

It is a common view that, in the course of the Peloponnesian War, Athens gradually evolved into an expansionist empire. The metaphorical reading of Spinoz's concept of “crowd” is quite illuminating if we want to understand the crisis in Ukraine in the context of the western empire with its epicenter in the USA. Westerners are horrified when we see civilians killed by Russian bombing in Ukraine, but we are generally not as horrified and more likely to accept official justifications when we hear that civilians are killed by US, Israeli or European forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen or Gaza.

Western corporate media plays a key role in this perception. Leo Tolstoy claimed that an incalculable number of causes present themselves when we come to the fore and each separate cause or entire series of causes seems equally valid in themselves and equally false for their insignificance in comparison with the vast magnitude of the events. If we want to understand the events with a certain subtlety, we need to delve into the sources, to catch as much as possible the main trend and, therefore, avoid being misled by the nuances. The mass prejudices of the mainstream Western countries are not easily overcome. The 11/XNUMX terrorist attack, the chaos of the Iraq War, the Syria war and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and so on all failed to shatter our petrified prejudices.

The example of ancient Athens still means to us a regime that sought to spread individual and collective freedom to the widest possible scope. Today's liberal-individualist tradition sets few obstacles and signposts to the legitimation of desires as needs because its very creed validates the human right to break constraints. Led by the empire of the United States, the West fell into the trap that Thucydides shrewdly discerned, even though it was an alley with a difficult exit.

In recent years, the concept of “Thucydides' Trap” has been widely invoked in academic and political circles. According to the conventional reading of the concept, history shows that a rising power is destined to challenge the hegemon established, and that conflict between the two is inevitable. In the current context, and for obvious reasons, the concept is widely used. A possible reading of Thucydides shows that perhaps this dominant interpretation is simplistic and may serve as a warning to predict the inevitable expansion, or overextension, of a formally democratic imperialism. As this insight is highly relevant to our discussion of the sources of the crisis in Ukraine, it deserves a closer look.

Before we look at the specific content, it is useful to understand the background of Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general known for his History of the Peloponnesian War, which chronicles the war between Sparta and Athens in the fifth century BC. Thucydides has been dubbed the "father of scientific history" because of his rigid standards of evidence gathering and cause-and-effect analysis without reference to the intervention of the gods. For our purposes here, the History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides, in addition to its unprecedented standards of objectivity and consequent accuracy, is also “a possession for all time”, escorted to those “who wish to look into the pure truth about past events and those who at some future time, according to human nature, will repeat themselves in similar or comparable ways” (Thucydides 2001, 14). It is worth noting how Thucydides argues that similar events have been repeated in history because of persistent human nature. For these reasons, we must abstract his diagnosis of human nature and consider whether today's crisis shares the same logic. The Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC was fought by Athens and her empire against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.

The conflict was memorable not only because "both sides entered it flourishing in general preparation and seeing that the rest of the Hellenes were falling into line with one or the other", but also because "it was accompanied by such sufferings as never afflicted Hellas in any comparable period of time. For never were so many cities captured or left desolate. (…) nor were so many men exiled or massacred, either in the war itself or by faction”. (Thucydides 2001, 3.14) Thucydides explicitly attributes the war to the expansion of Athenian power: “growing Athenian greatness and the resulting fear among the Lacedaemonians made war inevitable”.

On the basis of this passage, many scholars interpret Thucydides' trap to mean that ascending power necessarily collides with hegemon established. This interpretation, however, is made from the point of view of the hegemon, and serves their interests by portraying the emerging powers as causing the problem, justifying the action of the established powers in military action against them. A less biased interpretation is that the expansion of democratic imperialism represented by Athens inevitably forced a reaction from Sparta. It is a common view among scholars that, in the course of the Peloponnesian War, Athens gradually evolved into an expansionist empire, and there are two complementary explanations for why this is so.

The first is a political-economic reading, which sees in the Athenian State a picture of class antagonism between the rural elites, wealthy and conservative aristocrats, the radical citizens of the port area of ​​Piraeus and the poor lower classes. While elite strata opposed the war because they feared destruction, the Piraeus radicals, engaged in industry and commerce, serving as naval oarsmen, and with their interests and destinies closely linked to maritime trade and the navy, favored it. The tragedy was that it gradually became the pivotal point in Athenian domestic and foreign policy, which led the city-state down the path of imperialist expansion.

A second explanation advanced for Athenian expansion has to do with the city's national character. Many historians maintain that the cause of Athenian imperialism lies in the "daring" and impetuous nature of the city's population. Indeed, Thucydides repeatedly emphasizes this characteristic of the Athenians in his book. The Athenian general Pericles, for example, is recorded as praising the "daring" character of Athens, holding it responsible for the greatness of the city's empire. Pericles went so far as to boast that the Athenians had "compelled" all seas and lands to allow access to their daring, allowing them to leave "immortal" monuments to themselves "everywhere".

It is worth highlighting that to denote the concept of “boldness”, Thucydides uses the word tolma; this term has a broader semantic understanding than “recklessness”, suggesting something close to recklessness. The "boldness" of the Athenian character is seen by Thucydides as having three manifestations. First, the Athenians as a race are said to be characterized by a native boldness that enables them effortlessly to be like others who strive to cultivate virtue (Thucydides 2001, 2.39.4). Second, the Athenians are considered “bold” in the sense that they abandoned their city and boarded their ships, becoming a maritime people in the literal sense (Thucydides 2001, 1.18.2).

This experience may have had a profound impact on the formation of Athenian character, as the people of the city were forced to give up their homeland, as well as all of their fixed moorings, including the shackles of tradition and piety towards ancestral derelicts and the gods. This leads to the third manifestation of the "daring" character of the Athenians, their "erotic passion". Present in Thucydides' account only as a hidden thread, this concept nevertheless has important implications even if the word Eros and its derivatives appear only a few times in Thucydides' book, each of which is at a crucial moment, playing a significant role in the ancient writer's treatment of Athenian imperialism and Athenian political psychology.

The reason is that the Athenians, having largely abandoned the traditional devices used to support community and patriotism, needed to resort to extraordinary devices to unite an individualistic and intemperate people for an imperialist enterprise. These devices included the appeal to Eros, which was individualistic, even selfish, but could lead to the most intense devotion and willingness to sacrifice. As a result, Athenian imperialism for Thucydides was "composed of a volatile combination of erotic passion and daring, qualities woven into the fabric of the Athenian regime". Devotion to democracy was not "dedication to the common good as such, but rather to a kind of freedom deprived of restrictions of all kinds, a freedom to follow where passion leads".

A third explanation advanced for Athenian expansion concerns the democratic regime of the city. It is perhaps difficult for many in the West to understand how a democracy founded on principles such as freedom, equality and the rule of law can slip into imperialism. This seeming paradox is explained with some precision by an author who argues that Democrats tend to be zealous about their values ​​and institutions, on behalf of which they show a strong compulsion to preach. Understanding this puts us in a better position to appreciate how the Athenians justified their empire. They felt that the empire ensured peace and bound the city's dependencies together, protecting them from the invasion and rule of dictatorial peoples such as the Persians and helping them to maintain or establish "democracies". Furthermore, the Athenians also believed that their empire was welcomed by its subjects because the latter were guaranteed more justice by the Athenian rule of law than by brute force (Thucydides 2001, 1.75.1, 1.77.2).

Along with the above arguments proclaimed by the Athenians themselves, it suggests two more reasons the Athenians might have used to try to reconcile the contradictions between their internal democracy and external imperial rule. The first is that the Athenians needed the wealth the empire provided if they were to maintain democratic practices at home, and the second is that the empire would satisfy the domestic need for honor and power.

While the explanations expressed tend to explain Athenian expansion only from one perspective, they all shed some light on the issue and together have the potential to form a complete picture. Behind a complex phenomenon like the emergence of a democratic empire, there are certainly reasons that concern the political economy, the national character and the political regime. It is in this sense that the three explanations complement each other. For many people, the similarities between the US-led democratic empire and Athens-led imperialism are undoubtedly obvious.

Arguably, the reasons that led Athens to engage in imperialist expansion also apply to today's United States. For example, the US empire's need to exploit overseas markets and resources provides a strong political and economic impetus for expansion. Indeed, there are numerous works and authors who criticize the United States from this perspective for launching the Iraq War. We live in the dynamics of the imperial bubble explained by the American political analyst John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer's critical analysis, for example, has long highlighted the realism displayed by the Russian side as a direct response to a succession of Western movements that are threatening and based on misguided neoliberalism. Mearsheimer repeatedly referred to the overthrow of Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 as a coup and added that there were "significant fascist elements among the demonstrators, who were armed, [and] there is killing on the Maidan".

“If there's a coup in Kiev, and some of the people who come to power have fascist leanings or are fascists, however you want to define that term, it will have really huge consequences,” Mearsheimer said. The scholar argued that the three "root causes" of the crisis in Ukraine were NATO expansion, EU expansion, and the US government's "democracy promotion" (ie, regime change) programs. But the really scary thing about his prognosis is that the US will do everything it can to stop China's rise and prevent it from becoming regional hegemony in the Eastern Hemisphere, and that Australia should side with the US in this battle or then he would face the wrath of Washington.

As a national entity little attached to tradition, the United States also has characteristics of boldness and impetuosity. This is well demonstrated by the various wars the West has engaged in under US leadership. There are also striking similarities and parallels in the way the Athenian empire and the US-led western liberal empire preached democracy. Even the dilemmas faced by the two empires and the justifications given for their existence are remarkably analogous.

For these reasons, it is not difficult to see the logic behind the view that, in the case of the Ukraine crisis, the West has fallen into the alley of the Thucydides Trap and has no way out. For example, some might object that the Athenian political system cannot be considered democratic since it is based on slavery. This is a legitimate question, but it is resolved if we subscribe to Aristotle's conception of regime types. There are certainly profound differences between the old and contemporary regimes, but while the defining characteristics are the same, the differences are not decisive.

Aristotle's analysis is primarily philosophical in the sense that it transcends local contexts as well as specific times. For some, the defining characteristics of regimes are whether political power is distributed according to virtue, wealth or freedom, and I think these criteria still apply to contemporary regimes. Commonwealth Western democracies consider that the traditional concept of inner virtue has no place in public affairs, and that politics must be based on a general franchise of equally free individuals. Of course, coveting wealth still plays an important role in Western democracy, so that contemporary Western regime could well be seen as a mixture of imperialism (capitalism), oligarchy (neoliberal) and formal democracy, something already predicted by Aristotle.

Espinosa is aware of the “affective and rational need of legal institutions, as unavoidable materials for the construction of political imagination and reason”, but he is more concerned with “their false transcendence, their ability to bewitch the crowd and seduce scholars, to appear in the above or against us, in the imposing but imaginary majesty of the potestas, with its residual aura of divinity”. For Espinosa, this core of mystification is extraordinarily resilient, and the ideological effects it exerts are extraordinarily powerful” operating through the doctrine and practice of constitutionalism, which runs the risk of fetishizing and reifying constitutions. The current worldwide zeal for Western liberal constitutionalism would then be a good example of such mystification and fetishization.

What Habermas called “constitutional patriotism” shows another key link between imperialism and constitutionalism that has to do with their common origin in the concept of “multitude”. In Spinoza's political thought, this is a central and complex idea. For simplification purposes, it can “be conceived as a generative matrix for collective and individual political subjectivity, an exclusively plastic and totipotent social 'fabric' (totipotency is the maximum cellular potency, which gives the cell the ability to direct the total development of an organism). In other words, it is equivalent to the “mass”, which is the defining class base of contemporary liberal democracies, echoing Aristotle's political theory.

It is therefore conceivable that the mass part of one society may be more capable than the elite part of that society to provoke, echo, invoke or unite the similar mass part of another society. The above metaphorical reading of the concept of “crowd” is quite illuminating if we want to understand the Ukraine crisis in the context of the US-led western empire. If theoretically nothing limits the magnitude of the multitude, it is a capacity inherent to pure force, to the very power, from the crowd. Bodies can unite, and the bodies that these united bodies form can unite in turn. The only limits to a crowd would be physical. The only final physical limits are those of the terrestrial globe itself.

Thus, seen in relation to power crowd, the demarcation of territory is always only artificial or conventional. As a result, we are witnessing the emergence of empire as a new form of imperialism in today's globalized world, which is capillary, horizontal, acephalous, rhizomatic and emphatically non-metropolitan; it is not situated anywhere: it is everywhere. Therefore, imperialism is constitutionalism on a grand scale. If imperialism in the late, postcolonial phase became an engine for the propagation of local “constitutionalisms” rather than a grand metropolitan version, the arrival of Empire witnesses an unprecedented renewal of pressures on “local constitutionalisms” for convergence. on a very limited level of institutional models. Constitutionalism persists and thrives as never before, for better and for worse. The force of juridification, the fetishization and reification of particular institutional arrangements persists. The US-centric empire thus works like a giant bubble that works slowly to absorb multitudes and nations that have not yet been converted into imperial client states.


inconvenient truth

NATO/EU expansion and the “liberal democracy project” undertaken by the West in Ukraine did not take Russian strategic interests into account and Western leaders did not show due caution in considering the likely consequences. Even if it has been successfully demonstrated that Russia was taken as a scapegoat after the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the conversion of NATO into a war machine with no other target than its military machinery at the service of the really existing empire, despite its evident decline how inexorable. In this regard, the Afghan War made a crucial and particularly regrettable contribution, definitively exposing US claims of military supremacy as illusory.

The longest war in US history should have caused Americans to reflect on the consequences of succumbing to imperial temptations in a world where empire has long since become obsolete. When US forces have knelt from places as far away as Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Philippines to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, several West African countries, Somalia, Iraq (for the third time) or Syria, the authorization of the United Nations Security Council or Congress was classified as something between incidental and unnecessary.

For military actions that ranged from full-scale invasions to assassinations as a mere show of force, whatever justification the "leader of the Free World" chose to offer was considered sufficient. With Europe's vassalage in mind and confusing US interests with those of the EU. War-mongering pundits, foreign policy pundits and government officials, year after year, disaster after disaster, smugly shirk responsibility for the military fiascoes they orchestrated, and have gone on to push for NATO expansion into Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin, violating an agreement not to extend NATO beyond the borders of a unified Germany and recklessly antagonizing Russia.

However, it did not delve into the reasons for prejudice, as well as the inevitable mistake of the West in Ukraine. Indeed, the errors and prejudices of the West have deep historical and ideological roots. Under US leadership, the West has failed to learn from similar mistakes in the past and has failed to show insight into the erroneous nature of its own policy norms. Worst of all, the West has fallen into the trap that Thucydides correctly identified, a trap whose origins lie in the nature and destiny of the multitude.

As Mearsheimer points out – something the official media narrative is purposely ignored – Putin made it explicit that the incorporation of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO would pose a “direct threat” to Russia, and that Russia would never allow that to happen. Indeed, the Russian invasion of Georgia should have fully demonstrated this determination. Meanwhile, the EU was also expanding; in May 2008, launched the initiative of Eastern Partnership (Eastern Partnership), with the stated objectives of promoting “prosperity” in countries like Ukraine and integrating them into the EU economy. Given how the EU and NATO expanded in step with each other, Russian leaders understandably viewed this move as paving the way for further NATO expansion.

The West's aim to “promote democracy” in Ukraine is consistent with the philosophy and values ​​declared by Western political elites and also held by ordinary people. Its strategy has been to support those on the ground in Ukraine who are pursuing Western-style political agendas, keeping pressure on the governments in Kiev through all available channels. The effect of these policies in Ukraine was completely destabilizing.

The United States has a military budget that exceeds that of all its major adversaries and allies combined, operates nearly a thousand bases around the world, destroys one country after another through sanctions and subversion, clearly wants to change regimes, and plays nuclear war games. on the borders of Russia and China. Its world hegemonic pretensions are suffocating and frightening. The counterproductive paradox is that if any nation resists this global onslaught, it must also be imperialist. Because the United States and its allies have been waging war in country after country for decades, carving swathes of destruction through cities, towns and villages on a scale far greater than we've seen in Ukraine so far (the U.S. and its allies have dropped more than 337.000 bombs and missiles, or 46 per day in nine countries since 2001 alone).

This does not diminish the gravity of the war in Ukraine, on the contrary, it shows us the normality, without interruption, of the devastating bombings of cities and populated areas in the last decades: from Mosul in Iraq to Raqqa in Syria, from Mariupol in Ukraine to Sanaa in Yemen or Gaza in Palestine. Because in wars the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if the agents involved claim that they are not 'intentional'. Which does not morally exonerate anyone.

Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (Dick Cheney's top deputy foreign policy adviser.) estimated in December 2013 that the United States alone had invested more than $5 billion in Ukraine since 1991 to “democracy promotion” activities; O National Endowment for Democracy, supported by the US government, has funded more than 60 projects aimed at advancing civil society in Ukraine, as stated by Mearsheimer in 2014.

Nazi forces, as noted by V. Engel, played a major role in the so-called “revolution of dignity” in Ukraine (2014). Their active participation in Maidan events led to the fact that social protest against corrupt authorities in late 2013 – early 2014 quickly became misrepresented by neo-Nazi paramilitary groups. These movements certainly contributed to the so-called “Orange Revolution” that took place in Ukraine in 2004. For the world it was also discovered that Ukrainian nationalism became the basic ideology of modern Ukrainian society, which allowed local political actors to “forge swords to scream” in just a few years and change the “Ukrainian-Russian” ratio in favor of Ukrainian, especially in western territories. As D. Gudimenko notes, “Ukrainian radical nationalism is unique. It is sometimes distinguished by its paranoid character, unbridled aggressiveness and extremism. Moreover, this ideology actually became the state in Ukraine. A distinguishing feature of Ukrainian radical nationalists should be noted: they have hatred, 'but burning passion' – for Russia. National Socialism teaches that highly exaggerated nationalism can compromise the existentialism of other nations. For example, Hitler (1935) adopted the so-called Nuremberg Laws, which created the legal basis for the persecution of Jews in Germany. Since then, anti-Semitism has become not only legal, but also a prescribed right.

An interesting achievement is that at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, on the initiative of Russia, a resolution was adopted by vote to combat the glorification of Nazism. The document was supported by 133 states, and 52 countries abstained: “Combating the glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuel contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”. Against, only the USA and Ukraine.

When a regime fails to cope with the rapid transformations that emerge from the grassroots level of society, disorder is inevitable, and this pattern was well demonstrated at Euromaidan. This “revolution” can be categorized as a coup d'état indeed, since the democratically elected president was overthrown by obviously illegal means and vicarious applause from the West at what was happening in the mining areas of the East. However, demonstrations and repression do not make a revolution. The force behind the US-backed Maidan protests against Yanukovych came from neo-Nazi militias trained in western Ukraine, organized into brigades and sent to Kiev.

in the british newspaper The Guardian columnist Seumas Milne noted that prominent US politicians such as Senator John McCain were in Kiev's Maidan Square in 2014, working alongside far-right extremists. Milne recalled that “the Ukrainian president was replaced by a US-selected government in a totally unconstitutional takeover” and “the US ambassador haggled with the state department over who would make up the new Ukrainian government".

By reducing the war in Ukraine to a confrontation between them and Putin, the mainstream press and not a few Western intellectuals dismiss as insignificant millions of Russians in Donbass who, however critical they may be, support Russian intervention in preference to being bombed by their government or at the hands of neo-Nazi fanatics. They believe in and consent to, it seems, a double measuring stick: American global domination, which neocons and neoliberal interventionists assert, is benign, a force for good, “benevolent hegemony”.

But the mainstream Western media, because of their deeply held prejudice, never saw the turnaround in this way or used such a negative term to describe it. Meanwhile, the West in its expansionary drive proved incapable of taking Russia's strategic interests into account or acting with prudence, with an eye on the results of its initiatives. We are entitled to ask: Did the Americans allow hostile powers to bring their neighbors like Canada and Mexico into their orbit?

Russia, due to its weakness in the early post-Soviet years, may have been unable to withstand the initial phases of NATO enlargement and EU expansion. Today, however, the situation is different. The Ukraine crisis can be seen as five threats to Russia: restricts Russian foreign policy choices; threatens the country's security and sovereignty; challenges the entire post-Soviet order; encourages the growth of Ukrainian nationalism; and threatens domestic stability.

It is not surprising that since Euromaidan it has provoked a strong reaction in Moscow which ended in an unfortunate military invasion. The West may not have intended to provoke a civil war in Ukraine before and an intervention by Russia now, but through its short-sighted policies it achieved just that as Putin's government acted in the footsteps of US imperialism. Like the chaos his interventions created in countries like Iraq and Syria, the results of his meddling in Ukraine have taught the West nothing about self-control. It is common, for example, to see comments blaming Russia for the chaos seen in Ukraine since the Euromaidan revolution.

But only when Americans have openly acknowledged their imperial transgressions do they deserve to be taken seriously when they demonize Russia. Westerners are horrified when we see civilians killed by Russian bombing in Ukraine, but we are generally less horrified and more likely to accept official justifications when we hear that civilians are killed by European and even US forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen or Gaza. Western corporate media plays a key role in this, showing us corpses in Ukraine and the laments of their loved ones, but “shielding” us from equally disturbing images of people killed by US or allied forces. It should be remembered, however, that during the US military occupation of Iraq, both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq documented persistent and systematic violations of the Geneva Conventions by US forces, including the Fourth Convention of 1949 Geneva that protects civilians from the impacts of war and military occupation, including instances in which US troops tortured prisoners to death. However, no one was held accountable. It's always easy to point the finger at others.

* Gabriel Vezeiro he has a bachelor's degree in philosophy.



Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translation: Raul M. Rosado Fernandes and M. Gabriela P. Granwehr. Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2013.

V. Engel, V. “Ksenophobia, diskriminatsiia i agressivnyi natsionalizm v Evrope”, Geopoliticheskii zhurnal Vol: 5 in 12 (2015): 38.

Gudimenko, DV “Ukrainskii radikalnyi natsionalizm: ideologiia voiny i terror”, Vestnik Akademii ekonomicheskoi bezopasnosti MVD Rossii num 6 (2015): 86

Neo-Nazism is a Dangerous Challenge to Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law. Report of the Russian Foreign Ministry (Moscow, 2015): 75-81

Medea Benjamin and Nicolas JS Davies Hey, Hey, USA! How Many Bombs Did You Drop Today?


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