It has been a summer of major strategic blunders by the United States and Russia over Ukraine and by the United States in the Middle East, where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, now renamed simply the Islamic Caliphate) has emerged as a major player, threatening what little remains of the region’s stability.
Putin’s strategy in Ukraine has been overtly defensive ever since Maidan turned ugly last winter. In essence the strategy has been to refrain from serious support for the rebels in the east, in the hope that Kiev will reciprocate with a comprehensive settlement that would include a promise of Ukraine’s permanent “Finlandization” as a neutral buffer—and perhaps a bridge—between Russia and NATO. That strategy has failed, primarily because—contrary to German and French preferences—Washington has aggressively pursued an all-or-nothing course. It has also failed because Russia’s leadership has been singularly unable to develop adequate alternative scenarios.
The end result is increasingly likely to be a Western-hostile Russia and a dirt-poor, unpleasantly chauvinist Ukraine, dependent on Western largesse. If Moscow fails to prevent Ukraine’s eventual transformation into a viscerally Russophobic Banderistan, as now seems likely, the return of the Crimea last March will be scant compensation for the overall rapid weakening of Russia’s geopolitical position along her southwestern border. The outcome could be comparable to the map of Eastern Europe after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed by the Bolsheviks in March 1918 and made short-lived only thanks to Germany’s subsequent collapse on the Western Front.
The ultimate goal of Washington’s strategy is nothing less than regime change in Moscow. If the weakening geopolitical position of the Russian Federation in Europe leads to the eventual collapse of Putin’s popularity, the theory goes, the likely result would be a new Yeltsin (Medvedev, perhaps) and a return to the 1990’s. Admittedly, Russia’s political elites have been traditionally unforgiving of geopolitical failure. Czar Nicholas I—seemingly invincible in the early 1850’s—died a broken man after the defeat in the Crimea. His namesake’s military failures made the coup of February 1917 possible, which opened the floodgates for the Bolshevik nightmare. Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown in the first week of Operation Barbarossa, fearful more of the collapse of his authority than of the Wehrmacht’s early victories. Khrushchev was replaced after the failure of his Cuban misadventure. Brezhnev’s Afghan fiasco contributed decisively to the collapse of the credibility of all subsequent Soviet leaders. Putin’s current 66-percent approval rating may likewise collapse if the Russians conclude that Vladimir Vladimirovich’s diplomatic successes in China, Latin America, and Syria are insufficient to compensate for the appearance of trigger-happy, NATO-armed Galician storm troopers in Ukrainian uniforms on Russia’s vulnerable southwestern border.
The theory is grotesquely short-sighted. It is far more likely that we’d see the emergence of a seriously anti-Western political figure—which Putin is not and has never been. A disciple of Aleksandr Dugin’s “Euroasianist” paradigm could emerge and threaten Putin in 2018, or else Putin could become a dedicated Euroasianist, determined to treat the United States as an outright enemy. Either way, America and “the West” would lose. Bringing NATO east of the Dnieper would greatly increase the danger of an intra-European war, and even of a trans-Atlantic nuclear exchange, which would guarantee the final suicide of an already moribund civilization. It would irrevocably push Russia into the development of an already emerging, implicitly anti-Western Eurasian alliance—a Moscow-Beijing axis—that would include Iran and India. The latter has already emerged as a key player in the new BRICS currency pool—a further sign of the world’s rapid multipolarization.
The U.S. government is nevertheless determined to follow its self-defeating course. The shooting-down of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over Eastern Ukraine on July 17 was thus hailed as a “game-changer” in Washington. The circumstances remain murky. An outright false-flag operation would have led Kiev authorities to shoot down the airliner and blame the rebels. An elaborate false-flag operation would have entailed guiding the airliner into a war zone and hoping that the rebels fire their missiles in the reasonable assumption that anything that flies is noncivilian and therefore a legitimate target. It was one of the two; the truth may never be known. Either way, the Nulandesque clique in Washington is likely to have had a hand in the ploy. The stage managers have ample experience in the field: Think Saddam’s WMDs in 2003, Bosnia’s Markale Market “massacre” in 1994, Kosovo’s Racak “massacre” (stage-managed in January 1999, compliments of CIA agent William Walker), Bashar al Assad’s “gassing of his own people” in the suburbs of Damascus last August, or Qaddafi’s “imminent genocide” in Benghazi two years earlier.
Even if everything works as planned, a solidly “pro-Western” Ukraine integrated into NATO is not in the American interest. It would dramatically increase the possibility of nuclear escalation in the course of some new crisis in the years and decades to come. Devoid of a territorial buffer zone, faced with an inherently hostile NATO stronghold in the north (Estonia)—an hour’s drive from St. Petersburg—and in the south (the Kharkov-Donetsk-Lugansk knife in Russia’s southern underbelly), Moscow’s strategists would be certain to rely on their nuclear arsenal (possible first-use included) to deter any perceived danger of an attack. Russia’s demographic weakness, which excludes the option of permanently maintaining a large conventional force along her western borders, coupled with the ongoing development of the U.S. missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, will make that option well-nigh inevitable. America would be less safe than she is now, and in that sense the U.S. policy in Ukraine is a strategic blunder of historic proportions.
Not of the same global magnitude, but even more immediately indicative of Washington’s strategic ineptitude, is the rise of ISIS. Having captured Mosul and executed some thousands of Shi’ite prisoners, the jihadist group declared its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its caliph, combining religious and state authority in the tradition of Muhammad’s early successors, across Iraq and Syria and beyond. For the first time since the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in the aftermath of the Great War, there is a substantial state-like entity presuming to revive the mantle of Sunni Islamic universalism.
The Islamic Caliphate is a “state.” Traditional international law postulates the possession of population, of territory, and the existence of a government that exercises effective control over that population and territory: a state exists if it enjoys a monopoly on coercive mechanisms within its domain, which the caliphate does. After all, unrecognized state entities such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh command their denizens’ overwhelming loyalty and exercise effectively undisputed control over their entire territory. Some international jurists may cite the ability of the self-proclaimed state’s authority to engage in international discourse, but that is a moot point. The capacity to control a putative state’s territory and population almost invariably leads to such ability, regardless of the circumstances of that state’s inception: South Sudan is a recent case in point, and the creation of Israel in 1947 also comes to mind.
At the end of July ISIS controlled an area the size of Montana, composed in roughly equal parts of northern and northeastern Syria and western and northwestern Iraq. It has over ten million inhabitants, and most of those who did not cherish life under its black banner have already fled to Damascus or Baghdad. The caliphate has substantial funds at its disposal, initially given it by the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Turks, Qataris, Bahrainis, UAE donors, et al., and it augmented its coffers to the tune of half a billion dollars looted from the Iraqi government vaults in Mosul and Tikrit. It is also, by all accounts, effective in collecting taxes, tolls, “donations,” and excise duties. With no debts or liabilities, the existing stash and ongoing cash flow makes the emerging ISIS entity more solvent than most small or even medium-sized sub-Saharan “republics” or Pacific-island states currently represented in the United Nations. It has enough oil and derivatives not only for the caliphate’s own needs, but also to earn the foreign exchange needed to buy all the food and other goods it needs from abroad. Al-Baghdadi’s budding state is in much better financial shape, on a per capita basis, than Egypt or Yemen.
In the fullness of time, and left to their own devices, Damascus and Baghdad—with some help from Tehran and Moscow—just might do the job. The caliphate is nevertheless winning for now. Its prospects are further brightened by the fact that the United States may yet “level the field” in favor of ISIS—effectively ensuring its long-term survival—with President Obama’s request to Congress at the end of June for $500 million in eminently lethal aid for the “vetted,” “moderate” opponents of the Syrian government. Their likely composition is apparent in John McCain’s family album from Syria, the moral replica of his Right Sector buddies in Kiev. Caliph Ibrahim (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s real name) knows that any “vetting” would be left to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the main past sponsors of ISIS. He salivates at the thought of half a billion dollars in U.S. hardware coming directly to him or being up for grabs if delivered to the long-moribund “Free Syrian Army.” He is justifiably confident that nobody in Washington will have any control whatsoever over the weaponry once it reaches the local distribution points.
On balance, the new caliphate is a viable project, because—as per Vladimir Ilyich Lenin—the government of the United States is acting as its “objective ally.” Barack Hussein Obama’s intended crime of continuing to help Assad’s Islamic foes has the potential to exceed George W. Bush’s crime of starting the Iraq war.
At the end of summer 2014, the world is far more turbulent and unsafe than a year earlier. The inability of the Obama administration to anticipate and adequately manage crises (ISIS) and its readiness to instigate and escalate them (Ukraine) is alarming yet unsurprising. The ruling Duopoly has no coherent understanding of the American interest, and is therefore inherently unable to promote and protect it.