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Triangulation abounds as a peace-making China enters the Ukrainian fray, pitting the Pleasure Principle of Prometheus against the Death Drive of Zeus.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently spoke on the phone with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, marking China’s entry into an embryonic Ukrainian peace process. A process which will only truly begin once Ukraine’s war potential has been so weakened that only the minimum level needed to sustain resistance to the Russian onslaught remains. Of course, in the unlikely event of Ukraine recapturing all of her territory, including the Crimea, there will be no need for Chinese diplomacy.
Hope is high within the Ukrainian ranks thanks to the promise of a 2023 spring offensive. There were many naysayers about Ukraine’s ability to carry out an offensive back in the summer of 2022, but Ukraine made substantial territorial gains. However the price in manpower and equipment losses was high. From the Russian point of view, in a war of attrition, territorial losses are less important, particularly if they entail falling back to a stronger defensive line, as happened in Kherson. The Russian goal is to destroy Ukraine’s ability to resist. If giving up some territory helps attrite the enemy, all the better. Once the enemy's war fighting potential is depleted, retaking territory becomes a cakewalk.
Time seems to be on Russia’s side. While the West struggles to maintain ammunition supplies to Ukraine, Russia’s military industrial output appears to be holding up to demand, despite sanctions. And the menace of China looms in the background as a nearly endless source of weapons should Russia’s industry falter. Domestically, the West is under political pressure to end the war and confront China. Ukraine is being encouraged to move forward and quickly liberate territory before the Western arms flows shrink into trickles. In contrast, Russians are happy to stay in their entrenched positions. Their tactical objective is tempting charging Ukrainian troops into “kill bags.” The Russians do advance in Bakhmut, but only because these advances provoke waves of Ukrainian reserves to be thrown into a battle where Russia holds a 10-1 artillery advantage.
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Recently the US media has downplayed Ukraine’s chances in the upcoming offensive—warning darkly that in the aftermath there will be fewer weapons flowing into Ukraine. From the NY Times:
Western allies this week delivered some of the most powerful weapons that Ukraine says it will need for a looming counteroffensive against Russia: a Patriot air-defense system from Germany and the Netherlands. Fighter jets from Slovakia. More 155-millimeter artillery from the United States.
And on Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III announced that Ukrainians would soon begin training, for the first time, on American M1 Abrams tanks — an important step to getting the sophisticated weapon to the battlefield.
But the reinforcements still fall short of what even American military planners have assessed that Ukraine needs to make the most of an offensive expected to begin in coming weeks to retake more territory captured by the Russians.
Truth is necessarily the first casualty of war. Securing an element of surprise is crucial for the weaker combatant. Western media constantly engage in information warfare as do the Russians, so nothing can be taken at face value. But the Western media also has a duty to manage their population’s expectations. The coordinated message seems to be that Ukraine will only make modest gains in the coming offensives, and afterwards the flow of Western weapons will dry up. The hawkish Simon Tisdall explains what comes next:
This is how the war ends: Ukraine’s long-awaited spring counter-offensive succeeds in recapturing some or even lots of occupied territory. But Russia’s more numerous forces, dug in behind minefields, tank traps and dragon’s teeth, remain in control of parts of the Donbas and Crimea. As autumn begins, it’s plain. There’s to be no clean sweep.
Amid huge destruction, big Russian losses, critical Ukrainian manpower, weapons and equipment shortages, and waning appetites for an endless war of attrition, Kyiv’s western backers begin to push for a negotiated ceasefire or “durable truce”, pending a longer-term settlement. China gets in on the act, too.
Why, after spending 18 months doing the hard work of methodically destroying Ukrainian manpower along with the combined Western military industrial complexes, would Russia agree to what is essentially a “timeout”? The sanctions have failed to impact Russia and are instead spiking inflation and destabilizing economies in the West. The armouries of Europe and the US are increasingly bare and have exposed serious industrial output weaknesses. Russia has imposed her type of war upon the West, which finds itself stuck in a slow and brutal war of attrition. By the West’s own admission, they are years away from achieving Ukraine’s objective of pushing Russia back to the 1991 borders. It is unlikely that Russia will ever agree to a “time out” scenario that freezes the front lines and gives Ukraine time to rearm and build-up an even stronger army for another war in a few years time.
Over the past six months, China has been busy brokering a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. During the same time, Russia has been mediating peace between Syria, Iran, and Turkey. All of these nations are potential members of the BRICS+ order. The mutual desires of these nations to join this growing economic bloc drive the process to extinguish these long-running conflicts. Rightly or wrongly, these conflicts are seen as fuelled by the Western interest to keep some of these nations locked into the US-led unipolar order. The rather tepid Western reaction to news of peace breaking out in the Middle East does nothing to dispel this notion.
China and Russia are clearly instrumentalizing peace in order to help expand their budding global order. It’s within this context that President Xi’s decision to finally take a phone call from the Ukrainian leader must be seen. From the Global Times:
But mediation of the Ukraine crisis is more difficult and more complicated than the Iran-Saudi deal, because the two major Middle Eastern powers did not directly fight each other, and Riyadh and Teheran have strategic autonomy and are able to make independent strategic decisions. However, Kiev has been deeply affected by Washington, Zhang said. Therefore, it could be too early to set high expectation for a peaceful solution immediately, and the whole peace process will take time, said experts.
Now that Ukraine shows a similar attitude to China's mediation with other relevant parties on the continent of Europe, like the EU and France, who really want the conflict to be stopped, Kiev has perhaps started to realize that US and NATO military support cannot effectively protect Ukraine or stop the bloodshed, but will only prolong the conflict. This might bring some hope as Kiev might start to act more independently and make pragmatic decisions based on its own judgments, said experts.
Zelensky’s motivation for bringing Xi into the picture are clear: even the hint that following a failed offensive, Ukraine could embrace China and the BRICS+ order as a way to obtain a better peace deal from Russia would be a geopolitical catastrophe for the West. This implicit threat will empower Ukrainian demands for larger supplies of even more powerful weapons, lest Zelensky makes peace through the diplomatic leadership of China.
If the Ukrainian spring offensive fails, there will be a falling out between Ukraine and the West. From the Ukrainian point of view, they provided plenty of willing soldiers who fought bravely. Ukraine has kept their end of the bargain set out by John McCain and Lindsey Graham back in December of 2016:
If Ukraine fails to recapture its territory, then it must be that the West has failed to provide adequate weapons to push Russia back, since no one is going to question the bravery of Ukrainian fighting men. At this point the Ukrainians must start questioning the usefulness of the West. Ukraine has long been demanding F-16’s, modern tanks, long distance ballistic missiles and far higher quantities of artillery shells. The West may have very good geopolitical reasons for not providing these. But this failure tempts Ukraine towards pursuing strategic autonomy by turning towards China and the BRICS+ to get a better deal from Russia.
The West would counter such treasonous impiety with an immediate cut off of Western arms and financial support, but these moves, in a less radical form, are already in the Western cards. If Ukraine took the radical step of dumping the West in an ironclad manner, and made an armistice with China based on joining the BRICS+ and Belt and Road initiative, then Russia would be more open to an immediate ceasefire and long-term discussions of territorial concessions.
This is a dangerous gambit for Zelensky to play. In triangulating between the US and China, he drives the inherent value of Ukraine higher, as both great powers instinctually desire what the other desires. The threat of such a humiliation may drive the West to provide more arms and commit to a total recapture of Ukrainian territory. Or they could reject Ukraine as a basket-case and let it go.
Just one year ago any idea of changing blocs would have been laughable. But the war in Ukraine has lifted the global esteem of China and the BRICS+ order to great heights. According to Bloomberg:
Nineteen countries expressed an interest in joining the BRICS group of nations as it prepares to hold an annual summit in South Africa.
The emerging-markets bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will meet in Cape Town on June 2-3 to discuss its enlargement, Anil Sooklal, South Africa’s ambassador to the group, said in an interview in the city on Monday.
“What will be discussed is the expansion of BRICS and the modalities of how this will happen,” he said. “Thirteen countries have formally asked to join and another six have asked informally. We are getting applications to join every day.”
A “BRICS+ for Ukrainian sovereignty” deal would entail Ukraine cutting ties with the EU and NATO, and as much as possible renouncing Western contracts and debts. An immediate Russian ceasefire would follow such an announcement. China would manage reconstruction, and BRICS+ nations and friendly European states such as France and Hungary would invest in Ukraine. A further sweetener is that Russia would be happy if gas pipelines pass through a now BRICS+ aligned Ukraine. In a face-saving policy of “Ukrainian In Name Only”, the Donbass and Crimea could remain under de jure Ukrainian control while being run de facto from Moscow, with a final settlement to be decided in 20 years. If by 2044 Ukraine is a peaceful and thriving member of BRICS+ then that opens the way to some version of “Two Systems, One Ukraine.”
BRICS+ Pleasure Principle or the West’s Death Drive
Ukraine switching blocs is a long-shot possibility. Why would the BRICS+ even be interested in such a national basket-case as Ukraine? A more immediate motivation for China to lead diplomacy talks is the powerful narrative it sends to the rest of the world. Sigmund Freud’s two opposing psychological forces, the Pleasure Principle and the Death Drive, can be rhetorically framed as representing the geopolitical approaches of the multipolar BRICS+ and unipolar US-led West.
Freud’s Pleasure Principal is the human desire to satisfy our needs combined with a desire to avoid pain and tension. Applied geopolitically, the China-led BRICS+ order promotes infrastructure projects and productive economies, which provide pleasurable satisfaction through economic growth. Geopolitical peace-making eases painful tensions and decreases displeasure (war and strife) around the globe.
The Chinese narrative towards the West, as expressed in the Global Times political cartoon at the top of this piece, is one of a Chinese fireman’s futile attempt to extinguish the fires of war while Uncle Sam counters by pouring fuel on the flames. This places the Collective West in a geopolitical role analogous to Freud’s Death Drive, which posits that living beings have an impulse towards repetitive outward havoc combined with a tendency towards internal self-destruction. The many wars launched since the US rose to unipolar global power, make it easy for China to construct a narrative of a Western-led Death Drive descent towards global oblivion. The recent decline of the dollar and lowering of esteem for the West are manifestations of a self-destructive tendency.
Of course the West’s counternarrative is as peace-loving nations they are only responding in Ukraine to one of many unprovoked Russian aggressions over the centuries. Just look at the size of Russia! It is an aggressive and insecure empire always seeking to expand. Someone has to provide the oppressed victims of Russian aggression with the means to free themselves. This narrative is both plausible and not new. Its roots are found in the early 20th century Polish ideology of Prometheism
The ancient Greek myth of Prometheus has several versions. In Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound, Prometheus battles against the ruler of the world Zeus in favour of humanity. This is the most well-known version and in an abstract analysis, features a triangular configuration: the Gods, the God-fighter, and the people. While Zeus and Prometheus are both powerful Gods, Prometheus liberates mankind by bringing him fire. Zeus is the oppressive status-quo God while Prometheus is the revisionist, or anti-systemic God, fighting the celestial order to bring justice to humanity. In the myth, Prometheus succeeds in bringing the fire of progress to man but in return is punished by Zeus by being bound to a rock and for eternity having his liver pecked by an eagle, which is Zeus’ the symbolic animal.
In the early 20th century, Polish statesman Jozef Pilsudski developed his Prometheism concept based on the ancient Greek myth. In a nutshell, his rather overambitious idea was that Russia’s ethnic minorities would be decolonized by Poland. In alignment with the original myth, the Russian Empire was Zeus, to be opposed by Poland playing Prometheus, who were to bring the metaphoric fire of independence to the masses of ethnic non-Russians trapped within the Russian empire. One of his top intelligence officers, Edmund Charaszkiewicz describes it:
The author of the Prometheism concept was Jozef Pilsudski who, as early as 1904, wrote in a document to the Japanese government of the need to utilize the potential of the non-Russian nations in the fight against Russia, which included, in the Marshal’s view, the nations surrounding the Baltic and Caspian Seas. He noted that Poland, with its history and most assertive stance under the partitions, and love of freedom, would act as the leader in this process of emancipating the other nations from Russian rule. Special attention should be paid to the following excerpt from the Marshal’s memoirs: “the strength of Poland and its importance amongst the nations under Russia, allows us to set ambitious political goals—disintegration of the Russian Empire and the granting of independence to the countries placed under Russian rule by force. We do not only believe this to be the fruition of the cultural aims of our nation for independence, but also a guarantee of its existence, as Russia without its conquests, will be so weak to cease to be a dangerous neighbour.” (p. 66)
In his 2011 book, The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, Alexandros Petersen explains:
During [1918–1921] the movement was at its most active, signing a formal pact with the Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petlura, recognizing the governments of Georgia and Azerbaijan, founding research and educational establishments, admitting officers from Soviet bloc countries to the Polish army, and subsidizing over a hundred irregular periodicals and more than twenty regularly published journals dealing with Promethean topics. At one point the Russian State Political Directorate (OGPU) security services discovered that the Pilsudski government had been subsidizing the Prometheist movements of both the Azerbaijani Tartars and the Armenian Dashnaks <…> “in anticipation of a Western crusade against Russia which was to liberate these national minorities of the Caucasus.” (p. 67)
Poland soon learned that being squeezed between Germany and the Soviet Union, meant maintaining their own independence was going to be a tall order, let alone decolonizing Russia. Poland was metaphorically in great danger of having their collective livers gnawed at by the Soviet or German Zeus before bringing the fire of freedom to anyone. Not surprisingly, when Poland proposed the idea to more powerful Western nations, it went nowhere. Ironically, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, they were often greeted as Promethean liberators by non-Russian subjects of the Soviet Union. These ethnics were so blinded by their hatred of the Soviets that they didn’t understand the German’s true agenda. Ukrainians were especially prone to this error.
During the Cold War, the Promethean idea was again raised, but the West chose containment policy, and eventually grew to appreciate the geopolitical stability the two blocs brought.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union accomplished in an eyeblink many of the ambitious geopolitical goals promised by Prometheism, as the former Soviet republics were granted independence. The West acted as a catalyst to further this process, in particular in Central Asia, the Caucuses (Georgia, Azerbaijan), the Baltics, Ukraine and Belarus. Putin’s rise to power turned Russia into an anti-Promethean force, and with mixed results sought to retain power and influence within its former imperial appendages.
In the wake of the Ukrainian War, Poland’s Prometheism has made a strong ideological resurgence. On June 23rd 2022, the US Helsinki Commission held a conference in Washington DC where they announced a “strategic and moral imperative to decolonize Russia:”
Leading US media outlets such as The Atlantic and Bloomberg proclaimed a similar political line. From a Bloomberg article entitled, Is Breaking Up Russia the Only Way to End Its Imperialism?
Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine showed the world that a resurgent Russia means, of necessity, an imperialist Russia. And it revived discussions about whether Russia needs to be “decolonized,” or perhaps “defederalized,” to bury its imperialist ambitions and subdue its military threat. A breakup of today’s Russia, similar to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is seen as a possible, for some even the most desirable, outcome of a failed Ukraine invasion. Regrets are voiced that the US didn’t make it a goal in the 1990s, when post-Soviet Russia lay in ruins and struggled to hold onto one, tiny secessionist region: Chechnya.
Seeking to escape the spectre of Soviet mediocrity that lay grey and heavy over post-Cold War eastern Europe, half of Ukraine dreamed of one day serving as faithful vassals to the United States and the European Union. But after hundreds of thousands of casualties and emptying armouries, Ukraine is in an increasingly precarious position. If their upcoming offensive fails to turn the tide, then other alternatives must be sought. The decline of the dollar and US global prestige is nowhere near the levels of despair the Soviets reached. But other alternatives are appearing on the geopolitical horizon.
China’s Alternative Prometheism: Decolonizing the Unipolar Global Order
China’s quest for geopolitical might can be understood as a variant on the triangular alignment of Polish Prometheism. Here the US-led order is a vengeful and irrationally violent Zeus, the BRICS+ order is progressive Prometheus, providing peace and pleasure to the rest of the world.
Will the US respond to the Chinese challenge by metaphorically binding China to the rock of Taiwan or Spratly Islands and like Zeus’ eagle, peck at its liver through constant naval engagements? A military pivot to China could help cover the disturbing optics of a failed Ukrainian offensive this spring. An ideal US situation would be a slow and low-grade naval war of attrition that stunts China’s growth and diverts resources away from economic development. The problem, however, is that naval warfare is inherently irrepressible with escalations erupting as soon as hostilities commence.
But can this enhanced Death Drive restore US global power or is it just another symptom of decline? The other option would be for the US to reawaken within itself an economic Pleasure Principle, by phasing out the Death Drive policies of financialization and neoliberalism that have so deteriorated domestic US economic potential. In unbinding that productive prowess that made the US an industrial powerhouse 60 years ago, she could one day challenge China as a Prometheus for the world.
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