The Chris Hedges Report: Ukraine and the resurgence of American militarism

The war in Ukraine, stoked in part by NATO expansion and the violation of promises made to Moscow at the end of the Cold War, now looks set to become a lengthy war of attrition—one funded and backed by the United States. What will be the consequences of the United States’s commitment to long-term conflict, and where will we be when the war finally ends?

Andrew Bacevich explains in this interview how the end of the Cold War triggered a new bout of American military interventionism that has now spanned decades. Moreover, as Bacevich argues, if the fighting in Ukraine ceases without a geopolitical plan for peaceably bringing Russia back into the community of nations, we risk setting the world stage for even greater conflict.

Andrew Bacevich is a West Point graduate, retired Army Colonel, and Vietnam war veteran. He is also an emeritus professor of history and international relations at Boston University and the co-founder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His books include The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism and his latest, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.

Chris Hedges interviews writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, many banished from the mainstream, in his half-hour show, The Chris Hedges Report. He gives voice to those, from Cornel West and Noam Chomsky to the leaders of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are on the front lines of the struggle against militarism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, the looming ecocide, as well as the battle to wrest back our democracy from the clutches of the ruling global oligarchy.

Studio: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Adam Coley

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Transcript

Chris Hedges:     The war in Ukraine, stoked in part by NATO expansion beyond the borders of a unified Germany, violating promises made to Moscow at the end of the Cold War, now looks set to become a lengthy war of attrition, one funded and backed by an increasingly bellicose United States. Secretary of defense Lloyd Austin, after a visit to Kyiv declared that quote, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things it has done in Ukraine.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, during her own trip to Kyiv said that America will, “Stand with Ukraine until victory is won.” The Biden administration has requested another $33 billion in emergency military and economic aid, half of what Russia spent on its military in 2021 for Ukraine, a package congressional Democrats plan to increase by $7 billion. And this is on top of the $13.6 billion already allocated for Ukraine. The total US troop numbers in Central and Eastern Europe has been increased to more than 100,000.

Biden has signed into law a modern day Lend-Lease Act, waiving time-consuming requirements to fast track weapons to Ukraine. What will be the consequences of the US fueling this proxy war? How will Russia respond to the US targeting over a dozen Russian generals for assassination and providing the intelligence to sink the Moskva, the guided missile cruiser that was the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet? What will the war mean for the United States, Europe, and Russia? Could it escalate into an open confrontation between the United States and Russia? Why are the same cabal of generals and politicians that drain the state of trillions of dollars in the debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Somalia, and learned nothing from the nightmare of Vietnam, once again able to push the United States closer and closer towards another conflict.

Joining me to discuss the war in Ukraine and the consequences of a resurgent American militarism is Andrew Bacevich, West Point graduate, retired army colonel, and Vietnam War veteran. He is also an emeritus professor of history and international relations at Boston University and the co-founder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is, as well, the author of numerous books, including The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, and his latest, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed. So, as somebody who’s followed American militarism and written, I think, very presciently on it for a long time, were you surprised, especially after the humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, that the war industry and the militarists would resurrect themselves so quickly? And then also, the public response is almost a giddiness, a war fever that’s gripped the country.

Andrew Bacevich:    No, I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. The Afghanistan War did end in a humiliating failure, the Iraq War that began in 2003 didn’t end in anything much better. So I think that in many respects, the national security apparatus was eager to find an episode, an opportunity, at least to divert attention from its own shortcomings, and at best to contrive some way of redeeming itself. And I think that’s what Vladimir Putin inadvertently provided.

Chris Hedges:      You and I were both in Germany in 1989, NATO formed in 1949, was organized to prevent Soviet expansionism into Central and Eastern Europe. People spoke about the peace dividend. There were promises made, of course, not to expand NATO beyond the borders of a unified Germany. The Soviet collapse essentially left Russia defanged and weakened. What was your, in that moment, what did you think? I bought the line of the peace dividend, which shows you how naive I was. But you were in the military apparatus. What did you see at that moment? What did you expect?

Andrew Bacevich:     Well I think, first of all, I think I, like almost everybody else who was an observer of US foreign policy, of US national security policy, was caught by surprise that the Cold War ended. I think the reigning assumption had come to be that the Cold War would go on forever, that it was a permanent part of our world. And when it ended – Again, me caught completely by surprise – I think I vaguely thought, vaguely, that the United States would now become once more a normal nation in some respects, going back to what we had been prior to World War II. Meaning minding our own business, having a modest, in terms of size and cost, a modest military establishment, refraining from meddling and intervening in others’ affairs. That was my expectation, which, of course, was immediately demolished because the end of the Cold War actually triggered a new bout of American military interventionism that really has spanned several decades now.

Chris Hedges:       Why? Why did that happen?

Andrew Bacevich:     Number one, I think because of the euphoria that the end of the Cold War created. You remember, the phrases that were in common usage, the indispensable nation, a sole superpower, the end of history having arrived with therefore American global primacy, something that could be taken for granted. Certain expectations about American military prowess that I think stemmed from the Iraq War of 1992, if I’m not getting my dates confused. I think all of that created expectations that history was going our way. And there was then the national security apparatus created during the Cold War that was now looking for things to do, looking for opportunities to maintain its relevance, and therefore to provide a rationale for maintaining high levels of military spending. That’s what the military-industrial complex wanted. That’s what the military-industrial complex got.

Chris Hedges:       So we can’t excuse, of course, what Putin has done. Preemptive war, as we carried out in Iraq, is, under post-Nuremberg laws, a criminal war of aggression. But clearly he was baited, provoked, Russian complaints about the expansion of NATO and then the stationing of troops in Eastern and Central Europe, something the Clinton administration promised Moscow it would not do. We knew, the people who followed the Soviet Union knew what they were doing and the potential consequences of this. Do you think that they just thought Russia was so weak that they couldn’t respond? Or what was the raison d’etre behind it?

Andrew Bacevich:      Yeah, Chris, I don’t think I myself would use terms like baited and provoked. I see it more as the United States specifically, and the West more broadly treating Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union with utter disdain and contempt that in Washington, there seemed to be no reason in particular why we should take Russia’s national security concerns seriously. Again, if we reflect on the mood of the moment, history having ended with one superpower remaining, we thought we could get away with anything. And of course, to some extent we did, at least for a decade or so, before 9/11 occurred and brought those naive expectations crashing down.

Chris Hedges:        Let’s talk about the Russian military. You have written about, I think you call, “the Russian bear has defanged itself,” if I’m quoting you correctly. But it has really exposed the lie or the myth that somehow the Russian military machine is a threat to Europe or to us, short, of course, of a nuclear war. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Andrew Bacevich:     Yeah. You’re right. When the Cold War ended, I was serving in what was then West Germany. And soon after the wall went down, I took my family to visit Berlin. We had never been to Berlin despite the fact that we had served two tours in Germany. And I remember one night that I, taking my family, it was winter, it was cold, it was wet. And we walked up the Unter den Linden, the main thoroughfare through the center of Berlin. Approaching it from the side that had been the East and came up to the Brandenburg Gate, which of course was, in many respects, the preeminent material symbol of the Cold War itself. I just wanted to see it. And when we got there, what we saw was a bunch of Russian soldiers sitting around with blankets on the ground, and in the blankets, they were selling Russian military trinkets. Hats, wristwatches, ribbons.

Of course, this is in a sense very exciting for me to see firsthand these manifestations of the Russian military that I had been studying and thinking about for many years. But what struck me at the time, it was all junk. It was cheap. And it was my first hint, I think, that the Russian bear really wasn’t 10 feet tall. And I think that the course of the Ukraine War, the abysmal performance of the Russian military – And, of course, let us acknowledge the courage of the Ukrainian resistance – But nonetheless, the abysmal performance of the Russian military, I think, affirms the impression that I got way back then, right when the Cold War had ended. They’re not all that good. They’re not all that tough. They’re certainly not competent. In particular, they’re not competently led.

Chris Hedges:       Let’s talk about the Biden administration’s response, staggering sums of money, obviously close coordination with Ukrainian intelligence. Imagine, for instance, if Russian intelligence had helped take out a dozen generals in Iraq or Afghanistan. What’s happening, and what are the potential consequences of this heavy intervention in the Ukrainian conflict?

Andrew Bacevich:      Well, I think very broadly speaking, Chris, when the Biden administration came to power, they quickly entered into what was already an ongoing debate about the future of basic US national security policy. And in that debate, there were two camps. The one camp, I think, argued strongly that we, not simply the United States, but the international order, had entered into a new era in which common global threats needed to receive priority attention. And when I say common global threats, I mean above all the climate crisis. That was one camp. The other camp consisted of people arguing that we were entering into a new era of geopolitical competition, great power competition. Prior to Ukraine, if you said great power competition, you were referring to the People’s Republic of China as the principal adversary that would pose against the United States.

I think what has happened since the Ukraine War began is, first of all, the camp arguing that the future will involve great power competition now is prevailing. And the amount of attention being received by more global threats: climate change, poverty, disease, those are being shoved off to the side. But the difference now, of course, is that the great power that Washington is obsessed with is not China, at least not to the extent that it was four or five months ago, but now it’s Russia. Of course, there is this contradiction that Russia is not really a great power. They’re a significant power. They still have, of course, that massive arsenal of nuclear weapons. But by no stretch of the imagination, whether we’re talking economically, militarily, ideologically, does it make sense to put Russia in the uppermost rank of great powers? Nonetheless, Putin has effectively hijacked US policy in ways that I think are not likely to be particularly helpful to US interest going forward.

Chris Hedges:     So this group that you identified as essentially wanting to deal with military expansionism, it’s an old group. You’ve written about them, Robert Kagan, his brother Fred Kagan, Elliot Abrams. These people have been around a long time. I dealt with Elliot Abrams and Robert Kagan when I covered the war in El Salvador and Nicaragua. And yet they’re wrong about every projection. They’ve just justified every debacle after debacle, and yet they still have this kind of prominence. Even within the Biden administration, figures like Victoria Newland, who was married to Robert King, it was kind of incestuous. But talk about that group and their influence.

Andrew Bacevich:     I don’t know of the influence of the specific group you’re citing, and let’s call them the neoconservatives, that’s what we’re used to referring to them as. I don’t know that the influence of the neoconservatives is as great as it was, let’s say, back at the time of the 9/11 attacks when they were really in the saddle and they were riding high. That said, I think that the neoconservatives represent a strain of American militarism that remains very powerful and has become, in a sense, detached from the ideological conceptions that were very much part of the neoconservative worldview. The neo-conservatives – I hope I’m not being unfair to them – Believe that the United States had a mission to spread American style liberalism, democratic capitalism around the world. That’s what we are called upon to do. And that with the end of the Cold War, we were in a position to put American military power to work in order to achieve that end.

I don’t know that’s where we are today, that the democratizing impulse, it seems to me, is not nearly as prominent in our politics. It hasn’t vanished, but it’s not as prominent. Nonetheless, the insistence upon the United States exercising global primacy of continuing to be number one, a position we’ve become accustomed to having ever since the end of World War II, I think that conviction remains. So it’s less about a mission to spread democracy. It’s more about a conviction of history having chosen the United States uniquely to preside over the future of humankind.

Chris Hedges:        Although the Ukraine conflict, those are the words they use, a fight for democracy, a fight for liberty against tyranny.

Andrew Bacevich:    Well, I think that’s fair enough. I think that it’s an absurd characterization, but it is a language that American politicians and public commentators reflexively return to, that whatever it is we’re doing in the world, somehow it connects to freedom, connects to our commitment to democracy. Any serious student, I think, of US foreign policy has long ago come to the conclusion that that’s all nonsense. But the vocabulary continues to resonate in a way, it’ll get your op-ed printed in the Washington Post or whatever. It’ll get you invited on the Sunday talk shows, even if it’s not to be taken very seriously. I would argue that if you want to know why we do what we do in the world, why we are intent on giving that additional $40 billion of support to Ukraine. Our belief in freedom and democracy, I think, is less important than the demands of the military-industrial complex. Or I should say the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Chris Hedges:       It’s a staggering sum of money, and it seems to indicate that they expect this war to go on for a long time. Can you talk about the war itself, as somebody who comes out of the military? What you’ve seen, what you expect? There’s a kind of nonchalance among the war makers about pushing Putin and he has the [raise], the specter of nuclear weapons. But just talk about the war itself, what you’ve observed.

Andrew Bacevich:    Yeah. And I should… I don’t want to come across as a military expert, I’ve been out of the army longer than I was ever in the army. So, I am an interested observer. And what I have observed is this: staggering incompetence on the part of the Russian military. And this incompetence is certainly attributable in part to the guys at the top. It’s certainly attributable, to a large extent, to the Russian officer corps. They have performed very badly. And we have to acknowledge the courage and determination of the Ukrainians who have benefited greatly by the flow of advanced weaponry provided by the United States and others in the West. That said, the war has gone on much longer than most observers expected, longer than I expected. It does not appear likely that either side currently enjoys anything like a decisive edge. And therefore, if the political leadership on each side is determined to continue to struggle until some kind of favorable outcome is achieved, then this war could go on for a very, very long time. I think that’s where we are.

Now, you alluded to nuclear weapons. I am in complete agreement. I think it is appalling and frightening that there is casual talk about the possibility of nuclear weapons being used. Maybe I should have called it dismissive talk, not anything for us to seriously worry about. I think that is exceedingly, exceedingly dangerous. And the other thing I think is that I’m equally appalled by the absence of attention to the imperative of winding this war down. It has to come to an end. The sooner it comes to an end, the better. But the United States, the Biden administration, seems to have remarkably little interest in exploring, pursuing, promoting some type of a diplomatic resolution, at least to get the shooting to stop so that further negotiations can continue.

I think, equally appalling – And this is where all the language of punishing Russia enters into the conversation – Equally appalling, I think, is the lack of attention to what’s going to happen, where will we be when the war finally ends. The day the fighting stops, Russia’s going to be a pariah state. It’s going to be an angry state. If there is to be the restoration of something like stability in Eastern Europe, then Russia’s pariah state is going to have to be unwound. We’re going to have to find a way to bring Russia back into the community of nations. Maybe not with Putin in charge, but there’s going to be a Russia problem that is going to demand lots of attention. I am usually the first one to reject historical analogies related to the 1930s and the origins of World War II, but I do think it’s worth considering that the punishment imposed upon Germany as a consequence of the settlement that followed World War I, followed the so-called Great War, did set the stage for a war that turned out to be orders of magnitude worse. We don’t want to repeat that error. And therefore we need to be thinking about finding a way to end the war, and then finding a way to bring Russia back into the community of nations.

Chris Hedges:     This will have domestic consequences, certainly military budgets will go up. They’re already staggeringly high. And they will have international consequences with a resurgent militarism by the United States. Can you talk about those consequences from this conflict?

Andrew Bacevich:     I’m not sure I’m with you, Chris. The military budget was already going up even before the war started, and it is not a controversial issue. It does not seem to be a matter that the American people attend to. The military spending goes up, in collective we nod and say, well, okay, that’s that. Seems to me that from Biden’s point of view, it’s domestic issues that he will likely be much more attentive to as things go along. Inflation’s going to kill him. The potential overturn of Roe v. Wade could have enormous consequences for domestic politics. So it’s an interesting thing that the Ukraine War is, I guess it’s the biggest war we’ve experienced over the past couple of decades, even bigger, I think, in terms of overall damage than than the Iraq War. And I’m not sure it has much of an impact on our politics.

Chris Hedges:      Well, it does, in the sense that you’re diverting resources, or continuing to divert resources to the military while half of this country lives in a state of poverty or near poverty, social services collapse, the infrastructure collapse. And, of course, it’s running up deficits.

Andrew Bacevich:    100% in agreement there. But it seems to me that the politics of the moment in the era of Trump, or Trumpism, if I can call it that, was not conducive to seriously addressing the domestic afflictions that beset the country. You mentioned some of them. The persistent poverty, the overall political dysfunction. I happen to define myself – I’m not sure why these days – I happen to define myself as a conservative. Ostensibly the Republican Party is the party of conservatism. The present day Republican Party stands for nothing in terms of principles. There is no principled conservative political party in the United States today. But it doesn’t seem to me that the Ukraine crisis in any way offers an avenue toward dealing with the domestic problems that beset us. It’s something that’s happening over there, far away.

And there are really no immediate costs imposed upon the American people. The Iraq War became contentious for a time because there were significant US casualties being sustained. We’re talking back in 2004, 2005, 2006. In this war, there are no US casualties. And I think the American people seize upon that fact to simply tune out the war. It has nothing to do with us. I don’t buy that, I think it has a lot to do with us. But I think that what we have seen, particularly since the creation of the all-volunteer force after Vietnam, is that if Americans aren’t getting killed and wounded, then the American people don’t pay much attention to the wars that we’re involved in.

Chris Hedges:      Great. We’ll stop there. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.