You are reading a State of Dystopia post. These entries note the news events that put us on the cyberpunk dystopia timeline. Read them now to see the future we’re going towards. Or read them in the future to figure out where things went wrong.
I started writing this post almost immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine. I kept updating it as different developments happened, but a year and a half later, I regret not posting my immediate thoughts as quickly as possible. Here it is: Western powers must push for peace and are partially to blame for the violence. This war will end eventually, so it will either end with more bloodshed or less.
I’m just some random guy on the internet, so I’m not asking you to trust me — just that you read my arguments and note the number of citations I throw your way.
Let’s get the basics out of the way:
- Russia’s actions are reprehensible. While the causes of the conflict are complicated, Russia made the call to invade, and that is not justifiable.
- Ukraine is unlikely to achieve a clear “win” and the press has oversold Ukrainian success to keep the public on board.
- US involvement has turned this thing into a continually escalating proxy war between the world’s largest nuclear powers. It is irresponsible to weigh this conflict without keeping the whole world in mind too.
- This war is destabilizing the rest of the world as is, and is strengthening a multipolar world order.
Understanding the proxy war
Note: This section is going to outline how Western involvement helped lead to this moment. That does NOT mean the invasion is justified. But understanding the lesser-known cause of the conflict is essential to ending it, and the mainstream press has dismissed it completely.
It’s nice to believe that we are saving a democracy from its authoritarian, warlike neighbor. But here’s reality: Ukraine is and has long been a geopolitical pawn caught between the West and Russia. That’s not a good thing, but that’s what it is. It also means that when either the West or Russia interferes in Ukraine, it’s Ukrainians who bear the brunt of the consequences.
And sadly, the West is far from innocent in this regard. Let’s start with the 2014 Euromaidan protests.
Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution is viewed in the West as a popular revolt against a corrupt pro-Russian oligarch. The truth is far more complicated, and it ought to come as no surprise that Russia views the revolution as a US-backed coup in its backyard.
- Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych sparked massive protests when he reneged on a pro-EU trade deal in favor of a Russian trade deal; when he fled to Russia, Ukraine’s leaning drifted back to the West.
- Yanukovych was undoubtedly corrupt, and political dissatisfaction was genuinely widespread.
- However, at the same time, the protests did not have majority support.
- Moreover, the protests were violent — armed protesters literally overran the presidential palace. The influence of the far right in the violence was such that Israel’s embassy advised Jews to stay inside their homes when the palace was overrun.
- Evidence suggests that far-right agitators may have killed other protesters in a false flag. That’s not an InfoWars talking point: see this detailed analysis from a University of Ottowa political scientist.
- The US poured money into Ukrainian civil society organizations, a move that coincidentally supported Yanukovych’s political opposition and wound up being a component of the protest movement that ousted him.
- Western officials openly backed the protests. Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy spoke on a stage next to a prominent fascist politician. Then there’s the infamous phone call in which State Department bureaucrats debated which Ukrainian politicians should be in power. Note that State Department official Victoria Nuland said the Ukrainian politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk should be the next prime minister — and he ended up becoming prime minister.
And the 2014 revolution was only the start.
- Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the neo-Nazi-linked Azov battalion has been leading the fight against Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine.
- The US has been training Ukrainian fighters since at least 2015 and started allowing arm sales to Ukraine’s fighters in 2018.
- US lawmakers were concerned enough about funds and training going to neo-Nazis to pass an amendment to the annual defense spending bill barring it. That restriction was ultimately removed due to pressure from the Pentagon.
- According to original Yahoo! News reporting, 5 former intelligence officials have attested that the CIA has been training Ukrainian special operations forces in insurgency tactics since 2015.
- As defense analyst Ted Carpenter argued in 2021, US arms sales have made Ukraine a NATO member “in all but name.”
- In 2019, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, an attempt to curb Russian gas exports to Europe.
Consider America’s uproar about Russian troll farms posting shitty memes during the 2016 election — now imagine the reaction if Russian officials openly supported a regime change movement in Mexico and funneled arms to paramilitaries near the border.
And then there’s the big one. Despite Western assurances in the early 1990s that NATO would not expand eastward…
Some analysts have tried to downplay the promise since then — primarily by arguing that there were no formal agreements. That’s playing dumb. That NATO expansion would antagonize Russia has been long-understood, with prominent defense officials openly cautioning against it. It’s kind of obvious how any country would view a recently-hostile military alliance expanding up to its borders, particularly when that expansion occurs during a period of weakness (the collapse of the USSR).
Last, but not least: The West (specifically the U.S.) has been an active obstacle to peace talks.
The reality of the situation is that America views Ukraine as a tool for wearing down a powerful rival. If the US truly wished to save Ukrainian lives or infrastructure, it would push for peace; instead, it has acted as an obstacle, perfectly happy to prolong the war:
- The invasion itself started after failed talks between NATO and Russia.
- Russia stated point blank that its key demand was NATO could not admit Ukraine, and NATO’s buildup of personnel and arms in the east must be limited. NATO never came close to compromising on that; NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg said a ban on Ukrainian membership was a nonstarter.
- The Biden administration repeatedly warned the public it had intelligence indicating an imminent invasion. If they knew an invasion was likely, why didn’t they start making some concessions to prevent it? The point of sounding the alarm was not to prevent a war, but to prepare the public and world to support a proxy war.
- The US secretary of defense has stated openly that the US hopes to weaken Russia; the secretary of state publicly agreed. Biden had to tell them to tone it down.
- While a few Western European leaders urged peace talks in the opening months of the war — and were quickly condemned for doing so — the US remained mum.
- Ukrainian reporting, which has not been disputed by US media, indicates that Ukraine and Russia were willing to hold peace talks in April 2022. Boris Johnson reportedly flew in to talk Zelenskyy out of it.
Nothing underscores Ukraine’s utility to the US more than American military aid to the country: about $62 billion as of January 2023. That number dwarfs any amount of US aid for a security partner in decades. More importantly, compare it to the $62 billion a year that Russia spent on defense in 2020. Some say Russia’s ‘true’ defense budget is closer to $200 billion. Even if one uses that high estimate, it would mean the US is spending 31% of Russia’s military budget solely to defeat it. That is a commitment to proxy war, nothing less.
So for all the horrors you see online, take at least some blame to your own government. As retired American diplomat Chas Freeman said: the US is fighting Russia “to the last Ukrainian.”
But it might be fine if Ukraine wins, right?
Every Westerner has been greeted with nonstop coverage of Ukraine’s stunning resistance. There is no doubt that Russia failed in its immediate objective of seizing the capital and occupying the entire country quickly. But Russia’s secondary goal of occupying and annexing Eastern Ukraine appears to be won, or at least stalemated indefinitely.
This is what the battle map looked like in mid-April 2022 (reds are Russian control).
This is what it looked like a year later, in March 2023:
It is an ugly war of attrition. The battle for Bakhmut featured trench warfare with human wave attacks, despite the fact that the city appears to have little strategic value for either side.
We often hear of how Russian troops are being decimated by Ukraine’s strong-willed fighting force. Why aren’t Ukraine’s losses talked about? In November 2022, the head of the EU said Ukraine suffered 100,000 casualties. Footage of her speech was quickly edited, and news headlines described it as “unverified.” In a similar estimate, also in November, US General Mark Milley said about 100,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded on each side.
For all the fanfare, there is good reason to believe that Ukraine’s casualties are roughly on par with Russia’s, a country with a far larger population and army. And as this conflict is now a war of attrition, Russia’s structural advantages may have an even greater influence as time goes on. The Pentagon’s own assessment, as indicated in the recent leak of classified docs, is that Ukraine is unlikely to make substantial battlefield gains this year.
Some proof of this: NATO is running out of ammo, which is a major reason why the US decided to send controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia “isn’t going to run out of missiles,” as the CSIS think tank puts it. (Surprising as it may be given how much the media obsesses over Russian ineptitude.)
Yes, Russia’s ideal victory is likely out of reach, but the same goes for Ukraine. It is unclear that there will be any victor in this war (except perhaps the United States), and that is all the more reason to end it sooner than later.
The Risk of Escalation — and Nuclear War
I once argued three years ago that the world is at greater risk of a nuclear war now than during the Cold War. Wherever we were three years ago, we’re in much a worse place now.
We can lead with some good news. The U.S. refused early-on to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would have entailed NATO forces shooting down Russian aircraft.
…And that’s all the good news I can give. The Biden administration held off on sending tanks, then gave in. For a while, the White House also held off on sending long-range missiles (which could strike deep into Russia), but that changed too. And right now the US won’t send its own fighter jets, but it has allowed other countries to send their American F-16s. Is it only a matter of time until NATO decides a no-fly zone is feasible too?
I see no evidence that rational self-interest will keep this war from escalating to a point of no return — because this war has only been nonstop escalation.
Russia made slow progress and has sustained heavy losses, but continues to throw thousands into the meat grinder anyway. Ukraine’s goals went from simply repelling Russian invaders to retaking Crimea (which Russia seized in 2014). Ukraine was likely responsible for a car bombing in Moscow that killed a Russian pundit late 2022, a move so brazen that U.S. officials admonished their Ukrainian counterparts for it. In April, a pro-war blogger was bombed in broad daylight in St. Peterburg. A few months back we thought a stray Russian missile hit Poland, a NATO member. It turns out it was Ukrainian. (Ukraine kept insisting that NATO was wrong — maybe it’s worth taking other things they say with a grain of salt.) And in February Russia suspended its only remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the US.
Ukraine insists it would only use long-range weapons, including fighter jets, to attack Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. But the recent Pentagon leaks show that Zelensky himself wants long-range weapons to attack Russia proper — and has even suggested occupying Russian border cities. In May 2023 Ukrainian-backed fighters briefly occupied Russian border towns using American arms. And the summer of 2023 has involved regular drone attacks on Moscow.
So is it so hard to imagine a scenario in which hot-headed Azov fighters kill a bunch of civilians in a Russian city, or in which Ukraine gets desperate and uses NATO’s weapons to do serious damage in major Russian cities?
For what it’s worth, I do think it’s possible NATO and Russia could engage in direct hostilities without launching nukes. But this should provide little comfort. A Russia-NATO conflict does not need nukes to be an unfathomable disaster.
The single most important factor for all of us should be the fact that we cannot predict anything. Here are a couple political science researchers with something to say about predicting escalation:
The distribution of the size of wars […] does not conform to a tidy, bell-shaped curve. Most wars remain relatively small, but some get unbelievably large, and the magnitude of the difference is difficult to comprehend. As a result, the size of an “average” war tells us surprisingly little about the size of wars more generally.
Most wars will either be far less lethal or far more lethal than the median. The bottom 50 percent of wars have an average of about 2,900 battle deaths, while the top 50 percent have an average of 653,000, and it is effectively a coin-flip which half any given war will end up in.
Mainstream intelligentsia’s conception of Putin is schizophrenic: we are told he is an “overconfident” brute who wishes to restore the Soviet Union, who gravely miscalculated how the invasion would go and who is increasingly unhinged and isolated, with a dwindling number of advisors to disagree with him — and yet we are also told he is just the type of person to play nuclear chicken with.
Sanctions in a multipolar world
As news coverage (justifiably) focuses on events on the ground, the war is quietly heralding a shift in global relations that had been a long time coming. The sanctions imposed on Russia may be a key tipping point.
A small story to illustrate the point: In March, Biden called the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE about Ukraine — and they refused his calls.
Whether it’s good or bad that the new world is multipolar is not at issue in this post — I don’t know the answer to that, and I doubt anyone actually does. The first priority is recognizing where things are at, for better or worse.
The West’s sanctions on Russia are historic. Western control of global finance has been long-known, but the brazen display of power may prove consequential beyond its immediate impact on Russia. A brief overview of the sanctions: Western countries froze assets held by Russia’s central bank, preventing it from accessing $630 billion in foreign reserves; Russian banks were excluded from SWIFT, the mechanism that facilitates cross-border money transfers; and various moves intended to gut the price of Russian oil were made. (Note: there are many more sanctions than the ones listed above; these are just the biggest ones.)
These sanctions are inviting considerable blowback, because every country that isn’t strictly aligned with the West has seen a potential threat in the distance. They’ve also seen how Russia’s financial realignment cushioned it from worse economic straits.
Since the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Russia has pursued greater domestic self-reliance. It stocked up foreign currency reserves while cutting debt, reduced its reliance on the US Dollar, and became self-sufficient in food production.
To be sure, the current sanctions have still crushed Russia’s economy, but it could’ve been much worse. For example, just 3 weeks after triumphant headlines declared the Ruble had plunged to historic lows, the currency recouped most of its value.
It’s on this note that consultant Samo Burja hypothesized in City Journal that Western sanctions will accelerate a Russian realignment away from Europe:
Russia already depends on natural resource exports. That won’t change. But over the coming decades, it will not be the stagnant economies of Europe that will have the greatest demand for energy and minerals. Rather, the maturing industrial economy of China, in addition to the still-industrializing economies of India and other Asian and African countries, will be the primary growth markets for Russia’s natural resources. Neither China, India, Indonesia, the Gulf States, nor any of the many countries in Africa and Latin America chose to sanction Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.
Burja’s analysis is already proving prescient. Just three months after he wrote the piece, Russia officially replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest oil supplier.
Other shifts in global trade/finance have been underway for some time. It’s easy to imagine how the Western response to the invasion of Ukraine could accelerate some of them.
- In 2019, India expressed interest in joining Russia and China in forming an alternative to the SWIFT payment mechanism.
- As Tobias Scholz put it in The Diplomat, Western sanctions have alarmed India and will likely push it to continue its quest for greater autonomy.
- From 2014 to 2019, Indian-Russian bilateral trade settled in rupee-ruble exchanges increased from 6% of the countries’ bilateral trade to 30% of it. And in 2021, the two countries completely abandoned using the dollar to conduct arms sales (India is Russia’s biggest arms customer).
- Russia has pursued deeper engagement with regional multilateral organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
- Saudi Arabia is already considering selling oil to China in yuan instead of dollars. How easily the yuan could replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency is a matter of debate, but the petrodollar is a key component of both America’s global hegemony and US-Saudi relations, so for Saudi Arabia to even explore this option is a sign that times are changing.
- In March 2023, Brazil and China formally agreed to use the yuan to trade goods instead of the US dollar.
- Cut to August 2023: the BRICS conference opened with Putin complaining about sanctions and culminated with six countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, joining the group.
It’s not that having a multipolar world is inherently dystopian. It’s just that our respective flavor of dystopia will be impacted by the attendant geopolitics. The great power competition of a multipolar world can occasionally produce good things, like moon landings, but it can also produce arms races and entangling alliances.
Aside from a heightened risk of conflict, I worry a multipolar world will accelerate authoritarianism. While things were bad enough when the US was the world’s sole superpower, great power competition is a natural incentive for paranoia and authoritarianism. It invites perverse zero-sum thinking: “If we don’t surveil our own citizens, China will do it for us.”
In recent years, banning “misinformation” has become a global trend. The pandemic was the most immediate cause, but paranoia about foreign influence was rarely far behind in censorship laws passed in Russia, France, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and others.
Is the US next? The debate is already evolving to that end. For an example, check out this War on the Rocks piece:
The author hypes up China’s prioritization of cognitive warfare, and describes the country’s innovations in the field as akin to the Blitzkrieg in potency. War on the Rocks is a small outlet you’ve probably never heard of, but it’s written and read by defense wonks. Take the concern in this article to its logical endpoint: if China’s domination will be based on subduing free will and public opinion, the natural counter would be to regulate speech.
Concerns like that are how you get white papers for NATO policymakers like this:
This paper, and others like it, describes how NATO can compete in the domain of cognitive warfare. Read the report, and tell me George Orwell didn’t write it: it says cognitive warfare is “potentially endless” and that citizens foreign and domestic are fair game. Even if you assume all decision-makers are completely well-intentioned, it is clear that states have never had a greater incentive to regulate the flow of information — and to directly tamper with it.
Don’t tell me this is hypothetical. At the time of this writing, there is widespread bipartisan support for the RESTRICT Act, which ostensibly is intended to ban TikTok, but in reality would enable the president to ban any foreign online product deemed a national security threat.
Which leads me to another important point…
You might think that it is overly broad to link attempts to ban TikTok to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Fair enough. Here’s my tally of online speech controls in the West that are directly related to the Ukraine war:
- Tech companies, like Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube, acted quickly to remove Russian state media from their platforms; DirectTV dropped RT America from its network and Roku removed it from its channel store, which caused RT America to shut down.
- Particularly ironic given that Russia has rightly come under criticism for banning Western state media.
- YouTube’s actions also removed high-profile and legitimate criticism of Western foreign policy.
- In removing RT America, YouTube also deleted years of content from Pulitzer-prize winner Chris Hedges, despite his strong criticism of Russia’s actions. Coincidentally, he frequently lambasted U.S. foreign policy too.
- YouTube removed ‘Ukraine on Fire,’ a documentary by mainstream director Oliver Stone.
- A popular video of a leaked discussion between US bureaucrats on their preferred Ukrainian leaders (referenced earlier) was removed. The tape has been heavily promoted by Russia, but its authenticity is not in doubt. In other words, it’s a fact — an inconvenient one.
- PayPal closed the accounts and froze the funds of two prominent independent media accounts without any explanation or warning. Consortium News, founded and staffed by experienced reporters, lost access to thousands of dollars; the same happened to MintPressNews. In the case of MintPressNews, PayPal also canceled a senior writer’s personal account.
- Although no explanation was given for either account cancellation, both outlets have been critical of NATO and US policy towards Ukraine.
- DuckDuckGo, the search engine that positions itself as a pro-privacy and manipulation-free alternative to Google, announced it would down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation.
- The EU went farthest of all in literally banning Russia Today and Sputnik News. That includes banning it from online platforms and apps, alongside traditional TV broadcasters. Not only that, but the EU instructed Google to remove all search results that even link to Sputnik or RT or include “short textual descriptions” of RT/Sputnik content.
Surely state-sponsored disinformation has no place on the internet, you might protest. But why assume it’s only the content you think is bad that will get removed? Why should anyone trust the largest corporations on Earth to act as neutral arbiters? (The fact that PayPal seized Consortium News‘ funds provides a good answer.)
And that assumes that Russian disinformation is really so dangerous. I’m not too convinced. If anything, Ukrainian disinformation is arguably more dangerous in the West than Russian disinformation. Even if every American watched RT daily, the US government wouldn’t stop sending arms to Ukraine — but if Ukrainian claims are repeated unquestioningly, Western governments could increase their involvement in a conflict with a nuclear power. (For the record, I don’t think tech companies should ban Ukrainian state media either.)
Does the sheer evil of Russia’s invasion justify a mass crackdown on misinformation? In an ideal world, maybe. But why stop the buck at Russian aggression? Can anyone legitimately imagine Big Tech responding in such a way to the US invasion of Iraq? We don’t need to engage in hypotheticals: thanks to a Saudi-led blockade that has US support, Yemen is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — but apparently keeping 2.3 million children hungry isn’t heinous enough for content moderation. Thanks to our intervention, Libya went from being one of Africa’s most prosperous countries to a failed state with open slave markets. America’s freeze of Afghan central bank assets is at least partially to blame for the death of thousands of newborns. What tech companies are fact-checking or blocking what the West’s mainstream media or state-funded outlets, like Voice of America, report on those debacles? Social media sites remove posts that try to diminish Russian strikes on apartment buildings — are they willing to remove the US government’s official drone strike casualty numbers?
One final word on disinformation:
Shortly after the invasion commenced, an audio clip of Ukrainian soldiers telling a Russian warship to go fuck itself went viral. Mainstream outlets and papers of record ran with the story of brave soldiers refusing to surrender against overwhelming odds. Zelensky even issued posthumous medals.
Except, it turned out later to not be true. At all.
I don’t blame the New York Times for initially getting the Russian warship story wrong. The moral of this story is that in the fog of war, no one is qualified to say what is true. Horrid reports of Russian war crimes abound, and I believe them. But it is the very nature of war that things are unclear and distorted, and cooler heads cannot prevail if only a one-sided narrative is allowed to stand.
This War Hurts Everyone
We all know Ukrainian civilians are going through hell. We know young men drafted for the conflict on both sides, many of them really just boys, are being forced to do unspeakable things. We all know the war in Ukraine is awful.
But we appear to forget that the conflict is causing a global hunger crisis. Ukraine and Russia are among the world’s largest exporters of grain, seed oil, and fertilizer (critical to farming). In many countries, food prices are hitting huge increases. In Egypt, food prices were up 35.4% since 2020; in Argentina and Turkey, they more than doubled. Aid experts have been worried that the food crisis in Somalia, which relies on wheat from Russia and Ukraine and is already facing a drought, could kill tens of thousands.
While food prices have come down more recently, they remain elevated above the norm.
In Sri Lanka, the war’s price and supply shocks compounded with internal issues to cause a short-term societal collapse last year. Sri Lankans responded to massive shortages of food, fuel, and medicine by storming the presidential palace and setting the prime minister’s home on fire.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Pakistan, recent reporting from The Intercept indicates that the United States in March 2022 used the threat of global isolation to push Pakistan into ousting Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is now languishing in prison despite being the country’s most popular politician.
The impacts are worst in developing countries, but wealthy nations are far from immune. Europe, highly dependent on Russian energy as it is, is feeling the bite of its own sanctions, and the public’s patience is being tested. Events on the ground have told us how Europe’s public increasingly feels: the UK has seen two prime ministers resign, far-right parties have made historic political victories in Sweden and Italy, and workers are striking across the continent. (The latter isn’t a bad thing, by the way.)
Stop to consider the optics of Western leaders and you may struggle not to wince. Macron’s government raised the retirement age without a vote, despite enormous sustained protests, all while sustaining its Ukraine aid and promising to greatly increase military spending. The UK has sent long-range missiles and tanks to Kyiv even as the number of English households in fuel poverty surged last winter from 5 million to 7.4 million. And on the same week that Biden traveled to Kyiv to meet Zelensky, Trump visited the train derailment in Ohio.
Western elites have shifted the consequences of the war onto the shoulders of the poor of their own countries as well as the world’s poor. And they have little to show for it.
I don’t care how righteous anyone feels when they assert for the millionth time that Putin is evil. Finding a peaceful resolution to this conflict must be the top priority.
- It is possible Ukraine can beat Russia, but far from guaranteed.
- Is it worth risking nuclear war on the slim chance of a Ukrainian victory in which Russia quietly surrenders?
- A bloody stalemate in which Russia keeps clinging on to large swathes of Ukraine is just as likely as a Ukrainian victory, and the longer it goes on, the more likely it escalates.
- The entire world is feeling the pain of this war, and will continue to do so if the war drags on.
As I said at the beginning, this war will end one way or another. It might end in a nuclear holocaust, or more likely, it may end with a cease-fire that gets agreed to after each side exhausts its resources. It is plausible to imagine the war ending in a year with virtually no territorial changes, but with thousands more being needlessly sacrificed in the meantime. It is plausible to imagine more countries around the world experiencing historic unrest and poverty. The question comes down to whether all of this bloodshed has been worth it — and I think the world knows the answer even if Americans don’t.