Dedicated to Abolishing War, Establishing Justice, and Fighting Climate Disaster

Dedicated to Abolishing War, Establishing Justice, and Fighting Climate Disaster

Originally published by INTERNATIONALIST 360°.

The Possibility of Self-Extinction

During much of the last century, Ernst Mayr, at Harvard, was among the world’s most influential evolutionary biologists. One of his interests was whether intelligent life was present elsewhere in the universe. Mayr argued that intelligence at or above the level of humans was not likely to increase the lifespan of a species, so the existence of similarly intelligent species on other planets was far from assured. This would be true even if there were many planets in other solar systems with conditions allowing for life over the long time period required for such a species to evolve. Twenty years ago Noam Chomsky discussed Mayr’s work on the first page of his 2003 book, Hegemony or Survival. Chomsky feared that the United States’ attempt to assert global dominance could easily end the existence of the human species, providing an example of self-extinction of a highly intelligent species. Self-extinction is clearly non-adaptive, and an intelligent species should avoid it at all costs. It would seem logical that intelligence should help a species survive. Nevertheless, extinction is an outcome that now appears to be an increasingly likely ending for Earth’s most intelligent species. This article examines how recent events in the Ukraine support Chomsky’s fears, and it looks at the reasons why self-extinction is far more likely in humans than in other species.

If it were to occur, self-extinction by nuclear war is likely to result from a process of conflict escalation, which is a common aspect of human disputes. Escalation also characterizes a wide range of conflicts between individuals or groups in other animal species. The human propensity to escalate conflicts is part of our biological heritage. However, the nature and implications of conflict escalation in humans differ greatly from other species. These differences often produce worse outcomes for all parties involved in human conflicts. As intelligent beings, we should be able to overcome the psychological and sociological factors that might predispose us to bad outcomes. Unfortunately, current events show no evidence of this.

Human behavior in conflicts has been shaped by the evolution of conflict-related behaviors in our evolutionary ancestors. Conflicts between animals are usually over food, mates, or territories. They typically involve sequences of behaviors in which each succeeding behavioral element involves a greater energy expenditure and/or risk of injury than the previous one. This sequence allows the individuals to obtain information about the ability of its opponent without risking serious injury. Stepwise escalation typically results in the smaller or weaker individual opting out of the confrontation and giving up on the desired goal when there is a strong indication that they will eventually lose. Injury or death is more likely if the participants are very evenly matched in both motivation and ability or if the resource is unusually valuable. Academics have speculated that at least one species (Irish Elk) did eventually go extinct in a large part because of their huge antlers used in mating contests, although that theory remains controversial. Even if evolutionary self-extinction occurred, it would have required many generations of relatively slow decline before the last remaining individuals died.

In conflicts between two individuals of most vertebrate species other than modern-day humans, the costs incurred in early stages raise the cost of continuation. Both sides have lower energy reserves after the first stages and, if individuals are later injured, they will likely sustain a higher mortality risk from that injury because of their weakened status. This inhibits the likely loser from continuing the contest to more dangerous phases. On the level of the whole population, this means that there is often little adverse effect of the contest on the survival of both the individuals, and (over a longer time span) their species.

Among current animal species, the highest mortality rates from conflicts usually involve group-living predator (or omnivore) species. Predators are usually able to inflict more severe injuries than are non-predatory species. Differences between groups in their number of members can allow lethal outcomes with a much lower risk of injury to individuals in the larger or stronger group. This makes more extreme escalation cheaper for members of that group. While some group living predators like wolves and lions are now threatened with extinction, deaths during their own conflicts are not among the main reasons for their declining populations (human hunting and human-caused habitat loss play much larger roles). Whether or not a species lives in groups, evolution usually favors a level of escalation that is generally ‘bad’ for the species; the average population death rate becomes higher and/or the birth rate lower as a result of conflicts. However, there is little if any evidence that such contests have a major effect on the persistence time of the species. Contests with escalation are much more threatening in the case of humans, a species with very strong group identification.

Conflicts between pairs or very small groups of humans differ from animal contests mainly in that humans have access to weapons that make it easy for individuals to cause severe injury or death. Even the earliest Homo sapiens had weapons that greatly increased the risk of mortality. Most individuals who are severely injured in a dispute no doubt regret having engaged in the conflict; presumably the same would have been the case for the individuals who died. In modern societies, ‘winners’ in lethal disputes are often punished by the legal system. Thus, with effective policing and a good legal system, most individuals who engage in escalated conflicts and survive end up regretting their participation. This maintains a low death rate of humans from conflicts between two individuals, meaning that murders within modern human societies have a minimal effect on population dynamics.

Group conflict in humans can produce much greater mortality. Human group affiliation often involves the state/country of residence, and the largest number of deaths due to conflict in modern times occurs in organized contests (wars) between countries or groups of countries. Here, the process of escalation becomes even more rapid and dangerous. Paradoxically, part of the pressure to escalate is that humans are intelligent enough to appreciate the tragedy of large numbers of young individuals dying. Proving that fighters did not die in vain then becomes a strong motive for continuing and escalating wars. In contrast to small-scale conflicts, it is common for the prevailing opinion of the participants (both winners and losers) to favor renewed conflict after the war is ended. Another major difference between animal conflicts and modern war comes about because of the lack of effective feedback from the early stages of war.

The costliest outcomes in modern human wars follow from the hierarchical nature of policy decision-making and the control of information by the highest levels. Modern human societies are unique among the species on this planet in their complex hierarchies of power. One, or a small group of leaders can initiate a policy without discussion or thorough analysis of the possible outcomes; this seems to be true of countries that are currently regarded as democratic, as well as those with little or no pretence of democracy. The leaders experience different rewards and costs from any particular outcome than does the average person or the population as a whole. Humans are also more skilled at hiding information than are other species. In current societies, the ‘leaders’ control both the flow of information and the decision-making. One, or a small group of leaders can initiate a policy without discussion or thorough analysis of the possible outcomes. This is true in democracies as well as autocracies, and the resulting policies are likely to often lead to non-adaptive outcomes for the population as a whole. However, the special perspective of the leadership is not the only problem. The main issue is that leaders are motivated to hide bad outcomes from policies they have instituted, and often have the tools to do so. In today’s societies the ability of a small number of media outlets to dominate information transmission, and the de facto control of those media by political leaders are both key elements of decision-making.

The system described in the preceding paragraph removes the useful feedback that occurs in the early stages of animal conflicts between individuals or small groups. In cases where past escalatory steps in human group conflicts have turned out to be mistakes, control of information by the high-ranking decision-makers almost always favors continuing escalation. The greater the cumulative collective cost of the policy, the greater the personal costs to decision-making individuals who admit that the policy was a mistake. Hiding facts from the general population is particularly easy when the conflict takes place in a location distant from the majority of the population. Deception becomes even easier when the government has a large influence on the information available to the media or control of the careers of reporters or their employers. All of these conditions have applied to past world wars, and currently apply even more strongly to the U.S. and most of the major countries in the world.

Misinformation in support of continued escalation has been common in all the wars initiated by the U.S. during my adult life, beginning with Vietnam. Media bias in favor of war has often resulted in loss of employment for those who spoke out against the war, and this has become more prevalent over the decades. This includes hiding the opinions of others, distorting the outcomes of battles, hiding misbehavior by the U.S. and allies, and promoting hatred of opponents of wars. Many U.S. media personalities lost their jobs due to criticism of the Iraq War, even though the justification for that war was based on lies. Some of the same individuals who had found other positions have again lost their jobs in connection with the Ukraine war (including all Americans employed by the Russian owned station, RT). In the current war Russians from all walks of life, including musicians, have lost their employment in other countries, and Russian international sports figures face huge pressures to condemn their own country. This high cost of objecting to war pushes opinions towards acquiescence. That is why, even after the revelation (by Daniel Ellsberg and others) of extensive lying about the war in Vietnam, public opinion polls showed that majority support for continuing that war never disappeared before the U.S. withdrew. In the current media environment, past media lies can persist far more easily, as news coverage involves fewer outlets with fewer objective sources.

What is unique about the current war in Ukraine is the degree to which the major Western media have served as a tool of their governments. Those governments, in turn, have all adopted the U.S. policy, even when it involved enormous financial costs. In the U.S., anti-Russian coverage which had been present for decades, became more extreme with the ‘Russiagate’ story. This was the claim that Russian ‘disinformation’ determined the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and that the Trump administration policies were strongly influenced by Russian demands. Russiagate is now known to be based on false claims by the U.S. intelligence community, and direct involvement of that community in the media. The true extent of the U.S. government’s involvement in perpetuating the myth has been covered up by the government’s influence on subsequent news coverage. The abject falsity of the Russiagate narrative has been substantiated Jeff Gerth’s recent (Columbia Journalism Review) articles on Russiagate and Matt Taibbi’s (Substack) coverage of intelligence agency control of Twitter on the topic of Russiagate. However, these authors have in turn been largely ignored or dismissed by media outlets with larger circulations. The current degree of government influence on the media removes the ability of the public to judge the facts underlying the conflict in Ukraine, including both current and past events.

The remainder of this article will focus on the current war in Ukraine. Because the parties behind the continuing conflict – the United States and Russia – possess the world’s two largest inventories of nuclear bombs, sufficient escalation will risk destruction of the entire world. The ‘nuclear winter’, following such a war might spare some small pockets of human life in the southern hemisphere, but even this possibility is highly uncertain. In 2017, Daniel Ellsberg guessed that 1-2% of the human population might survive in the short-term; what would happen afterwards is completely unknown. The potential for a nuclear war to start because of an incorrect perception of a nuclear attack by the other side has increased as missile speeds have increased (with the advent of hypersonic missiles), and as U.S. nuclear weapons and means of delivery have moved closer to Russia’s border. Both of these developments reduce the amount of time available for deciding whether an apparent nuclear attack has been launched and what to do about it. Even if a nuclear outcome is averted, the potential entry of troops from the U.S. or other NATO countries would push the ultimate loss of life into the millions.

Background to the Ukraine War

The background to the war has recently been well-summarized in Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies’ book, War in Ukraine; Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict and in Benjamin Abelow’s How the West Brought War to Ukraine. Professor John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) has many talks available on the web that cover the history of Ukraine following the breakup of the Soviet Union, including the current war (a recent one is here). Some of the main arguments in these works are reviewed below.

The key event that eventually led to the war occurred in 2008, when NATO announced its intention to eventually incorporate two countries on Russia’s border; Georgia and Ukraine. Russia strongly objected to this at the time, and the majority NATO members at that time did not want to proceed immediately. The next major event was the U.S.-supported coup in Ukraine in 2014, which led to a non-elected government that was very hostile to Russia. That coup was followed shortly afterwards by Russia taking over Crimea, an event that took place without fighting and that was supported by a large majority of the Crimean population. The choice of the Crimeans was reflected in the Russian-monitored election that took place shortly after the 2014 coup. Later polling by Gallup verified the high degree of support among Crimeans. The last available polling (from 2020) revealed that a strong majority in Crimea still had a positive view of their attachment to Russia.

Shortly after the 2014 coup, two historically pro-Russian provinces in eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk) asked to be absorbed by Russia, but the Russian government refused to do so. Russia instead supported a diplomatic process leading to a semi-autonomous status of those provinces within Ukraine. There was a period of very active fighting between troops from the Ukraine and a combination of local Donetsk/Luhansk militias supported by Russian volunteers. The fighting caused thousands of deaths, but the killing was eventually greatly diminished by the Minsk II Agreement, which was signed by France and Germany as well as Russia and the new Ukrainian government. This was supposed to lead to some type of autonomy of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics within Ukraine. The agreement did not completely eliminate fighting between the Ukrainian government and the Donbass areas. Progress on the diplomatic front was blocked for years, and the three non-Russian parties to the agreement have recently claimed that their original signing was just an attempt to gain time for a military build-up within Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky switched from doing comedy to being the head of government after being elected with a huge (70+%) majority, having campaigned on a peace platform that would implement the Minsk agreements. He abandoned this position after being threatened by leaders of a far right battalion of the Ukraine army, and having been advised against making peace by the U.S. Zelensky later stated his intention to retake Crimea. His approval rating had fallen to 21% shortly before the war.

Russia publicized its desired policy changes for Ukraine more than a month before initiating the 2022 invasion. These were basically neutrality of the country of Ukraine, no stationing of missiles or nuclear weapons there, and the fulfilment of Minsk, implying semi-autonomy of the Donbass region within Ukraine. None of these would have had major negative effects on Ukrainian people. Finland existed as a neutral non-nuclear state on Russia’s border for decades. Had Minsk been implemented, and had either the U.S. or Ukraine ruled out missiles on the border, war could have been avoided; the Russian invasion was far from inevitable. Ukrainian troop numbers near the border increased in early 2022, and shelling of the breakaway republics by the Ukrainians increased greatly during the week before Russia’s invasion.

Russia absolutely could and should have refrained from invading Ukraine. War almost always leads to major escalation and, in the vast majority of cases, is counterproductive for both sides. I agree with many other authors over the past seven decades, who have argued that the human species will probably not survive without a much better system for preventing wars. It is, however, inappropriate to place all of the blame for the start of this war on Russia, when serious diplomatic engagement by the U.S. could easily have prevented it. Russia’s willingness to invade another country was likely to have been encouraged by the many post-World War II foreign military interventions by the U.S. or NATO, and scores of NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe (in addition to the more immediate provocation described below).

The Process of Escalation in Ukraine Following Invasion

The early part of the war consisted on occupation of a large area in the south-east Ukraine by the Russian forces. In late March 2022, Turkiye arranged meetings of Russian and Ukrainian officials to negotiate a settlement. Former Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, who was involved in the negotiations, later reported that both sides seemed headed to an agreement, but the Ukrainians withdrew after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kyiv, and, apparently with U.S. approval, pressured them to drop out of the negotiations. Bennett did not reveal this until many months later, but several other participants had reported it earlier.

Since the abandonment of negotiations there have been various relatively small shifts in territorial control, with the Russians making gains over the last month, after some earlier territorial losses. The U.S. continues to expand economic sanctions against Russia, which, to this point, have had little effect other than forcing Europe to buy much costlier fossil fuels from the U.S. Recently there has been much news about artillery shortages on the Ukrainian side, but fighting continues. This relative stasis in the territorial situation has been accompanied by a rapidly growing supply of (or, in many cases, promised future supply of) more advanced weaponry from the West to Ukraine. The whole process has taken place under a near-blackout of anything other than pro-Ukrainian news in all major Western news outlets.

Journalist Jonathan Cook recently commented on the general escalation going on in the Ukraine war: “…as NATO’s head, Jens Stoltenberg, recently observed, echoing George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984: ‘Weapons are the way to peace.’ But the reverse is more likely to be true. With each additional step they take, the more the parties involved risk losing if they back down. The longer they refuse to sit and talk, the greater the pressure to keep fighting. That no longer applies just to Russia and Ukraine. Now, Europe and Washington also have plenty of skin directly in the game.”

Throughout the escalation process the news in major outlets in the West has been relentlessly one-sided. Alfred de Zayas, law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy, wrote on February 13 that “it is not just the dis-information and the skewed narratives in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Times, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, El Pais, even the Neue Zürcher Zeitung – it is the suppression of dissent, the suppression of other views and perspectives. That is precisely the reason why millions of people in the West remain so ignorant, and that is why RT and Sputnik are maligned and censored, because ‘Big Brother’ will not allow that the public get the idea that the Ukraine conflict has a long history, that NATO is not the ‘good guy’. Maybe someday, when we grasp the magnitude of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by NATO member states in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria – maybe we will understand that NATO — originally a legitimate defensive alliance — gradually morphed into a criminal organization within the meaning of articles 9 and 10 of the Nuremberg Statute.” De Zayas goes on to say, “The problem is not limited to the United States – it is emblematic for the entire West. Those professors or journalists who tried to remain objective and report in a balanced way were (and are) denounced as Putin puppets, useful idiots or (in Germany) ‘Putin Versteher’ – as if it were somehow inappropriate to make an effort to understand Putin’s point of view, and not just swallow the skewed narrative that the corporate media sells.”

Along the same lines, Graham Fuller, former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, recently wrote, “there is little doubt that Washington has triumphed in the information and ‘spin’ battle in the western media, hands down. All mainstream media parrot the same Washington narrative—an extraordinary media unanimity in a supposedly “independent” Western press. … The unprecedented sweeping vilification of Russia, of Russian President Vladimir Putin personally, and Russian culture and arts in general had no parallel even during my long years at the CIA during the Cold War – making peaceful resolution of the now ‘civilizational war’ even more distant.”

Part of the media spin is to whitewash negative features of the favored side. Here is an observation by Gordon Hahn on conditions in Ukraine, posted on March 8 on his blog ( “The war is instigating authoritarianization around the world. In Ukraine, President Volodomyr Zelenskiy has banned all non-nationalist, non-ultranationalist, and non-neofascist opposition political parties. The government has taken over mass media, instituting a de facto censorship regime. More recently, the government has instituted an online monitoring system that will track the websites citizens visit, and should they visit banned Russian and ‘pro-Russian’ sites, they will be arrested and can face imprisonment. Vigilante groups are allowed to roam the streets in Kiev and all cities, making citizens’ arrests of sorts for alleged crimes…”

As noted above, the recent history of the Ukrainian conflict consists of a series of decisions by ‘The West’ (The U.S. and its allies) to send either greater numbers of, or more lethal weapons to the Ukraine. In each case, the weapons had initially been withheld largely because of the fear that it might directly of eventually provoke a nuclear response. When that did not happen, the next step in the escalatory ladder was taken. Following the decision by the U.S. and Germany to send tanks, there was not even a 24-hour window before the idea of sending fighter jets was being reported in the news, and these calls have proliferated in the following days. On February 10 2023, news emerged that American advisors were furnishing the location coordinates for Ukrainian missile attacks against the Russians. Eleven months earlier, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), then chair of the House Armed Services Committee, had said the U.S. was not providing targeting intelligence because it “steps over the line to making us participate in the war.”

Of course, Russia has also escalated their involvement in the conflict. In response to their early setbacks in some regions, the Russians started increase the number of their troops in Ukraine. They instituted conscription and have more than doubled their number of troops available for the war. After the Ukrainian bombing of the Kerch Bridge to Crimea and Ukrainian drone attacks on an airbase in Russia itself, Russia started periodic missile attacks on the Ukrainian electric power grid. The number of casualties during the war has never been assessed by an unbiased source with access to the information, but each side’s estimate of the other side’s daily military casualties has greatly increased over time.

The Ukrainian government expects the escalation of Western support to continue. For example, Yury Sak, an advisor to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, in late January told Reuters news service, “They didn’t want to give us heavy artillery, then they did. They didn’t want to give us HIMARS systems, then they did. They didn’t want to give us tanks, now they’re giving us tanks. Apart from nuclear weapons, there is nothing left that we will not get.” Sak said that the next “big hurdle” would be getting fighter jets. “If we get them, the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense… It’s not just F-16s: fourth generation aircraft, this is what we want.” Similar news has proliferated since then. The British defense secretary has refused to rule out fighter jets, and the UK is planning to train Ukrainian pilots. In the first week of February the U.S. approved longer-range rocket artillery for delivery to Ukraine. No doubt more escalatory steps will have been taken before this essay appears. During this time, Ukraine’s position has been that it will not negotiate until Russia returns Crimea and withdraws all of its troops from all occupied regions in the south and east of the Ukraine.

The extent of Western escalation in areas other than weaponry was summarized by Gordon Hahn as follows: “NATO is now openly at war with Russia and intensively escalating that war. This is not Russian propaganda; it has been a poorly held secret for months. NATO and the U.S. provide: all of the kinds of lethal weapons; strategic, operational, and tactical intelligence; means of communications; and strategic and operational planning as well as tactical and weapons training. Polish and perhaps Romanian and other state’s soldiers have been fighting out of uniform in Ukraine against Russia. NATO has also organized Belarusian and Russian opposition units that are fighting Russia and allied forces in Ukraine.” There is as yet no sign of any slowing of these forms of escalation.

Here is a prediction made by former British diplomat Alastair Crooke on February 20 of this year: “Can we imagine that the U.S. might just throw-up its hands and concede Russian victory? No – NATO might disintegrate in the face of such spectacular failure. So the political instinct will be a gamble; to double-down: A NATO deployment into western Ukraine as ‘a buffer force’, to ‘protect it from Russian advances’ is under consideration.” President Biden’s Feb. 22 speech in Warsaw promised greater future escalation, announcing that, ‘Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia’.”

In short, escalation is proceeding rapidly, and the process does not yet show any signs of slowing down.

The Final Endpoint of Escalation

The final stage of escalation is an exchange of nuclear weapons between Russia and the U.S., an exchange that would almost certainly eliminate the majority of the Earth’s population. The risk of human self-extinction is now metaphorically measured by the Doomsday Clock. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) on January 24th moved the hands of their famous clock from 100 down to 90 seconds before midnight. Midnight implies extinction via a nuclear war. The clock is now closer to midnight than ever before. The BAS cited the war in Ukraine as the main motivation for their reset of the clock, in spite of the fact that the BAS has been very supportive of the U.S./EU involvement in that war. One would think that this support would have biased the organization against such a shift in their clock. Perhaps it has diminished the size of the downward shift. Regardless of our number of remaining ‘seconds’, there is clearly an increasing risk of the worst possible outcome. The U.N. Secretary General emphasized this in a speech in early February. Rationally, one would expect major demands from the world’s population to end the conflict before that risk increased further. There are no such demands from any Western governments, and both politicians and major newspapers in the U. S. and Canada seem unconcerned with the potential devastation ahead.

There is no scientific way to determine an exact probability of nuclear war within a given time period. The history of previous conflicts involving the U.S., summarized by Daniel Ellsberg in his 2017 book, suggests that we are lucky to have survived to this point. It is a virtual certainty that such a war will eventually occur if nuclear weapons are not eliminated. The hope is that, if we survive the current Ukraine war, there will be an opportunity for complete nuclear disarmament at some time in the not-so-distant future. That hope is unrealistic for now; the U.S. had already withdrawn from two of the three major treaties on nuclear weapons, when, on February 21, Russia announced that it was suspending its compliance with the foreign inspection requirements of the soon-to-expire START treaty. Those requirements would have resulted in potential targeting information being given to Ukrainian forces. Unfortunately, this treaty suspension is being portrayed as an additional excuse for U.S. escalation.

Unfortunately, new controversies between the West and Russia are likely to arise in the future, and even if the current dispute ends in a mutually agreed upon measures, it is very unlikely to signal a long period of good relations between the U.S. and Russia. This is predictable since the current leaders in the U.S. have not publically displayed even a minimal amount of respect for the Russian government officials; Biden has referred to Putin as a criminal and a killer; in late March (2022) he said: “For god’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” No language like this was used by Kennedy or Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The change in vocabulary is a reflection of the increasing level of provocation and risk-taking that has become acceptable. It is hard to see a peaceful and cooperative relationship between the countries coming about for many years. As is typical of all wars, free expression of opinions within the warring states has been dramatically reduced. Branko Marcetic has recently summarized some of the measures taken by Ukraine to prevent internal criticism of government policy related to the war; these include jailings and disappearances. Russia has also clamped down on anti-war voices.

While it has been amplifying the war in Ukraine, the U.S. has also deliberately increased conflict with China. This has occurred as a result of unnecessarily entering into the Taiwan-China dispute and, as a consequence of the ‘spy balloon’ episode, in which the nature of, and danger from the errant weather balloon were grossly misrepresented by U.S. federal authorities. This was followed by U.S. jets shooting down three more balloons over the U.S. and Canada; one was tentatively identified some time later as having originated from a recreational balloon club in the U.S. The U.S.-China interaction has yet to result in an actual military engagement (proxy or otherwise), so it will not be a focus of this article. Nevertheless the recent interactions between China and the U.S. provide additional evidence of the lack of concern over possible conflict between countries with nuclear weapons.

The Choice Ahead and the (Mis)Information on Which It Will Be Based

There are two basic approaches for the future that are under the control of the U.S. and its allies: continuing to escalate hostilities, or pursuing a negotiated settlement. How are the U.S. and allied governments producing popular support for escalation? The presence of huge amounts of incorrect information in the mainstream media is crucial here.

One example of an obvious media falsehood regarding this war was the widespread claim that Russia had blown up it own pipelines following the sabotage of the Nordstream pipelines. The question of why they would blow up their own pipelines rather than simply turning off the tap(s) was mentioned in some outlets, but not given serious discussion in major media. There was no questioning of why the Swedes felt compelled to announce in advance that the outcome of their own investigation into the pipeline destruction would be secret. Later, Seymour Hersh published his exposé of the U.S. role in that sabotage (February 8). Since then, the media response has been either to deny the truth of that reporting without evidence, or simply to fail to cover it. Alan MacLeod analyzed the scanty coverage of the Hersh report; he found that only four of the 20 top news publications even mentioned the existence of the report.

Earlier, the Western press had repeatedly claimed that the Russians had been shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, at a time when Russian troops occupied the plant. In another example of media bias, a Russian missile that fell on an apartment building after being intercepted by Ukrainian fire was interpreted as being aimed by Russia at that building. (The fact that it had been intercepted before hitting ground was reported by Aleksey Arestovich, an adviser to the office of the Ukrainian president; he lost his job shortly thereafter.) These are only a few extreme examples; most of the claims of Russian war crimes by Ukrainian sources are never checked. Ukrainian war crimes are never mentioned. At the same time, the extensive record of known false new stories in every previous U.S. war has been ignored, and apparently forgotten.

In summary, media reports have been fabricated to support escalation and increase hatred directed at Russia. Prof. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University recently described the media landscape on the Ukraine war as, “It’s propaganda and spin from morning to night.”

Has Escalation Advanced the U.S./Ukrainian Cause?

The most relevant pieces of information for making a policy decision are; 1) has the policy adopted in the past achieved beneficial outcomes; 2) what are the likely results of different policy choices? This section will examine the first question. The second question is addressed in the following section.

The simplest form of intelligence considers the outcomes of previous instances of a given behavior and adjusts its present behavior to reflect the costs and benefits of these earlier results. Fitness costs and benefits are the driving force of biological evolution in all species. If one reviews U.S. involvement in foreign wars in recent decades, there is no clear-cut example of a positive result, and many examples of disastrous results. It starts with Vietnam. Iraq and Afghanistan are prime examples from this century. These wars differ from Ukraine only in that U.S. military personnel were officially directly involved in the fighting. Other U.S. wars, such as Libya and Syria, which did not involve many U.S. troops on the ground, have had equally disastrous outcomes for the inhabitants of those nations. In all of these, the U.S. war left the country in a much poorer state than before the war, after producing enormous casualties, primarily in the countries in which the wars took place. The disastrous histories of other U.S. interventions have been ably reviewed multiple times by Noam Chomsky, among others (e.g. William Blum).

The main consequences of continuing escalation for Russia and Ukraine thus far have been greater expenditures and more deaths on both sides. Aside from an unknown number of volunteers fighting in the Ukrainian army, the U.S. has suffered no casualties. However, the exact number of deaths of Russians and Ukrainians are also not easily determined. As in all previous wars, each side estimates much higher casualties on the other side. Using either side’s figures, estimates of combined (military and civilian) deaths in the Ukraine war are now often above 200,000. The amount of funding commitments to Ukraine from its allies was estimated to be $126 billion, as of a month ago. This is approximately equal to the annual GDP of the Ukraine from before the war. In some previous wars, the costs have been claimed lead to a better settlement when the war finally ends. However, the cumulative costs of continuing death and destruction are almost never included in projections of the ultimate balance of costs and benefits. Nor are the long-term costs to public trust resulting from the media lies that are associated with wars. As of early March, there is no sign of reduced death rates on either side, and the U.S. leadership is trying to maintain its high level of funding.

The current situation should be contrasted with what was possible in April 2022, when negotiation was abandoned. Russia has become more concerned about the risks of having NATO weapons on its border. The Ukrainian government has become more committed to NATO membership and reclaiming all of its lost territory. If NATO membership were bestowed upon Ukraine, Russia’s willingness to return territory seized in southern Ukraine in negotiations will obviously be reduced or eliminated. Ukrainians, having suffered more from war, will be less likely to agree to any action that can be seen as giving in to Russia. Even at the current time, the options for a mutually agreed-upon settlement have been greatly diminished while the amount of death and destruction has greatly increased. Should Russia have the advantage at the time of settlement, their minimum demands are likely to be greater, the longer the war goes on. In Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 21 address to the nation he stated: “However, there is one circumstance that everyone should be clear about: the longer the range of the Western [weapons] systems that will be supplied to Ukraine, the further we will have to move the threat away from our borders. This is obvious.”

What Are the Possible Outcomes and Their Consequences?

Below is a full list of possible outcomes of the current war with commentary on their relative likelihoods and implications. The list begins with the extreme outcome numbered zero.

Outcome 0. Nuclear war, with untold millions of deaths, and a possible end to the human species. Such an outcome, described above, would never have majority support in among the population of any country. However, it could come about at any stage of a non-nuclear conflict due to error or miscalculation. Avoiding an event that could potentially cause the death of all members of a species should be a goal that is favored above all others, if that species is intelligent. The problem is that intelligent analysis is not achieved by most political decision making, particularly that related to foreign policy. Voting cannot be arranged in the final stages of a war. And most of the world’s population has no potential impact on decisions made by the U.S. government.

Outcome 1. Russia is decisively defeated. If this outcome was being approached it would likely transition to outcome 0, as Russia has indicated that nuclear weapons could be used in a case of existential threat. In any event, given the current balance in the number of troops and weapons, a decisive Russian defeat seems very unlikely in the absence of direct NATO involvement. In the event Russia was defeated, the collapse of government in a nuclear-armed state is unlikely to produce a stable outcome, particularly when that government was quite popular before the defeat. If the country itself was not occupied, Russia would likely transition to a more bellicose leader. If Russia fragmented into smaller states, its nuclear arsenal would be divided among many entities, any one of which could become unstable. The world would have to be lucky to escape this outcome without nuclear detonations. In the video referred to above, John Mearsheimer gives a strong argument that Russia would resort to nuclear weapons if this outcome was approaching.

Outcome 2. Ukraine is decisively defeated. This will entail far more loss of territory than that which Russia currently holds and it would produce more hundreds of thousands of deaths, given the slow course of the war. Another year of conflict will likely mean a death toll of at least half a million. Barring NATO intervention with troops, Ukraine, the smaller country, will run out of manpower first. In late 2022, the Chairman of the U.S. Joints Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, publicly stated that Ukraine’s chance for a military victory, is “not high,” and urged negotiations. The leaders of U.S. government had other ideas, and Milley himself now contradicts his earlier position, no doubt due to political pressure from higher levels of the U.S. government. The amount of territory still controlled by Ukraine at the time of the defeat is hard to predict.

Outcome 3. The war continues as a stalemate. In previous wars, such stalemates have typically not persisted for many years. Russia would be likely to escalate further if such a stalemate persisted for long enough, and both sides have been escalating during the quasi-stalemate of most the last half-year. If escalation continues, this will inevitably require a decision between options 0 and 4, as one or both sides run out of personnel or funds.

Outcome 4. There is a negotiated end to the war. In this case, the killing should stop and, if it is done relatively soon, Ukraine will be in a better position to limit its territorial losses. There would presumably have to an agreement not to join NATO or station long-range missiles within a wide area around the border, which would have been advisable before the war. However, given the recent behavior of the U.S. and its allies (particularly the deception involving the Minsk II ‘Agreement’, and the destruction of the Nordstream pipeline), it is hard to imagine Russia trusting any Western promises.

The exact form of outcome 4 is difficult to predict, but it would determine the likelihood that war did not re-emerge. Alfred de Zayas has outlined what seems to be a reasonable set of conditions for the postwar period, including U.N. supervised decisions on status by contested territories. Columbia University Professor Jeffery Sachs has also proposed a related framework for a settlement in several talks available on the web. China has produced a very vague (but therefore flexible) twelve-point peace proposal. If the recent course of events continues, the best possible outcome for Ukraine will become worse as time passes, at least over the next few months. Russia has long ago added to their original pre-war demands (neutrality of Ukraine and autonomy of the Donbass), for a much larger restructuring of Ukraine, which they now see as a requirement for their own safety.

On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, Joe Lauria, editor of Consortium News (and a prolific writer on this conflict), identified outcomes 0, 2, and 4 as the only possibilities. The current U.S. strategy seems to be to one of sending more weapons of increasing strength/lethality until Ukraine gains an advantage in the military conflict. This seems to aim at outcome 1, but it may be aiming at outcome 4 after having gained some military advantage. There is no assurance that a major advantage for Ukraine could come about without direct involvement of fighters from NATO countries, and the human and financial costs in Ukraine of continuing the war for long would be enormous. Russia has close to three times the population of Ukraine, and, without a full-scale war with NATO, it is difficult to see outcome 3 as a long-lasting state of affairs. It is difficult to see outcome 1 occurring because it would likely be pre-empted by outcome 0.

It is impossible to know whether many Ukrainians would publically express support for any of the outcomes other than 1, given both the damage inflicted by Russia and the harsh treatment of government critics within Ukraine since the beginning of the war. (The leader of the second largest party in Ukraine was jailed and then traded for prisoners and forced to leave the country; his party was banned. See the Marcetic article mentioned above for a more detailed list of harshly treated critics in Ukraine.) However, it is more difficult to understand the lack of strong support for outcome 4 in a country like the U.S., if the true nature of the war had been reflected in the popular media.

Any framework for comparing outcomes that regards all human life as valuable would support achieving outcome 4 as quickly as possible. One argument against the most likely versions of outcome 4, is that if Ukraine does not end up possessing all of the territory it had in 2013, this will fuel future attacks by Russia to ‘expand its empire’ even further. This goes counter to the fact that Putin’s long period in power has not given any evidence of expansionary ambitions. It is also counter to his refusal to accept the request of the breakaway republics to join Russia following the 2014 coup in Kiev. The considerable financial and human costs of the past year of war to Russians would certainly militate against any expansionist war. John Mearsheimer has provided several more detailed refutations of the “Russian expansionism” claim and a number of other talks are available on youtube.

“Anyone demurring from the past 11 months of relentless efforts to escalate the conflict… is viewed as betraying Ukraine, and dismissed as an apologist for Putin. No dissent is tolerated.”
Consciously choosing outcome 0 would seem inconceivable, but apparently it is not. A recent column by Roger Harris summed up the current situation: “Now the prevailing propaganda from Washington is that nuclear war can be ‘won’. Dr. Strangelove is no longer satire. This planning to fight a nuclear war as if it were not an existential threat is institutionalized insanity. … It’s as rational as believing Russian roulette is safe because the man handing you the pistol didn’t blow his head off when he pulled the trigger.” Glenn Greenwald provides a similar perspective: “If, for example, the Soviet Union got anywhere near the United States, as it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we are ready to start a nuclear war over it. For some reason, everybody seems confident that President Putin is not going to do the same – even though Joe Biden is right in the country, on that border, promising that NATO will continue to pour heavy armaments, including tanks, and potentially, next, fighter jets, right into that country – everyone’s confident that Vladimir Putin won’t do what John Kennedy was going to do and almost did, which is blow up the world because the Russians got too close to the American border. Everyone’s calm, everyone’s happy.” Events at the end of February (subsequent to the above quotations) have provided chilling evidence of the proximity of 0; this includes Victoria Nuland encouraging Ukraine to attack Crimea, and U.S. threats to China based on unproven claims of China planning to send weapons to Russia.

Current Views on the Desirability and Potential for a Negotiated Settlement

In early 2023, the U.S. military-associated think tank, Rand Corporation, issued a report entitled “Avoiding a Long War.” It concluded, “…the consequences of a long war – ranging from persistent elevated escalation risks to economic damage – far outweigh the possible benefits of such a trajectory for the United States.” The report argued that avoiding a nuclear conflict will be “extremely difficult.” In spite of Rand’s status as the foremost military think tank in the U.S, this report was not widely publicized and has been ignored in subsequent pronouncements on the Ukraine war made by U.S. government officials. This is unfortunately not surprising, as de-escalation at this point would be interpreted as the U.S. leaders having pursued a mistaken policy for both the past year of the war, and the past decade of political interference by the United States with the government of Ukraine. At a time when inflation is reducing the budgets of most households, having wasted over $100 billion (during the past year alone) on an ill-advised, and now apparently failing policy, would not have a positive effect on the re-election of the governing party.

Why isn’t there more political support in the U.S. population for pursuing a negotiated end to the war (i.e., outcome 4)? Journalist Jonathan Cook provides a simple answer: “Anyone demurring from the past 11 months of relentless efforts to escalate the conflict… is viewed as betraying Ukraine, and dismissed as an apologist for Putin. No dissent is tolerated.” The U.S. media has supported the idea that all Russians are to be punished, regardless of political involvement; sports figures, classical musicians and other Russians who have no connection to defense policy have been banned from some or all of their international professional activities. This has been echoed by the media in Canada and Western Europe. Russia is still portrayed as pursuing world domination, with no supporting evidence. The longer this continues, the less likely Russia and the U.S. will be able to coexist peacefully, if and when this particular conflict is ended.

The Jonathan Cook piece referenced above elaborated on the negative consequences of avoiding outcome 4 in the conflict: 1) “With each additional step they take, the more the parties involved risk losing if they back down. The longer they refuse to sit and talk, the greater the pressure to keep fighting”; 2) “The more weapons the United States and Europe send to Ukraine, and the more they refuse to pursue talks, the more Moscow will be convinced it was right to fight and must keep fighting”; and 3) “Everything U.S. and European leaders have done over the past 15 years, and since Russia’s invasion, looks as though it was, and is, designed to scupper any hopes of a regional security framework capable of embracing Russia. The goal has been to keep Moscow excluded, inferior and embittered.” This is obviously not a recipe for long-term peace.

The Future of Humanity

Regardless of the outcome of the current proxy war in Ukraine, the human species is unlikely to persist very long in the presence of nuclear weapons.
Regardless of the outcome of the current proxy war in Ukraine, the human species is unlikely to persist very long in the presence of nuclear weapons, given the pressures for escalation inherent in the nature of war, as well as the escalation-promoting nature of the West’s current media/political environment. The loss of Russian trust in any statement or action by the U.S. as a result this conflict will take many years of good behavior if it is to be overcome. The history of the war thus far suggests that ‘good behavior’ by U.S. politicians unlikely in the near future. The tragedy of the Ukraine affair, if we survive it, is that the expected persistence time of the human species afterwards will have been dramatically reduced from what it was two years ago. Even if outcome 4 is achieved in this particular conflict, the many pro-war statements by both sides have eroded the foundation needed to prevent future conflicts from escalating, or to end them if they do escalate. Money that should go to ending the coming climate catastrophe will instead exacerbate it by increased weapons production. There will also be increased pressure for other countries to acquire nuclear weapons.

The uncontrolled growth of wars remains a risk so long as humankind fails to correct the lack feedback controls that prevent extremely counterproductive conflict outcomes from occurring in other species. The control of decisions regarding war policy by executive rather than legislative branches of government increases the possibility of escalation, and that is one area where changes are needed. Reducing counter-productive escalation will also require a complete overhaul of the media environment in the U.S. and most other ‘democratic’ countries, so that mass media are no longer such purveyors of government propaganda. This could start with requirements that media outlets openly acknowledge previous false reporting. The mainstream media’s pro-war stance, which is not new to this war, must be overcome. It is not very encouraging that the same issues of media propaganda were discussed in detail by Noam Chomsky decades ago (e.g., in his book Media Control), and yet the capture of media by government is greater now than it was then.

Avoiding escalation will also require more independence of other countries’ foreign policies from that of the U.S. During the Vietnam war, the active opposition to U.S. policy by Pierre Trudeau in Canada and Olof Palme in Sweden helped make opposition to war more acceptable within the U.S. In spite of even larger potential costs from the current war, the current leaders of both of those countries have been vocal in their support of escalation.

The lack of a rare event over a period of many decades reduces concern over the possibility of such an event. This is true of earthquakes as well as nuclear wars. The short-term bias in human thinking helps explain the willingness of Western populations to go along with what seems to be an extremely risky and maladaptive policy. There has not yet been a war involving nuclear weapons on both sides, even though it has been over seven decades during which two or more adversarial countries possessed such weapons. Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine, provides a detailed justification for why this does not imply that such a war is unlikely. Helen Caldicott had a similar message in her last book on nuclear war, Sleepwalking to Armageddon, also published in 2017. The process described in those books has only accelerated in the past six years. Much earlier, during his Nobel Prize speech, Martin Luther King stated: “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.” He would have been shocked by the degree of acceptance of this spiral in today’s world. The last stages of that descending staircase will be traversed in a nearly instantaneous fashion, and will likely happen before any mainstream media in North America even call attention to the possibility of a nuclear exchange occurring.

Where do we now stand in the process of escalation? The answer cannot be obtained from the Western media. Here is the viewpoint of a Westerner who lives in Russia for part of the year, and has an advanced degree in Russian history. He speaks Russian, and periodically reports on the views reflected in popular television programs; Here is a quote from his blog, posted on March 7: “…the discussion in Washington and European capitals over how far they can go without crossing Russia’s red lines and triggering a hot war between Russia and NATO is being bypassed by events. As the latest editions of prime news and discussion programs Sixty Minutes and Evening with Vladimir Solovyov indicate, Russia’s political elites consider that these lines have been crossed, with or without delivery of the F-16 fighter jets requested by Zelensky; with or without the latest version of the Leopards or the Abrams tanks promised by the USA.”

The opening paragraph of this article quoted the first page of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, where he raises the question of whether a highly intelligent species should have a reduced chance of going extinct. Chomsky’s book closes with a much earlier quotation from Bertrand Russell, one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century. He provided a pessimistic answer: “…evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. …I believe this is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.” We can only hope that Russell’s prerequisite for peace does not come about in the near future. This will require an approach to international relations and the acceptability of war quite different from that which prevails in much of the world today. That change in approaches will also have to occur very quickly.

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