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31 August 2022

Putin and Trump face failure on battlefields of their own making

In Russia and America we are about to see what happens when right-wing nihilism hits the buffers of reality.

By Paul Mason

On the day Ukraine began its counteroffensive towards Kherson, the former US president Donald Trump launched his own counteroffensive against the American justice system. 

Trump issued a stream of more than 60 posts on Truth Social (the platform he founded after being banned from Twitter and Facebook) speculating that US military intelligence should be ordered to take over the FBI and CIA, that the FBI itself staged the Capitol Hill riot, and containing – over a fake picture of Joe Biden hugging Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg – the hashtags “#IncestJoe” and “#PedoJoe”.

The trigger for this online meltdown was clear. The US Department of Justice unsealed a heavily redacted indictment revealing its raid on Mar-a-Lago was staged because it had “probable cause” to discover illegality; that it feared witness intimidation; and that the kind of secret documents Trump had unlawfully stashed at his Florida mansion may include the identities of American intelligence sources abroad, whose safety could be put at risk.

The possibility of Trump being prosecuted – for the documents, let alone his role in instigating the 6 January insurrection on the Capitol building – is high. So is the possibility of civil unrest. In the wake of the raid, the South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham took to Fox News to warn: “Most Republicans, including me, believe when it comes to Trump, there is no law. It’s all about getting him… If there’s a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information after the [Hillary] Clinton debacle [over her use of a private email server]… there’ll be riots in the streets.”

This is the kind of warning that comes close to incitement. The message to the US criminal justice system is clear: prosecute Trump, and the civil war begins. Defeat, for the conservative/far right alliance that forms Trump’s mass base, has become unthinkable.

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Meanwhile, in Russia, a similar elite meltdown is under way. We don’t know whether the Kherson counteroffensive is serious or a feint; we don’t know if it will retake the city or fail. What we do know is that – over the summer – Ukraine has seized the initiative against the invading forces, obliterating numerous supply dumps with US-supplied long-range missiles, staging audacious hits on bases in Crimea, and forcing Vladimir Putin to call up 137,000 new recruits.

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[See also: How big is occupied Ukraine? Use this interactive map to find out]

It is now possible to see an endgame, in which Russian resistance east of the river Dnieper crumbles, in which Crimea (the prize of Moscow’s whole venture since 2014) comes within range of Ukraine’s heavy weapons, and the whole, sick dream of Russian ethnonationalism – the “Eurasian empire” – evaporates. 

The reaction on prime-time Russian TV shows, where in the early days of the war exultant Kremlin propagandists trumpeted their inevitable victory, has been muted. Pundits now fantasise about “striking the decision-making centres” (code for Paris, London and Berlin) in retaliation for reverses in Ukraine. Russian social media is awash with denials that the Kherson offensive is under way – and also with recriminations among those who believe it will succeed.

In short, we’re seeing the two right-wing authoritarian projects of our age – Trumpism and Putinism – face the simultaneous possibility of failure. But each of these ideologies is premised on the impossibility of failure. What they do in response will shape the next decade.

Some military experts believe Putin will respond to the loss of Kherson unconventionally: either by staging an accident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant or (according to the former West Point academic Matthew Ford) by dropping a small nuclear weapon on the region. Less dramatically, but more effectively, he could permanently switch off Europe’s gas supply: Gazprom abruptly shut down supplies to France this week, citing “non-payment” and prompting the French energy minister to warn that, “Russia is using gas as a weapon of war and we must prepare for the worst-case scenario of a complete interruption of supplies.”

As for Trump, his sudden and open embrace of the QAnon myth, combined with warnings from his lawyers that “anger” is building, signal he is prepared to double down on insurrectionary rhetoric against the American federal state.

This is an important moment in the co-evolution of the Trump and Putin projects. Whether or not you believe the allegations in the Steele dossier, that Putin has kompromat on Trump, it is clear that the two men have used each other consistently in geopolitical stratagems.

Even now, as Russian TV viewers struggle to get their heads around the Kherson situation, they are bombarded with clips from a soon-to-be released Breitbart movie about the president’s son Hunter Biden which, say the propagandists, could bring down Biden and restore Trump to office. Likewise Trump, in his tirade on Truth Social, shared a distorted image of Biden captioned “Your Enemy is not in Russia”.

Both Trump and Putin are right-wing authoritarians who have morphed, under pressure of events, towards fascist phraseology and nihilism. Putin’s geopolitical question – “What is the point of the world if Russia is not in it?” – is implicitly echoed in the attitude of the Republican right: what is the point of American politics if Trump is not in it? In both Russia and America we are about to see what happens when such nihilism hits the buffers of reality.

Whatever happens on the battlefield, Putin’s Ukraine gambit has failed. He failed to take Kyiv and Kharkiv. Kherson is untenable.

Likewise, for Trump, the dragnet is closing in. Storing top secret documents at Mar-a-Lago, on its own, is a prima facie crime – whether or not he then shared the contents of those documents with others. On top of that, it looks like important members of the Trump coterie will “flip” before the 6 January House Committee investigation, spilling the beans under oath about his role in the insurrection.

This is a dangerous moment. It could, indeed, end with riots on the streets of America and energy blackouts across Europe. Or it could end with Trump in jail and Putin on a private jet to some final stronghold in Chechnya.

If so, each of these deranged figures will have been defeated on battlefields of their own obsessional choosing: Putin in Ukraine, Trump in Mar-a-Lago.

[See also: Suddenly, Ukraine is winning the war]