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“Ukraine, before and after.”
Scott Ritter’s take.
Scott Ritter, a former Marine intelligence officer with a distinguished record as a weapons inspector, seems to us among the most interesting analysts now looking at the U.S. proxy war in Ukraine from the perpective of a man who once wore a uniform. We recently met Ritter at Mut zur Ethik, a twice-a-year forum in Zurich’s environs, and were much taken by his view of the war and its broader significance. We are pleased to welcome Ritter into our pages (and plan soon to publish a Q & A we conducted while in Switzerland). Here we reproduce one of the speeches Ritter delivered, of several, at the Mut zur Ethik gathering held 1–3 September.
—P. L. and C. M.
1 SEPTEMBER—It’s an honor and a privilege to be here to have an opportunity to talk to you. I wish we could talk about better subjects. I wish we were in a time we could talk about moving forward with a confidence the world would move forward with us, but we live in difficult times.
Today I’ve been asked to address “global geopolitics in the context of the Ukrainian conflict.” I think when historians look back on the events that are transpiring today you’re going to be speaking of “BU” and “AU” the same way we speak of “BC” and “AD.” “BU” is “before Ukraine,” “AU” is “after Ukraine.” The Ukrainian war, ladies and gentlemen, has changed everything.
The world that exists today is a fundamentally different world than existed before the conflict in Ukraine began. And when I say “the conflict in Ukraine” let’s just be clear: In reality, the conflict in Ukraine has been going on for decades. But the conflict I speak of is the conflict that has transpired since the decision by Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops into Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022.
I have the honor and privilege twice a year to advise a board of some of the world’s most powerful and influential people, and those, of course, are people who operate in the oil and gas industry They make a lot of money and money equals power.
I was brought in to talk geopolitics, and for several years now I’ve been hammering away at two things trying to convince these leaders of global industry that the world is evolving, that you need to evolve with it or you are going to be left behind. I spoke of the fact that the world is evolving away from an American singularity to a multipolarity, where America is no longer viewed by the world as the global hegemony—where, instead, America will have to learn to participate in a global community of equals. They have said, “No. Because that would require America to depart from the rules-based international order.” Which, of course, are rules that the United States wrote in the aftermath of the Second Word War to continue to empower ourselves.
The rules-based international order is a sharp deviation from the principles, for instance, of the United Nation’s Charter, which speaks of multipolarity, global equality, and all that kind of nonsense. When I say “nonsense,” I mean from an American perspective because we don’t believe in any of that, we believe in the sole empowerment of the United States.
Many of these leaders of industry are American. They lead multinational corporations, but the multinational corporations don’t enrich multi-nations. They enrich the United States. Therefore, they need the rules-based international order to continue to exist, to maintain the system of enrichment that they have put in place over the course of the past 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years.
The other thing I brought up to them is that for those who believe that America can impose its will on the world no matter what. Even if we run into an economic hiccup, we will be able to resolve this hiccup in our favor by projecting military power, which is unmatched: There is nobody in the world that can match the Americans in terms of military power. I said, “Those days are over, too.”
They did not want to hear this. But I brought up the reality that twenty years of endless war in the so-called global war on terror had fundamentally transformed the lethality of the American military. No longer were we trained, armed, equipped, or prepared to fight a land-based war in Europe or a large-scale conflict in the Pacific. We, instead, had broken our military in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria—we no longer had the skill set. They didn’t want to hear that, either. They said, “No. America has aircraft carriers, America has armored brigades, America is America and the world will never be able to defeat America.”
That was “before Ukraine.” After Ukraine, a new reality has set in. Before Ukraine, the United States was able to convince Europe that Russia could be sanctioned into submission. I know we laugh about it today, when we reflect on the ludicrous nature of the overconfidence of those who thought so. But those who have memories that can go back simply two years remember, in the leadup to the conflict, how the United States said over and over and over again, “We will bring Russia to its knees.” That, “Together with the West, we will sanction Russia, we will break the will of Russia. Russia will fold. Even if Russia were to go into Ukraine militarily they could not sustain this attack because their economy will fail.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the Russian economy today is stronger than it has ever been largely because of the economic sanctions: “before Ukraine,” “after Ukraine.” But it’s more than simply the empowerment of the Russian economy. It’s how the world thinks about America: The American singularity is over.
Just the other week there was a meeting in South Africa of the BRICS organization—five “developing nations,” we call them. Is China a developing nation? Is India a developing nation? These are developed nations. Now, they haven’t been able to come together before Ukraine. There were internal squabbles: India and China didn’t get along, the Russian economy wasn’t so hot. Who knew about Brazil? Was the African continent ready for development? These are questions that were thrown out there. There is no longer talk about that. BRICS prior to last week was a concept that had promise. BRICS today is a reality that has changed the world. Notice that I didn’t say “changing” the world. I said “changed the world.”
Let me tell you what happened when BRICS came together and expanded. America went from being number one to being number two. The day of the American singularity is over. It’s past, it’s done, it’s finished, it’s gone. We haven’t, maybe, realized it yet. Americans might believe that we’re still number one, but we’re not. We’ve been bypassed by BRICS. Well, you’ll say, “Wait a minute Scott, that’s many nations.” What do you think multipolarity means, ladies and gentlemen? It means many nations working together. And multipolarity is no longer a theory: It’s a reality.
The reality of BRICS is such that America is number two. It will forever be number two because it will not have the economic strength to surpass the multipolar organization known as BRICS, which is expanding as we speak. And an interesting thing about BRICS is that we tried to keep Russia off the agenda. We tried to keep Vladimir Putin away from that meeting. He attended by proxy with his foreign minister, [Sergei] Lavrov. He attended by video. He dominated the proceedings, ladies and gentlemen. Russia will be the chair of BRICS starting in January 2024. When BRICS expands from its current membership of five, adding six, Vladimir Putin will be the head of BRICS. And when BRICS meets again next summer and they talk about brining ten nations in, Vladimir Putin will be the head of BRICS.
It’s backfired. Everything we do has backfired. And it’s not just economically. Militarily: Prior to Ukraine, before Ukraine, BU—I’m trying to inject this concept into people’s minds—before Ukraine, people did fear the American military. With good cause. We go to war a lot. There is lethality associated with what we do. In Europe, NATO believed that it was a powerful military alliance. NATO believed that when NATO flexed its muscle people listened—before Ukraine. After Ukraine, NATO has been exposed as a paper tiger. A paper tiger.
There is no military strength in NATO. NATO has no capacity to project meaningful military power beyond the borders of Europe. NATO cannot fight a war along the lines of the war that’s being fought in Ukraine today. Don’t believe me, believe General Christopher Cavoli, four-star American general, commander of U.S. forces, supreme allied commander. He said in a Swedish defense forum last January (2022), that NATO could not imagine the scope and scale of the violence taking place in Ukraine today. Think about that.
What do military people do? We prepare for the future. We prepare for the future based upon what we imagine. We imagine something, we create capabilities to meet that which we imagine. If we have not imagined the scope and scale of the violence taking place in Ukraine today, that means we’re not ready for it. We haven’t trained for it, we haven’t equipped for it, we haven’t organized for it. We can’t fight it. And this is a fact.
Right now there’s a counteroffensive taking place in Ukraine. The Ukrainian army has three brigades trying to take the town, the village, of Robotyne. Three brigades. That’s 15,00 men. Imagine NATO putting three brigades on the line right now. They can’t. NATO cannot put three brigades on the line. But imagine if they did: They’ve assaulted the village, they’ve been repulsed by the Russians. So three brigades are now being pulled out, three more are being brought in, in a complex passage of lines. NATO has not done a six-brigade passage of lines ever. And Ukraine is doing it under fire. They’re failing, but they are doing it. [Editor’s note: As of 8 September, Moscow acknowledged withdrawing forces from Robotyne.]
That war that’s taking place right now in Zaporizhzhia, in Kherson, in Luhansk, in Donetsk: It’s a war that NATO cannot fight. And now the world knows it. NATO is a paper tiger. The world knows it’s a paper tiger. They know the United States cannot meet its stated desire to reinforce Europe in a fashion. Ukraine has lost 400,000 men in battle, 40,000 to 50,000 in the last several weeks. It took America ten years to lose 58,000 in Vietnam and that broke our back. Can you imagine a situation where the United States military was asked to sacrifice 40,000 men in two weeks? Can you imagine a situation when any European army was asked to sacrifice 40,000 men in two weeks? The fact of the matter is: We can’t win a war today in Europe. We’re not number one anymore. We’re not number two anymore. We might be number three.
But this is a reality. It’s not just in Europe that we can’t prevail. It’s in the Pacific. Don’t believe me, believe Lieutenant General Samuel Clinton Hinote. He was the deputy chief of staff of the United States Air Force. He just recently retired. But his job was strategy. And what he did for the last four years is war-game every potential scenario of conflict between the United Sates and China in the Pacific. And he recently, before his retirement, went to the Pentagon and went to the White House, and said the following: Cease and desist your policies that push us to a potential military confrontation with China. Because if it does become a kinetic fight between the United States and China, there is no scenario in which we win. We lose every single time. And there is nothing we can do in the immediate future to change that outcome. We have to change the way we interface with China.
That’s why Tony Blinken went to China in July. You remember that trip? He went—he had to go through thirty Chinese officials before he got to Xi Jinping—for a thirty-minute lesson in humility. The reason why he had to go there is because the United States had to hit pause on its China policy: Stop the path towards confrontation. We had just had a situation in the Strait of Taiwan where an American ship was almost rammed by a Chinese ship. And the Pentagon said, “If they do hit us, what do we do? Sink them?” And now the scenarios begin: If we sink them they retaliate, we retaliate, how does it end? Well, General Samuel Clinton Hinote said that it ends only one way every time: America loses.
This is the reality today. We lose because we don’t have the capacity. But before Ukraine nobody understood that. Nobody believed that. Everybody believed that America was the supreme military power in the world. Today, the blinders have come off. Economically, we’re number two. Maybe we can maintain that position, maybe not. Militarily, we’re number three. And who knows where we’ll go with that. Because our military is a broken system. We spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a system that produces nothing beneficial to the defense of the United State. Let alone the defense of its allies. How can you spend $900 billion a year and say we can’t fight and prevail in a land war in Europe against the Russian army that spends $68 billion a year? It’s because our system is broken. But that’s another question.
Ukraine has changed everything. Before Ukraine, America was number one, at least perception-wise. After Ukraine, American is number two economically, number three militarily, and this is a reality that the world is accepting. It’s not Scott Ritter saying this in a closed community to oil and gas executives. It’s Scott Ritter saying this while the rest of the world acknowledges this. Russia knows this. Russia no longer fears the American military. It’s not that they want to go to war against the America military, but Russia knows its capabilities. It’s been tested. China knows this, as well.
When will Europe know it? When will Europe realize that NATO is a false prophet? When will Europe realize that the money you put into NATO is wasted money? When will Europe realize that instead of pursuing war you should be pursuing peace? It’s time for Europe to wake up. Because if you don’t, if you continue to believe in the myth of American hegemony, the myth of American supremacy—because it is a myth, it isn’t real anymore, it exists in the minds of American politicians, but it doesn’t exist in the way the world operates today. Europe has to decide: Do you want to become a prisoner in a cage of your own construct? Because that’s what’s happening. The world is bypassing America. The world is moving on with their collective life. And the American singularity is in the rearview mirror going backwards.
Thank you very much.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and author of Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika: Arms Control and the End of the Soviet Union (Clarity, 2023). He served in the Soviet Union as an inspector implementing the INF Treaty, served on General Schwarzkopf's staff during the Gulf War, and, from 1991 to 1998, was a chief weapons inspector with the U.N. in Iraq. In addition to his writing arms control and nonproliferation, Ritter currently writes commentary and analysis on international security, military affairs, Russia, and the Middle East. His Substack newsletter can we read here.