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President Biden signs the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders’ opposition to the US invasion of Iraq helped set him apart from frontrunners Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and the party establishment that they represent.

In 2022, with the US engaged in another costly and catastrophic conflict abroad, Sanders has chosen to abandon the anti-war mantle and join the ranks of his former rivals. Along with every elected Democrat — including the self-proclaimed Squad – Sanders voted last week to approve a $40 billion measure that will escalate the Ukraine proxy war and enrich its prime beneficiary, the US arms industry.

More than half of the allocated spending, $24 billion, is for military aid, including $9.1 billion for weapons makers to replenish the US arsenal. The mammoth bill follows the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act – also unanimously approved by Democrats — which invokes World War II-era policies to speed the transfer of US military equipment to Ukraine. Coupled with NATO’s likely expansion to Sweden and Finland, “the real winners are American defense companies,” Forbes columnist Jon Markman writes.

In passing the new $40 billion bill, “the leaders of both parties raised few questions about how much money was being spent or what it would be used for,” the New York Times observes. This swift bipartisan approval “was striking, given the gridlock that has prevented domestic initiatives large and small from winning approval in recent years.” This includes the progressive-backed Build Back Better agenda for social spending, once a headline issue and now seldom discussed.

The unwavering US effort to flood Ukraine with weaponry instead of diplomacy is additionally striking given its predictable consequences for the conflict and the planet. These include more bloodshed; more refugees; more arms trafficking; more weapons falling into the hands of neo-Nazis and other extremists; more war profiteering; more inflation; more global hunger; and more of a possibility of direct military confrontation between the US and Russia.

The dangers have prompted the New York Times’ editorial board, normally a reliable supporter of US militarism, to get cold feet about the Ukraine proxy war that it has heretofore cheered. To avoid “a costly, drawn-out war,” the Times editors argue, the Biden administration should make clear to Kiev that “there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will go to confront Russia, and limits to the arms, money and political support they can muster.”

The Times’ stance will resonate with anyone worried about an escalated proxy war between the world’s top nuclear powers. But in Washington, it is difficult to see how Biden will receive that message if even the progressive, anti-war flank of his own party is voting in lockstep to fuel the danger. This group includes lawmakers like Sanders, Ilhan Omar, Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, and Barbara Lee, who have previously voiced concerns about the very military escalation in Ukraine that just authorized. Remarkably, as Glenn Greenwald notes, not only have these politicians betrayed their own public statements, but have refused to provide any explanation for their tectonic about-face.

The lone exception was Cori Bush, who simultaneously defended her support for the $40 billion measure while acknowledging that it will “primarily” benefit “private defense contractors” and fuel “the increased risks of direct war and the potential for direct military confrontation” between the US and Russia.

That so many single self-identified Congressional progressives can turn against their anti-war record and public positions might seem perplexing. In light of the prevailing US political and media climate of recent years, it makes perfect sense.

The enlistment of progressive support for a neoconservative proxy war in Ukraine is the outgrowth of the Russiagate disinformation campaign that has engulfed the US since 2016. When it comes to the US posture toward the Russian government, Russiagate has normalized militarism and evidence-free allegations; blamed it for US dysfunctions; stigmatized diplomacy; and, to ensure domestic obedience, portrayed anyone who dissents from these imperatives as a Kremlin pawn, asset, or conspirator.  

The fact that a mammoth gift to the US arms industry – and attendant escalation of dangers unseen since the Cuban Missile Crisis – could win the unanimous support of politicians nominally committed to progressive causes is one of the Russiagate campaign’s strongest successes to date. Its consequences are worth considering for anyone concerned with the future of the US progressive movement, and the planet.

Escalating a Trumpian proxy war

In public statements about Russia, Bernie Sanders has made clear that he sees a hawkish posture toward the Kremlin as a challenge to Donald Trump’s agenda. Just like they deceptively sold the Mueller investigation to the Democratic base as the miracle cure that would bring down Trump, Democratic leaders and their media acolytes have marketed the Ukraine proxy war along similar lines. The minority of Republicans who voted against the $40 billion spending measure, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer declared, are adopting “the same soft-on-Putin playbook that we saw used by former President Trump.”

In reality, Democrats are continuing a bipartisan war-mongering playbook that Trump’s administration escalated. It is true that Trump made friendly statements about Vladimir Putin and critical ones of NATO. But looking beyond his off-the-cuff remarks, Trump’s policies played a major role in provoking the current crisis.

In Ukraine, Trump authorized weapons shipments that Barack Obama, worried about further inflaming the Donbas war and arming neo-Nazis, had refused to send. As senior Obama official Charles Kupchan cautioned in August 2017, arming Ukraine would be “a recipe for military escalation and transatlantic discord,” – a prescient warning that Democrats have long forgotten.

Trump, along with Congressional Democrats, opted to follow the dictates of leading Republican neoconservatives John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who had personally vowed to Ukrainian forces that “2017 will be the year of offense,” in order to make Russia “pay a heavier price” and ensure that “we will win together.”

Trump’s escalation of the Ukraine proxy war coincided with his nixing of vital arms control pacts that had eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons and encouraged US-Russia cooperation. The John Bolton-led abandonment of the INF treaty in 2019, and the Open Skies Treaty the following year, played an overlooked role in triggering Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders last year.

In a bid to resolve the impasse, the Kremlin’s draft pacts with the NATO and the US, transmitted in December 2021, contained extensive proposals to revive the arms control regime that Trump had killed. But continuing the Trump posture, Biden rejected a sweeping agreement, sending the “basic message to Moscow” that the US and NATO will “not to bow to Russian demands,” the New York Times reported one month later.

Bernie Sanders: Russiagate target, and ally

In supporting militarism against Russia, progressive Democrats are not only enabling a dangerous playbook for the planet, but one that has been wielded to undermine their own political fortunes.

The 2016 election put the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party in a historically vulnerable position. Hillary Clinton, the presumed shoo-in, not only lost to the reality TV host Donald Trump, but did so after being caught conspiring against Sanders, her progressive rival. Just as Trump had taken over the GOP, Clinton’s humiliating loss offered the Sanders wing a rare opportunity to displace the failed, corrupt leadership that had tried to sabotage them.

Sanders initially appeared poised to take the reins. “What Trump did very effectively is tap the angst and the anger and the hurt and pain that millions of working class people are feeling,” Sanders told CBS News one week after Clinton’s defeat. To defeat Trump, Sanders said, “there needs to be a profound change in the way the Democratic Party does business… I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”

But Clinton and her establishment allies had no interest in change, as that would threaten their status and power within the failed neoliberal system that voters had just revolted against. Instead, as documented in Shattered, the 2017 insider book on the Clinton campaign, “Hillary declined to take responsibility for her own loss.” Within 24 hours of Clinton’s concession speech, top aides devised a plan to “engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up and up.” The then-evidence-free claim of “Russian hacking” was chosen as “the centerpiece of the argument.” As the ongoing trial of Clinton attorney Michael Sussmann is newly underscoring, “the argument” entailed concocting – and feeding to the FBI – false tales of a sweeping Trump-Russia plot.

The Clinton camp’s plan succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Rather than allow Sanders to take control of the party and address the working class discontent that Trump had tapped into, the Democratic Party elite and their media allies kept the base fixated on conspiracy theories that Trump was the creation – and asset of – Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

Adding to the Clinton wing’s good fortune, Bernie Sanders played along. Rather than renounce the Russia fixation concocted by the same DNC elites who had plotted against him, Sanders instead paid lip service to their Trump-Russia conspiracy theories. And rather than focus on the corruption – including directly targeting him — that the stolen DNC emails revealed, Sanders instead helped channel outrage at the Russian government for (allegedly) making them public.

Sanders’ servitude to the Russiagate narrative was so devout that he even introduced a John McCain-quoting Senate measure in July 2018, the height of Mueller-mania, to “Protect American Democracy from Russian Meddling.” The resolution, Sanders explained, sought to “force members of the Senate to go on the record in accepting the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and the looming threat of Russian interference in this year’s midterm elections.”

In short, Sanders was not only willing to promote evidence-free claims – long since called into serious question – that “Russian interference” was behind the DNC email theft and posed “a threat to the democratic system of the United States,” but motivated enough to “force” his Congressional colleagues to declare their fidelity to these allegations and the “intelligence community” that generated them.

When the 2020 election season arrived, Sanders learned how the US intelligence community and allied Democratic elites would reward his Russiagate narrative discipline: using it against him. On the eve of the Democratic caucus in Nevada, when Sanders was still a frontrunner, intelligence officials dusted off the Russiagate playbook with anonymous leaks claiming that Vladimir Putin was seeking to help Sanders’ candidacy.

No details or evidence was provided, for good reason: despite so many humiliating retractions, US officials knew that reliable media stenographers would dutifully report any malicious act ascribed to “Putin” – all the more so if it could benefit Sanders’ neoliberal rivals.

To illustrate, the New York Times breathlessly parroted the new “Russian interference” claims even while acknowledging that this supposed pro-Sanders meddling consisted of “as-yet-undetectable methods.” Easily detectable was the real agenda at play. “Current and former officials” fed the Times a view that happened to comport with the talking points of Democratic Party centrists: “Moscow could potentially consider Mr. Sanders a weaker general election opponent for the president than a more moderate Democratic nominee, according to two people familiar with the matter.”

The team of anonymous officials and “moderates” who targeted Sanders could also once again rely on him to comply. Rather than challenge a transparent scam aimed at undermining him, Sanders ultimately catered to it. Asked by The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal why the campaign had not demanded evidence of the alleged Putin plot on its behalf, Sanders foreign policy advisor Matt Duss explained that the progressive frontrunner accepted the anonymously disseminated, evidence-free “intelligence.” When Sanders was briefed by U.S. officials on the supposed Russian plot to elect him, “he was briefed convincingly,” Duss declared.

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