It doesn’t make sense on the surface that the US would turn against one of its own anti-Russian proxy fighters, but there’s a lot more to the story.
President Putin wrote in an article on Russian-Ukraine relations over the summer that his country’s neighbor was under “direct external control”, which was echoed by former leader and incumbent Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Medvedev earlier this week. This is an accurate observation and means that everything that’s happening there is somehow or another connected to Ukraine’s American patron. That insight makes it all the more curious then that Buzzfeed reported last week that the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) are investigating an American fascist for war crimes in the country. It doesn’t make sense on the surface that the US would turn against one of its own anti-Russian proxy fighters, but there’s a lot more to the story.
Before explaining, the reader is encouraged to go through that outlet’s very detailed report in full. Buzzfeed can by no means be considered a “Russian-friendly” company so it’s very surprising that they’d report on this officially unconfirmed investigation that was allegedly commenced by the FBI in April 2017. No war crime charges have yet been filed against Craig Lang, the subject of interest in this case, though he’s wanted back in the US to face trial for an unrelated double killing of a Florida couple for which his government is trying to extradite him from Ukraine. He’s try to obstruct that development by claiming that he’d face war crime charges, which Buzzfeed reported are being considered in order to make him the first American to be tried for them.
According to their account of what happened, Lang carried out a spew of war crimes against noncombatants while volunteering with the neo-fascist “Pravy Sektor” (Right Sector) in Eastern Ukraine. His lawyer of course denies these allegations, but Buzzfeed’s report is compelling and convincingly seems to be based entirely on facts. In any case, this development deserves to be explained because it’s understandably confusing to many observers who might never have expected the US to take action against one of their own citizens for the war crimes they committed in the name of neo-fascism in Eastern Ukraine. What’s really happening is that the US is trying to proverbially kill several birds with one stone.
First, Buzzfeed rightly notes that “the extraordinary investigation also ticks another box for the DOJ: a case against far-right extremists. The Biden administration has said fighting extremism is a top priority.” That’s true, but it’s not the primary motivation, merely a supplementary one. Nor is the main driver the Biden Administration’s announcement that it’ll place so-called “human rights” at the forefront of its policymaking calculations since it’s selectively applying this standard in the present case. Nevertheless, the reported investigation does indeed appeal to those at home and abroad who support the incumbent administration’s public stances on these issues.
The larger dynamics at play are that the US is somewhat distancing itself from Ukraine and no longer giving the country the carte blanche that it once did. America still supports it on many issues, but not unconditionally. The Biden Administration has a domestic self-interest in deflecting the opposition’s criticism that the President and his son engaged in impropriety in that country. By reportedly considering the unprecedented step of charging on of its own fascist citizens for the war crimes that he allegedly committed against anti-fascist noncombatants in Eastern Ukraine, the Biden Administration is showing that it’s finally holding at least one person to account for what they’ve done there. It’s not a lot, but it’s a symbolic step in the right direction.
This follows the trend of the US waiving most Nord Stream II sanctions earlier in the year much to Ukraine’s dismay, which proved that this Eastern European country and neighboring Poland were actually the first to be abandoned by the Biden Administration before it shockingly abandoned Afghanistan a few months later. These developments align with the glacial pace of the US and Russia’s efforts to negotiate a so-called “non-aggression pact” between them for responsibly regulating their geopolitical competition. That strategy hasn’t achieved much success, but it’s still being pursued to a limited extent as evidenced by US Under Secretary of State Nuland’s recent visit to Moscow. It didn’t accomplish much, but it was still hailed as constructive by the US.
Optics are very important in the realm of International Relations so the Biden Administration’s reported attempt to charge one of its own fascist citizens for war crimes in Eastern Ukraine shows that something is changing when it comes to the US’ strategic calculus towards Kiev. It suggests that Washington no longer approves of Americans fighting on the side of neo-fascist forces there and intends to make a high-profile and unprecedented example out of Lang in the event that he’s successfully extradited from Ukraine. Despite this being very limited progress at the moment in the grand scheme of things, it should certainly be welcomed since it vindicates what Russia has said for years already, namely that the civil war is being driven by fascist forces.
The very fact that a Democrat President whose party is nowadays known for its rabid Russophobia would reportedly consider handing Moscow such an enormous soft power victory speaks volumes about what might really be going on behind the scenes right now. It doesn’t mean that the two Great Powers will successfully negotiate their speculative “non-aggression pact” since a lot can happen to offset that scenario’s trajectory, but it’s still a major move that wouldn’t have been politically possible under the Trump Administration despite that former leader’s FBI reportedly being the one to initiate the investigation. This suggests that Biden almost counterintuitively has more political freedom to make headway on this promising front than Trump ever did.