By Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa reporters (our sister organisation in Russia)
Political and economic earthquakes are being prepared globally as the forces of US and Chinese imperialism move from a state of cooperation to open competition. As these forces collide, shock waves ripple around the world dis-organising, disrupting, and re-organising the relationships between the different imperialist powers. The epicentre of this disruption is currently Ukraine.
Although both sides claim they do not want a conflict, US and Russian imperialism have been facing each other down, whipping up war hysteria to such a level that the law of unintended consequences could step in to trigger a hot war, the potential scale of which will not have been seen in Europe since World War 2. In the middle of this the Ukrainian people are being treated as pawns, their fate decided by forces outside their control. While it is the workers and poor of Ukraine, and the imperialist countries who will lose their lives, homes and livelihoods as a consequence of this unnecessary war.
International Socialist Alternative stands in complete opposition to the plans of the imperialist vultures, and calls for a mass anti-war movement based on solidarity between the workers of Ukraine, the United States and Russia.
In Ukraine itself, warmongers are stressing that invasion is imminent. Former Chief of Ukraine’s Special Forces Sergey Krivonos claims on central TV that plans are being laid to fly in thousands of Russian paratroopers to airports around Kyiv to seize the city. Former President Poroshenko reckons the attack will consist of ‘Iskander” ballistic missiles fired from the sea and over the border to destroy key Ukrainian assets. President Zelensky sees the invaders driving tanks in through Kharkov. Eye-witnesses report that Ukrainian cargo airports are seeing a massive increase in flights, whilst in city parks, volunteer forces are being trained for combat duty.
In the last day or so, maybe to calm the population, more sober voices have been raised in Kyiv. After the widely publicised evacuation of the families of US, UK and Australia diplomats from Kyiv, an emergency meeting of Ukraine’s “Council for National Security and Defence” was convened. At the press briefing, its Secretary Aleksey Danilov stated:
“We do not see today any basis for confirming a full-scale invasion. It is impossible for this to happen even physically… Today we can see (on Ukraine’s borders) about 109,000 troops. We see about 10–11,000 so-called “convoys”, escort forces. If our partners think this is a large increase in the number of troops, for us this is nothing new. An increase in 2–3000 is not critical”.
On ICTV too, Ukraine’s Minister of Defence Aleksey Reznikov said:
“Today, at the current moment, not one strike force of the Russian Federation’s armed forces has been formed, which confirms they are not planning an imminent attack”.
He compared the situation to that of last April adding he did not rate highly the suggestion that an attack would take place on 20 February.
No to imperialist intervention
Foreign powers though are continuing to raise the temperature. From the west, the Baltic States, Britain, Canada, and Turkey are flying in weaponry and small contingents of troops ‘for training’. The Pentagon, according to the New York Times, has prepared plans to send up to 50,000 troops to Eastern Europe, and it is today reported that 8,500 have been put on “heightened alert”.
In Russia information is more difficult to come by. It is clear there is a significant increase in military activities. Armory is being moved around, joint Russian-Belarusian exercises with the use of live artillery are being conducted 40 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Naval exercises involving 140 ships have been announced — in all seas surrounding Russia from the Pacific to the Black Sea. Ships from the Western powers and Russia are moving into the Mediterranean and Black Sea.
Talks in all sorts of different formats continue although, as yet, no breakthrough has been made.
A full invasion of Ukraine by Russia is the least likely option in this situation. This doesn’t stop western warmongers talking as if it is already imminent. The “Institute for the Study of War”, which presents itself as a “non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organisation”, committed to assist the United States in achieving its strategic objectives has distributed widely its map of “Potential plans for full-scale invasion of Ukraine”.
According to this, Russia will attack from Crimea and the unrecognised Donetsk and Lugansk Republics (DNR/LNR) to divert Ukrainian forces. Mechanised forces will then cut down from the north-east to surround Kyiv, Dnipro and Kharkiv — 3 cities with a combined population of over 5 million. Then, naval forces, or troops flown into the Moldovan break-away republic of Transnistria will invade from the west to capture Odessa and the Black Sea coast. More troops will enter from Belarus in the north, crossing in the process the radioactive wastelands around Chernobyl.
If Russia was to invade in this way, the humanitarian costs would be unthinkable. With a population twice that of the former Yugoslavia, which broke up with inter-ethnic wars in the early 1990’s leaving 140,000 dead and 4 million refugees, an occupation of Ukraine could leave hundreds of thousands dead, and many millions of refugees. In all probability, such a conflict would drag in the neighboring Baltic states and Poland.
Is this a likely scenario?
Given the volatility of the region, with recent popular uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan, war in Nagorno-Karabakh and mass protests in Russia, Georgia, and Armenia, the aggressive foreign policy of the Biden administration, and the authoritarian, expansionist policies of the Kremlin, nothing can be ruled out. But as Clausewitz pointed out “War is politics by other means”. What will determine events will be the outcome of political struggle — between the imperialist powers, as well as within the countries involved.
The conflict may be about the fate of Ukraine, but it demonstrates the height of cynicism of the imperialist powers that in the first week of negotiations, which kicked off with US and Russian diplomats sitting down to dinner in Geneva, Ukraine wasn’t even invited. Although now in the third week, no solution has so far been found during these talks.
The Russian Federation sticks to what it calls its red lines: NATO should expand no further across Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Georgia should never be allowed to join, and NATO weapons should not be located on Russian borders.
The US for its part insists arrogantly that any country which wishes to can join. Since then, several NATO countries have sent weapons to Ukraine, while NATO itself is sending additional ships and fighter jets to eastern Europe. Ukraine is being sacrificed as the scene of a proxy war between the imperialist powers.
The whole process is accompanied by dangerous sabre-rattling. Western imperialism, loyally reported by the mainstream media knows no bounds. US Secretary of State Blinken before his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented that Russia has a
“long history of aggressive behaviour. This included attacking Georgia in 2008 and annexing Crimea in 2014, and “training, arming and leading” a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.”
He failed, of course to mention that over the last two decades, the US has bombed Belgrade, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, conducted numerous interventions in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and numerous parts of Africa.
Although relatively low key in comparison to the extreme propaganda during the takeover of Crimea eight years ago, the Russian media carries regular reports of provocations being planned by Ukrainian forces against DNR/LNR. True to form, it is the Communist Party that is singing loudest in the choir of warmongers. It is calling for the State Duma to officially recognize DNR/LNR. Even the Kremlin’s spokesperson warns this would be seen as the aggression the West is warning about. After all, Biden says that any attempt by Russian forces to cross the border would be seen as “an invasion”. In delaying the passing of the proposal, pro-Kremlin figures suggest that it undermines their “Plan B” — what “Plan A” is they do not say, but it is suggested that this means the successful completion of negotiations.
Putin frequently refers to the promise made by US imperialism to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990, that if the Soviet army withdrew from East Germany, and it de facto became part of NATO in the new united Germany, then NATO would not extend further east. Since then, NATO has expanded by over 800 km to the border between Russia and the Baltic States. Part of Russia, the Kaliningrad enclave is surrounded on all its land borders by NATO states. In 2008, at its Bucharest summit, NATO agreed an Alliance with Georgia and Ukraine, with the eventual aim of them joining. If they did join, it would mean NATO forces would extend along over 4000 kilometers of Russia’s border.
Now annual, “Defender Europe” exercises involved in 2021 28,000 troops. They were mobilised, according to Head of the US Army in Europe and Africa General Chris Cavoli
“to operational areas throughout Europe, including Germany, Poland, the Baltic States, other East European nations, Nordic countries and Georgia.”
These exercises are just a part of the activities of Western powers in the region. 5,000 troops, 32 ships and 40 aircraft took part in last summer’s “Sea Breeze” exercises in the Black Sea.
This is part of the continued polarization of the world between the different imperialist interests. The Biden administration certainly sees China as the US’s top competitor, and has been determinedly building alliances, preparing to challenge it globally. At the same time, he calls Russia “the biggest threat”, because of the way it uses its military might to interfere with the expansion of US interests elsewhere, and in helping to drive division between US allies. It has disrupted US plans to oust Assad in Syria, and intervened in Libya. Western interests have been reduced in the Central Africa Republic and Mali and replaced by Russian mercenaries.
European Union sidelined
These events have seen another step in the US’s downplaying of its relationship with Europe. The setting up of the AUKUS alliance and the sudden departure from Afghanistan had, as one commentator observed confirmed that:
“the China folks in the White House are driving the bus. And they don’t have an appreciation of the EU as a useful partner on things that matter to the U.S.”
Nor was the EU invited to last week’s talks, except as individual members of NATO.
In part this reflects division within the EU itself. The Kremlin has, for several years, been cultivating support from right-populist forces particularly in Italy, France and Austria, whilst after the 2014 crisis, when Russia took over Crimea and DNR/LNR were established, France and Germany broke ranks, stepping in to try and resolve the issue in what became known as the Normandy format, responsible for the Minsk talks. Poland too, already in conflict with Brussels over whether EU laws overrule the Polish constitution, is unhappy that the EU is not acting firmly over the conflict.
The US wants a unified approach with the EU to implement sanctions. It seems that sanctions against leading figures in the Russian regime, including now it seems possibly against Putin himself are agreed. But France has just taken over the Presidency of the EU for six months. Macron has explicitly stated that sanctions against Russia do not work, while other EU members disagree as to what should actually trigger the sanctions. The sanction that appears to have wide acceptance is to cut the Russian economy off from the SWIFT banking information system.
More contentious is the fate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Production of natural gas from Britain, Netherlands and Norway is expected to fall in coming years, at the very time when demand is expected to soar, as it is seen as a cleaner energy source. To address this, Russia has built the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea allowing gas to be piped directly to Germany. It has the added benefit of depriving Ukraine of the income it makes from the transit of gas.
The pipeline was filled with the first gas at the end of December and is now waiting for the German authorities to issue the final certification so it can start operations. A quarter of the EU’s oil and over 40% of its gas currently come from Russia, and it is thought that Nord Stream 2 alone has the capacity to supply a third of the EU’s future gas requirements. Sanctions against Nord Stream 2 would mean a serious undermining of the economy, particularly when energy prices are surging.
This is why the US has met resistance to blocking Nord Stream 2. The newly formed German “traffic-light” coalition has run into its first major crisis over the issue. Chancellor Olaf Scholz from the Social Democratic Party publicly opposes sanctions against Nord Stream 2, a reflection of the interests of the German business elite. Merkel supported the project, and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is Chair of the Nord Stream 2 Shareholders Committee. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock however, a member of the Greens, calls for sanctions. This she explains is a ‘feminist foreign policy’, although if sanctions and war result from this policy, it would be a major setback for women in Ukraine and Russia.
Another player in this dangerous war game is Turkey, also a NATO member. Erdogan has suggested it could act as host for negotiations between Russian and Ukraine, obviously missing the irony when he criticized Russia, saying
“You cannot handle these things saying ‘I will invade something, I will take it’.”
Turkey and Russia have a relationship best described as cooperative rivalry, sometimes agreeing when criticizing the US, at other times in conflict as in Syria. Following the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, when Azerbaijan gained major support from Turkey, Erdogan publicly supported Kyiv’s claim on Crimea. A factory near to Kyiv has started to produce Turkish designed drones, that have already been used in east Ukraine.
US-Turkish relations are at an all-time low. Erdogan’s purchase of missiles from Russia in 2019 led to sanctions by the US. Now the country wants to purchase US fighters to modernize its air-force. A section of the US elite still look to Ankara as a potential ally against Russia, so turns a blind eye to the danger of a collapse of the Turkish economy, the growth of authoritarianism, and previous disagreements for fear of cutting off relations altogether, and leaving Turkey much closer to the developing China-Russia pivot.
Aware that the developing cold war will, in all likelihood, push the Kremlin closer to the Chinese regime, Biden has an interest in weakening such a significant military force by dealing it a bloody nose before such a union gains too much traction. Claims by the White House that this is in support of its policy of “promoting collective global action to boost democracy” have been blown out of the water by the rush to support the brutal actions by the Kazakhstan regime.
In an extraordinary essay published by the Kremlin in mid-2019, Putin justifies his belief that Ukraine is part of Russia by referring to, amongst others:
“The spiritual choice made by St. Vladimir… the throne of Kiev [which] held a dominant position in Ancient Rus… the custom since the late 9th century… the Tale of Bygone Years … the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, ”Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.”
As he approached modern times, he attacked the Lenin’s Bolsheviks for allowing the Ukrainian people to themselves decide their own fate, saying:
“The right for the republics to freely secede from the Union was included in the text of the Declaration on the Creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and, subsequently, in the 1924 USSR Constitution. By doing so, the authors planted in the foundation of our statehood the most dangerous time bomb, which exploded the moment the safety mechanism provided by the leading role of the CPSU was gone…”
These quotes alone give lie to any suggestion that Putin wants to restore the USSR, or as some left figures do, to justify support for Russia as a more progressive regime. He is inspired by the former Russian empire, consistently taking about a union, using the old Tsarist terminology, of Byelorossia, Malorussia (Northern and Western Ukraine), Novorossiya (Southern Ukraine to Moldova) and Crimea.
Neither in this article nor in the recently published “National Security Strategy” does the Kremlin propose direct intervention to take any of these areas. But commentators talk about ‘black swans’ — unexpected events that offer opportunities for action. In 2014, the Kremlin used the events around ‘Euromaidan’ to take over Crimea, and establish a position in East Ukraine. Since then, military conflict has continued taking so far 14,000 lives.
In the last two years, other ‘black swans’ have appeared. The uprising in Belarus, misled into defeat by the liberal opposition, pulled the Belarusian regime back into the Kremlin’s orbit. The war in Nagorno-Karabakh saw Turkey stepping up its influence in Azerbaijan at Russia’s expense, but allowed the Kremlin to take a firmer hold over Armenia. The uprising in Kazakhstan has seen the regime there step away from Nazarbayev’s ‘multi-vector’ strategy of balancing between Russia, China and the US as Tokayev has become dependent on Russian forces to support his regime.
But the new “National Security Strategy” published last year is much more assertive. According to the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center the previous strategy written in 2015 dealt with a different era:
“Back then, relations with the West had already sharply deteriorated as a result of the Ukraine crisis, but were still considered salvageable; much of the liberal phraseology inherited from the 1990s was still in use; and the world still looked more or less unified. The current version …is a manifesto for a different era: one defined by the increasingly intense confrontation with the United States and its allies; a return to traditional Russian values.”
It is undoubtedly true that the Kremlin’s tone and ultimatums have become much more aggressive.
How is this to be realised in practice? “Plan A” does appear to be the continuation of negotiations to limit the expansion of NATO eastwards. But the White House appears unready for compromise on this issue. The more the Kremlin ups the stakes with its troop movements and war games to pressurise the west, the more the west moves weapons to Ukraine and whips up the threat of war, the greater the risk of an accidental escalation. “Plan B” appears to be moving nearer as negotiations grind to a standstill. Then an official decision by the Russian Parliament and Government to recognise the two republics would confirm the process, by which Russia has started the mass issuing of Russian passports and the opening of trade relations. Russian troops would then move into the two republics.
A further escalation, if NATO missiles are placed in Ukraine, could be the moving of Russian missiles to other countries — Cuba and Venezuela have been mentioned. Another option is for there to be a quick intervention into the main part of the country to deal a blow to the Ukrainian army, before withdrawing as happened in the 2008 war against Georgia, when the Russian army attacked the city of Gori.
An escalation deeper into Ukraine would seem problematic — in 2014 bitter fighting prevented the pro-Russian side opening the corridor in the South around the town of Mariupol. Putin had to drop his initial aim of taking over the whole of “Novorossiya”. Today the Ukrainian military is better trained and equipped, but most importantly, the Ukrainian population will see such an attack as invasion, and resist bitterly.
Unlike then, when a patriotic frenzy after the takeover of Crimea took hold, the Russian population today is much more distrusting of the Kremlin. Omicron has hit the largely unvaccinated population, while the economic situation and dramatic strengthening of authoritarianism has undermined support for the regime. An opinion poll published this week suggests that still the majority of Russians do not believe there will be a war, although a majority fear it, looking on the situation not as a conflict with Ukraine but with America, in which:
“Ukraine — is a simple pawn in the larger game played by America… it is simple the US’s game, with western countries and NATO, who are using Ukraine to pressurise Russia”.
Very significantly, big business too has little enthusiasm for a war. The recent stock market crash has wiped $150 billion of the value of top companies and the ruble is falling. At the moment, business is not speaking out. As one anonymous investment banker comments:
“While nobody wants war, don’t expect big business to stand up and voice their opposition. We have become passengers. The business community will only discuss war in their kitchens. Everybody will stay quiet in public.”
This comment however exposes a real danger. Since 2014 the social base of the Kremlin autocracy has become increasingly narrow. Putin has become increasingly isolated, made worse by his fear of coronavirus. Visitors to his residence have to quarantine themselves for two weeks, before passing through a specially manufactured ‘disinfection tunnel’. This makes the situation very dangerous, as there are few checks left, no words of caution to stop the Kremlin making disastrous decisions.
Ukraine in crisis
Superficially, and particularly if you listen to the speeches of President Volodymyr Zelensky, 2021 has been a good year for Ukraine. GDP fell in 2020 by 4% during the pandemic, it has managed to grow in 2021 by 3,1%. The Ministry of Economics, and Zelensky himself boast that the country’s GDP has now reached its highest post-Soviet level at $200 billion. Yet this claim does not hold water — according to the same Ministry GDP in 2020 was just $156 bln. In 2008 it was $180 and 2013 $183.
Other statistics demonstrate the real situation. Household incomes are 20% lower than they were in 2013, inflation is officially about 10% and unemployment has reached 9.7%. When he was elected Zelensky promised that GDP would increase by 40% in 5 years, that he would push for Ukraine to join the EU and would resolve the conflict in East Ukraine through negotiations with Russia. He has failed on all of these.
Given these failures, Zelensky’s poll ratings have been falling. In a populist way last year, he introduced a law supposedly restricting the rights of the oligarchs to own businesses and the media, as well as a campaign against ‘corruption’. The first of these was very much seen as an attack on those oligarchs who were pro-Russian, earning the wrath of the Kremlin. As for the moves against corruption, as one commentator expressed it:
“So far not one of the top-corruptionists has suffered, and there is a concrete reason for this — cooperation with the President’s office!”
As criticism grew within his own circles, Zelensky has now moved against some of his own former supporters, sacking, for example the Speaker of the Rada, the Parliament, Dmytro Razumkov.
These measures have not helped restore his rating. Looming too are large increases in utility prices. An opinion poll in December suggested that 67% of the population believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, up from 36% two years ago. Only 5% of those asked said that their material position had improved over the last two years, while the military conflict, the rise in utility prices and low wages were all named by over 60% of those asked as the ‘most serious problems’.
It is against this background that the mood for war is being whipped up in Ukraine. In December, Zelensky announced that a pro-Russian coup was about to take place. This plot seems to have been regurgitated by Boris Johnson’s Foreign Office which claims this week to have uncovered a plot to install a pro-Russian government in Kyiv. The suggestion is being met by ridicule in Kyiv. A former spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry reacted saying:
“This scenario would only work with a fully-fledged invasion taking over Kyiv. The city would be decimated, its land burned, and a million people would flee. We have 100,000 people in the capital with arms, who will fight … There may be a plan but it’s bullshit.”
This latest claim by Johnson’s government gives another twist to the divisions in Europe. Undoubtedly trying to divert attention away from the existential crisis facing his government, Johnson has declared that the British Foreign Office is stepping up activity to enforce NATO unity behind the US lead, whilst criticizing Macron’s suggestion that now is the time to establish a European defence structure, and the German government’s wavering over Nord Stream 2 sanctions.
In Ukraine, the number who now think that war can be avoided through negotiations is falling. A minority believe that Russia is preparing a full-scale invasion. Far more likely, in the opinion of many is an incursion and heightened military activity in the conflict zone between the unrecognised republics and the rest of Ukraine. An opinion poll conducted in mid-December showed that a majority of those living in Ukraine would resist an invasion by Russia, 33% would take up arms to do so.
The situation is made more complex by the feeling they have been abandoned by the west. There is a growing anti-NATO mood with comments such as:
“It’s like they have abandoned us. Only Britain, the Baltics and Poland are doing well. And in the USA the President is bad, a rag, but there are good people there too, who should stand up to oppose the President”.
The developing global polarisation is changing the relationship between Russia and China — not so long ago, they found themselves competing for influence. Now they are drawing closer together — both having right-wing authoritarian regimes, fearful of their own peoples and using the US aggression in the currently developing cold war to present their countries as facing foreign attack. They both supported the coup in Myanmar, Lukashenko in Belarus, and the Kazakhstan regime.
China views the situation in Ukraine as another example of US aggression. There is however an important nuance. It has asked Putin not to start a war in Ukraine until the Winter Olympics are over. Putin plans to attend the opening of the games, and will undoubtedly be testing how much support he can expect from Beijing, while if the situation does escalate in Ukraine, it will set a precedent for China’s actions in the South China Sea and Taiwan.
Can war be avoided?
The different sides may not be planning to escalate the conflict. But with their warmongering and ultimatums, their vested, national/imperialist interests the situation could easily develop out of control. Even if now a war does not develop, given the increasing polarisation of the world between different imperialist interests, it is only a matter of time before new ‘proxy’ conflicts develop here, or elsewhere. This raises the need for the building a mass anti-war movement. On what basis?
There can be no confidence in any peace negotiations conducted by the imperialist powers. It is the conflict between the interests of the different imperialist powers that is causing the conditions for such wars to develop. The forces and equipment of all imperialist forces — Russia and NATO — should be withdrawn from Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
Ukraine has the right to defend itself, the question is in whose interests and in what ways? The ruling elite will call for national unity, which in reality means defending the rule of the oligarchs, which since independence has left Ukraine jumping from one crisis to another while the rich simply get richer and richer. The far right and warmongers will whip up reactionary nationalist moods, which will leave Ukrainians fighting on their own, and rather than end the conflict increase hatred and extend the conflict.
But war is not in the interests of the working class. An organised working class would defend their homes and workplaces, and unified in a strong anti-war movement in Ukraine could make a strong class appeal to workers in Russia and elsewhere to take action themselves to stop the war.
To actually stop the war however needs an international movement, mass demonstrations and even strikes in the US, Russia and NATO countries. But as previous anti-war movements have shown, even the huge global protests against the invasion of Iraq involving millions of people were not enough to stop the war.
ISA supports the call made by or comrades from Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa in Russia and Ukraine to oppose the war:
“Socialists call for all conscious workers and students to start building a strong, international anti-war movement, turning it against anyone trying to ignite war between peoples. We are not fighting for abstract pacifism, but for a united struggle against the system that causes war, poverty, climate and ecological catastrophe, pandemics and authoritarianism”.
This needs the building powerful political movements to oppose the capitalist ruling elites who profit from war, to take into democratic public ownership the oil and gas companies and other resources owned by the oligarchs, and to end the rule of the imperialist warmongers by ensuring the real rights to self-determination and the building of a genuinely democratic, socialist federation of Europe and the world.