New Cold War: What now for Ukrainian conflict?

Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa reporters, ISA in Russia

Russia will recognise the independence of the two disputed regions in Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk. Russian troops will act as “peacekeepers”. This marks another extremely dangerous stage in what could end up as the worst war seen in Europe since WW2.

President Putin has now announced that Russia will recognise the independence of the two disputed regions in Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk. He has instructed Russian troops to act as “peacekeepers”. This marks another extremely dangerous stage in what could end up as the worst war seen in Europe since WW2.

Warmongers have been whipping up hysteria for over three months now. Western powers announced that the Russian occupation of Ukraine would begin — 3 am local time on 16 February. As the deadline approached, the squeals of the war mongers grew louder and louder, and a certain degree of panic set in in Ukraine. The government announced the mobilisation of troops and reservists. Airlines stopped flying, while seats on those still active jumped to five times their price — war, after all, is always profitable for some! Forty countries announced they were evacuating families of diplomats from Kyiv — some to the West Ukrainian city of Lviv. Twenty chartered flights were organised to allow VIPs, oligarchs and their families to flee, while military aid and equipment flooded into Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the population was asked to “not panic”!

As the deadline passed, one Russian newspaper cynically commented “war has been postponed”. Many Ukrainians undoubtedly sighed with relief when they woke on Wednesday. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova described US claims of a pending attack “shameful”. She asked the media to inform her of future dates of a Russian attack on Ukraine so she could plan her holidays. The Kremlin spoke, on 16 February, about having defeated “the hysteria whipped up across the world, which is nothing more than an absolutely unprecedented information campaign to provoke and drive tensions in Europe”.

Still tensions continued to escalate. The White House claimed the invasion of Ukraine was imminent. Boris Johnson stated the Kremlin will take over the whole country, and UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss talks of Russia taking over Eastern Europe.

The Kremlin contradicted these claims, denying they have plans to invade. The Russian Defence Ministry distributed videos showing troops and equipment returning to barracks. But rather than return the Russian troops in Belarus ‘for joint exercises’ it was announced they would stay for good. Russian sabre — rattling continued with new war games conducted over the weekend to test hypersonic ballistic missiles.

Fighting increases in East Ukraine

The weekend saw worrying new signs. Friday morning started with artillery exchanges along the border between Kyiv controlled territory and the disputed east Ukraine republics — Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR/LNR). As local residents point out, this was not particularly new as war has continued for 8 years, with over 14,000 losing their lives, but this was a dramatic increase. OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observers report they took place in more than 30 locations. Later in the day, the jeep belonging to Donetsk’s police chief was blown up outside his office, although one local resident commented he had never seen such high-ranking officers driving such a cheap car.

On Monday a clearly stage-managed televised meeting of the Russian Security Council took place. One after another, senior figures called for the recognition of the two disputed republics DNR/LNR. When the General Procuror spoke out of line saying that he supports the call for the DNR/LNR to join the Russian Federation, he was corrected by Putin, who said that that is not being discussed: we are just discussing recognising the independence of the two republics.

Later in the evening Putin appeared on television to ‘address the nation’. In a half hour excursion in history going back to the 9th Century he explained how Ukraine was part of Russia. In a significant part of his speech he attacked Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who, he said “created modern Ukraine, using very brutal methods in relation to Russia itself by separation, by tearing away part of its historical territory.” Stalin however, in Putin’s words “on the eve of, and after the ‘Great Patriotic war’ [WW2] united it back to the USSR…” He went on to support the Stalinist approach to the national question after the revolution when Stalin tried to set up the Russian Socialist Federation with Ukraine subservient as part of Russia, in opposition to Lenin’s formation of the USSR with Ukraine as an equal partner.

He went on to describe the wave of corruption that had gripped Ukraine, the lack of democracy and, what he called, the western inspired coup d’etat that had taken power in 2014. He complained that those in power organised harassment, real terror against those who opposed these ‘unconstitutional actions’. Politicians, journalists, social activists are mocked and publicly humiliated. Ukrainian cities are hit by a wave of pogroms and violence, a series of open and unpunished murders. Many of those watching this speech will wonder whether he was talking about Russia itself!

He finished by announcing that Russia would now officially recognise the independence and sovereignty of DNR and LNR. Russian troops have been ordered into the two republics as “peacekeepers”. Within hours it has been reported that Russian tanks are already in Donetsk.

This is an extremely dangerous move. One ‘senior US diplomat’ yesterday suggested that “Russian troops moving into the Donbas region would not be new”. But this is remarkably naive. It is already clear that there will be conflict over where the borders of the “independent republics” will be.

Neither the DNR nor the LNR occupy the whole of the former Donetsk and Luhansk regions, significant parts of the region, in Donetsk’s case over 40% of the 4 million population and two thirds of the area remain under the control of Kyiv. Leonid Kalashnikov, a senior Russian Duma figure and member of the Communist party has called for the troops to take over the whole of the two regions. If the role of the “peacekeepers” is to confront Ukrainian troops at the current front line to take over the whole of these regions, there is a very real danger of the war escalating dramatically out of control.

Is there hope left for diplomacy?

Following the week-end’s Munich Security Conference, diplomatic negotiations may continue but are almost certainly too late now to make any difference. The first reaction of Macron and Scholz to Putin’s announcement was to express disappointment, but hoping that negotiations could continue.

During the Munich conference Zelensky expressed real dissatisfaction at western inaction. The US has from the beginning tried to present a united front with the EU against Russia. It has had to overcome German resistance to the threat of sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Speaking at the conference US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised German Foreign Minister and Green Party member Annalena Baerbock for acting in a coordinated, and complementary manner, while Chancellor Scholz promised that Germany needed “Airplanes that fly, ships that can set out to sea, soldiers who are optimally equipped for their dangerous tasks — these are things that a country of our size, one that bears a very special responsibility within Europe, must be able to afford. We owe this to our allies in NATO, too.” But behind the bloodthirsty speeches by the likes of Johnston, Zelensky’s calls to start ‘preventative sanctions’ against Russia fell on deaf ears.

Attention then shifted to French President Emmanuel Macron. During the Munich Conference he announced he had had “personal assurances” from President Putin. Not for the first time, of course, a world leader returned from a conference in Munich claiming such assurances, as former British Premier Neville Chamberlain did in 1938 after meeting Hitler. UK Defence Secretary spoke of the “whiff of Munich” implying that the result had been a repeat of the pre WW2 ‘appeasement’. At least Macron did not wave a piece of paper about. Nevertheless, the next intended stage was to be a return to the “Normandy format” — negotiations between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia over the implementation of Minsk 2 and the status of DNR/LNR. If there is even the slightest possibility now of a diplomatic agreement, it will be along these lines.

It will be far from easy to reach an agreement. Russia will use the effective occupation of the two republics to put huge pressure on Kyiv, even if it doesn’t encroach further into the country. Zelensky however will come under tremendous pressure not to concede. But the very existence of DNR/LNR will prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO or the EU, states which cannot guarantee their own borders are not accepted.

Suffering in East Ukraine

Those living in DNR/LNR are currently facing the brunt of the crisis. Over the weekend, the pro-Russian, warlord leaders announced mobilisation into their defence forces and the evacuation of women, children, and elderly into Russia. Tens of thousands fled overnight but were left to sleep in antiquated buses in sub-zero temperatures. Many feel they have been panicked into leaving unnecessarily — one mother related how she had been persuaded to leave with her children, without even having time to tell her husband.

Meanwhile Russian politicians are cynically out of touch. As Russian TV covers the arrival of busloads of refugee children and grandmothers in tears from East Ukraine, MPs suggest they should be housed in the flats of those who died from Covid. Others propose that state employees lose their 13th monthly wage (an end of year bonus to make up for poor wages) to pay for it. Patients recovering from serious illnesses are being turned out of hospitals and student hostels taken over to accommodate refugees.

Many reports from within DNR/LNR suggest there is great scepticism towards the authorities. People speaking anonymously to the press say that the attacks are being exaggerated, complain that they cannot speak openly by phone, knowing they are being listened to. As one commented: “The well-off, the businessmen, the bankers and bandits — they all fled in 2014”. Others talk of the war being whipped up by the politicians.

Interests of ordinary Ukrainians being sacrificed

Ukraine is likely to suffer the consequences for months, if not years to come. Foreign companies have been fleeing and there has been a $15 billion outflow of capital as a result of the heightened war fever, a sum that puts into the shade the just over $2billion of financial aid promised by the US and EU in the past week.

This was reflected by Volodymyr Zelensky speaking during the Munich Security Conference this weekend. He spoke of Ukraine being the “shield of Europe” but complained that since 2014 both NATO and the EU have refused to accept it as a member. He warned that the “Budapest format” [the 1994 agreement under which Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees] had left the country with no weapons and no security. In that case, he said “We will be free from our obligations”. He went on: “If we are told every day that there will be a war tomorrow, what will happen in the country except panic? What will become of our economy? You tell us: carry out reforms, improve your management, fight corruption — and then we’ll help you. But on our borders, there are 150,000 troops. Maybe you should do something about this before demanding we do something?”

A new cold war

The current situation is part of the developing polarisation and realignment of the world between US and Chinese imperialist interests. NATO has been stepping up its presence in Eastern Europe, now with bases in Poland, Romania and the three Baltic states, which all border the former Soviet Union. 12,000 NATO troops support the quarter of a million local personnel in those countries. Since 2016, the US MoD has sent military aid worth $1,65 billion to Ukraine, whilst the UK has sent $1.7 billion since 2020. Other NATO powers such as Canada, France and Turkey as well as the Baltic states have also helped out, although on a much smaller scale. During the current tensions, NATO has rapidly been sending more units and equipment to Ukraine and its neighbours. This is a real consequence of the hard-line policies of the Biden administration, which names China as the “main competitor” and Russia as “the most dangerous”.

Biden’s efforts to persuade Germany and France to present a united front is running up against their interests. Not least, if all-out war does develop, there will be an economic crisis and a massive wave of refugees. Germany relies on Russia for its energy supplies, particularly gas, sanctions against which will lead to energy shortages and a massive price rise for EU consumers. This is part of the reason why the US has been pushing the EU to diversify its energy suppliers, so it is not so reliant on Russia. Germany has been pressured to remove its backing for Nord Stream 2, which is awaiting final certification to start operations.

In this context, the US unexpectedly withdrew its support for the East Mediterranean pipeline which would have enabled the direct transit of energy from Israel and the Middle East to Europe. It seems this was done to appease Turkey, as Erdogan has expressed his open support for Ukraine in this crisis, and offers a backdoor route to transfer weapons to Kyiv. A factory to build Turkish drones has already been built in Kyiv.

Having been crying wolf for weeks, the White House doubled down, predicting ‘false flag’ operations by the Russians as a pretext to invade. The Kremlin’s military strategy includes the waging of “hybrid war” — the combined use of electronic warfare, deniable assets (mercenaries), political interference and provocations. It is not alone in this. The US, British, French and other imperialist forces have long practised such methods. Their use, however, in the dark underworld makes it difficult to analyse who did want, when and where. The dangerous mix of western warmongering and Russian cyberwar has created a situation that will soon be impossible to control.

Russian imperialism

The Kremlin’s policies too have hardened over the last decade. When it now complains about NATO’s expansion across Eastern Europe it forgets that during Putin’s first decade in office, it “cooperated” with NATO, even allowing it to use an airbase in Russia as a staging point to Afghanistan. When first elected Putin even spoke of the possibility of Russia joining NATO! By 2019 though it was in direct competition. Having strengthened its position globally in Syria and Central Africa, it has increased its influence in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Most worrying for US imperialism is that Sino-Russian cooperation is increasing. During Beijing’s Winter games Xi and Putin signed a new agreement for Russia to increase energy supplies to China in return for joint opposition to new “color revolutions”.

Indicative of the atmosphere in which the Kremlin now takes its decisions are the photos of Putin’s long table discussions, first with Macron, and then later with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu at the end of an even longer table! Since the start of the pandemic, Putin has been isolated from society and the advice he does receive is more and more unbalanced. Lavrov, during his meeting, accounted for the discussions with Macron and others. His comment was that although no progress had been made on Russia’s main demands, including the retreat of NATO to 1997 boundaries, there were interesting developments in other areas. Lavrov said there was still room for diplomacy, but if Putin wanted, he should go ahead with the recognition of DNR/LNR.

A formal decision to recognise the two republics has passed in the State Duma, on the initiative of the reactionary communist party. While many ruling party deputies voted for the resolution, the position of the Kremlin was to take note of the decision, suggest that the Duma deputies are reflecting public opinion, and to leave the decision on when to sign the proposal to Putin, The Foreign Ministry also expressed its opposition to the immediate recognition of the republics.

Despite being authoritarian, the regime still has to take into account whether Russians will accept a war over Ukraine. 2022 is not 2014, when a massive patriotic wave resulted from the take-over of Crimea. With no heart for a war against Ukraine, most Russians are grappling with lower living standards, escalating inflation and, during the pandemic, over a million “excess deaths”. Mistrust in anything the government says is growing. There are reports of opposition to a full invasion even from within the ranks of the army and special services.

Putin may be glad he has support from Beijing, but if a prolonged war drains economic resources, he could well have to ask Xi to bail him out.

The position of socialists on Ukraine

This situation demonstrates what we said 30 years ago, that when the Soviet Union collapsed: neither the economies, nor the national and democratic rights of those in the region would be protected with the restoration of capitalism.

Socialists should not take sides between the different imperialist powers. It is not our task to judge claims by the Russians that it was the Ukrainian army that started the artillery shelling, or by Kyiv (echoed by the White House) that the forces of the disputed republics were responsible, and that these were Russian inspired “false flag” operations to justify an invasion. It is also possible that attacks were not sanctioned by the Kremlin, but organised by the reactionary leaders of the two republics to push Russia into intervening.

But what is important is the right of Ukraine to be an independent state. ISA speaks out unconditionally for that right. All imperialist troops whether from Russia, or NATO should be withdrawn from Ukraine and Eastern Europe immediately. To lessen tension, Russian troops currently along the border should return to barracks.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Ukraine became independent, its ruling elite and the oligarchs who support them have embroiled the country in the conflict between the world’s economic powers. The natural resources of the country, the banks and large companies should be taken out of the hands of the oligarchs and multinationals and into public ownership, under democratic workers control.

At the same time, Ukraine must respect the rights of its own minorities and regions. It should be remembered that it was attempts by the post-euromaidan government to restrict Russian language rights, and fear by a section of the population at the growth of far-right influence that created the original discontent that the Russian regime then exploited. Language rights should be respected. If a minority or region wants autonomy, or even to secede, it should have the right to do so. But any decision must be taken without any military presence, and in democratic votes, controlled by the local population.

We can have no confidence in any of the imperialist powers. The West has demonstrated time and again — in Iraq, Syria, Serbia, Libya and elsewhere that it is not a guarantor of democracy or sovereignty. It is defending the interests of the capitalist class it represents. Russia too is certainly no defender of the ‘slavic’ people it purports to support — its own actions against the Russian people themselves demonstrate that. The Russian state acts to support the interests of the Russian oligarchy, just like the west. Its ‘peacekeeping troops are not in Ukraine to ‘keep the peace’ but to defend the economic and political interests of the Russian ruling elite.

Socialists need to speak out to call for a massive anti-war and anti imperialist movement. This may not be the easiest task, as many who would have opposed imperialist attacks on countries like Iraq are now divided. Some support Russia and China in opposition to US imperialism, others oppose Russian aggression, giving full support to Ukraine and its imperialist backers.

As socialists though, we cannot support one or other of the imperialist powers as they squabble over the fate of Ukraine. Its fate as an independent country free from outside intervention cannot be trusted to the ruling elite of either western or Russian capital. Only a united working class struggle against the warmongers in each country can create the situation in which Ukraine can be genuinely independent.

The Ukrainian working class should play a major role in this. If it was organised to defend homes and jobs from military attack, if it ensured that the struggle was not diverted down nationalist or pro-capitalist lines by waging a united struggle of all workers in Ukraine irrespective of nationality or language, it could make a powerful appeal for solidarity to workers in Russia, Europe and the US. United in such a way, the working class and youth can bring an end to the nightmare of war, guarantee the right to self determination and open the way to a new, democratic and socialist society.

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