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Ukraine and the Threat of War

Of all the ways to mark the outbreak of the First World War in its centennial year, starting another is the least appropriate way I can think of. But the dogs of war are straining at the leash, and the drums are loudly echoing across the Black Sea’s northern shores. The decision of Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops into Crimea is the by far the most serious international incident this decade.

First things first, let’s clear out the nonsense. It says something about the poverty of this country’s politics when a government minister uses the occasion of crisis for desperate point-scoring.

But Javid is not alone. Plenty are the armchair brigade who urged war on Syria from Tweetdeck (as opposed to carrier decks) and are making broadly similar claims. The argument goes something like this. Because the US and its allies didn’t rain cruise missiles down on Damascus, its opponents in Moscow and Beijing will conclude that the West have lost its nerve, more or less giving them a free hand. It doesn’t stand up to argument.

Exhibit one: Afghanistan and Iraq. The Anglo-American invasion and occupation of these unhappy lands didn’t clip Moscow’s wings. It allowed Putin and Medvedev to crack down on Chechen and Ingush separatism in the name of the War on Terror.

Exhibit two: Russia’s brief conflict with Georgia and subsequent establishment of puppet states in Abkhazia and South Ossetia proceeded while the West was still bullish and with the neocons in the White House.

Now, of course, Putin and his circle of advisors would have weighed up the reaction of “world opinion”. But considering the actions of the US is a matter of routine. Russia knows the Americans are not going to intervene militarily in support of the new Ukrainian government, and it has never been a realistic proposition. Hence the “weak West” thesis is a complete red herring. We’d be here whether we’d flung cruise missiles into Syria or not.

The second point is the hypocrisy or select blindness of Western commentators, paid-for or unsolicited. I think it was Thatcher who said that there are no principles in international relations, only interests. Yes, “defence of Russian speakers” and such like is a flimsy pretext for Russia’s military interventions. The good reason seeks to mask the real reason, and no one would doubt that Putin is motivated by what he understands as Russia’s interests – of which more in a moment.

But come on, let’s bin the cringing naivete for once. The West in the shape of the US and European Union have as surely pursued their sometimes complementary, sometimes divergent interests as their Russian opponent. NATO and the EU have expanded eastwards consistently since the soviet collapse, and the US has military bases dotted about the USSR’s former central Asian republics. You don’t need to be an apologist for Putin – and I’m definitely not – to note that the Kremlin might feel a process of encirclement is in motion, and that it will be a long-term concern in its foreign policy deliberations. Russia’s military incursion is conditioned by its perception of creeping threat – if you can grasp that then Putin’s behaviour becomes understandable.

Understanding, however, does not excuse Russia’s behaviour. There is absolutely no reason to whitewash Putin. His regime is a grotesquery as vicious and criminal as its democratic legitimacy is thin. To cosy up to it out of “anti-imperialism” or some residual Sovietist nostalgia is morally vacant and politically stupid. And to have Lenin’s self-described disciples doing so would have that waxen figure backflipping in his mausoleum. But condemnation and moral opprobrium is no substitute for analysing and dissecting, and Putin is pursuing a consistent strategy.

As the New Atlanticist’s Damon Wilson argues, Russia’s strategy is about destabilising its former possessions and as a kind of ring of instability that would prevent their being turned against Moscow. The FSB and the Russian foreign office observed how the Baltic States were removed entirely from Russia’s orbit and integrated into the EU and NATO. Acquiescing to that elsewhere could have relegated it from great power status to a “Saudi Arabia with trees”.

But why? It’s not just a matter of fear. The problem Russia has is three-fold. As Putin’s administration becomes more authoritarian, the more brittle it becomes. If you cultivate the image as a strongman, you need to do the heavy lifting. Presently Putin does enjoy a large measure of popular support, largely because he is perceived as standing up for Russia in the world. Allowing the Ukraine to slip away and theoretically putting the large Russian-speaking minority in harms way would be political suicide. It’s a good job for Putin that his natural political instincts keep this option off the table.

Second, Russia’s ruling clique of oligarchs and bureaucrats could teach the British bourgeoisie and its hangers on a thing-or-two aboutdecadence. They represent the most parasitic forms of capital, forged by Yeltsin’s sweeping privatisation of the economy and, since, have done little but gorged themselves on Russia’s vast energy and mineral reserves. That money is funnelled into prestige office blocks in Moscow but precious little is getting reinvested in the “real” economy. There’s also the small matter of a flatlining population after nearly two decades of absolute reductions. Despite the BRIC hype, Russia is in a spiral of long-term decline.

Unfortunately for us in the West, the money markets of London, New York and Frankfurt are lubricated by cash looted from Russia’s oil fields and mines. Neoliberalism has reversed the economics of 1914. Whereas then British and French capital was doing quite nicely under the Tsar, today it is Russian capital making cash in London from financial alchemy, property and footbsll. An unstated and underestimated risk for Britain and the US is economic blowback.

Which brings us back to the West. Notwithstanding NATO’s condemnation, the US and EU are urging restraint on the new Ukrainian government because they have no short, medium or long-term interest in action against Russia, be it open conflict, a ruinous proxy war ostensibly between West and East Ukraine, or sanctions. It is also weary of further cementing a de facto alliance between Russia and China. However, despite warning the new government against taking action, Yatsenyuk’s ad hoc administration also have limited choices. For Ukrainians who fought Yanukovich’s stooge regime this is another phase of Russian bullying. The political clamour to do something might be too great to resist, especially when you have open fascists in your cabinet.

This week will be crucial. Let’s hope the outcome will be something other than ‘nothing good’.


  1. swatantra says:

    You’re missing the point, the chaos in Ukraine which of Ukraine’s own making, is the most serious threat to peace since Bosnia. We need stability in Europe, not chaos, which just gives rise to the far right facists to make a comeback, as is happening in most of the former Eastern bloc countries. They should have stayed neutral and not aligned themselves to NATO.

  2. James Martin says:

    It was the US and EU who caused the problem in the first place by encouraging a bunch of far-right Nazi worshiping anti-Semitic thugs to seize power in Kiev and then justifying this putsch with laughable phrases like ‘democratic revolution’ and it’s leaders with ‘interim prime minister’.

    And what was the first act by the new government? To ban the Russian language, which incidentally is the first language of nearly half the population – the very first order of business! Then there were talks about banning the Ukraine Communist Party (whose offices had been occupied and ransacked) and ‘dealing’ with other leftists and trade union leaders as well as the ‘foreigners’ such as anyone who happened to be Jewish.

    So let’s be clear, the new ‘government’ of Ukraine are nothing more than gangsters, thugs and fascists.

    And there’s the thing. Once, we actually joined forces with Russia (or USSR as was) to fight fascism. Now it seems our governments can’t wait to jump into bed with the far-right. And it appears to me that Russia has actually done the world a huge favour here by blocking yet another attempted client state of US/EU/Nato imperialism and in taking on a bunch of fascist anti-Semites.

    Yes, by all means let’s be critical of Putin’s own nationalism and anti-gay nonsense, but in this particular conflict Russian troops deserve support and not condemnation – and this is certainly how the majority of the population of Crimea appears to think also.

  3. David Ellis says:

    Statement on Ukraine: First Shots in World Revolution not World War Three

    1. The Committee for a Unified British Section of the World Party of Socialist Revolution (Fourth International) wholeheartedly welcomes the victory of the Ukrainian revolution over the Yanukovytch gangster-capitalist tyranny.

    2. We condemn the annexation of Crimea by the head of the Russian Imperialist kleptocracy and international war criminal Putin.

    3. We call for the release of the Ukrainian troops imprisoned in their barracks in the Crimea and for them to be given safe passage into Free Ukraine.

    4. We call on the revolutionary masses of Ukraine not to be provoked into an injudicious military adventure either by Putin or by the corrupt gang of parliamentarians that have temporarily been thrown into power by the abdication of Yanukovytch. Their bluster is to cover their own nakedness and the economic rape of Ukraine by gangster capitalists and their Eastern and Western backers.

    5. In a very real sense Putin’s seizure of Crimea demonstrates the utter weakness and bankruptcy of Russian imperialism. The kleptocracy has been forced to swap Russian domination of the whole of Ukraine for the peninsula alone which itself further weakens Russian influence.

    6. The most immediate task of the revolution is not vacuous tub-thumping but the adoption of policies that will ensure that Free Ukraine remains unified under a revolutionary democracy and that Putin is given no pretext to go further. After all, there is absolutely no appetite in the East for the return of Yanukovytch anymore than they supported the other wing of Ukrainian gangster capitalism represented by the equally corrupt Tymoshenko.

    7. It is of no interest to the revolution to see a NATO intervention to `liberate’ Crimea despite the cries of the parliament of crooks and the neo-Conservatives in the US, the same people who devastated Iraq and who would love nothing more than to take on Russia on the battlefield however many Ukrainians die as a result. An inter-imperialist war over the heads of the Ukrainian people is most definitely not in the interest of the revolution.

    8. The fact that the West has been obliged to sit on its hands whilst Putin land-grabs Crimea is a sign of the utter bankruptcy and increasing disunity of US-led imperialism bankrupted and bogged down by the hubris and over-stretch of the previous period. And what does it offer the Ukrainian people in any case? The overnight closure of Ukrainian industry through exposure to the monopolised neo-liberal world economy, the transformation of the workforce into factory slaves for Western consumers and the theft of all doctors and nurses to staff Western health systems.

    9. No, the revolution needs to maintain its independence. The Ukrainian people rule Ukraine not the American poseur McCain or Tsar Putin, the Russian Federation or the EU/US or indeed the elite cabal of gangster capitalists who took power with the collapse of the Stalinised Soviet Union. The real and only allies of the Ukrainian people are the international proletariat not this or that gang of imperialist annexationists or carpet baggers.

    10. The Ukrainian revolution was made possible both by a fatal split in its gangster capitalist ruling elite and in world imperialism which is once again since 2008 descending into impotent but violent rivalry. Ukraine, sitting on a global fault line like the Arab Spring before it, is showing us the future and its potential to transcend what Karl Marx once called `all the old crap’ i.e. rule by thieving elites.

  4. Ric Euteneuer says:

    So our enemy’s enemy is our friend? And the only people against Yanukovych in Ukraine are Svoboda and their allies?

    Sadly, this kind of starry eyed justification of brutal oppression and Russian imperialism have amongst its champions people who believe the mantra above, rather than a dispassionate observation that BOTH sides are wrong here, and the Russian ‘liberation’ force are anything but. Did the same author praise the annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Pridnestrovye ? Does he not even think that the proponents might be doing this to advance the economic interests of the latter day nomenklatura ?

  5. David Ellis says:

    So you are a supporter of Ukrainian gangster capitalism and Yanukovytch?

  6. Gerry says:

    James Martin – let’s tell it like it is! A corrupt, kleptocratic, “parasitic-capitalist”, totally authoritarian country (Russia) led by a ridiculous hypermacho homophobe (Putin) has invaded a smaller neighbour on the flimsiest of pretexts!

    To hear the Russian state and its supine media railing against “fascism” and “nationalism” is truly hypocritical and disgusting.


    The Ukranian “revolution” – the flimsy pretext for Putin’s hissy-fit – has put in power another bunch of disgusting, kleptocratic, parasitic opposition parties, amongst them the hideous Swoboda and assorted goons to the right of Hitler!

    Perhaps the best socialist response is: a plague on both their wretched orthodox and catholic houses!

    Like Syria, we must not intervene militarily but sure there is a case for meaningful individual and state sanctions against the Russian mafiosi, starting with Putin and Medvedev, hitting these toy soldiers where it hurts them most: their bulging klepto-pockets!

  7. Ric Euteneuer says:

    Yup Gerry, that’s about the size of it. I do fear some on the (far) left still labour under the massive illusion that the Soviet Union and Russia have been a workers’ paradise since time immemorial, and hence, anything they do is to be defended.

    The big issue coming up on the inside track is gas – and how Russia turning off the taps will affect the UK and other European countries.

  8. Chris says:

    Gerry, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Christianity for this.

  9. James Martin says:

    As bad as each other Gerry? Well, let’s put it like this. The fascist rabble in control of Kiev openly display Nazi insignia, hang up pictures of WWII Ukranian nazi collaborators responsible for massacres and pogroms against Jews, destroy any display or statue of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders and occupy and vandalise Communist Party offices.

    What I see in Crimea on the TV is regular pictures of old Soviet/Lenin flags flying amongst the pro-Russian demonstrators, people protecting Lenin statues, no talk of Jews as ‘foreigners’ and the Ukraine Communist Party still being able to function.

    So yes, there is a difference, and a very clear one at that.

  10. David Ellis says:

    Gerry I get the feeling that it is not imperialism that you hate but revolution. Anti-imperialism in the name of anti-revolutionism.

    You say `like Syria we must not intervene militarily’. That is in fact the Western imperialist position, the `we’ in your case. The Russian imperialist position is somewhat different.

  11. Gerry says:

    James – socialists dont have “to choose a side” here, Russian nationalism and Jew-hatred is easily as virulent and reactionary as Swoboda, and if you know history you should really know that.

    And James, this “crisis” is – essentially – a massive Putin temper tantrum, a testosterone-fuelled patriarchal playground bully’s hissy-fit…

    Chris – I do blame religion in Russia and Ukraine for being part of the problem, with priests and churches stoking up nationalism, xenophobia, and ultra- conservative hatred…

    David – when I say we I mean “socialists” or “lefties”..this is Left futures after all! Putin is an old school imperialist, with not a shred of socialism in his makeup…and I know what left revolution looks like too, and to me it looked like Hugo Chavez!

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