The imperial conflict over Ukraine heats up

February 18, 2015

Ashley Smith explains the background to the latest stage of Ukraine's civil war.

THE U.S. and Russia are locked in a spiraling conflict over Ukraine, with the threat of a wider war and violence now greater than ever. Both Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin claim to want peace, but they are playing a deadly game of imperialist move and counter-move.

Fighting between Ukrainian soldiers and separatist rebels in the East of the country slowed on Sunday, the first day of a cease-fire negotiated last week, but there were still ongoing battles in important places that Russian-backed rebels want to conquer. The agreement to stop the fighting itself was announced early Thursday morning--but the accord left two-and-a-half days before the cease-fire went into effect, during which time the rebels stepped up their attacks on positions defended by the Ukrainian army.

The immediate cause of the crisis was the collapse of a previous peace agreement struck last September. That was supposed stop the civil war between the U.S.-backed government in Kiev and the separatist People's Republic of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Apartments destroyed during fighting in Lysychansk
Apartments destroyed during fighting in Lysychansk

Once again with this outbreak of violence, the separatists gained the upper hand. They expanded their territory by a couple hundred miles in eastern Ukraine, including areas that could establish a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, a peninsula on the southern coast of Ukraine that was occupied and then annexed by Russia last year.

Overall, the violence has killed more than 5,000 people, injured another 9,000 and displaced over 1.5 million, according to United Nations figures.

Though Putin and Co. deny it, there is plenty of evidence that Russia has been sending volunteers, aid and weaponry to help the separatists' advance in Ukraine, which has been a vital nation in various forms of empire ruled out of Moscow over centuries. Meanwhile, Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko looks in the other direction, toward the West--he has appealed for the U.S. and NATO to provide Ukraine with arms and training to defeat the separatists.

THE U.S., Germany and their allies in Europe have denounced Russia for violating Ukraine's sovereignty. Obama declared that the West "cannot stand idle and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun." If "diplomacy fails," the president continued, "what I've asked my team to do is to look at all options. Defensive weapons is one of those options that's being examined, but I have not made that decision yet."

Words like this from the commander-in-chief of the world's number one terror state stink of hypocrisy. The U.S. has been expanding the military alliance it leads, NATO, across Eastern Europe, re-writing the military balance of power and organization of states in the region. Not far to the south and west, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, with the hope of remaking the Middle East at gunpoint.

Obama's posturing prompted Putin to declare that the U.S. is engaged in an attempt:

to freeze the existing world order, which formed in the decade which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, with one incontestable leader who wants to remain as such, thinking he is allowed everything, while others allowed what he allow and only in his interests. This world order will never suit Russia. If someone likes it, if someone wants to live under conditions of semi-occupation, let him. We will never do this.

However, Putin's anti-empire rhetoric is no less hypocritical than Obama's. Lest anyone forget, he is the butcher of Chechnya, the republic within Russia that Putin's military laid waste to in order to crush a nationalist uprising, all in the name of fighting terrorism.

Amid the U.S.-Russia conflict, America's allies in Europe, particularly Germany and France, have played a restraining role. While they agreed to implement sanctions against Russia in accordance with U.S. demands, they are adamantly opposed to the U.S. and NATO sending weaponry to the central Ukrainian government in Kiev.

The fear for these governments is that a stronger regime in Kiev would disrupt the flow of natural gas from Russia through the network of pipelines across Ukraine--or Putin would simply cut off Western Europe. Other European states are complaining about the negative impact of the 15 percent drop in trade with Russia that they have suffered. Germany is dragging its feet on sanctions and is clearly hoping for a diplomatic solution.

In response to Merkel's support for negotiations, the Guardian reports that U.S. delegates at a recent security conference in Munich "accused her of appeasement and described the peace talks as 'Moscow bullshit.'" Republican hawks compared her visit to Moscow to meet with Putin with those of Second World War-era British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to meet Adolf Hitler in Berlin.

THE HARD-liners in the U.S. want Barack Obama and NATO to immediately arm Kiev. Arizona Sen. John McCain, for example, ranted, "Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we're sending them blankets and meals. Blankets don't do well against Russian tanks."

Not to be left out, Democrats and even members of Obama's cabinet have joined the call for arms. Obama's incoming Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress that he favors arming Ukraine. And as Bloomberg reports, "Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers during a private reception in Germany that he personally supports sending lethal aid to the Ukrainian army.

The Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution and Chicago Council on Global Affairs have issued a new report, titled Preserving Ukraine's independence, that supports $3 billion in military aid. It demands that the U.S. and its NATO allies "bolster deterrence in Ukraine by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive. That requires providing direct military assistance--in far larger amounts than provided to date and including lethal defensive arms."

Various Eastern European states that have joined NATO and the EU are worried about any concessions to Putin. The Guardian reports that they "are particularly exercised about the potential threat, and are keen to see the U.S. and NATO take a bigger, more active role in curbing Russian aggression."

In reaction to such militarist threats, the Moscow Times reports that Russian defense analysts were unanimous in their view that "U.S. arms transfers to Ukraine would be interpreted in Moscow as a declaration of open proxy war with Russia and inevitably lead to escalation."

One member of the Russian Defense Ministry told the newspaper that Putin would "respond asymmetrically against Washington or its allies on other fronts." For example, the ministry official warned that Russia might provide China with the capacity to produce high-tech weapons capable of doing serious damage to U.S. Naval forces in the Pacific. He even floated the possibility that Moscow could "back Iran in a fight--a military operation--with Saudi Arabia."

As the Guardian warned, "Washington's threat risks turning what is currently a largely contained, internal insurrection into an international proxy war, pitting the U.S. and NATO against Russia."

As alarming as the situation is, all the powers say they want to avoid war. But American and Russian brinkmanship could trigger a wider conflagration. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the former USSR, remembered for introducing some democratic reforms before the final collapse of the Stalinist system in 1991, captured the dire nature of the crisis:

If we call a spade a spade, America has pulled us into a new Cold War, trying to openly implement its general idea of triumphalism. Where will it take us all? The Cold War is already on. What's next? Unfortunately, I cannot say firmly that the Cold War will not lead to a hot one. I'm afraid they might take the risk.

THE ROOTS of this New Cold War lie in the imperialist strategy the U.S. adopted after the collapse of the ex-USSR. In the following quarter century, the U.S. tried to lock in its status as the world's only superpower and prevent the rise of any rivals or network of rivals.

In Europe, this led it to expand NATO by gobbling up Russia's former empire in Eastern Europe. The U.S. hoped to co-opt newly independent governments, from the former Stalinist satellites like Poland and Hungary, to the ex-republics of the old USSR, like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The strategy has largely succeeded. By 2009, NATO had absorbed 12 former Communist states--the European Union added on 11.

American expansionism provoked counter-reactions from Russia. After several years of economic "shock therapy" to break up the former state-controlled system--at the cost of a ravaged economy and dramatically increased class inequality--Putin, a former spymaster of the KGB, took power.

Putin renationalized the oil and gas industry, established the country as a nuclear-armed petro power and started to push back against American encroachment in what Russia calls its "near abroad"--with Ukraine, the largest country on Russia's western border as a major prize.

In these border countries, the capitalist classes and their states found themselves caught between Russia and the West. Some sought shelter under the U.S. umbrella, others leaned toward Moscow, and still others vacillated back and forth.

Along with Ukraine, the former USSR republic of Georgia was a key battleground. When NATO projected both of these states for membership, Russia began more actively reasserting its power. In 2008, Putin launched an air war against Georgia and sent Russian volunteers to help rebels establish independent states in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He also successfully forced the U.S. and Europe to rescind their offer of NATO membership to Georgia.

UKRAINE IS an even bigger prize in the inter-imperial battle between the U.S. and Russia.

Putin regards the country as a vital asset of Russia's post-Soviet empire. Ukraine is the site of a key naval base on the Black Sea in Crimea, and Russia transports 80 percent of its natural gas to Europe through the country's South Stream pipeline.

Ukraine's oligarchs, and the various state autocrats who serve them, have vacillated between the West and Russia since independence from the USSR came in 1991. While the ruling class enriched itself during this double-dealing, workers paid an enormous price. They have lost jobs and endured declining wages. Life expectancy dropped dramatically, to only 63.7 years.

These conditions have been the source of several popular uprisings, starting with the struggle to win independence from Russia that first began among the miners of eastern Ukraine, then the so-called "Orange Revolution" to protest the theft of the 2004 presidential election by Viktor Yanukovych, and finally last year's Maidan uprising that toppled Yanukovych after he finally attained power.

However, each time, the popular sentiment for change expressed in these rebellions was hijacked by domestic oligarchs, their political parties and American or Russian imperialism.

The Maidan revolt followed this pattern. It began in late 2013, when Yanukovych, who had flirted with signing a trade and political deal with the European Union, reversed himself, under massive pressure from Putin and the Russian regime. Students and workers who hoped, however wrongly, that a deal with the EU would improve their wretched conditions, occupied Kiev's huge Maidan Square.

And they held it through the bitter winter months against a campaign of repression--Interior ministry troops, called the Berkut, which are infamously anti-Semitic, were sent in to suppress the protesters. Over time, the revolt that began in the central capital was felt throughout the country--in western areas that are the base of Ukrainian nationalism and in the industrialized east, which is economically integrated with the Russian economy.

Unfortunately, the mass sentiment against political corruption and neoliberalism wasn't matched by political organization. Right-wing nationalist political parties like Svoboda maintained their dominance over the speakers' platform at mass demonstrations, and the fascist Right Sector was central to the defense of the Maidan. For their part, the U.S. and Europe promoted the Maidan as a conservative nationalist phenomenon.

Yanukovych was driven from power in February of 2014, and the right-wing parties, with their allegiance to the West, took charge of the government. The new regime began negotiating economic ties to the Western Europe, on the condition of imposing harsh austerity measures. Meanwhile, the right-wing nationalists attempted to end Russia's status as an official language--an arrogant initiative clearly directed at the east of the country, where there is a significant Russian-speaking population.

WITHIN WEEKS of Yanukovych's ouster, Putin's Russia--fearing that a key buffer state was slipping away--made its counter-move. Armed forces, with Russian soldiers among them, seized control in Crimea, the southern peninsula where Russia already had a huge military presence around its Black Sea naval base. A hastily organized referendum on independence passed overwhelmingly, and the head of the provincial parliament showed up in Moscow to sign documents annexing Crimea to Russia.

Russia also supported a rebellion in the eastern provinces of Ukraine. Even more so than in Crimea, the rebels who took over state authority in a number of cities had real grievances with the central government in Kiev, now dominated by right-wing Ukrainian nationalist parties and committed to policies of neoliberalism that would further decimate the industrial base of the region.

But the leaders of the separatists were right-wing nationalists themselves, only they looked to Russia. One of the military leaders of the newly declared Donetsk People's Republic, Igor Girkin, an officer in the Russian Federal Security Service, is an anti-Semitic Islamophobe who supports ethnic Russian purity against immigrants that threaten what he calls a "demographic decomposition of Russian society."

The Russian military presence has been less overt than in Crimea, but the eastern rebels are armed and supported by Russia, and their ranks include Russian citizens. For his part, Putin may not want an annexation of the eastern region, but Russian support for the separatist insurgency is an obstacle to Ukraine being drawn closer to the EU and absorbed into NATO--which would place U.S.-commanded military forces on Russia's Western border.

Thus, U.S. and Russian imperialism have both backed local proxies in a civil war led by reactionaries on both sides.

In the summer of 2014, the Ukrainian army began an offensive that took back control of territory claimed by the rebels. With the insurgency nearly overwhelmed, Russia backed a counter-offensive that drove back the central government's forces and produced a peace agreement in September.

Both sides quickly violated it in new rounds of increasingly deadly combat. The most recent fighting shifted to the region of Ukraine's east along the Black Sea to the south. Russia and its rebels seem to be aiming to expand rebel territory eastward along the coast until they reach Russian-annexed-Crimea.

FROM THE start, the U.S. and its European allies have attempted to apply economic and political pressure on Russia. The new fighting this year led to more calls for sanctions on Putin's capitalist backers and trade with Russia. While these sanctions have largely been symbolic, they are hitting at the same time as the global drop in oil prices has hammered the Russian economy. Putin is thus more determined than ever to keep Ukraine from becoming a Western satellite.

Meanwhile, the U.S. rushed billions of dollars of economic aid to Kiev to keep its economy afloat. The International Monetary Fund is preparing a loan of some $15 billion. Of course, the IMF will ask for Ukraine for a pound of flesh in return--a structural adjustment program that will end currency controls, triggering inflation and cheapening exports.

The IMF plan will also require an end to government subsidies of gas, cuts in government jobs, wage reductions for the workers who remain and cuts in retirees' pensions of up to 50 percent. Already, workers have protested against such measures imposed on them by the central government in Kiev.

The U.S. has been bolstering its military position in the region to intimidate Russia. NATO has new permanent military command centers in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, with a 5,000-strong rapid reaction force to respond to crises like the one in Ukraine. Last month, the U.S. deployed the Army's 2nd Calvary Regiment for military exercises named Atlantic Resolve, which involved the Baltic states as well as Poland. They left behind military equipment, including 200 tanks, at outposts throughout the region. And that's before the proposals to arm the Ukrainian government are carried out.

U.S. imperialism is threatening to turn its new Cold War with Russia into a hot war over Ukraine. In this volatile situation, we should oppose the threats of war and military intervention. But we also must be clear about what we say about the sides in the conflict. Some on the left have wrongly supported Putin's Russia as a lesser evil to the U.S. or even an anti-imperialist force.

While the U.S. empire has been attempting to project its power in Eastern Europe for decades, it is undeniable that Russian has been an imperial power in Ukraine and the wider region, for much longer and more immediately. Its ambitions are no less predatory and exploitative than its more powerful opponent.

In this battle of empires playing out through local forces in Ukraine, the socialist position should be: Neither Washington nor Moscow.

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