West's wounded imperial pride

Eddie Ford calls for opposition to the escalating campaign for sanctions against Russia and to ‘nonlethal’ military assistance to Ukraine

Nato: threatening both military and diplomatic action

Tensions are still very high following the ‘illegal’ referendum in Crimea, which seemingly saw a large majority vote for merger with Russia. Western leaders and some anti- Russian left groups insist that we have witnessed an “annexation”, despite the obvious fact that there was popular enthusiasm for union with Russia and there is absolutely no evidence that recent events in Crimea were the result of a carefully planned plot by Vladimir Putin - rather, he saw an opportunity open up and did not hesitate to take swift and ruthless advantage.

Ukraine announced its intention to pull its forces out of Crimea on March 24. Their departure comes after Russian forces seized naval facilities at Feodosia, the last Crimean military base under Kiev’s control. In a highly symbolic gesture, the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, met troops in Crimea and went on a tour of military bases - we are now in control. He also appointed Denys Berezovsky - the former head of Ukraine’s navy and one of the few officers to switch allegiances before the referendum - as deputy commander of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Reward for a job well done.

On March 24, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, held preliminary talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsya, during a nuclear security summit in the Hague - their first direct meeting since the crisis began. Lavrov also met John Kerry, the United States secretary of state, who expressed “strong concern” about the “massing” of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders - were they poised to invade? After the meeting, Lavrov declared that Russia had laid out its plan to establish “good national dialogue” with “all” the residents of Ukraine and insouciantly mentioned that it would be “no great tragedy” if Moscow was expelled from the G8, as threatened by the US and EU. After all, he added, Russia is “not clinging to that format” - the rules of the game are changing.

Thus, as things stand right now, a military confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces is not on the cards. However, the danger of a serious escalation remains very real - the main threat coming from belligerent western leaders out to repair wounded imperial pride. Looking at Crimea, a common imperialist complaint is that Russia is set on “redesigning” the post- Soviet Union world order - a clearly unacceptable notion to the imperialists. Something must be done, but what?

Resurgent

One thing that might be done is to say goodbye to the ‘peace dividend’ that was apparently reaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is, cuts to the army should be stopped - perhaps even reversed - and the dust should be shaken off the west’s nuclear arsenal.

General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s supreme commander, declared on March 23 that Russia had assembled a “very, very sizeable and very, very ready” force on Ukraine’s eastern border that could be planning to head for Transnistria (or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic). A Russian-speaking enclave located mostly on a strip of land between the River Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine, it declared independence from Moldova in 1990 and two years later fought a very brief war with that state. As part of the July 1992 ceasefire, a joint control commission, comprising Russia, Moldova and Transnistria, supervises the security arrangements in the demilitarised zone. Needless to say, Transnistria is not recognised by any state in the world - except Moscow, of course.

Anyhow, Breedlove described these Russian manoeuvres as “very worrisome” - indications of a possible rapid incursion into Transnistria - he claimed that some of the elements of the Crimea scenario are also present in the breakaway republic (last week the speaker of Transnistria’s parliament urged Russia to “incorporate” the region). More generally, he argued, Russia appeared to be using the so-called “frozen conflicts” in neighbouring territories like Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh as a “tool” to stop them ever becoming part of the EU or Nato. In which case, according to general Breedlove, Nato needs to rethink the “positioning and readiness” of its forces in eastern Europe so they can counter - and repel - any moves by Moscow.

Similarly, the former UK general, Richard Dannatt, has stated his view in The Daily Telegraph that Britain should cancel army cuts as “a message” to a “resurgent” Russia - therefore a newly formed brigade of 3,000 soldiers should be deployed to Germany (March 23). For him, the recent crises in Syria and Ukraine meant the international landscape was more “challenging” than when the coalition government came to power in 2010 - therefore this is a “poor moment” for the west to be “weak in resolve and muscle”. The government is cutting the regular army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020 and intends to withdraw all 20,000 British troops from their bases in Germany, ending the 70- year military presence. But Dannatt wants the government to declare that “greater military capability” must underpin its diplomacy. Jaw-jaw is no good without the threat of war-war. Indeed, resorting to a clapped-out historical cliché, he writes that there are “uncomfortable shadows of the 30s” - meaning imperialism needs to start tooling up again.

Unfortunately for Dannatt, the prime minister has rejected his suggestion. However, David Cameron has said that the British army will help “beef up” Nato defences in the Baltic republics - all of which, of course, have substantial Russian minorities. In a further show of support, David Lidington, the Europe minister, embarked on a two-day visit to Latvia and Lithuania to “underline our commitment” to those countries. Furthermore, Cameron reminded Russia of Britain’s support for the “collective defence principle” of Nato - article 5 of the treaty stating that an armed attack against one member is an attack against all.

So there has been aggressive rhetoric - especially from the US, dissatisfied with the response from some European capitals. In an interview published ahead of his arrival at the security summit, Barack Obama said that Putin needed to “understand the economic and political consequences” of his actions in Ukraine - though he did not believe, naturally, that the country should be viewed as a “battleground” between the east and the west, as that kind of thinking “should have ended with the cold war”. What a hypocrite.

Now, Obama talks of “broad sanctions” against Russia if it makes any attempt to move its troops beyond Crimea and into eastern or western Ukraine. The US would be “ready and willing”, to target energy, arms, financial services and trade - even if that had an adverse effect on the world economy. Europe, especially Germany, has close economic ties to Russia - being particularly dependent on it for its energy requirements. So the desire to take punitive action against Russia has been tempered by caution over the potential knock-on effects. More to the point, Angela Merkel is not exactly excited by the prospect of Berlin going very cold in the winter if Moscow turns off the tap. Not very convincingly though, Obama has vowed that the economic impact on Russia would be “far worse” - yeah, sure.

So far, the US and EU have responded with a series of sanctions targeting those individuals, including senior officials (“Putin’s cronies”), whom they accuse of involvement in Crimea’s “annexation”. Hence the US has imposed sanctions on 31 people in a campaign crafted to target Russian officials with close links to Putin, but without damaging US businesses - a tricky act to pull off.

At the end of the nuclear security conference, Obama called Russia a mere “regional power” that would always struggle to compete with America’s global influence - the US being the “most powerful nation in the world” and the one other countries looked to for a lead on global crises, such as the conflict in Syria. We are the global super-cop and that is the way it will remain. Meanwhile, on March 21 White House officials revealed that the Pentagon was providing “non-lethal” assistance to the Ukrainian military - presumably just as they did to the anti-Assad opposition in Syria.

Lesser evil

Communists unequivocally oppose the pro-sanctions campaign mounted by the west and the attempts to more or less demonise the Russian authorities - making out that its “expansionism” is the central cause of the conflict. This is clearly nonsense. At the very least, the western-backed orange-brown ‘revolution’ in Kiev and a resurgent Ukrainian nationalism are equally to blame. A nationalism that by definition is virulently anti-Russian and to a certain extent coloured - or shit-stained - by anti-Semitism.

Though it should hardly have to be said, being the ‘A’ of Marxism - never mind about the B or C - alas we find that we have to remind some comrades of an irreducible maxim - communists are implacable foes of nationalism and national chauvinism. Therefore, we in the CPGB condemn the noxious, pro-imperialist stance of the increasingly Russophobic Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, last week’s Solidarity proudly proclaiming that the AWL is for the “Ukrainian armed forces” in any “fight against Russian domination” (March 17). Straight into the first camp without passing ‘go’.

Not that Socialist Resistance is much better. Ridiculously, the comrades inform us that “socialist participants” in the anti- Yanukovych/Maidan demonstrations - such as Ilya Budraitksis of Vpered (Forward), Russian section of the Fourth International - saw the mass movement as “containing the germs of a revolutionary process” . More fool them - worshipping spontaneity always leads to a fall. We are then stupidly told that Crimea is “roughly analogous” to the north of Ireland - ie, has a settler population that displaced the original inhabitants and denied them the right to a state. Thus, Putin is using the ethnic Russian population in Crimea in the same sort of way as the British state has “used the presence of a Protestant population which is opposed to a united Ireland to claim sovereignty over Irish territory”. In other words, the Russian population of Crimea have no right to self-determination, as presumably they are an ‘oppressor’ people.

Woefully, SR goes on to argue that Russia “stage-managed a flagrantly ridiculous referendum” and “used the result to seize Crimea” - which makes Russia “the aggressor”, as it “violated Ukraine’s national sovereignty”.1 It is interesting, isn’t it, that these two groups - both of them involved in Left Unity, as it happens - repeat so closely the phrases of the imperialists?

However, it goes without saying that we equally oppose pro-Putin apologetics - the idea being that, because Ukraine is so infested by fascists and Nazis, as we are constantly told by Russia Today, then we have to support Russia as the ‘lesser of two evils’. A pitiful position. But one manifested by Socialist Action, another group that has members in LU. On its not particularly dynamic website we find an article dated March 4 that is the reverse image of the AWL. Whilst correctly noting that the EU’s plans are to “subordinate” the economy of Ukraine - such as it is - to the “interests of western European capital” and that the US hopes to “integrate” it into Nato, it then proceeds to slip into a vicarious Russian nationalism. First by telling us that not only the right to self-determination of “all the regions” in Ukraine should be “defended”, but so too should “any assistance that Russia extends to ensuring that”. In fact, that means “defending the right of the Russian army to come to the aid of the eastern regions to prevent Kiev enforcing its control”.2 A recipe for nationalist civil war, with the AWL and SR cheering on one side, and SA the other.

Even worse, if anything, is the extraordinarily superficial analysis proffered by Eamonn McCann in the Irish Times on March 20 and faithfully reprinted on the perhaps misnamed Stop the War Coalition website on March 23.3 A prominent member of United Left Alliance and long associated with the Socialist Workers Party, he really should know better - then again, maybe not. His starting point is generally sound - “Neither Washington nor Moscow has had genuine concern for the interests of any section of the Ukrainian people, but have been engaged in an exercise of self-interested great power politics”. But it deteriorates quickly from there. Though comrade McCann admits that Putin has been busy “manipulating fears” and “stoking tensions” for strategic advantage, he disastrously concludes that, though it “might be a close run thing”, in this instance Russia has “more right” on its side than the west - which for the comrade is the “same thing as saying, more simply, that Putin and Russia are right”. Thus the truly crass, and quite shameful, headline to the article: “In the game of great power politics, if we have to pick a side over Crimea, let it be Russia”.

All these comrades demonstrate where the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach to politics takes you - the total abandonment of working class independence. Instead, we say: Neither Kiev and its western backers nor Moscow and the government of Vladimir Putin. For the international working class.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. March 24 (http://socialistresistance.org/6085/ ukraine-the-russians-are-the-aggressors).

2. www.socialistaction.net/International/Europe/ Ukraine/After-the-coup-let-Ukraines-regions-determine-their-future.html.

3. http://stopwar.org.uk/news/if-we-have-to-pick-a-side-over-crimea-let-it-be-russia#.UywRTIX­UcwL.