Is war on the way?
Mounting tensions between Russia and the west over Ukraine could have serious international consequences, warns Daniel Lazare
Statesmen do not go to war with one another, and neither do nations. Rather, systems do - which, in a nutshell, is why the military confrontation brewing in the eastern Ukraine is so foreboding.
The stand-off began in early February, when president Volodymyr Zelensky shut down three TV stations deemed overly friendly to Russia, and then, two weeks later, charged an exiled blogger named Anatoly Shariy with high treason for the ‘crime’ of adhering too closely to the Kremlin line as well. A few days after that, he accused a politician named Viktor Medvedchuk of channelling funds to pro-Russian rebels in the breakaway eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk and ordered a freeze on both his and his wife’s financial assets.
Considering that Medvedchuk’s party, known as ‘Opposition Platform - For Life’, was outpolling Zelensky’s at that point by nearly two to one, it was rather as if Donald Trump had decided to seize Joe Biden’s assets on the grounds that his polls were also unacceptably high.1
It is absurd, yet it does not matter, because Zelensky is in desperate straits. The economy has shrunk by a fifth since the US-backed coup d’état in February 2014, per-capita income is down by a seventh and, despite being elected on an anti-corruption platform, his efforts to rein in the country’s rapacious oligarch class have met with little or no success.
So he figures that beating the drums against Russia is the only way to rescue his floundering career. He upped the ante in March by ordering military exercises to be held near the border of Russian-occupied Crimea and then unveiling a few weeks later a formal national strategy aimed at winning admission to Nato and bringing the peninsula back into the Ukrainian fold. Joe Biden did his bit by calling Vladimir Putin a “killer” on national TV and then sanctioning Russia for hacking the US corporation, SolarWinds, and for interfering in last year’s presidential election - neither proven, by the way.
Russia has responded with a well-publicised military build-up just a hundred miles or so from the Ukrainian border that is raising tensions even more. A few anti-alarmists argue, not unpersuasively, that it is much ado about nothing, since neither Washington nor Kiev really wants war, while Moscow is also holding back for a number of reasons: because Putin does not want to do anything that might jeopardise the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline, which is nearing completion; because it is the rainy season and therefore a bad time for motorised combat; and because state duma elections are approaching and Putin does not want to jeopardise those either.2
Maybe. But wars have a way of breaking out, whether people want them to or not. After slowing under Trump, the US-Nato drive to the east is back in full swing, now that a new administration is in office. And, since Biden and Zelensky both seem to think that baiting Russia is cost-free, the war of words promises to escalate - which means that an actual shooting war may not be far behind.
After all, this is what happened in Georgia, when a US-backed coup threw out a vaguely pro-Russian government headed by Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003 and ushered in a rightwing nationalist named Mikheil Saakashvili instead. Saakashvili, a Columbia University law-school graduate with close ties to the Washington neoconservative establishment (especially uber-hawk John McCain), did not believe in rhetorical restraint either and therefore saw no reason not to adopt an increasingly hard-line stance toward another pro-Russian breakaway province: ie, Persian-speaking South Ossetia. Amid rising tensions, he ordered an artillery barrage against rebel positions in August 2008, which brought Russia crashing into a war. Hostilities continued for another eight days, as Russian tanks advanced to within 35 miles of Tbilisi.
Could something similar happen again? Not only are the parallels too close for comfort, but in some ways they are even worse. Where the US saw no need to intervene in Georgia, for instance, the pressure on Biden to intervene in the Ukraine in the event of a Russian breakthrough would be overwhelming. After all, Democrats have spent the last four years deriding Trump as “Putin’s puppet”, while promising to roll back Russian power. So how could they not step in if Russian power begins rumbling toward Kiev?
Considering that the Russian build-up is concentrated just a few miles from Kursk - the city where some 8,000 Soviet and German tanks clashed in the summer of 1943 in one of the most epic battles of World War II - one would think that western capitalists would finally realise that war in southern Russia and the Ukraine is to be avoided at all costs. One might also think that the fact that Russia has some 4,500 nuclear warheads at its disposal would make them even more apprehensive. Yet the confrontation rolls on inexorably. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, ‘There they go; they’re doing it again’.
Why? The reasons, of course, have to do with the imperatives of capitalism. Trotsky once observed that if imperialism succeeded in toppling Soviet power, it would go on to dismember Russia too. It was a prediction that Mikhail Gorbachev echoed in 1987, while agonising over what to do about the Afghan quagmire. “Imperialism, they say, if it wins in Afghanistan, will go on the offensive,” he told the politburo.3 Such fears fell by the wayside two or three years later, as a string of western leaders assured Gorbachev that the fall of the Berlin Wall would not lead to imperial aggression, but to a magnanimous peace. Once Germany was reunified, Nato’s advance to the east would go no farther than the borders of the German Democratic Republic (the old DDR or East Germany).
It was not just US secretary of state James Baker who said this, but George Bush senior, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand, Margaret Thatcher and other big shots of the day.4 It was in keeping with the vaguely social-democratic belief that the world would beat its swords into ploughshares once the Cold War was over as the Soviet Union transitioned seamlessly to a mix of private enterprise and a Scandinavian-style welfare state. But the bubble burst amid the post-Soviet economic collapse and a surge in nationalist conflicts from Abkhazia to the Baltics.
As secretary of defence under Bush I, Dick Cheney set the tone as early as 1991 by calling for “the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire, but of Russia itself, so that it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world”.5 Zbigniew Brzezinski followed suit in 1997 by calling for a tripartite separation into “a European Russia, a Siberian Republic, and a Far Eastern Republic”, on the grounds that “a more decentralised Russia would be less susceptible to imperial mobilisation”.
A clear choice by Russia in favour of the European option over the imperial one will be more likely if America successfully pursues the second imperative strand of its strategy toward Russia: namely, reinforcing the prevailing geopolitical pluralism in the post-Soviet space … The consolidation of a sovereign Ukraine, which in the meantime redefines itself as a central European state and engages in closer integration with central Europe, is a critically important component of such a policy.6
Although Nato claimed to be stabilising eastern Europe by bringing on board such ex-Warsaw Pact members as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, the effect was to destabilise the region all the more by firing up not just east European nationalism, but Russian nationalism too. Truculence was already on the upswing when Russian and Nato forces nearly came to blows at an airport in Kosovo in June 1999. It rose even more when Boris Yeltsin chose a rising young star named Vladimir Putin as his prime minister just two months later.
Since then, the conflict has deepened and spread, as the US supported Georgia in its ill-fated war in South Ossetia, overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, backed Saudi-financed jihadis seeking to overthrow a Russian ally in Syria, and then encouraged neo-Nazis spearheading a coup against a pro-Russian president in the Ukraine. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton played to Putin’s worst fears by criticising alleged Russian election irregularities in December 2011 on the grounds of America’s “strong commitment to democracy and human rights”. This, she said, gave her no other option: “It’s part of who we are,” she explained. “It’s our values. And we expressed concerns that we thought were well founded about the conduct of the elections.”
But, considering that those same American values had led to Gaddafi’s murder and sodomisation at the hands of a crazed Libyan mob just seven weeks earlier, Putin can perhaps be excused for suspecting that Clinton had something similar in mind for him too.
So the trajectory was not encouraging then and is even less so now, with the Democrats reinventing themselves post-Trump as the imperialist party par excellence. To be sure, US politicians may utter peaceful noises from time to time. They may call for a rapprochement with Moscow à la Trump or a “reset” in US-Russian relations à la Clinton in 2009. Yet imperialism marches on regardless. Indeed, the more overstretched it grows, the greater its determination to steamroll opposition, from Russia to China to Iran.
None of which is to say that Putin is an anti-imperialist or progressive in any sense of the term. On the contrary, he is a neo-tsar holding Russia together from above, while centrifugal tendencies intensify below. But for strictly historical reasons, he finds himself at odds with US hegemony. While American imperialism has no choice but to continue its drive to the east, therefore, he has no choice but to resist.
The result is a protracted conflict that has not yet resulted in a direct military clash. But give it time.
AM Kalinovsky A long goodbye: the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan Cambridge, Mass 2011, p89.↩︎
RM Gates Duty: memoirs of a secretary at war New York 2014, p97.↩︎
Z Brzezinski The grand chessboard: American primacy and its geostratetic imperatives New York 1997, pp202-03.↩︎