Key issue is not Russia

Left must oppose the invasion of Ukraine, insists Tony Greenstein, but who bears ultimate responsibility for the carnage?

It goes without saying that socialists unreservedly condemn Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, with the terrible devastation and suffering that they have inflicted. We should have no hesitation in calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops. The regimes in both Moscow and Kyiv are rotten and anti-working class, so we are in favour of unity between the working classes of both countries, not a war which lines up workers behind these leaders.

We should also support, without hesitation, the anti-war protestors in Russia itself and condemn the repression by the gangster regime that Vladimir Putin represents, with his new law imposing 15-year jail sentences on those who contradict Russian propaganda. That is something echoed in Ukraine, with the banning by president Volodymyr Zelensky of all independent media and now the outlawing of 11 parties, including the Communist Party of Ukraine.1 But our ‘free media’ condemns the Russian legislation (whilst supporting similar laws by Boris Johnson) without mentioning how, at a stroke, Zelensky has banned all leftwing opposition.

However, it is not enough to condemn Russia’s actions. We also need to understand why Russia invaded in the first place. Was it because Putin was hellbent on recreating a Greater Russia and used the question of Ukraine’s potential membership of Nato as an excuse? Is it merely a question of an inter-imperialist war, as the Socialist Workers Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Anti-Capitalist Resistance and others on the social-chauvinist left like the “independent, leftwing alternative media organisation”, Novara Media, maintain, thus saving themselves the trouble of analysing its causes?

The most precise and succinct analysis of the causes of the war is provided by professor John Mearsheimer of Chicago, a bourgeois political scientist. For Mearsheimer the United States is choosing the wrong target, which in his opinion is China. To him the present strategy is simply driving Russia into the arms of the Chinese.

Mearsheimer first came to prominence with an article in the London Review of Books: ‘The Israel lobby’, written jointly with Stephen Walt from Harvard University. This questioned the utility to US foreign policy interests of the Israeli state.2

Mearsheimer is no socialist (though he supported Bernie Sanders). He is from what is known as the Realist School of Political Science and is on the fringes of the US political establishment. Unlike the policy wonks and foreign policy think tanks that adorn the political scene in Washington, Mearsheimer prides himself on taking the long view of American strategic interests rather than the short-termism of the military-industrial complex and its representatives in the Democrats and Republicans.

I recommend two talks by Mearsheimer. The first lecture was given to students at King’s College, London on February 21, three days before the war began.3 The second was presented on March 6, 10 days into the war, along with Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and head of their Russia desk.4

Nato pledges

To understand the conflict in Ukraine today one has to go back to the talks held with Russian leaders in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, followed by German reunification. US secretary of state James Baker gave his famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about Nato expansion in his meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9 1990. It was part of a “cascade of assurances” given by western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout German unification, according to declassified US, Soviet, German, British and French documents in the National Security Archive at George Washington University.5

The first such assurance was given by West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher on January 31 1990. The US embassy in Bonn informed Washington that Genscher made clear that

the changes in eastern Europe and the German unification process must not lead to an “impairment of Soviet security interests”. Therefore, Nato should rule out an “expansion of its territory towards the east: ie, moving it closer to the Soviet borders”.6

Genscher even proposed leaving east German territory out of Nato’s military structures in a unified Germany.

The idea of special status for the territory of the German Democratic Republic was codified in the final unification treaty signed on September 12 1990. The promises about not expanding Nato closer to the Soviet borders is written down not in treaties, but in the memoranda of conversations between the Soviet and western leaders (Genscher, Kohl, Baker, Gates, Bush, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Major, Woerner, and others), offering assurances throughout 1990 and into 1991 about protecting Soviet security interests, and including the USSR in new European security structures.

Not once, but three times, Baker gave a pledge of “not one inch eastward” in his meeting with Gorbachev on February 9 1990. He agreed with Gorbachev’s statement in reply that “Nato expansion is unacceptable.” 7 Baker reported his conversation to Helmut Kohl, the German leader:

And then I put the following question to him [Gorbachev]. Would you prefer to see a united Germany outside of Nato, independent and with no US forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to Nato, with assurances that Nato’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?8

As late as March 1991, according to the diary of the British ambassador to Moscow, John Major personally assured Gorbachev: “We are not talking about the strengthening of Nato.” Subsequently, when Soviet defence minister Marshal Dmitry Yazov asked Major about east European leaders’ interest in Nato membership, the British prime minister responded, “Nothing of the sort will happen.”9

There can be no doubt whatsoever of the promises made at the time of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and nor can there be any doubt about the fact that these promises were broken under first Clinton, then Bush and Obama. Yet despite them the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary joined Nato in 1999, followed by Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic Republics in 2004. In 2009 Albania and Croatia followed suit and in 2017 Montenegro also joined. Finally there was North Macedonia in 2020.10

Not for nothing was Britain, at the height of the British empire, known as the ‘Perfidious Albion’. The same could be said of the major western powers - there is not a promise that the imperialists did not break, nor a pledge that they kept.

At the Nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008 a statement was issued, over the objection of France and Germany, which “welcomed Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership and agreed that these countries will become members of Nato”.11

For Russia this was a step too far. It was clear that Nato’s strategy was to surround Russia as part of the United States goal of remaining the world’s imperialist hegemon. One of the results of the Nato summit’s declaration was the war which broke out in Georgia in August of that year, when Russia intervened on the side of the separatists in order to carve out the state of South Ossetia.

It was becoming clear to Russia that the plan outlined by Zbigniew Brzeziński - another ‘realist’ and Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state - in his book The grand chessboard, that Russia should be divided into three separate republics, was on Nato’s (ie, the United States’) agenda.12


The next milestone was in Ukraine itself in 2014. In 2010 Viktor Yakunovich had been elected president and, courted by both the European Union and Russia, Yakunovich chose the latter after having initially pushed for closer relations with the EU. The International Monetary Fund had played hardball and the economy was almost bankrupt.13

The reaction from the United States and the EU was not long in coming. They sponsored the Maidan coup, funding the fascists of the Right Sector, and other groups which they armed. Peaceful demonstrators in Maidan Square were shot - not by the police, but by armed neo-Nazi groups. The United States, on the admission of assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, had pumped in over $5 billion to ensure that Yakunovich was overthrown. Nuland was caught on tape openly interfering in the governance of Ukraine.14

All of this is documented in Oliver Stone’s documentary Ukraine on fire, which quite naturally in the present propaganda war offensive has been covered with a YouTube health warning: “The following content has been identified by the YouTube community as inappropriate or offensive to some audiences.”15

The advent of a new regime in Ukraine under the corrupt Petro Poroshenko saw the abolition of Russian language rights affecting nearly half Ukraine’s population. It also saw attacks by fascist militias on Russians in the Donbas. It was therefore no surprise that parts of eastern Ukraine broke away to form the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, with the aid of the Russian military. For the last eight years there has been an undeclared war against these republics by the fascist Azov battalion, during which 14,000 people have been killed.16

It was not as if the United States had not been given clear warning. George Kennan, an American diplomat and one of the principal architects of the cold war, made his own views clear on what was likely to happen if a policy of Nato expansion took place.17 It would be

the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to east-west relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.18

It is difficult to disagree with any of these prescient sentiments. But then, as Dean Acheson, US secretary of state under Harry S Truman, remarked, “Mr Kennan, in my opinion, has never understood the realities of power relationships.”19

This is the background and context to the present war. However as we know, the BBC and the mainstream media always omit anything except the most immediate. They have a ‘bias against understanding’. And, just in case an alternative view might gain currency, the Kremlin-backed TV channel, RT, was banned by that faithful servant of the British government, Ofcom, for ‘bias’. The BBC’s ceaseless propaganda, with its pro-American experts never presents an alternative narrative itself.

It should therefore be clear that many of the British left, by touting the idea that what is involved is an inter-imperialist war, are really guilty of bowing before the ‘patriotic’ hysteria that is current. Instead of directing their fire at their own ruling class and its imperialist policies, they pretend that both parties are guilty. This has a name - social chauvinism.

A cursory examination of the facts above makes it clear that Russia’s war on Ukraine is a defensive one, borne out of the fear of encirclement. One only has to think back to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons if Soviet missiles were not removed from Cuban soil. But now what the United States is proposing is to site nuclear missiles on Russia’s borders.

Economically Russia ranks 11th in the world, with a gross domestic product of $1.65 trillion (less than South Korea). Meanwhile the United States has a GDP of $23 trillion.20 Put bluntly, because of the disastrous privatisation of its nationalised industries and Putin’s support for the oligarchs, Russia does not have the economic capacity to maintain a war machine like the United States.

Russia has one overseas military base (in Syria), compared to the United States’s 750-plus bases. We can see the efficacy of Russia’s military machine, now that it has got bogged down in the invasion of Ukraine.

All this means that the key issue today is not Russian expansion, but that of the United States informal empire.

You might think that the abolition of Nato would be a prime demand of socialists, yet at the recent Brighton and Hove Trades Council the SWP motion on Ukraine merely called for Nato not to expand into eastern Europe. Likewise it had nothing to say on the question of sanctions, which is war by another means. The Anti-Capitalist Resistance group actually supports sanctions, while the AWL has actually adopted Nato as another progressive bedfellow alongside the Zionist state of Israel.

  1. labourheartlands.com/ukraine-zelensky-suspends-11-left-wing-political-parties.↩︎

  2. www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v28/n06/john-mearsheimer/the-israel-lobby.↩︎

  3. www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nbj1AR_aAcE&t=137s.↩︎

  4. www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeeqooNWO48&t=57s.↩︎

  5. Declassified documents containing security assurances against Nato expansion from various western leaders: nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-12-12/nato-expansion-what-gorbachev-heard-western-leaders-early.↩︎

  6. George HW Bush Presidential Library: Memorandum from Paul H Nitze to Bush about ‘Forum for Germany’ meeting in Berlin, February 6 1990.↩︎

  7. Record of conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow (excerpts): nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16117-document-06-record-conversation-between.↩︎

  8. Letter from James Baker to Helmut Kohl, February 10 1990: nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16119-document-08-letter-james-baker-helmut-kohl.↩︎

  9. Ambassador Rodric Braithwaite’s diary, March 5 1991: nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16142-document-28-ambassador-rodric-braithwaite-diary.↩︎

  10. See Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlargement_of_NATO#Visegr%C3%A1d_Group.↩︎

  11. www.nato.int/docu/update/2008/04-april/e0403h.html.↩︎

  12. See www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/theparanoidpole.↩︎

  13. www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-russia-deal-special-report-idUSBRE9BI0DZ20131219.↩︎

  14. ‘Leaked audio reveals embarrassing US exchange on Ukraine, EU’: www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-ukraine-tape-idUSBREA1601G20140207. See also andresbryant.livejournal.com/93304.html.↩︎

  15. www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKcmNGvaDUs (part 1); and www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJI7BEHoHRA (part 2).↩︎

  16. www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/21/donetsk-and-lugansk-heres-what-we-know-about-rebel-regions.↩︎

  17. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/11/14/getting-real.↩︎

  18. www.nytimes.com/1997/02/05/opinion/a-fateful-error.html.↩︎

  19. www.commentary.org/articles/gordon-craig/russia-the-atom-and-the-west-by-george-f-kennan-power-and-diplomacy-by-dean-acheson.↩︎

  20. Projected GDP ranking, October 2021: statisticstimes.com/economy/projected-world-gdp-ranking.php.↩︎