Like all of us I suspect I felt sick in the stomach on Friday 25th February as news came through of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I felt sick because of what we all know about war: it kills and injures people – combatants and civilians, men, women and children; it tends to take on a life of its own beyond any initial aims; it destroys homes and infrastructure; it often displaces large numbers of people; it impoverishes and degrades lives; and it fuels hate and thoughts of revenge which can fester for years and years.
I met a very dear friend in town that morning – I had wanted to discuss Kier Starmer’s vilification of the Stop the War Coalition and the implications of this for continuing Labour Party membership. This now seemed like a bit of an irrelevance as we sat in silence not knowing what to say about the war.
We did talk about conversations we had overheard that morning (on buses, in cafes). I had twice, in the space of one bus journey, been encouraged into a conversation full of outrage and venom that I hadn’t wanted. We parted agreeing that it was going to be well-nigh impossible to have any conversations or discourse about Ukraine that didn’t have the underlying premise that Vladimir Putin was an evil, aggressive bastard whose sole culpability for the war was manifestly obvious. This made me feel sick all over again – for what I knew would be coming – and for the realisation that Starmer’s intervention was far from irrelevant.
Truth be told, I think I would rather ‘keep my head down’ and avoid the risk of ‘losing friends and un-influencing people’ but it is difficult when you feel that there’s more stone throwing going on than consideration of what’s in our own glass house. Moreover, if my blogsite was full of nonsense (which it mostly is) then I think I could get away without commenting at all – but it does contain some political content and with that comes some responsibility.
So, what can I say about the war in Ukraine? what must I say? and perhaps more pertinently what am I hesitant about saying that I feel I really should?
Clearly Russia, led by Putin, is responsible for its military incursion into Ukraine – and this is a tragedy for its people (as any war is). It seems to be a response to the extraordinary pressure that The Kremlin feels it has been subjected to for the past 40 years or so from a US led western imperialism, which has led it, with some justification in my view, to feel that its existence as an independent state is under threat. This is not to support what is going on now, or to comment on whether this is a proportionate response to perceived provocation – but I think it helps to better understand the actions of a country and a leader that have been systematically portrayed in western media as ‘evil’, ‘expansionist’ and a threat to the West. We, in the West, are asked to view NATO’s eastern expansion in Europe over the past 40 years as a ludicrous reason for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine – an outright dismissal of the concerns raised in very clear terms by Putin over a number of years. It seems to me that at the very least we must consider the impact of this expansion and its contribution to the current suffering of people in the Ukraine.
It is also helpful to recognise that US imperialism is really struggling at the moment, unable to look after large numbers of its own citizens and under increasing pressure from competing capitalist systems – particularly China. It will have noted with alarm the increasing trade links between Europe and Russia over recent decades and the potential for Europe to gradually drift away from its sphere of influence / control. The controversy around Nord Stream 2 is very much part of this and its current suspension will be viewed as a major plus for the US. Indeed, there will be many US policy makers who view the current war in Ukraine as a helpful stick to bring Europe unambiguously back into the fold. This may only be a short-term gain as the wide-ranging sanctions will have a disproportionate impact on European citizens – who may well begin to ask if this pain is worth it to support an imperialism and associated global system that appears to be unravelling.
A particular complication in trying to make sense of what is going on is the relentless propaganda blitz in the West that has been mounted against Russia and Vladimir Putin over recent years, with little counterbalancing discourse in our mainstream media. For example, the reporting of Russian ‘atrocities’ in Syria (largely discredited) are now being used to prepare us to accept that Russia is about to use chemical / biological weapons in Ukraine. Such propaganda is now bolstered by a blackout of news sources that would provide alternative views – which one would have thought would be sacrosanct in a ‘free’ liberal democracy. Is the West so lacking in confidence about its own position that it would deny its citizens access to views expressed on Russia Today? Well …. perhaps it is ……
I note that a short video clip (prior to the action in Ukraine) of Vladimir Putin responding to a western journalist asking, ‘what is bothering Russia’ is ‘no longer available in this country.’ His response had been calm, considered and rational – not the rantings of a mad, evil man.
Ukraine’s particular tragedy is to be caught in the crossfire between two distinct capitalist systems determined not to give an inch to the other – or in the case of the Russian perspective, to give no more inches. Once we start looking at the circumstances which preceded this war the issue of ‘culpability’ becomes more complicated than we have been led to believe. The US and NATO have guided Ukraine into a belligerent anti-Russian position and supplied it vast quantities of arms – but have now made it clear that they will not put boots on the ground or planes in the sky – for fear of provoking a direct military confrontation with an enemy it is no longer confident of beating. So Ukrainians are left to fight it out – alone.
Please let me be clear – out of self-interest and I suspect the interests of most people on the planet – I am not advocating that NATO should get involved militarily.
How have we come to this? (What follows is a very generalised summary of an alternative view of developments to that of Russia being portrayed as the sole aggressor with ‘imperial ambitions’):
– Negotiations between the USSR and USA about the dissolution of the Soviet Union included a clear commitment from the US that NATO would not expand ‘a further inch to the East.’ This was key to the relatively peaceful transition for many Eastern European countries from Russian domination to independent states. It also paved the way for the successful reunification of Germany.
– The assumption was that NATO would no longer be needed and would be disbanded. However, NATO has expanded since then and moved from being an ostensibly defensive organisation to one which has taken on a more aggressive role in protecting and expanding the interests of US imperialism (subsuming European capitalism as it has gone along). Its CV now includes interventions in Yugoslavia, Libya and Syria – all with the aim of destabilising those countries with a view to creating market opportunities for western capital (and undermining any coherent alternative to free market, neo liberal capitalism). Russia is seen as a military threat to the maintenance of US imperialism’s ‘sphere of influence / counties to be exploited’ in Europe and is ‘on the not-so-secret list’ of countries to be destabilised. The current tactic of the US seems to be to provoke security / military action by leaders of countries on the list and then to portray this as aggressive, disproportionate and, abusive of human rights etc (e.g. Libya, Syria). No doubt many policy makers in the US are more than happy to see Russia become bogged down in an endless conflict in Ukraine.
– The transition of Eastern European countries from communist to free market economies did not go as smoothly as the West planned, with plummeting living standards and populations who largely wanted to keep many aspects of a centrally controlled economy proving to be a barrier to the ingress of western capital. The US pushed harsh market reforms (backed up by IMF and World Bank loans) and, inevitably, played the card of the threat of an external bully – Russia (admittedly not hard to do given 20th Century history). This approach has been largely successful with many Eastern European countries now comfortably in the western imperialist fold and ‘asking for’ and being granted NATO membership. The result is that Russia is now surrounded by states who are hostile to it and ‘defended against it’ by numerous missile systems. Understandably, I feel, Russia finds this as threatening as the US would find missiles based in Mexico, Canada ……. or indeed Cuba.
– The transition of Russia to a free-market economy was a disappointment for western capital – as by the time it arrived to scoop up all the assets at knock down prices it found they had already been acquired by a small number of previously powerful communist officials – the forerunners of today’s oligarchs. This free for all, overseen by a drunken Boris Yeltsin, was an unmitigated disaster for Russian people – and one that trundled on out of control until Vladimir Putin took power. Despite reports in western media, Putin seems to be well supported in Russia where he is credited with bringing order, prosperity and re-establishing a degree of national pride.
– Early on Putin recognised the potential for conflict with the West and tried to ameliorate this through negotiation. In a speech to a security conference in Munich (~ 20 years ago) he made it clear that there needed to be room in the world for different ways of running economies and countries – but if this was denied then Russia would defend itself – and this would be both dangerous and a waste of resources for both sides as it would result in a further arms race. His attempts to reach a working agreement with the West include:
(i) Overtures to join NATO (turned down).
(ii) Numerous offers to negotiate international arms limitation and mutual security agreements (none of which have been responded to – until a few weeks ago!). A number of diplomatic and military analysts suggest that the US and NATO have treated Russia and its security concerns with contempt and indifference. Many view this as arrogant incompetence – others as deliberate.
– The collapse of Ukraine’s Russian friendly government in 2014 (and the derailment of the Minsk agreement that would have given partial autonomy to the Russian speaking Donetsk and Lugansk regions) appears to have caused the beginning of a major rethink in Russian foreign policy. No longer was rapprochement with the West viewed as likely to succeed. This view hardened as it became clear that the West had been complicit in what was essentially a right-wing coup and neo fascist terror groups began operating in the Donbass.
– Russia reabsorbed The Crimea – to secure its primary Black Sea naval base and with the overwhelming support of the population, the majority of whom had always seen themselves as Russian. The Crimea only became part of Ukraine in the 1950s when Khrushchev made ‘an administrative adjustment’ in order to bolster the latter’s economy.
– Since 2014 between 10 – 14,000 civilians in the Donbass region have been killed largely through shelling by the Ukrainian regular army and terrorism perpetrated by the neo fascist Azov brigade (also part of the regular army). Over 100,000 refugees from the region have fled to be housed in camps in Russia. Putin has been under significant pressure from Russians to do something about this.
– The current Ukraine government has made it clear that it wishes to join NATO and the EU – which would inevitably involve more missiles pointing at Russia.
It seems to me that Russia has decided that attempts to defend its interests through negotiation and treaties have run their course. Moreover, it views NATO as weak (as its refusal to fight might confirm) and its economic sponsor, the US, to be in global decline. I understand that Russia has current superiority in the effectiveness of battlefield and nuclear weapons, and knowing that these advantages are normally short lived, I suspect feels that it has no choice but to take this moment to stare NATO and the US down.
So, it would be my contention that actions by the US and NATO have at the very least contributed markedly to the war in Ukraine and, I would argue, have in fact been the most significant drivers for it. I think this view needs to be heard and properly considered – not denounced as unpatriotic or Putin appeasing.
Ukraine can’t win this war, Russia will not disengage until at least some of its key objectives are realised and the US may well be content to let the conflict continue in order to sap Russian military strength and political commitment. In these circumstances the need for an understanding of the motivations and concerns of all protagonists seems manifestly obvious. Working out what to do to bring this war to an end and to stabilise relationships between two of the world’s superpowers requires a roundness of perspective that is almost wholly absent from our mainstream media and the pronouncements of our political leaders.
Russia is not solely responsible – just saying.