On the eve of the NATO summit in Wales, the Ukraine crisis has seen an escalation in rhetoric. The same people who told us about Saddam’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction” are now raising a hue and cry about thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Russian troops having invaded Ukraine and demanding swift action to counter them.
The hypocrisy of Western imperialism really knows no limits. Speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, the US President accused Russia of a “brazen assault” on Ukraine and added that this “challenges that most basic of principles of our international system: that borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun, that nations have the right to determine their own future.”
This is rich, coming from a country which has never hesitated to resort to invasions, military coups, covert destabilisation all over the world, splitting countries and redrawing their borders whenever it suited the interests of US capitalism. And we are not just referring to the 19th and 20th centuries. The more recent examples of the coup in Honduras, the coup in Venezuela, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, the support for reactionary fundamentalist insurgents in Syria, the support for reactionary dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and a long list of other cases. When US imperialism talks of “the right of nations to determine their own future” what it really means is “our right to determine any nation’s future according the interests of our bankers and capitalists”.
To make a lot of noise about alleged Russian intervention in Ukraine is one thing, but the US is finding it increasingly complicated to be the world’s policeman in a period of capitalist economic crisis worldwide and the accompanying turmoil and instability. Obama was therefore very strong in his denunciation of Russia but very vague in stating his concrete commitment to responding in the only way that would amount to anything: that is, by providing a military response. In fact, the whole conflict over Ukraine has revealed openly the limitations of US imperialist power, the divisions between America and its European allies and the even deeper divisions among the latter.
US imperialism had already been forced to exit Iraq and Afghanistan leaving behind a situation which was less stable from the point of view of its own interests. To that we now have to add the rise of the IS (the direct result of US meddling in the region), Israel’s criminal bombing of Gaza and the crisis in Ukraine. These growing demands on the US as the world’s policeman come at a time when its relations with key European ally Germany are at an all time low and the US public is extremely wary of any more costly foreign military operations.
An Open-Ed article by David Sanger in the New York Times puts it very succinctly: “In his travels in Europe this week and a lengthy tour of Asia planned this fall, the President faces a dual challenge: convincing American allies and partners that he has no intention to leave power vacuums around the globe for adversaries to fill, while convincing Americans that he can face each of these brewing conflicts without plunging them back into another decade of large military commitments and heavy casualties.”
The same article quotes from Richard N. Haas, president of the US Council on Foreign Relations who explains the problems Obama faces: “If you add up the resources needed to implement the Asian pivot, recommit to the Middle East and increase our presence in Europe, you can’t do it without additional money and capacity. The world has proved to be a far more demanding place than it looked to this White House a few years ago.”
This is what Marxists have been saying for some time. The idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union would open up a world of peace and prosperity was false from the beginning. An editorial in The Guardian sums it up in this way: “ The cold war was dangerous but relatively simple. The new world is, unfortunately, getting more difficult by the day.”
To return to the Ukraine, it was the provocative actions of Western imperialism which unleashed the present crisis. The US backed the removal of Yanukovych and the instalment of a government firmly committed to bringing Ukraine into an alliance with the EU and possibly membership of NATO. This was like a red rag to a bull for the Kremlin, and US strategists must have known it. The annexation of Crimea was the only logical step to take from the point of view of Russia in order to secure continued control over a Russian naval base of great strategic importance. For all the talk on the part of the US of “red lines which cannot be crossed” and “consequences” which were supposed to follow, the truth is that they were unable to do anything about it. The “inviolable borders of a sovereign state” had been “redrawn at the barrel of a gun” and the US was completely impotent.
Crimea was not the only Russian aim in this conflict. The Kremlin cannot allow Ukraine to fall completely into the West’s sphere of influence and has used the uprising in the East of the country, as well as its control over gas supplies, as bargaining chips to ensure it continues to have a major say in Ukrainian politics. Despite this, US officials backed the reactionary Turchynov-Yatseniuk-Poroshenko government in Kyiv and pushed it to launch a war on its own people in the Donbass. Every major offensive of the so-called “anti-terrorist operation” was preceded by a visit of a high ranking US official to Kiev. And every one of them failed.
In the middle of August it looked like the Ukrainian Army and the far-right “patriotic” Battalions set up by Kiev were finally advancing in their war against the Donbass rebels. They forced them out of their strongholds in Slavyansk and Kramatorsk by means of a brutal siege. Then they managed to surround Luhansk and Donetsk, moving to cut them off from the Russian border.
The Ukrainian forces engaged in the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, schools, hospitals, markets, apartment blocks, water supply systems in important urban centres like Donetsk and Luhansk as well as smaller cities and towns. All were seen as legitimate targets in Kiev’s war against the Donbass. Over 2,000 people have been killed, tens of thousands injured and up to one million have been forced to flee the region. Yet there were no protests, no signs of outrage coming from the “international community”. These crimes were met with a deafening silence in Washington, London and Berlin.
In order to whip up public support for the war, the Kiev government had to resort to a campaign of increasingly virulent patriotic hysteria, which led to the suppression of any opposition voices. Left-wing organisations were forced underground, legal proceedings started to ban the Communist Party, Russian language newspapers were attacked, members of parliament physically assaulted during the sessions, social media monitored, Russian channels banned, left-wing and anti-war activists arrested without a warrant, etc. Again, not a single word of condemnation from the West.
Even at this time the military situation was not completely under the control of Kiev’s forces. Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were trapped between rebel forces and the Russian border, without access to supplies. Kiev was unable or unwilling to send them food or ammunition, but ordered them to resist and not to surrender. Hundreds finally crossed the border and gave themselves up to the Russian army. Some were then put on trial for desertion.
For the Kiev authorities, the Ukrainian soldiers are nothing more than cannon fodder. It is therefore no wonder that there have been continued protests by soldiers’ relatives all over the country. With the new wave of mobilisation, hundreds of ordinary working people are being drafted. These unfortunates are being sent to the Donbass with very little training, poor equipment and very little food. Meanwhile, the sons of the wealthy and state officials are paying bribes to prevent being sent to the front. One of the slogans raised by the mothers’ and wives’ movement was: “send the sons of judges and politicians to the front first!” Others argued that the war had been provoked by the Euromaidan movement and therefore those who engineered it should be sent to do the fighting. The movement against mobilisation into the army was particularly strong in regions where there are national minorities, but not only there.
The offensive drive of the Kiev forces seemed to be unstoppable. But then, as the end of August approached, the tide started to turn. The rebels fought back, breaking the encirclement of Donetsk and Luhansk, taking control of the airport in both cities, opened a new front in Novoazovsk and are now advancing on the key port of Mariupol. The fascist paramilitary Battalions (Azov, Donbass, Dniepr) took a particularly severe beating in the crucial battle of Ilovaisk and some of their main leaders were injured.
Now thoroughly alarmed, the Kiev government started to shout loudly about “thousands of Russian troops” on Ukrainian soil and whole tank battalions that were allegedly crossing the border. It was at this point that the Western capitals started to raise the alarm - not about the Kiev forces’ use of artillery and aerial bombardment against civilian targets, but about a so-called “Russian invasion”. In order to back up this claim, NATO has produced some grainy satellite pictures. These are the same people who assured us that Saddam Hussein not only had weapons of mass destruction, but also that he possessed means to deploy them and was ready to do so. Any “evidence” coming from them should be considered with a large degree of scepticism.
Kiev is also interested in hyping up the potential threat from Russia in a bid to get some concrete military support from the West for a war it is now clearly losing. Its claims about a “Russian invasion” are therefore heavily suspect. Of course, the Kremlin cannot allow the Donbass rebels to be crushed. First of all it would lose an important card in its bargaining to achieve its aims in Ukraine. Secondly, it would deal a severe blow to Putin’s popularity in Russia if he was seen as abandoning them to their fate. In order to prevent that from happening, Russia has undoubtedly helped the rebels with surveillance and intelligence, a regular supply of weaponry, “volunteers”, and a small number of special troops.
There is no reason to doubt the presence of some Russian troops in East Ukraine. Russian claims that border troops could have crossed the border “by mistake” cannot be taken seriously. But to speak of a Russian invasion is an invention of the Kiev regime intended to conceal the real reasons for its military setbacks. The reversal of fortunes of the Ukrainian troops in the East is explained by other factors: the incompetence of the high command of the “anti terrorist operation”, the fractured nature of the forces fighting on Kiev’s side (which includes Ministry of Internal Affairs troops, the Army, neo-Nazi volunteer Battalions, other volunteer forces ascribed to different political forces or to individual oligarchs), rampant corruption and outright treason.
Even before the current rout, the self-appointed commander of the volunteer “Donbass” Battalion Simon Semenchenko, was complaining: “there is a growing gap between unit commanders and the leadership of the ATO (they say ‘why are we being driven to slaughter and why no one is punished’); an absolute mess regarding weapons, lack of coordination and communication management; corruption and chaos in support in feeding and clothing the volunteers."
The humiliating retreat of Kiev’s forces further widened the divisions in their camp. The “patriotic volunteer” Battalions accused the Ministry of Defence and the president of lack of support and about a thousand gathered at a protest in Kiev at the end of August demanding more weapons, more men and more funding for the war. Another joint protest of all the volunteer battalions was planned for September 4 and there are constant rumours of attempts by these fascist thugs to remove the current government in a “new Maidan”.
What this means is that the Ukrainian army is an accurate reflection of all the contradictions of Ukrainian society and the rottenness and corruption of Ukrainian capitalism. Above all, the defeat of the Ukrainian forces is the result of the lack of morale of the conscript and reserve soldiers who see no reason for this war and lack the will to fight. On the other hand the rebel forces are fighting a war to defend their homes and families. They are fighting with their backs to the wall and therefore they fight with a courage and determination born out of desperation.
The fact that Kiev’s forces are in effect fighting in enemy territory, not against “gangs of foreign mercenaries” but rather against a hostile local population which has raised a militia army, will have further undermined the morale of the ordinary Ukrainian conscript. The mood of civilians in Donetsk was faithfully conveyed by a report by CNN, which cannot be accused of being a mouthpiece for Russian propaganda: (See the report here).
The mood of the population has changed in recent weeks as the vicious nature of the occupying forces has become clear to ordinary people. Previously, many ordinary people regarded the war as a temporary thing, an unwelcome interruption of their normal lives that would eventually disappear, allowing them to return to their daily routine. While they regarded the new regime in Kiev with deep suspicion, they remained passive spectators, unwilling to engage actively in the struggle. But now the mood has hardened.
This very point was made by journalist Tim Judah in an article for the NY Review of Books entitled “A Catastrophic defeat”: “"Rebel-held Luhansk came under a virtual siege, and was heavily shelled by Ukrainian forces, though bizarrely it is still possible to get to the town on a suburban train. Large parts of Donetsk too came under shelling from Ukrainian forces. Some areas have been badly damaged and targeting has been so woefully inaccurate that hundreds of civilians have been killed in the process. The result is that, by August, many ordinary people who did not care that much about who ruled them hated the government in Kiev and Ukraine as a whole."
An article by Roland Oliphant in the Telegraph described the attitude of local residents of Komsomolskoye towards the fascist paramilitary battalions of the National Guard which had occupied their area for a few days in early September: "They didn't defend us, they just stole from us. They showed up, said they were going to blockade the town, and took over the police station for their HQ. When we complained we'd get shelled because of this they said that was none of our business. After this my doubts are gone. We're just waiting for the DNR to get here."
An AFP dispatch from the same village quotes the words of a miner who is part of the rebel army: “Our counter-offensive is confirmed,” said Durnya, a miner from Lugansk who learnt to drive a tank in the army 28 years ago.”
By comparing the mood on both sides of the war it is not difficult to conclude that one does not require the hypothesis of a “Russian invasion” to explain the latest rout of the Kiev forces.
NATO’s bluff and bluster
War is a complex and dynamic equation. The attempt by Kiev to smash the rebels (calculating that Putin would be unwilling to get further involved in helping the rebels) completely backfired and now it is Kiev which has been forced into a humiliating retreat. Poroshenko is desperate to get support from NATO and has been given a guest seat at the organisation’s summit in Wales.
Emboldened by provocative statements made by the flint-faced Great Dane General Rasmussen, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yatseniuk insists that his country wants “first class ally” status and will apply for NATO membership after the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Brave words indeed! But the fact is that Poroshenko’s attempt to get NATO to take military action to stop the “Russian invasion” failed miserably and Kiev’s request for NATO membership was met by a polite but non-committal and very lukewarm response.
The US has made a lot of noise about the need to support Ukraine and its national integrity, but in reality her European allies are extremely reluctant to commit themselves and the mess in Iraq now occupies a higher place in its order of priorities. At the NATO meeting in Wales they thundered condemnations, raised their hands to the Heavens and called down Divine Wrath on the head of Vladimir Putin, and – did nothing.
Once again there was talk of “tough economic sanctions”. But we have heard all that before. The truth is that, although the Russian economy could be badly hurt by any serious sanctions, the economies of Europe, already in a very fragile state, would suffer still more. Several European countries, including Germany, are already on the verge of falling into recession again. Implementing harsher sanctions could be the last straw. Russia could then cut off gas supplies to Europe on which Germany and other countries are heavily dependent.
The prospect of German families shivering in the dark while German factories grind to a halt with the onset of winter is not the most attractive one for Angela Merkel. Therefore Germany wants a negotiated solution to be reached, and that means one which is acceptable to Russia. We have not the slightest doubt that even while the noisy denunciations continue, such a deal is being worked out under the table.
There are strong forces pushing in that direction. While publicly expressing their support for Ukraine, Western capitals are privately saying that there is nothing they can do and Kiev should be pushed to sign a deal as soon as possible. An article in the German Der Spiegel under the headline “NATO already sees Ukraine as a loser” quoted unnamed NATO sources to this effect: “Militarily, the conflict for Kiev is already lost,” stated a senior NATO general. “The only option” for Poroshenko, according to the assessment, is, “negotiation to withdraw his men alive from the pliers of the Russians.”
An editorial in The Guardian expressed the same opinion: “We either can't or we won't use the power we have in any radical way. Deploying modest Nato forces to eastern Europe on a rotating basis may reassure some worried members of the alliance, but it will not affect the situation in Ukraine. Arming up the Ukrainians is possible and perhaps should be done, but would feed the conflict. President Vladimir Putin might well then up the military ante on his side. He says he wants peace by Friday. We have heard such lines before, but the best hope is that he also has a sense of risk, not just of a wider war but of a long period of Russian isolation.”
The attempts of NATO and the West to frighten the Russians with threats of more economic sanctions have had the opposite effect to that which was intended. Far from being intimidated, Putin immediately upped the ante and now says that any negotiated settlement must include “statehood” for the Donbass. The Russians see that things are moving their way in East Ukraine and see no reason to make compromises. By contrast, the Kiev regime is in a state of confusion that borders on panic.
All of a sudden everyone wants to get to the negotiating table as quickly as possible to work out an agreement in which everything will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. All eyes are on the talks in Minsk, but in reality matters will be settled by fighting on the ground, and there the rebels are now on the offensive. At this moment of writing they are attacking checkpoints just outside the crucial port town of Mariupol. As long as there is no agreement they will continue to take advantage of their momentum on the ground to consolidate and expand their gains.
War and economic collapse
Meanwhile in Kiev there is a mood of panic and division in the ruling elite. When president Poroshenko published an official statement on his website on September 3 announcing that in a phone conversation with Putin he had agreed a plan for a “permanent ceasefire” (the word “permanent” was later deleted), prime minister Yatseniuk immediately contradicted him and said that “peace will be achieved through battle”.
A Russian spokesperson then confirmed the veracity of the phone conversation but added that there was no agreement, as “Russia was not a party to the conflict” and that any ceasefire had to be agreed with the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics. Representatives of both Republics said that there was no ceasefire on the ground, that they had not been consulted and that a pre-condition for any agreement was the complete withdrawal of Kiev’s troops. They added, correctly, that they doubted the ability of Poroshenko to enforce any ceasefire on the punitive Battalions. Members of the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion confirmed to the media that they would not respect any deal with the rebels and would continue fighting.
Any deal which Poroshenko signs with the Donbass rebels will provoke rage amongst the far-right volunteer battalions which might move to attempt to overthrow him. All these are unknown variables which can prevent a deal or even provoke a further escalation of the conflict.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis Ukraine already faced has been severely worsened by the civil war. The country’s GDP, which was already forecast to collapse by 5%, could now end the year with a terrifying 8% fall. The IMF is already talking of the need for a further bailout. Private investors are already counting on some sort of default on the country’s debt.
The war is affecting two of the most industrial regions in the country and in July industrial output was down 29% in Donetsk and 56% in Luhansk. There have already been a number of high profile announcements of factories either closing down or stopping their operations, like that of ZAZ carmaker. Inflation is soaring and is expected to reach 20% by the end of the year. This is particularly affecting the prices of utilities. At the same time the conflict over gas supplies with Russia is leading to hot water being cut off in several cities, including Kiev. That is already a problem in the summer, but it will lead to an unbearable situation in the freezing Ukrainian winter.
At a certain point economic and social issues must come to the fore and dissipate the poisonous clouds of nationalist hysteria. Already there have been a number of small scale protests against utility price hikes, in some cases combined with protests against drafting of soldiers to the front. On September 3, a conflict over the removal of a design manager at the state owned Antonov aircraft factory led to a clash between workers and Ministry of Interior troops which surrounded the plant. The workers are fighting a move to privatise and restructure this flagship company. These are small signs but they show the way forward.
All history shows that defeats in war have a habit of turning into revolutions. Today Ukraine is in the grip of counterrevolution, White Terror and bloody civil war. But the march of events can produce all kinds of sudden and dramatic changes. One thing is clear: 25 years of capitalism in Ukraine have produced nothing but economic and social, cultural collapse, political upheavals, corruption, crime, chaos, wars, poverty, death and suffering. On this basis, there is no future for the people of Ukraine. Sooner or later that lesson will be learnt.