The USA, Russia and Europe: A "great historical breakthrough"?

On May 24, 2002, in the Kremlin's gilded throne room, Putin and Bush signed an agreement reducing long-range nuclear weapons by two-thirds over ten years. As part of the deal with NATO, Russia and America were supposed to cooperate in Bush's plans to build a missile defence shield once the ABM treaty is scrapped in June. Immediately afterwards, the formation of the "NATO-Russia Council" in which was Russia is supposed to participate was announced to the world. Such an agreement between the old enemies Russia and America would have seemed utterly unthinkable just one year ago. Suddenly, the world seemed a more secure place. However, as Alan Woods explains, the relations between Russia, Europe and America are not what they appear to be.

At the end of George Orwell's Animal Farm, it was impossible to distinguish between the pigs and the farmers. This celebrated scene came forcibly to mind as we read the press reports of the deal done on Tuesday, May 28 between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Predictably, the deal was hailed in the media as a "great historical breakthrough". First they had agreed to a substantial reduction in the number of nuclear warheads, then the deal was taken one step further with the setting up of a NATO-Russia Council. The leaders formalized their new arrangement amid the tightest of security at the seaside Pratica di Mare air base. As a sign of the times, Italy deployed 15,000 security forces and mounted robust air and sea defences to protect the 20 world leaders concerned about terrorist attacks.

On the face of it, this seems to represent a huge shift in world relations. Only one year ago, relations between Russia and America were at a low ebb. Many feared that by unilaterally repudiating the ABM treaty, the Americans could have started a new arms race. But now these predictions appear to have been confounded. In the Kremlin's gilded throne room, Putin and Bush signed an agreement reducing long-range nuclear warheads by two-thirds over ten years. As part of the deal with NATO, Russia and America are supposed to cooperate in America's plans to build missile defences once the ABM treaty is scrapped in June. Such an agreement between the old enemies Russia and America would have seemed utterly unthinkable just one year ago. Suddenly, the world appeared a more secure place.

This was incredible enough. But then - miracle of miracles! The leaders of Russia and the USA joined the rest of NATO's leaders in signing a pact setting up a new Russia-NATO Council. From being the main antagonist of the Western world for decades, Russia had finally drawn closer to the West - all this in only a year. Now it is suddenly all smiles and handshakes. At a summit in Slovenia, Presidents Bush and Putin declared that fears of a new era of confrontation were misguided, and promised they would work towards deep, parallel cuts in offensive nuclear weapons:

"Two former foes are now joined as partners," President Bush said as 19 NATO partners and Russian President Vladimir Putin took turns signing the agreement creating the new NATO-Russia Council. Others joined in the approving chorus. "We have come a long way from confrontation to dialogue, and from confrontation to cooperation," Putin said. NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, who will be chairman of the new council, opened the session, declaring "this gathering represents the hope of a better, saner future." The United States apparently now counts Russia as a key ally in the present "anti-terrorism war". In advance of Tuesday's ceremony, NATO opened a military mission in Moscow on Monday. Few serious people believe it.

Contradictions remain

US imperialism, the mightiest imperialist power the world has ever seen, is ruthlessly pursuing its own interests on a world scale. Since September 11, it has publicly declared that it has the right to intervene militarily in any part of the globe, irrespective of any treaties or agreements. This is what is behind Bush's verbiage about the so-called "axis of evil". The list of "terrorist states" grows longer by the day, if not by the hour.

America wants a free hand to pursue its aggressive policies whenever and wherever it suits it. It does not want its hands to be bound by treaties and agreements. America's withdrawal from the ABM treaty is about to take place. Yet Washington has to keep an eye on Russia which, despite the horrendous decline of the last ten years, still possesses a formidable military apparatus and a huge nuclear arsenal. It is no longer in a position to pose a direct military threat to the USA, but it could make life very uncomfortable for the Americans in several strategically important areas, like Central Asia and the Caucasus.

All this implies that the old conflict between Russia and the West is a thing of the past. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the objective contradictions between Russia and America are not only continuing, but spreading and deepening. The expansion of US influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus is one example. Russia's transfer of nuclear technology to Iran is another. Russia's continued opposition to NATO's enlargement, which is due to take place later this year is yet another. NATO will meet in November in Prague and will likely expand by six or seven Eastern European nations, some of which border Russia.

In point of fact, Putin probably had very little choice in signing the present deal. Both sides had reasons to reduce their nuclear stockpiles anyway. A new arms race would have been ruinous for Russia in particular. All this reflects the weakening of Russia as a result of capitalist restoration and the wholesale destruction of the productive forces that has seriously undermined its defence capabilities. The Russian generals were forced to stand back and watch in impotent rage as the US army went on the rampage in former Soviet spheres of influence such as Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

As everybody knows there is no such thing as a free lunch, and in world diplomacy, there is no such thing as a free treaty. Vladimir Putin has slavishly supported Bush in his "war on terror", and clearly expects something in return. So far, apart from words, he has got very little. True, Washington has suddenly developed a severe case of combined amnesia-cum-blind-deaf-and-dumbness on the question of Russia's war in Chechnya. After all, when we say we are against violations of human rights, it is understood that we mean violations by our enemies, not by our friends or ourselves.

In his recent conversations with his new friend Vladimir, Bush developed the same amnesia-cum-blind-deaf-and-dumbness on the question of the freedom of the press in Russia, and other such matters which are only important nowadays when they occur in Cuba, North Korea or places like that. Nor did he notice the police brutality towards anti-Bush demonstrators in Moscow. After all, Moscow is not Seattle or Genoa! On the eve of Bush's arrival, one Moscow newspaper published a special section informing readers of all the places in the city that were to be off-limits during the summit. Now, this is the kind of "democracy" George W. could really get to like!

What Russia needs is more foreign investments, greater access to foreign markets, and entry into the World Trade Organisation. But these goals remain far off. Apart from agreeing to reduce the number of nuclear warheads, the US president once again rewarded Russia with - a lot of promises: to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which limits trade; to recognise Russia as a country with a market economy; to simplify the process of issuing visas, etc. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the hero is asked at one point: "What are you reading, my lord?" And he answered: "Words, words, words." Putin might be forgiven for making the same appraisal of Bush's promises.

Putin is a bourgeois Bonapartist who finds himself in a weak position at home and abroad, despite appearances to the contrary. The recovery of the Russian economy since the collapse of the summer of 1998 has given him a temporary breathing space, but it has a very fragile basis and will not last for long. He is making a virtue out of necessity and is doubtless playing for time. In no position to compete with the USA militarily, he needs a period of stability in foreign policy, during which he hopes to build up the Russian economy, which is in turn the key to future military power. He is also trying to haggle with the Americans to extract concessions for things that he had to concede anyway. None of this signifies the commencement of a prolonged period of peace and friendship between Russia and America.

What the present agreement reflects is the changed relationship of forces on a world scale after the fall of the Soviet Union. It undoubtedly expresses a retreat on the part of Russia. With his characteristic hypocrisy, Tony Blair welcomed Russia's "new role" in a front-page article for last Tuesday's Corriere della Sera, the Italian daily. He said the new arrangement "shows how the world has evolved in the past 15 years." Still, Blair noted that Russia is not a full-fledged NATO member "and won't have the right of veto." In other words, Russia will be expected to play second fiddle to the West. According to the Associated Press report:

"Russia's future involvement [in NATO] will be limited to crisis management, peacekeeping and such military areas as air defence, search-and-rescue operations and joint exercises. NATO and Russia will decide only on those issues on which they can find consensus. More contentious issues will be left off their agenda, and NATO will keep a free hand in setting and implementing policy." (My emphasis - AW.) So what is Russia's position? The country that in 1945 single-handedly defeated the might of Nazi Germany now appears before the world - as a junior partner of NATO! No wonder the leaders of the western world are rubbing their hands. But the reaction in Russia was very different.

The steady eastward expansion of NATO is causing deep concern amongst Russia's military elite. The last time NATO expanded was in 1999, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined. The prospect of any further advancement must be viewed with horror by a section of the military. It is not even excluded that at a certain point Putin could be overthrown, especially if the promised benefits to Russia's economy (and consequently to its armed forces) do not materialise. There is already simmering discontent in Russia, where a section of the media immediately characterised the accord as a defeat:

"Russia Capitulates to NATO" read a headline on the Gazeta.ru website. "Russia's engagement to the 'aggressor bloc' is happening today in Italy," the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets complained. "We continue to consider NATO expansion a mistake, particularly because it is unclear what the organisation is trying to defend itself from as it expands," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said on Moscow's NTV television channel. "Russia's relations with the alliance, even in the format of the '20' look like a sham," read a commentary in Nezavisimaya Gazeta under the headline "Russia and NATO Launch a Virtual Friendship".

A safer world?

Doubts about the viability of the deal were not confined to Russia. The Economist warned against an excessively optimistic appraisal of these events: "Mr Putin's own assessment of the summit in Moscow was more cautious than the breathless American accounts of a 'breakthrough in trust' between the two sides. Yuri Baluyevsky, Russia's chief negotiator in the strategic arms-reduction talks, commented that 'perhaps these words about friendship and even an alliance in the longer term stemmed from emotion. Time will tell.'" Indeed it will.

In the Washington Post (May 28, 2002) Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote in glowing terms:

"The Moscow treaty signed Friday by presidents Bush and Putin is an important step forward for US-Russian relations and toward a more secure world. Cutting the number of each country's strategic nuclear warheads from about 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200 moves us away from preparing to obliterate each other. President Bush should be applauded for his leadership on this issue, his partnership with President Putin and his willingness to codify the agreement in a binding treaty."

So far, so good. But once we begin to look at the small print, things appear in a somewhat different light. Having begun with a flourish of trumpets, the senator immediately begins to express serious doubts:

"But while the treaty as a whole is a step forward," he writes, "some of its specifics risk moving us backward." Really? And why is that the case? The senator explains:

"The treaty does not require the actual destruction of a single missile or warhead. Rather, each country may warehouse its weapons and redeploy them later. Unfortunately, persistent security shortcomings in Russia mean that warheads in storage are more likely to fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists than if they remained attached to missiles. The treaty allows Russia to place multiple warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), contrary to long-standing US arms control goals. Multiple-warhead ICBMs are a cheap way to maximise Russia's forces, but they are vulnerable because an attacker can destroy many warheads with only one or two of its own. Russia is therefore likely to keep those missiles on hair-trigger alert, increasing the risk of accidental war."

America and Russia have agreed to cut each side's nuclear warheads by two-thirds, to 1,700-2,200 over the next ten years. We hardly need to point out that even with these reductions, both sides have more than sufficient weapons to blow the world to smithereens several times over. Hardly a good reason for pacifists to sleep soundly in their beds! Moreover, as senator Biden points out, many of the missiles will not actually be destroyed, but only kept in mothballs. They can always be redeployed at some future date, as the need arises. But that is not all:

"The treaty sets no schedule for reductions and provides no new tools to verify each side's compliance. Russia cannot afford to maintain its strategic forces. Without US transparency, however, a weakened Russia could fear a US attack and keep a nervous finger on its remaining launch buttons. Nor does the treaty say how each country's strategic nuclear warheads should be counted. This omission could lead to acrimonious compliance disputes."

Yes, and we already have the experience of such disputes in the case of Iraq. It is hard to imagine either the Pentagon or the Russian general staff consenting to the kind of humiliating inspections of their innermost defences that the USA forced upon Iraq after the Gulf War. So they will just have to trust each other! And if you believe that, then you can believe anything!

Moreover, the present deal is like an umbrella full of holes. The Moscow treaty does not deal with these short-range systems, such as tactical nuclear weapons. In the present period, the latter are arguably of greater military significance than the large warheads (which, as we have seen, are still available in great abundance to both sides). This is a particularly touchy point for the Americans, since Russia maintains thousands more of them than they do. In any future conflicts in the world, they can play an important role.

For their part, the Americans are trying to weaken Russia, to prevent it from acting as an obstacle in its global expansionist policy, particularly in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but also in relation to Iraq and the Middle East. They would also like to get their hands on Russia's oil and raw materials (an aim that is shared by the European capitalists).

In other words, the apparently improved relations is not a match made in heaven but only a marriage of mutual convenience that will sooner or later break down amidst mutual recriminations and increased bitterness and antagonism. And despite all the noise, they do not contain much real substance.

Europe and America

Paradoxically, the present agreement does not show a tendency on the part of the USA to boost the role of NATO, but the exact opposite. America is moving further away from NATO and its "friends and allies" in Europe. It is pursuing its own agenda on a world scale, and in this greater scheme of things, Europe is destined to play an increasingly subordinate role - at least, that is the intention.

The experience of the post-September 11 events has only increased the differences between Europe and America. It has cruelly exposed Europe's weakness. Washington has unilaterally decided policy on a world scale, treating their European allies as poor relatives - which, of course, they are, not only economically but militarily. The US military has used conflicts like the Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan as laboratories for their latest weaponry. The Europeans have watched aghast as the Americans demonstrate the devastating superiority of their military technology. In private they ask themselves whether this colossal American superiority will be used to defend European interests, and they shake their heads.

One year ago, on Bush's first trip to Europe, he presented his "allies" with a series of accomplished facts; he had already announced that America would pull out of the Kyoto accords on climate change and wanted to repudiate the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty with Russia. France's foreign minister complained bitterly against the arrogance of the transatlantic "hyperpower". And the French were not alone. The tensions between Europe and the European Union threatened to undermine NATO itself. It is no accident that the British and French are developing an independent European defence force, separate and apart from NATO.

Publicly, of course, it is not acceptable to question the future of NATO. In his speech to Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the members of the Reichstag in Berlin five days earlier, the president had attacked those, including some of his own officials, who say that the September 11 attacks make NATO irrelevant. "NATO's defining purpose, our collective defence," he proclaimed, "is as urgent as ever." And he called again for changes in the military resources of the alliance to match its new role: "NATO needs a new strategy and new capabilities."

The question is: what will these "new strategies and new capabilities" consist of? And whose interests will they represent? Behind the façade of peace and friendship, relations between the USA and Europe have been rapidly deteriorating for some time. The European capitalists have their own interests and these by no means coincide with those of America. There are a whole series of serious trade conflicts from steel tariffs to agricultural subsidies. Such conflicts in the past would have led to war.

For his part, Mr Bush publicly praises the transatlantic alliance. Emphasising that he wanted NATO to play a central role in the war against terrorism. In his speech commemorating America's D-Day losses on the Normandy beaches, Mr Bush re-affirmed: "our security is still bound up together in a transatlantic alliance, with soldiers in many uniforms defending the world from terrorists."

In a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Reykjavik two weeks before Bush's visit, the ministers said that "NATO must be able to field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed. This will require [new] capabilities within the Alliance, including strategic lift and modern strike capabilities, so that NATO can effectively respond collectively to any threat of aggression."

Although NATO invoked its mutual-defence article on September 11 (which says an attack on one member is an attack on all), it has not amounted to much in practice. Very few NATO soldiers took part in the first fighting in Afghanistan. Even now, although a dozen NATO countries have sent troops, the numbers are pathetically small. The whole operation is run by the Americans. The role of NATO as such is really nil. This shows the real state of affairs, and the real balance of forces.

It is also worth examining the phrase "wherever [forces] are needed". For the past few months, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have been arguing about where NATO troops should serve. After September 11, some alliance commanders talked of "going global". They wanted an expansive definition of NATO's role, which has anyway begun to creep beyond its old borders since its involvement in the war in Kosovo.

In fact, some Europeans were reluctant to invoke the mutual-defence article in Afghanistan, a country that is rather far from the North Atlantic. Moreover, despite the enthusiasm of Tony Blair, who would follow George Bush to the moon if required, the other European leaders ask themselves to what extent their vital interests are at stake in Afghanistan, and remain unconvinced about the whole business - to the great annoyance of Washington.

The European bourgeois do not want to be involved in America's military adventures. They do not mind getting involved in the Balkans, where the German imperialists precipitated the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the British and French would not mind a slice of whatever can be grabbed. But they do not want to be dragged into fire fights in far-distant lands where their interests are not involved. Some of them see no reason to back Bush's call for a Holy War against Iraq, where they can obtain valuable contracts and oil supplies without [needed to] overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

In America, many conservatives think NATO is a fair waste of time and money, and have no difficulty in expressing this view in public. They do not mind so long as the Europeans do as they are told and do not distract them too much from the most important job - currently defined by the catch-all phrase of "the war on terror". Ironically, the Europeans and the US Conservatives - while despising and distrusting each other - agree on one thing: neither of these groups wants NATO to act "out of area". It is the expression of a new isolationism, closely related to the underlying conflict of interests between Europe and America. These tendencies will grow in the next period, when economic crisis and a growing struggle for markets on a world scale will express itself in a growth of protectionism and a growing tension between Europe and the USA.

But this is as yet the music of the future. The contradictions between Europe and America are still in their early beginnings, and are expressed in private, or in secondary manifestations, as an underlying mood of mutual distrust and malaise. For the time being, the cracks are papered over. The American administration now says it wants NATO to act "out of area". The same point is echoed in Europe. German and British officials emphasise that all is well in the alliance. NATO now has the authority to act wherever there is a threat to any member. But immediately a whole series of questions arise: How will it act? - Where? - With what weapons? - And, above all - Who commands?

American officials are privately making it clear that, whatever NATO's role may be, it will not include Iraq. Bush seems determined to go ahead with his plans to remove Saddam Hussein, though, as a result of the mess in Palestine and the threat of a broader destabilisation in the Middle East, he has temporarily been forced to back off. Instead of military action, America is attempting to push its case forward through diplomatic means. But if those fail - and they will - Washington will be prepared take unilateral military action. Anyone who doubts this has only to read the statements of George W. Bush - including his speech in the Reichstag, which reiterated that America will use any means at its disposal to deal with "proliferators" and to conduct the war on terror.

The Europeans (with the usual exception of Mr Blair) are not happy with this. And it was to them that Bush was clearly speaking when he warned that the USA would "consult with its allies and friends," but, to use the old phrase of John Wayne: "A man's got to do what a man's got to do." He has no intention of letting his "allies and friends" get in the way. It is well known that the Pentagon was, and is still, furious about the conduct of the war in Kosovo, when targets were selected according to a lowest common denominator because other NATO countries could not agree with each other. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, who clearly says what the Pentagon thinks, has warned that he will not let NATO's involvement degenerate into "war by committee". So much for NATO's collective decision-making!

At the end of the visit, Colin Powell, the secretary of state, summed up the administration's approach to Europe with admirable frankness. President Bush, he said, "speaks clearly, he speaks directly and he makes sure people know what he believes in. And then he tries to persuade others that is the correct position. When it does not work, then we will take the position we believe is correct and I hope the Europeans are left with a better understanding of the way in which we want to do business."

Put in plain English this means: "We are much stronger than you, and if you do not do as we say, we will do whatever we want without bothering with you."

While reserving themselves the right to decide NATO's affairs, the Americans are pressing the Europeans to play a more active role in the "war against terror". This, unfortunately, means the deployment of more soldiers and the expenditure of a lot more money. On both counts, the European governments do not show great enthusiasm. In order to play a full role in the global "war on terror", the Europeans need more transport planes to move soldiers long distances outside Europe; more and better precision-guided missiles; better communications; better air-to-air refuelling, in fact - better everything. This is the real content of Mr Bush's demand in Berlin that NATO should modernise itself.

On this most sensitive issue, the Economist comments:

"The trouble is that at the same time, Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, made it clear that Europe's largest economy, for one, is not about to spend more on defence. Mr Fischer argued that Germany already spends huge amounts on security, broadly defined - not through military spending, where Germany lags far behind America (as does every other western country) but through economic reconstruction in Eastern Europe. The so-called 'capabilities gap' yawns as wide as ever, and unless it narrows, Mr Bush's new strategy for NATO will fall right into it."

In short, the present apparent rapprochement between America and Russia is only a temporary and unstable arrangement that hardly papers over the deep contradictions between the two powers, let alone resolves them. We have entered into an entirely new period - a period of storm and stress on a world scale - a period of wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. The most fundamental feature of this period is instability at all levels - including instability in relations between nations.

New contradictions are piling up all the time, and will express themselves in a series of violent outbursts. As in the period before 1914, the instability between states - which in essence was an expression of the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the narrow limits of the nation state and private property - led to the formation of a whole series of shifting alliances. One day, Russia would lean towards Germany, the next towards France, and so on. The shifting nature of these alliances was itself an expression of chronic instability and insoluble contradictions on a world scale. The same is true today.

London,
May, 2002

Footnote: Yet another Bush classic

"At a press conference in Paris, he [President Bush] announced to the crowd that he had heard French food is good. [Jacques Chirac, he said, had exclusively revealed this to him.] Touring the Kremlin's Cathedral Square, his attention-span lasted about ten minutes; at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the largest museum in the world, it lasted about fifteen. When an American journalist had the temerity to ask President Chirac a question in French, Mr Bush mocked him for showing off by speaking the language of the country he was in. All in all, not a performance of the sophisticated sort Europeans would prefer from the man in whose hands the fate of the world lies." (The Economist, May 30, 2002)