In recent days tensions between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO have escalated. Once again, the one in charge of moving the pieces in this complex geopolitical chessboard has been Russian President Vladimir Putin. After the Western powers made it clear that they were not going to make a commitment at the negotiating table over whether or not to incorporate Ukraine into NATO, on February 21, the Russian president officially recognized the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine, which have been under the control of pro-Russian separatists since 2014, as independent republics. The global repercussions were felt immediately. Stock markets fell, the ruble lost 10 percent of its value and oil prices jumped to surpass 100 dollars per barrel, which will undoubtedly add on to the noticeable inflationary trends of the world economy.
Putin’s announcement of these moves had an air of theatricality to it. On Russian state television, a Security Council meeting broadcasted live showed military chiefs giving their reasons to Putin for recognizing the separatist regions.
Following the council’s affirmative vote, Putin addressed the Russian people in a nearly hour-long message with a strongly nationalistic and reactionary tone. More or less, the Russian president argued that Ukraine as a state was “fictitious”, and that it owed its existence to Lenin and the Bolsheviks — an anti-communist reinterpretation of the revolutionary Soviet Union’s policy of recognizing the right of self-determination of nations like Ukraine that had suffered Tsarist oppression.
The undisguised aim of Putin’s media spectacle was to gain domestic support for what could end in a military adventure which, like his government, does not enjoy high popularity among the Russian population. Next, the Senate authorized the Kremlin to send troops to assist these new “republics” in case it considers them to be under Ukrainian military threat.
This latest escalation implies in fact that Russia no longer recognizes the Minsk-2 agreements due to what Russia perceives as the non-compliance of the Ukrainian government. Let us recall that although these agreements were more favorable to Russia because they provided for the autonomy of Donetsk and Lugansk, they kept these provinces within Ukraine and provided for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Donbass.
Does this mean that war between Russia and NATO is inevitable? Not necessarily in the immediate term, although the situation is undoubtedly at its most dangerous juncture since this stage of the crisis began December of last year and is tending more and more toward extremes. However, there still seems to be room for a “strike to negotiate” strategy.
For now, Putin has advanced two boxes: he found a way to escalate without launching a full-line military invasion, and he expanded the radius of action to the entire Donbass region, extending the borders of the new “people’s republics” that occupied only a third of that region. The added bonus for Putin was that with this move he made a fool of French President Emmanuel Macron and other European imperialist leaders who had bought that a diplomatic solution was at hand and that they could be the architects of that solution.
The response from the United States and the European Union was more than predictable. For the time being, they did not depart from their script of “coercive diplomacy”, consisting of a cocktail of economic sanctions, military deployment in NATO countries close to Moscow and arms shipments to Ukraine. As already announced, Putin’s move set in motion a new round of economic sanctions affecting sovereign debt bonds, financial institutions, members of the Duma (Russian parliament), and other individuals of the Russian elite. It is unknown whether Putin is on the list of sanctioned individuals. The scope of these sanctions is still a matter of debate. Supporters of tougher measures, such as the Wall Street Journal and several Republican congressmen, argue that after years of sanctions, Russian public debt is mostly issued in rubles and that foreign debt is at a manageable level of 25 percent. The most important blow to the Kremlin is the suspension of the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline by Germany, which would allow Russian gas to be transported directly to Europe without passing through Ukraine. The imperialist powers have reserved room for increasing sanctions, for example, disengaging Russia from the international payment system.
In short, for Russia, beyond this latest tactical move, sustaining a war and subsequent occupation of Ukraine would be very costly in economic, military and political terms. This explains the escalation of military pressure in the area of least resistance: the Ukrainian east, where the majority of the population is Russian-speaking.
For NATO’s European imperialist partners, the strategy for the moment is to try to avoid getting involved in a major war with Russia. The United States for its part has not yet recovered from the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan which exposed its hegemonic decline. The EU powers do not want a war on their own territory. Moreover, NATO suffered significant deterioration during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency and while the Russian escalation gave it some unity, it also exposed differences, especially between the United States and Germany (and France). The strongest card Putin is playing is Europe’s – particularly Germany’s – dependence on Russian gas for energy. This is what Volodymyr Zelenski — the Ukrainian president subordinated to the Western imperialist powers, who complained bitterly at the Munich Security Conference and accused his NATO sponsors of having a policy of “appeasement” — smells. However, the situation is becoming increasingly tense and is approaching a point where the avenues for retreat are closing.
The roots of the conflict between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO go back to the end of the Cold War with the triumph of the United States, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and capitalist restoration. After having regressed to historic levels in the period of Boris Yeltsin, under Putin’s Bonapartist regime, Russia re-emerged as a power that has inherited the nuclear arsenal of the former USSR, although it does not have the status of the former Soviet Union and is based on a rentier economy dependent on oil. This gives Russia a geopolitical projection that far exceeds its material bases and feeds Putin’s ambitions to influence the international scene in the interests of Russian capitalism.
In addition to promoting pro-Western governments in Russia’s neighborhood, the U.S. has moved forward with the eastward expansion of NATO, which gradually incorporated the countries that were part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The Atlantic Alliance, which was intended to defend capitalist Europe from an eventual attack by the Soviet Union under the leadership of the U.S., doubled its membership after the collapse of the USSR and extended to Russia’s borders. The logic guiding this expansive action of the U.S. is the strategic objective of advancing a policy of semi-colonization of Russia.
This is a state policy of U.S. imperialism, pursued by Democrats and Republicans, realists and neoconservatives. Only a few have opposed it, among them George Kennan, none other than the creator of the “containment policy” that was the basis of the Cold War.
After having lost significant ground and influence — the Baltic countries, the installation of missiles and NATO military bases in Eastern European countries — Putin’s “red line” is the incorporation of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the European Union. This policy of expansion of the Western powers towards Russia has made these countries the scene of low-intensity wars in recent years. Georgia experienced this in 2008, when Russia intervened in favor of the separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia following an offensive by the Georgian army. In Ukraine, we saw a similar phenomenon in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea after the Maidan uprising that brought the pro-Western faction into the government, a position of strategic importance for Russia (in particular the Sevastopol base) and the separatist regions of the Donbass.
That is why one of Putin’s demands was to have a reassurance that Ukraine and Georgia would not be incorporated into NATO, which the U.S. and the EU refused.
After the end of the “war on terror”, the main national security hypothesis of the U.S. is the “conflict between powers”, and its main enemies are China and Russia. Historically, one of the foreign policy objectives of U.S. imperialism was to separate China from the former USSR, which it achieved under the presidency of Nixon in 1972 who sealed an agreement with China. Although there is an open debate on the appropriateness of this agreement, which on the one hand isolated the USSR but on the other allowed the emergence of China as a strategic competitor of the United States. Biden’s policy to recompose the imperialist leadership is to articulate a broad front against the “autocratic regimes” which, in fact, pushes for an alliance between Russia and China. The meeting and the common declaration of Putin and Xi Xinping is a first step in that direction.
But beyond the frictions and rivalries with the United States and the European imperialist powers, Putin’s regime is completely reactionary. It is not only at the service of the capitalist interests of like-minded oligarchs, but also of counter-revolutionary objectives in a broader sense, as shown by the military intervention ordered by Putin to crush the popular uprising in Kazakhstan, or the interference in favor of sustaining the Assad regime in Syria. Decades of national oppression, first under Tsarism and then under Stalinism, and now with Putin’s outright denial of Ukraine’s status as a state, have fueled a reactionary anti-Russian nationalism in Ukraine, which is being used by the Zelensky government, the oligarchs linked to U.S. and EU business, and the imperialist powers.
Under the pretext of the “sovereignty of Ukraine” or the defense of “democracy” against “autocracy”, the U.S. and NATO are pushing the trends towards a war that will be catastrophic for the workers and peoples. That is why we socialists call to confront with mobilization the possibility of this reactionary war, against NATO and the sanctions imposed by the imperialist powers, just as we reject Russia’s interference in Ukraine. In this game, Ukraine is a bargaining chip. The possibility of an independent Ukraine is inextricably linked to the struggle against the oligarchs of both sides and to a socialist perspective. The possibility of stopping the reactionary wars is linked to the development of the socialist revolution and to ending imperialist domination throughout the world.
First published in Spanish on February 23 in La Izquierda Diario.
Translated by Maryam Alaniz