The drums of war grow louder by the day on the border between Ukraine and Russia. On Sunday, January 23, the U.S. State Department ordered family members of U.S. embassy personnel in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, to leave the country, citing the possibility of a Russian invasion. The step was taken, according to officials, “out of an abundance of caution.” Other Americans were advised to leave, and the British government similarly sent embassy employees home. Australia urged its citizens in Ukraine to “leave immediately.”
Russia has, in recent weeks, deployed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine and in nearby Belarus, a Russian ally — while insisting it has no plans to invade the country. In response, as the Guardian reports, NATO “is reinforcing its eastern borders with warships and fighter jets.” The United States, NATO’s de facto leader, has placed 8,500 troops on alert for possible deployment to eastern Europe, reducing the time units would need to be ready to take action. The New York Times reported that “the options include sending 1,000 to 5,000 troops to Eastern European countries, with the potential to increase that number tenfold if things deteriorate.”
On Friday and Sunday, Ukraine received shipments of weapons totaling 90 tons from the United States, and Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted that “this is not the end” of such shipments from “our friends in the United States!” The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv called it “lethal aid.”
At least one “former top Pentagon official for Europe and NATO policy, Jim Townsend,” told the New York Times that “the administration’s proposal [for deployment] did not go far enough” to deter Putin. “If the Russians do invade Ukraine in a few weeks, those 5,000 should be just a down payment for a much larger U.S. and allied force presence. Western Europe should once again be an armed camp.”
There are already about 4,000 U.S. troops and another 1,000 other NATO troops stationed in Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine. They are part of NATO’s “Enhanced Forward Presence” in the eastern part of the alliance, along with troops in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
On CNN’s Sunday morning State of the Union program, Secretary of State Antony Blinken threatened Russia with Western military action. “If a single additional Russian force goes into Ukraine in an aggressive way … that would trigger a swift, a severe and a united response from us and from Europe,” he told host Dana Bash. Blinken’s remarks stood in sharp contrast to the “gaffe” by President Joe Biden in a press conference last Wednesday, in which he seemed to give Putin a “green light” — to use one Ukrainian official’s characterization — for a “minor incursion.”
War is not inevitable, but its likelihood seems to be growing. Putin has a lot of options. He could launch air strikes exclusively, send Russian troops over the border in a “lightning war” to annex more territory or quickly take Kyiv, or settle in for a long siege aimed at changing the regime in Kyiv to a pro-Russian one. Ukraine’s armed forces are significantly stronger than they were in 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea — thanks in large part to thousands of anti-tank weapons supplied by Western imperialist countries, but Russia would still be at a significant advantage.
Addressing the “lightning war” scenario, British prime minister Boris Johnson said, “The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine.” He added, “The plan for a lightning war that could take out Kyiv is one that everybody can see.”
What Is Putin Up To?
What will happen next? Things have gotten so much hotter since the first of the year, when in Left Voice we characterized Russia’s actions as “neither bluff nor ultimatum.” The negotiations path seems to be shut down, at least for now. Russia has been demanding, since the early 1990s, that NATO halt its expansion to the east and into the former Soviet republics — insisting on legal guarantees. The United States counters that the issue is Russian aggression, not NATO expansion.
Putin, the former KGB officer, is a son of the Soviet Union and its bureaucratic leadership. He thus still conceives of Russia — even with capitalism having been restored — as having the same need for “zones of influence” as a buffer. What is fundamentally different now, though, is that the Russians are not protecting themselves from imperialist entrenchment aimed at overturning the Soviet social system, with its abolition of private ownership of the means of production and its monopoly of foreign trade — gains of the Russian Revolution that the bureaucracy never completely shredded. He aims, rather, to protect the Russian oligarchy that has plundered the Russian people in the process of capitalist restoration, and that needs its “zones of influence” to protect its economic interests from the West while allowing for exploitation and opportunities unavailable to it in the West in new “satellite states” of sorts. He also wants these countries as surrounding allies for military defense.
In addition to the military buildup on both sides of the conflict, the United States and Europe are upping the sanctions game. The sanctions that the West imposed on Russian firms and wealthy individuals after Russia took Crimea in 2014 have not had the effect imperialism intended, although as usual they have hurt the livelihoods of the masses that live in the region; the Biden administration says that if new ones are imposed, they will be much tougher. Expanded sanctions would likely target not only financial institutions but also the energy sector, the mainstay of the Russian economy. Still, many analysts of geopolitics warn that all this is pushing Russia into a closer economic alliance with China — which remains the main adversary of the United States and Europe on the world’s economic stage.
Russia sees itself as a legitimate regional power, and it aspires to extend its reach — as it has done in the Middle East in recent years, where Russian influence has been on the rise. An invasion may seem like the only option the West is leaving open for Putin, whose legitimacy as the leader of the “Greater Russia” he envisions is being challenged. This is the position expressed by Fiona Hill in a New York Times opinion piece on January 24. The former senior director for Europe and Russia for the U.S. National Security Council, she recounts how Putin told President George W. Bush at a NATO summit in April 2008, “George, you have to understand that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us.” This came right after “NATO had just announced that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join the alliance.” Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia.
“This time,” Hill continues, “Mr. Putin’s aim is bigger than closing NATO’s ‘open door; to Ukraine and taking more territory — he wants to evict the United States from Europe. As he might put it: ‘Goodbye, America. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’”
Perhaps Hill is the prescient one, but it seems unlikely that the Russian people would back a prolonged war in Ukraine. Russian troops would likely be mired in unceasing combat if the West directly intervened on the side of Ukraine, and the reminders of the Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan — fighting an unwinnable war against a hostile population — are persistent in Russian society. Likewise, for the United States: Do Americans have the stomach for U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine? What would be the winning argument for sacrificing “lives and treasure” in another faraway land? From the perspective of public relations in the “homeland,” at least when the United States first went into Afghanistan, it was ostensibly to root out those who attacked U.S. soil on 9/11. Would Biden play the same “democracy versus authoritarianism” card he’s employed in his discourse on China and Iran?
One important point to make, given all the muddleheadedness on the Left with regard to war in Ukraine, is that it’s ridiculous to identify an anti-imperialist side in this conflict. Again, Putin is not protecting the gains of the Russian Revolution; he is seeking to protect and expand the oligarchic kleptocracy that he has been central to erecting in the period since the Soviet Union collapsed. Those who would have us believe that we must side with Putin in this conflict are deluded by nostalgia for a world that no longer exists.
That said, U.S. imperialism’s objectives are as diabolical and incendiary as Putin’s aims are cynical and even desperate.
The Objectives of U.S. Imperialism
Putin is not only worried about the economic buffer zone. It is also about military defense. The Ukrainian border is a mere 304 miles from Moscow. Ukraine as a NATO member puts Western imperialism — and its weapons and soldiers — at the Russian doorstep. The current government of Ukraine, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, functions as a partner of that imperialism.
There is no denying that the United States and Europe, through NATO, have been as aggressive against Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 as they were during the Cold War, even if the form of that aggression has not always been the same. From an economic perspective, countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain have been integrated into the European Union, further weakening Russia and forcing it to endure crisis after crisis that might have been otherwise averted. At the same time, NATO has more than doubled in size since then, and it now includes many countries that were once strategically important to the Soviet Union, either as republics within the USSR or as buffer-zone countries. In short, imperialism has encircled Russia and continues to choke it militarily and economically.
But just as Russia threatens to invade Ukraine, is the West aiming to invade Russia should Ukraine join NATO? That seems unlikely. There seems to be no rush for Ukraine to become an official NATO member, in part because successive Ukrainian governments have not been as reliably pro-West as the NATO countries demand. In June 2020, NATO granted Ukraine the status of an Enhanced Opportunities Partner, “which aims to maintain and deepen cooperation between Allies and partners that have made significant contributions to NATO-led operations and missions.” But there has been no further movement toward full NATO membership in the period since. Meanwhile, in the interim, Kyiv wants to win the equivalent of “Major Non-NATO Ally” (MNNA) status from the U.S. government, but without actually being so designated because it implies a future in which the country does not become a full NATO member. MNNA status is given to countries that are “foreign partners” who enjoy “certain benefits in the areas of defense, trade, and security cooperation” — but it falls short of NATO Article 5, which designates an attack on any NATO member as an attack on the entire alliance and thus commits members to mutual protection.
Under this scenario, Ukraine could even become the location for reserve stockpiles of U.S. weaponry, placed in the country as a permanent reminder that Western imperialism has tightened its noose on Russia.
All this speaks volumes about what motivates the United States and its allies in this conflict. There’s little evidence the United States wants an actual war, even as it escalates its own belligerence in the face of Russia’s amassing of troops. Better to “tame” Putin by using the situation in Ukraine to call his bluff — if it is a bluff — and get Russia to play nicer with the West. Shifting Putin’s allegiances to an accommodation with China, though, keeps looming larger and larger.
Can We Trust What the U.S. Government Says?
One other thing demands to be mentioned, which is that virtually all the information we have about Putin’s troop buildup on the Ukraine border comes from U.S. imperialism itself. We are shown satellite images obtained by U.S. spy planes, reminiscent of the claims of weapons of mass destruction used to justify the criminal invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration that killed hundreds of thousands — if not a million — civilians.
Along these lines, David Sanger reported in the New York Times on January 14 that the White House had accused Moscow of “sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine to stage an incident that could provide [Putin] with a pretext for ordering an invasion.” The administration refused to release any details of its “evidence,” but that didn’t stop White House press secretary Jen Psaki from declaring that Russia was “laying the groundwork” to accuse Ukraine of “preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces.”
To his credit, Sanger wrote that by refusing to release any evidence, “the United States opened itself up to Russian charges that it was fabricating evidence.”
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council and part of the Zelensky government, even told BBC News Ukraine that he doesn’t share “the panic” over an invasion, connecting it to Western “geopolitical and domestic” processes. “The buildup of Russian troops [at the Ukrainian border] isn’t as rapid as some claim,” he said.
It’s all reminiscent of August 1964, when the United States justified a deeper entry into the Vietnam War after reports of an unprovoked attack by North Vietnamese ships against the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. Nothing of the sort happened, but that didn’t stop the Johnson administration from setting out on a policy that ultimately claimed the lives of as many as 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, another 300,00 to 400,000 Cambodians and Laotians, and nearly 59,000 U.S. service members.
Links to Biden’s Domestic Troubles
Another factor must be added to what the U.S. administration is up to: domestic considerations. There is a time-honored tradition of U.S. presidents saber-rattling at moments of domestic political crisis, and Biden is in the midst of just such a crisis. His approval ratings are at a very low 43 percent, as Reuters/Ipsos reported a few days ago, and 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the president. With the Democratic Party’s control of both houses of Congress on the line, Roll Call reminds us that “history tells us Biden’s job rating isn’t likely to improve and more likely will deteriorate before Election Day,” characterizing his “weak political standing” as looking “like cement around the feet” of those House and Senate majorities.
Could the increased bellicosity of the Biden administration be a classic example of “wagging the dog”? In 1998, soon after Bill Clinton’s scandal about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky first hit the media and he was called to testify before a grand jury, he launched missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan in “retaliation” for previous terrorist attacks in Africa. It didn’t get his scandal off the front pages, but led just about every newspaper to speculate aloud that the missiles were a diversion from his domestic political troubles.
Similarly, Donald Trump launched airstrikes against Syria in April 2017 at a moment when his low approval ratings, ongoing investigation about his connections to Russia, and daily reporting on conflicts of interests seemed to threaten to overwhelm his presidency.
Putting hundreds of thousands of human lives in the crosshairs means nothing to capitalist politicians and the bosses they serve. Biden’s popularity is suffering because of his failure to deliver on any of the promises of his campaign, just as inflation grows and the pandemic shows no sign of abating. The moves against Russia are certainly, at least in part, an attempt to divert the enormous social tensions brewing in the United States.
Meanwhile, nothing makes the capitalist class happier than preparing for war, even if the war never comes. It’s great for business, and addressing economic crises with huge new outlays of capital for weaponry, troop movements, and other aspects of the buildup have an even longer history than wagging the dog.
A War Would Be Devastating
Should the conflict reach the boiling point and become war, the effects would be devastating. Hundreds of thousands could die in a war in Ukraine. But it is not the politicians in Washington and the European capitals who will suffer, nor the capitalists in whose interests they act. Putin and his oligarch friends will be safe too. None of them will be fighting. As in every war, it is working-class people who fight and die, and it is the masses in the arenas of conflict who endure the displacement and material destruction that capitalism’s wars cause.
There is already a huge problem in Europe of migrants fleeing war and poverty in other parts of the world. Left Voice reported last November on the humanitarian crisis that persists to this day on the border between Belarus and Poland, two countries that also border Ukraine — a crisis caused by the European Union’s imperialist governments, which want to keep these migrants out. A war in Ukraine will make matters much, much worse.
Meanwhile, China is watching this unfold very carefully. As it considers its own intervention in Taiwan, the Chinese leadership is anxious to see precisely how the West responds should Russian troops again cross Ukraine’s borders, as they did in 2014.
Here in the United States and in Europe, our task is to make it clear to the U.S. and EU governments and the capitalists they serve that NATO intervention is unacceptable in Ukraine. We must also denounce sanctions. Our interests as workers and oppressed peoples are in no way served by the belligerence of the various imperialism as they seek to protect their markets, expand their influence, and further carve up the world — all of which always happens at the expense of the interests of the very people who are compelled to do the actual fighting.
In Russia, workers have the same task: oppose Putin’s war plans, which do not serve their interests in any way.
We may be called on soon to build a new anti-war movement — in response not only to the situation in Ukraine but also to rising tensions with China. If that is the case, it will need to be self-organized by our class and built on a program of class independence from the rulers of all the belligerents. As the Ukraine situation heats up, we must remember that the workers of the United States and western Europe have no conflict with workers in Russia, and that all of our working classes must stand in full solidarity with the working class of Ukraine, which will bear the terrible brunt.