Chris Bambery argues that while neither side wants war in Ukraine, the build up of forces in the region poses a major risk to peace
US warplanes have been rushed to Lithuania amidst a growing chorus of voices claiming that Russia is a threat to the Baltic States. More have flown to take part in military exercises in Poland. Meanwhile Nato’s top military commander in Europe has called for member states to mobilise after Russia prepares ‘incredible force’ on the Ukrainian border. US Air Force General Philip Breedlove said Russia had used “snap” military exercises as an apparent tactic to shift vast numbers of troops towards the border. He claims Russian troops are poised to ‘run’ into Moldova to take Transnistria, a Russian-speaking enclave that has claimed independence from the rest of Moldova since 1990.
All of this follows the referendum in Crimea in favour of joining the Russian Federation and the removal of Ukrainian forces from the peninsula subsequently. Europe does not want war and many European governments are unenthusiastic about sanctions against Russia. Washington is not in a position to intervene directly, although it could supply weapons to Ukraine and other states bordering Russia. Russia would bite off more than it can chew by invading Ukraine.
Tug of war
But when there is a long military build up war can come unplanned and unexpectedly, seemingly against the better interests of all concerned. The classic case is the one who’s centenary we will be “celebrating” this August – World War I. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, said one the first day of 1914 that the threat of war with Germany was receding. How wrong he was.
The truth is that Ukraine has the right to independence but its history shows that it has always been at the centre of a tug of war between Moscow on the eastern flank and various European powers to the west. By ditching neutrality and plumping for one over the other it risks sacrificing what independence it has.
The European Union wants to gain effective economic control through entering an agreement with Ukraine, membership of the EU is not and will not be on offer any time soon. The US and Nato want to extend its reach to within a few hundred miles of Moscow.
You do not have to support Putin or believe that Russia, as a rival to US imperialism, is somehow progressive to oppose Western actions. Putin is not paranoid to believe that the US and Nato want to encircle Russia – that’s a reality – or that it was lied to over the war in former Yugoslavia, the declaration of independence by Kosovo and the Nato military intervention in Libya.
Russia wants to regain a degree of control over those states once members or satellites of the old USSR. Russia has its own imperial ambitions. But Putin is in a far weaker position than the Czars who created their empire in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries or Joseph Stalin was in 1945 when he had effectively won the war in Europe. He is reckoning on a weak response by the West and the effectiveness of swift action because any protracted conflict would be very costly for Russia which is these days a “lesser power,” albeit with nuclear weapons.
We live in the West and need to focus on opposing Western actions.
Firstly, we should be denouncing the cynicism of the EU in not saying honestly that Ukraine will not be offered membership of the EU and that “association”, i.e. free trade, will devastate its industries and come at the cost of the same sort of economic medicine administered to Greece.
Secondly, we should oppose sanctions because history shows they are used to weaken a country in preparation for an attack, and any Nato and US military build up in the region.
Thirdly, we should be demanding Britain gets rid of its nuclear missiles. It’s a powerful reason to vote Yes in Scotland’s September referendum.
Lastly, we should not ignore the presence of fascists in the new Ukrainian government. We didn’t when the National Alliance joined the Italian coalition government led by Silvio Berlusconi back in 1994 and we should not now.
Matters can take a momentum of their own. In the United States there is a growing campaign to paint Obama as weak and as weakening the USA as a global power. He has not shown any reluctance to use military force so far and Republican politicians like John McCain seem to have convinced themselves Putin is the new Hitler and must be stopped. We need to oppose the actions of our rulers in Nato and the EU in racheting up the situation by words and deeds.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.